Dreaming About Housing
I’m a contractor who grew up with an uncle who was an architect, and a brother who is architect. So, I’ve been exposed to what’s out there in the built world, both good and not so much, and I’ve gotten to peer into the thinking of what homes should be able to provide for their occupants.
So much of how we build homes is tradition driven. Our predecessors developed ways of doing things when the building landscape was vastly different than it is now. Also, there is an ongoing crisis in housing in that it’s become unaffordable for many people.
Sadly, there are architects out there who design for magazine covers. This means they are doing showy work, with the hope of gaining some celebrity status. All fine except it might mean they aren’t really working to do the best job for the clients and their needs. Then there are the contractors who compete to get the job through the usual bidding process. This forces them to leave little margin for error or when things change, so they work fast and cheap, cutting off any corner they can find. Don’t forget that building to code is a minimum standard. Bragging that you build to code is like saying proudly that you do D- work. Then there are the owners, who want a good job, but are really not educated in all the nuances of getting a building built and don’t even know what questions to ask. That can be where unhappy surprises come from. I haven’t mentioned the planning and building departments, where rules seem to be made at a whim, change often, are seldom explained well, and then they are not enforced evenly. Inspectors sometimes act like demigods and interpret the codes however they seem to feel like that moment.
Throw all these competing and conflicting interests together and it’s no wonder why building is usually one of the most stressful and expensive experiences a homeowner ever goes through. With each category above, there are the good exceptions, where professionals actually act professionally and are helpful, but that is certainly and sadly, not the rule.
There are ways around much of the mess described above. Two ways are to buy a really run-down house and do a major remodel, sometimes called a gut rehab to the house. I’ve heard of these where the owner had everything but the front door torn down, so the word “remodel” is sort of a joke. When building departments are really difficult to deal with, this approach may be easier than starting from scratch.
Another approach is to use manufactured housing to build with. This puts the construction under federal guidelines and removes much of it from the jurisdiction of local authorities. If you go this way, it’s important to really do your shopping. Manufactured housing suffers from cost cutting, or “cheapifying” in a big way. You want something that will hold up and perform well for many decades if not hundreds of years, and that will take some exploration to discover.
Thinking just of the cost of energy; why not build so your home will still be considered efficient fifty years from now? Where is the joy in building something that will be obsolete in five or ten years? Also, manufactured housing is looked down on by many in the trades because of that cheap reputation and usually lower resale value than standard stick-built housing. I once saw a video of what it would look like to build a car in the middle of a muddy field versus building it on a production line in a factory. That video drove home the point that houses would be far better off being built under controlled conditions, where templates and jigs were all set up for accomplishing precision work in a dry, flat and clean environment. It could be a smart way to get quality housing for a lot less money, time and frustration.
I chose a middle ground in building my house. I used SIPS, which stands for structural insulated panel system. You give the manufacturer a plan and they cut panels for you to assemble. You pour your foundation and assemble the panels on site. It’s a far faster and more precise way to build, and you get a much more energy efficient shell for the house going this way. In my experience, although the materials cost a little more, they save in labor costs, so ultimately you get a better home for no more money. As I did much of the labor on my home myself, my costs were far below the going rate for new construction at the time… on the order of $100 per foot versus $250 per foot. Savings added up pretty fast! Also, I got to put in far more insulation than was thought to be sane at the time. It allowed me to put in a tiny power system and now nobody is telling me how silly my thick insulation is.
There are other things to consider in building that often get overlooked, mostly because of tradition and habit. We commonly build homes with crawl spaces and attics. These are wonderful places for rodents, bugs, and energy loss in various ways. They are useless as living space, which is what people build homes. We build these spaces anyway so that there are places to put mechanical systems and plumbing, but with a little thought, we can do better! If we insulate under concrete slabs, that concrete becomes thermal mass for the house, keeping temperatures more even. Plumbing that must go under the concrete may be put in conduit, so it is protected from damp soil and is simpler to replace if needed. Electrical can be done the same way. If the shell of the house is well insulated and air-tight, the heating and cooling load will be far smaller and simpler to meet with much less equipment. I remember reading that a ½” water line can carry as many BTUs as an 8” air duct. It’s a lot easier to fit a small line into a building, and if the loads are kept down, you won’t even need much of that small line. So, making the building efficient both in terms of energy and space, contributes to needing a smaller and simpler heating system. The concept of “Passive House” takes this farther, suggesting that with a good enough shell, a heating system isn’t needed at all.
Another way in which homes could be built to take care of their occupants needs better would be to design them with the natural surroundings taken into account. Where does the sun rise and set? What are the prevailing winds? When might cooling be needed? Understanding things like these allows the building to be more comfortable and energy efficient at the same time. The purpose of a home isn’t to ignore and disconnect us from the environment surrounding us. Done well, it should help us reconnect, but most modern homes are oriented to make it easier for the car to come and go, rather than for the people to easily relate to and benefit from their surroundings.
My point with all this isn’t to go off on a rant but to suggest thinking a bit differently. This way, we can get greater benefit, and at lower cost, both financially and emotionally from our homes. Would you rather have an OK place to live, or a wonderful home to live in? It really is your choice!
Looking back over my working life of 50+ years, it seems clear that self sufficiency has always been the best way for me to be useful. Now, mix in a strong interest in water in its many forms and the wide world of animals and you'll know what's important to me.