Ivy and Vines: Attribute or Detriment?
On numerous occasions, I've been placed in the middle of domestic disagreements. If one half of a couple dislikes something about a house that the other likes, their inspector can be a tool to bolster one side's case. One recurring contention is over vine and ivy growth on a home. I don't have a problem "taking sides" on this topic.
Ivy and vines can be found on numerous old buildings. While they may look attractive, they can spell danger for old buildings.
The Problem: Ivy and Vines Attached to Your Home
Whether built of masonry or wood, old buildings will likely suffer from being covered with vegetation. Ivy and some vines can become a dense mat that traps moisture in the walls. "Normal" moisture is frequently an issue within old buildings. This moisture needs to find a way out, before it condenses. Covering exterior walls with a living leafy skin will not allow the moisture migrating through the walls a chance to evaporate. Deflecting the sun and air circulation can result in rotten wood, deteriorated softer masonry and failing mortar joints. This dense coverage also conceals what's occurring to the exterior walls and averts regular maintenance.
Ivy and vines are living, growing, and moving organisms that attach to more static objects. On a building, this can result in displacement of building parts. Some vines, like wisteria, climb by twinning around objects. Not only does this type of vine get a firm grip but the diameter of the vine increases with maturity, constricting around the object. I've seen trim pulled off of frames, downspouts pulled out of gutters and even the conduit for an electric service pulled completely out of a meter box.
There are other vines and ivy that have aerial roots or tendrils that can penetrate gaps and even the tiniest cracks. These can widen the gaps and cracks and allow extra moisture to enter into the wall assembly. Freeze-thaw cycles can then increase the size of the openings and even dislodge masonry units. I've also seen more significant mortar erosion in masonry buildings where the aerial roots or tendrils attached in the joints.
Vines and ivy attached to a building can also harbor all sorts of insects. Not only does it provide protection for the bugs from the elements and predators, it can also be a transportation network for wood-destroying insects to access wood frames or trim on masonry buildings. On several occasions, I have found significant damage caused by insects far away from where I normally find it--near the ground. I also have concerns with the root systems, when mature, directly against the foundations of old homes.
The Solution: Removing Ivy and Vines from Your Home's Exterior
Now that the hard part is over (convincing that removal is necessary), removal can seem rather easy. Simply cut the ivy and vines at the base of the trunks, as close to the roots as possible. Let it die, dry out, begin to decay and crumble. It should be fairly easy to remove the main trunks and branches, but take care not to remove house parts with it. Remember, the walls that have been covered are possibly compromised.
Now that the "woody" part is removed, there's likely going to be some tendrils and roots still attached. A stiff brush can remove anything small and loose. What still remains may be imbedded into the wall or wrapped around objects. These should be carefully extracted individually. Once all growth is removed, there's still going to be work needed. At best, a good cleaning, at worst, major repairs to wood and masonry that's been damp, neglected and deteriorating for decades.
William Kibbel III is a home inspector and restoration consultant specializing in historic residential and commercial buildings. He is vice president of Tri-County Inspection Company, serving Southeastern Pennsylvania and Central New Jersey.