Construction Damage Kills Trees

— Written By
construction damaged tree

This tree was damaged during construction. The site was a former farm. A majority of the root system was removed to grade for the parking lot and sidewalk. The tree fell into the parking lot weeks after this image was taken.

Moving into a brand new home can be one of the most fulfilling moments in a person’s life. Knowing that you’re the first person to inhabit a house and that it was your vision that brought the home into existence is an important part of the home building experience. Most people who build their own home – or pay someone else to do so – choose the lot carefully. Often, the single most important selling point for a particular lot is the trees on the property prior to building on it.

Mature trees are assets to property owners because they add monetary value to the property and abstract values like shade, a sense of space, landscape architectural elements, and natural beauty. Unfortunately, problems can develop because many trees respond poorly to the stresses caused by construction. These stresses can eventually cause the trees to die, and removal is financially and aesthetically costly.

Construction damage is a term used by arborists and tree assessment experts to describe injury and stress caused by human activity near trees. This activity can be caused by heavy machinery compacting soil, grading equipment damaging roots, burying the root collar (the junction between the roots and the stem) with fill dirt, physical abrasion caused by equipment rubbing or scraping a tree and creating a wound, and chemical damage caused by vehicle exhaust, paints, or oils. No matter the cause, construction damage eventually leads to a decline in tree health. If the tree declines and dies, the new homeowner may be stuck with the costs of removing the tree.

There seems to be ambiguity in the law concerning trees, tree ownership, and who is responsible for tree removal. It is generally understood that a tree is the responsibility of the property owner on which the majority of the root crown (greater than 50% of the junction between the roots and trunk) rests.

construction damaged tree

This tree was severely damaged during construction. Trees within 30′ of a structure should be removed.

Some homes have a property warranty that covers trees for the first two years. Check your contract to see if you have a warranty and if trees are covered. Otherwise, you may have to foot the bill for removal of construction-damaged trees.

Before approaching the builder about removing a tree, hire a certified arborist or forester to assess the damage. In some cases, construction damage can be mitigated through cultural practices, and proper fertility, pruning, mulching, and irrigation can stabilize a tree’s health. Trees can never be brought back to their original state, but they can sometimes be maintained indefinitely. Consult with your local County Agent or certified arborist to determine whether a tree can be stabilized through cultural practices.

Of course, the best way to avoid construction damage is for the builder to protect the trees. If you are having a home built, stake out a large area around the trees you want to save to prevent vehicles and equipment from getting near them. All the area within the ‘dripline’ (the area from the outer edge of the canopy to the trunk) should be left undisturbed. If you can protect farther out than the drip line, by all means do so. Before you move in, inspect all the trees on the lot for damage. Inspect trunks for missing bark, the root crown for signs of piled up soil, and the canopy (branches and leaves) for browning leaves which can signal that the tree is dying. If the builder graded (moved soil) near the tree, you can bet there is some root damage.

Written By

Photo of Steve Pettis, Jr.Steve Pettis, Jr.Extension Agent, Agriculture (828) 697-4891 (Office) steve_pettis@ncsu.eduHenderson County, North Carolina
Posted on Feb 16, 2017
Was the information on this page helpful? Yes check No close
Scannable QR Code to Access Electronic Version This page can also be accessed from: go.ncsu.edu/readext?447855