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Are We Really Better Off With Building Codes?

Building codes protect us from structural, sanitary, and fire disasters while esuring a minimum level of energy efficiency in buildings. But according to some, better builder training is more important than code enforcement

Posted on Dec 6 2010 by Scott Gibson

After restoring historic buildings for more than three decades, Roy Harmon seems a little disillusioned, if not outright confused, with the current state of residential construction.

Most of the buildings he's worked on are more than a century old, built at a time when carpenters served apprenticeships but building codes did not exist. The only reason the buildings eventually fail is because of neglect, not inherently poor construction.

In contrast, there are a "myriad" of building code requirements these days, but no training requirements to become a home improvement contractor or carpenter.

"As a result, for the past 20+ years, thousands of plastic shacks called homes have been thrown together, by greed-driven developers that seem to dabble in the grey zone just below ‘minimum code requirements,’ " Harmon writes in his Q&A post. "The untrained, inexperienced workers are all that this process seems to have afforded."

Harmon wonders whether we're better served by skilled builders who really know what they're doing, or a strict code enforced in an age of poorly trained labor and a focus on the bottom line. And in our haste to build green, are we sure that LEEDLeadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED for Homes is the residential green building program from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). While this program is primarily designed for and applicable to new home projects, major gut rehabs can qualify. standards and green materials will meet the test of time?

That's the subject of this week's Q&A Spotlight.

Building codes are not the issue

Codes are the result of the problem, not its cause, says Tony Olaivar. If it weren't for building codes, shacks would still be common. Moreover, he adds, "I'd be willing to suggest that the shacks contemporary to your historic homes did not stand the test of time."

Codes, he adds, are actually improving over time: "Every time a house burns or collapses or an insurance claim is filed, there are statistics gathered. There's plenty of science that goes into all of it. Don't get discouraged."

"All current codes exist because of prior failures and catastrophes (both natural and man-made)," writes Andy Ault. "Codes don't cause the substandard results, they exist because of them. And with the adoption of new requirements into some of the upcoming 2012 codes (such as air leak testing in the IECC) they are finally moving past simple life safety and actually getting into VERIFIED building performance."

GBAGreenBuildingAdvisor.com Senior Editor Martin Holladay makes another point: although it's easy to take a rosy view of old-time carpentry practices, the longevity of buildings was not always assured. While he's seen lots of solid historic homes where he lives in Vermont, the opposite also is true. "I've also see older homes with failing foundations that lean or bulge and older homes with rotten sills and sagging ridges and undersized rafters that look like a sway-backed old mare," Holladay writes. "Plenty of builders in the old days didn't use a span table and cut corners by framing their homes to what they considered were the minimum requirements — and they guessed wrong."

While imperfect, building codes are intended to eliminate those kinds of problems.

"With rare exception I can’t think of many aspects of building codes that don’t add to the safety or performance of houses, although enforcement is sometimes limited because of budgets of the municipalities," Allan Edwards says.

Corporate model discourages quality outcome

Old World apprenticeships and craft guilds have been left behind, writes Robert Riversong, as the building industry adopted a standard corporate model for success.

"We quickly became an industrial society with adversarial labor unions to attempt to win a few concessions from the bosses," he says. "The corporate model of business, with profit as the guiding principle, became the standard for all enterprise — and the easiest way to maximize profit is through mass production and minimizing costs, including both materials and labor.

"Both government regulation and building codes were the reaction to the problem, not the problem itself."

As Tony Olaivar put it, "all jobs have gone the way of McDonald's," with scant training for employees because that made it easier to fire them "at the drop of a hat."

Riversong sees workers in this system are "just another economic input which can as easily be undercut or outsourced as any resource input."

To add to these troubles, labor has become so specialized that building projects now require overseers to draw all the players together. Even then, there aren't many "Master Builders" around who can see a project through from design to finish details.

"When we return to understanding house building as a trade or craft and not a business, we might rediscover some of the pride in workmanship that was once the hallmark of well-crafted and durable architectural design and fabrication," Riversong says. "And we will need to find 'profit' in our sense of satisfaction of a job well done rather than in adding cost that makes such a basic human need as shelter unaffordable for the masses."

There are efforts underway to train young workers, says Andy Ault, including Skills USA and Construction Challenge .

"It’s no small task to try to convince tech savvy kids that it’s desirable (and maybe even 'cool') to be a contractor these days," Ault writes. "So we all have to do our part to support and volunteer for these groups and put our time and effort where our complaints are. "

But aren't we just building what buyers want?

Joe Wilson recalls visiting a house well along in construction during an open house in his area. The builder was the head of the local building association for years. The house Wilson toured had five bedrooms and three and a half baths and would sell for $430,000 or more.

"I spent some time going through and noting the 2x6, 16-in. on-center traditional (non-OVE) framing, the numerous unplugged gaps at penetrations, the builder grade vinylCommon term for polyvinyl chloride (PVC). In chemistry, vinyl refers to a carbon-and-hydrogen group (H2C=CH–) that attaches to another functional group, such as chlorine (vinyl chloride) or acetate (vinyl acetate). windows, the lack of caulk or sealant or gaskets at plates and sills, a ripped piece of housewrap dangling from under the brick," he writes. "Rolls of glass batt were in the garage, ready to go."

But three couples he saw at the open house were focused on the square footage, the size of the closets, and the granite, all of which brought a smile to the builder's face.

Later, the builder said no one had ever inquired about the possibility of building with a more modern approach.

"He didn't seem greedy, just like he saw his work as a business and that he wasn't 'custom,'" Wilson says. "He even offered me the names of three builders he said did custom work. 'You'll pay for it, but you'll get what you want.'"

He wonders whether builders and buyers can be taught to look at houses differently, but he doesn't seem especially hopeful.

Does the appraisal process contribute to the problem?

Steve El thinks so. Because we're a mobile society, families have to keep resale in mind, and lending is based on the appraised value of a home.

"This is where a big problem creeps in, in my opinion, and that is the manner in which values are placed on homes is broken," El says. "Take two next door houses on identical lots, where the houses have the same basic floor plan. One home is built to code minimum and the other is superbly built to a much higher standard.

"For mortgage appraisal purposes, the two homes will appraise almost the same. There will be just enough 'extra' tagged on to the superbly built home's appraised value to make the mortgage appraisal process look — repeat LOOK — legitimate. But in my opinion, the process has nothing to do with value."

Were buyers better educated to demand value and fix the appraisal process, then builders would be forced to follow suit or be out of a job, he says.

Actually, says Riversong, the appraisal business isn't broken. Appraisals "very accurately" reflect market value because they're based on comparable sales in the same area.

"If we want to have the intrinsic qualities of a thing valued then we need to be willing to acknowledge that kind of value in the marketplace," he says. "Everything in our culture is superficial, shallow, short-term and narrowly-focused. It is our society which is broken. Until we fix that, we cannot expect our valuation formulas to be based on anything other than what we are willing to pay for."

Our expert's opinion

Here's what GBA Technical Director Peter Yost has to say:

I think there are really three separate but related issues in this discussion: codes, performance-based value, and education.

First, a quote from an Environmental Building News feature article entitled “Sustainability and Building Codes” (EBN Vol. 10, No. 9), which I co-authored with David Eisenberg of the Development Center for Appropriate Technology (David is the director of DCAT, the leading organization for green building codes in the U.S.):

“Building codes have long been used by societies to protect individual and general welfare, and to hold practitioners accountable for their work. As long ago as 1750 B.C., Hammurabi, the Babylonian king of Mesopotamia, created his famous Code of Laws covering a wide range of public and private matters. Number 229 of this Code states: “If a builder build a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.” This type of “performance” code must certainly have had an impact on quality of construction, but it very likely stifled innovation!”

We need and benefit from the codes because they, by-and-large, make for safer and better buildings. But I think codes must be performance-based (including third party performance verification) or we get silly prescriptions, such as “warm-in-winter” vapor retarder locations or “seal all holes” for air tightness.

And we not only need performance in the codes, we need it in all aspects of the building industry; from design to construction to appraisal to sales. The single most significant purchase almost all of us make in our lives is a home, and yet most of us do NOT approach the purchase as a performance-based value proposition. That is just crazy, because we do performance-based purchasing for other large, long-lived products such as cars, and computers, and appliances, why not homes?

And the need for education of how buildings really work is just as pervasive. We are asking more of our homes, but not asking more of all those who touch them—architects, builders, code officials, realtors, and homeowners. Every sector needs building science education about how buildings work; the codes can’t and were never meant do it on their own.



Image Credits:

  1. International Code Council

1.
Dec 6, 2010 5:35 PM ET

Appraisal process renders buyer-education futile
by Steve El

"yet most of us do NOT approach the purchase as a performance-based value proposition"

Here is my point, magnified:

For those of us that ((DO)) want to include performance issues in the purchasing process, we either have to self-finance with cash out of pocket or land contract, or else we have to kiss performance considerations good bye. If you can't get financing, it doesn't matter if you know house A performs better than house B. So the process teaches people who would LIKE to care to just put on the cynical blinders we always put one when we run into big seemingly unfixable problems and just deal with it. Buyer-education will be of questionable value, in my opinion, until we reward people for the time it takes them to pay attention. The mass-production mortgage appraissal process is directly in the way of that worthy goal.

Steve El


2.
Dec 6, 2010 6:45 PM ET

Codes as solution to appraisal problems
by Michael Chandler

We recently were forced by a bank to cut back on insulation we wanted to do on a home that was above code minimum because the value would not have changed and we prioritized other energy items harder to modify later than blown-in attic insulation.

If code minimum sets the value, then we can improve code minimum.

We are currently doing battle to raise the code energy efficiency 15% to 30% here in North Carolina and recently voted in a 30% efficiency improvement in the National ICC code. It's a challenge, but it's worth doing. A rising tide floats all boats.


3.
Dec 7, 2010 2:03 AM ET

Hear Hear! Improve the minimum requirement
by Roy Harmon

I came to this site originally because, well, I'm one of those guys that has collected, and read every edition of Fine Homebuilding, Fine Woodworking, This Old House and yes Mother Earth News since they were first published . I have learned a great deal through the years, and have put this education to work, hopefully to benefit my clients as well as assuring that my family needs are tended to properly. I have given subscriptions of the 2 Taunton Publications to employee's as gifts. They make for great coffee break discussion when we're all on the same page.
The Fine Homebuilding Website introduced me to GBA and I seized the opportunity to begin learning green. Who better than Taunton as an Instructor? Thanks to all who create and share here.

With regard to the residential housing developement industry at large~ the vast majority of new homes built in the last 15 years,(the masses), we have really dropped the ball. How on earth did this happen? Current history, (where we are today) clearly demonstrates this. I am not at all speaking of the custom home market here, but the majority of developed homes.

The green movement thus far has been an interesting study as I seek a ray of hope for the next wave of home development. I guess I need to first figure out the green mindset or psychology associated with this realitively new process....?
I now know for a fact that we can build natural homes that seem to be better for all things earth related . We can do this square foot for square foot at less cost. These homes better serve their inhabitants in every natural way. They cost less to maintain, heat, cool and are more fire retardant. They can even provide rainwater collection and storage at reasonable cost by design. These homes can offer, with cost considerations, the appearance of choice. These homes can be built for the masses without exausting resources or the use of excessive fossil fuels. Is this considered green building? Would this be the goal of the green movement? Do we have a need to complicate a very doable, simple process with scientifically backed codes that seem to create unfounded excuses as to why it can't be done? If there are really better ways of home building, that would better serve people, even with all of the current science, technology and safety code, not to mention cost, then why aren't we doing it for the masses now?

A green foundation has not been built yet that can support the load that must be placed upon it.
The cards need to be laid on the table quite simply. Keep it simple for a curriculum that will educate the masses via internet and media sources.
Let them know what can really be done today! If we educate" all of those who touch them",Teach them that they are not, and have not been making performance based, dollar wise purchases. Share the truth as we know it on a huge scale and the green movement will spread like a wild fire. Bankers, appraisers, politicians, code and permitt officials, insurance companies, developers and craftsmen will all pay attention when the truth is put out there on a large scale.
Sound, easy to digest, proven advice will be the cornerstones needed for the green foundation to be accomplished. Complicated, expensive innovation and science do in fact play a role in the education of many that visit this site, but most folks don't think like we do. Thats why plastic shacks are still the norm.
The thing that I have found most valuable about the Taunton education products that I've purchased through the years is the ease of understanding and quality combined with purpose.
Sorry guys , but I'm struggling with the fact that the GB mission can be simplified to effectivness, but the devil still remains in confusing details that seem to prolong the agony.
It's hell bein a dummy!


4.
Dec 8, 2010 5:59 PM ET

Apprenticeship
by Charles Shade

I'm not sure the idea of "Code Minimum" should be taken as slam against current building techniques. The builder can always over specify and over "build" to his hearts content. Should he? As has been pointed out the appraised value will not reflect this. It may not even reflect an Andersen window against an all vinyl window product (that will crack and fail in short order). if a W8 x 15 is correctly sized for the opening to be crossed is a W8 x 31 twice as good or a waste of money? I know some who think the W8 x 32 is twice as good. Foolish.

As with the author who has worked on older homes I too have done so. I'll never quite understand why a wonderful 8 x 12 timber abutting another 8 x 12 timber will be tenonned down to a 3 x 4 peg. You do that and all you really have is a 3 x 4 beam. It may only have survived because it never really saw the full load that may have been expected to be placed on it. Or the joists notched 50% to rest on this girder which have sheared at the notch. Are they still in place because of the 3/4" skip sheathing or the old-growth rings?

Current codes have taken this out of the equation. We stress wood to only 5% of its expected failure in residential construction. The structural side of the code is very good at providing the guidelines to build the skeleton of the home. It fails in creating an environment where the builder is required to train and hire competent and skilled labor and set a standard of "in a workmanlike manor". Does that mean the same thing to everyone? I doubt it. Apprenticeships are rare and probably non-existent in the residential industry. Builders who find good trades will keep these trades but are likely known to be expensive. There is a price to quality. The buyer sets the low threshold and accepts the poor craftsmanship.

Regards,
Charles Shade
www.cshadedesign.com


5.
Dec 8, 2010 6:34 PM ET

marching to 2030
by kimshanahan

If we have bought into the principles of the 2030 Movement (all stuctures built net-zero energy by the year 2030) then it will be accomplished because we have accepted codes that mandate it to be so. The market alone will not take us there because apparaisals will never justify the costs. It also means the old apprenticeship model is somwhat dead, since we need to reinvent the "possible" on a constant basis.
Quality is not dead, but some of the old mossbacks in our industry have little or nothing to teach us about emerging building science. They can teach us about square, plumb, tight , and level, but we may need to teach them about the physics of air, water, heat, etc.
Codes teach us, and even though as individuals and an industry we don't like to be told what to do or how to do it. we need them. And we need them to elvolve and become more intrusive as we march toward 2030


6.
Dec 8, 2010 6:48 PM ET

Are codes necessary?
by Carl Mezoff

We should remember that building or designing "to code" is not a standard to be proud of. Rather, "Building to code" really means "just barely acceptable" - the bottom of the barrel in quality. Anything less would be so lousy that it would be illegal.

As to a "performance-based" code - there is already much leeway provided by Section R104.11 "Alternative materials, design and methods of construction and equipment." This section allows you to build pretty much anything you want as long as you can demonstrate compliance with the intent of the code by tests, research reports or by convincing the code official of the virtue of your construction.

Having only performance requirements in a code would, I believe, be unworkable for general construction. Inspectors could hardly spend hours on each of the thousand components of a building determining whether it "performed" as required.


7.
Dec 8, 2010 9:19 PM ET

Hidden Subversions of RIGHTS: in I.B.C.
by Constitutional, Chris

It has come to this Relator's attention; that treacherous stealthful inclusions of onerous (Quality of OWNING ONE, per clauses, withIN the Contract- Building Permit, connected Documents,) in many cases the PERMIT (Contract / Permission to do that which is Illegal) may contain FINE Print, or INNOCENT appearing Twisted WORDS, which may be used by: Corrupt Agents or Actors, to: "SUBVERT," Constitutional Preclusions to Illegal Warrantless Searches, under the cleaver PRETENSE to ASSURE the PUBLIC SAFETY, by: "Voluntary assent ," evidenced by: "TERMS of the CONTRACT" (Building Permit) that: YOU ASKED for; to GET Permission to: EXCERCISE one COMPETENT'S Right, to: "SECURE their HOME," against Warrantless searches and Seizures (of Possibly OBSERVED; OTHER contraband , perceived- DEEMED Objectionable Sexual, Political. 2nd Amendment, or other Private Property, viewed while assuring the absense of Un-approved_Permitted REPAIRS, Modifications or Improvements: to Keep YOU SAFE! HAHA!

Additionally, IN divulging CRITERIA specific to the PRIVATE Nature of One's ABODE, One MAY BE offering Evidence, against themselves, in: "Express Violation," by ABROGATION of 5th amendment Constitutional Guaranties AGAINST the Obligation to Do SO!

ONE may, LINE OUT and Initial with the accompanying Initial of the Agent or Actor of the Government Agency Issuig said Permit, Evidencing: "timely and Specific OBJECTION" to the ONEROUS TERMS withIN thereby Rendering SAID TERMS: Null and Void ab Initio (from inception)

Be very very Carefull, when Dealing with Government Agents who MAY NOT be Competent nor AWARE of the Legal IMPLICATIONS contained within the Documents they ARE INCOMPETENTLY ADMINISTRATING (managing). They May NOT have YOUR BEST INTEREST at HEART or they MAY BE Conspiring Agaist YOU?

Many Men KNOW many THINGS! No Man KNOWS everyTHING! SomeONE KNOWS some THING, Whom KNOWS?

Why would ONE: knowlegable, Competent, especially Skilled and Experienced, in the Professional Tecnical ARTS, of Building, be REQUIRED, to GET PERMISSION, to Build on thier: "PRIVATE PROPERTY?" How did the Romans , Baba'alonians, Chineese, DRUIDS, Mayans, or Founding Fathers: EVER build those: Homes Buildings, Monuments,or EDIFICES without the Building Enforcement Agents OVERSIGHT?


8.
Dec 8, 2010 11:42 PM ET

two telling anecdotes
by Joseph Ford

Shortly after the state where I live adopted the 2006 I-Codes I went to a seminar to learn about the changes. About halfway through the program my co-workers and I were wondering why we were hearing so much about the residential building code. We are all in commercial construction. We soon figured out that most of the people at the seminar worked for production home builders. They were at the seminar because they wanted to be absolutely sure they wouldn't be doing anything not required by code anymore. In other words, they didn't view code as a minimum standard of quality and safety they viewed it as the goal to be achieved and not a dollar more was to be spent getting beyond it. This is what happens when the mindset behind producing low-cost disposable commodities for consumers is translated into homebuilding. They are on a slightly different time scale, but I view almost all production houses built in recent history as disposable junk. Instead of being thrown out in three months like a plastic piece of junk they will be bulldozed or face extensive rehabs in three decades.

Second anecdote: An acquaintance of mine was selling yet-to-be-built semi-custom homes. There were stock plans but people could pick one and have a number of options and upgrades available. One option was: a) Insulation 30% better than code, or b) granite countertops. He sold 14 such houses and not one buyer opted for the insulation as an option or standalone upgrade. So, can you really blame builders of spec houses for not selling real quality? People don't value it. Even when they acknowledge the worth of it, they aren't willing to pay more for it.

This goes right back to why codes are so weak relative to what the state-of-the-art building technology is. The general public doesn't value or pay for quality. Likewise, arguments that higher initial costs can reduce long-term costs of ownership don't go anywhere. Therefore, the builders associations, who are the 800-pound gorilla of lobbyists in state-level politics, fight anything that increases the initial cost of houses. Think about it, where haven't trade associations for residential builders and developers fought higher standards? Not just energy conservation measures either. There were furious debates over GFCI's, then AFCI's. There's one going on now over residential sprinkler systems.


9.
Dec 8, 2010 11:43 PM ET

hey Chris Constitutional
by Joseph Ford

There's something wrong with your CAPS LOCK key.


10.
Dec 9, 2010 12:12 AM ET

Minimum code requirements~again
by Roy Harmon

With regard to the "codes of life" that were set forth through the creation of the Constitution of the United States~ They did, for a very short time play a critical role in the building and development of the good ol USA. As with most code requirements though, the science of greed seems to prevail at every level of just about everything. Give them the minimum for the maximum because we can. If they don't hold us to account, we'll grow our greed science by leaps, bounds, codes, laws, ordinances,rules and regulation. They will get what they deserve because thats the way it is! We will take advantage of the minimum to the masses because that's where the big money is, and after all, thats what it's all about. Who's going to stop us~ certainly not the Constitution~ we have ways around that. Who's going to stop us~ certainly not the Code inforcement~ we have minimums to shoot for. And the science to justify and back it all up. This is what the American way, the American dream has come to be. The science of politics, economies, real estate, health and many more seem to be in line with todays American dream. Plastic shacks, Mac mansions, and yes, our Constitution as well.Who's gonna stop them?


11.
Dec 9, 2010 12:25 AM ET

Hey Joseph Ford
by Roy Harmon

Thank You for the telling anecdotes~ makes sence to me for today, doesn't look bright marching to 2030 though.
nice post!


12.
Dec 9, 2010 5:08 AM ET

Response to Joseph Ford
by Martin Holladay

Joseph,
Good point you made: "The builders associations, who are the 800-pound gorilla of lobbyists in state-level politics, fight anything that increases the initial cost of houses. Think about it, where haven't trade associations for residential builders and developers fought higher standards?"

In 2008, NAHB worked hard to defeat the "Thirty Percent Solution," a package of code measures that would have improved the energy performance of new homes. I wrote a news story about it:
"At the 2008 Minneapolis hearings, a more sweeping code change proposal — the so-called Thirty Percent Solution — was defeated after vigorous opposition from representatives from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), Icynene Incorporated, and Pilkington Glass."

Read more here:
"Energy Code Gets Slightly More Stringent."


13.
Dec 9, 2010 12:33 PM ET

Energy Codes
by Doug McEvers

In MN we have a residential energy code that has been more stringent than other states, calling for a continuous air barrier and all penetrations sealed. As a result of this wording, builders are doing quite a good job of air sealing the buildings. There is no ach50 testing required on new construction but I am confident new homes in the Twin Cities metro would average 2 ach50 or less. I have toured some homes built by a national home builder and the air sealing work was excellent, I would venture to say they are under 1.5 ach50. The new code (2012 IECC) will be easily met for Twin Cities home builders because they have been working with a more stringent building code for many years.


14.
Dec 10, 2010 11:15 AM ET

I believe in freedom
by Anonymous

There are a lot of good points here, but I see many of you so absorbed into your world that it's clear you live on a different planet than me.
I fix homes, so I can thank many of you for 10 years ago causing many of the problems that keep me currently employed. I look forward to, 10 years from now, fixing problems you're causing today.
I think building codes should be a bare minimum for "real" safety. They should prevent things like buildings falling down, being blown down, or incinerating like dry kindling. These codes were put to paper 30 years ago and are worthy. So to answer the topic question: Yes, these codes are necessary.
Then there are all those other codes. Code books are literally thousands of pages, and indecipherable by educated people and code officers alike. There are many ways a society could deal with shoddy or minimal construction, but code enforcement, since run by the government, is one of the most inefficient. This is something we all pay for and it's expensive.
Like many things these days, codes have turned into big business. They are a key source of revenue for communities. They're also leveraged by many industries and organizations to push their political and economic agendas. These groups all benefit from code complexity and each of us pays for that as well. I'm sure we've all been made aware of this fact too many times.
Although I have my own beliefs of "worthy" political agendas (like the ones championed on this website), we run a slippery slope when we think they should be codes.
To answer the topic question; these types of codes are NOT necessary.
There are plenty of free market mechanisms that could be in place to push political correctness and still give people like you and me the right to choose.


15.
Dec 13, 2010 12:13 AM ET

Wild West of Building
by Barbara in Idaho

Thank you for putting into words what we struggle to convey to potential clients, and the rest of the industry. Our county doesn't have a building department, any code or any enforcement. We must bid against every joe with a hammer and pick up for custom homes. We have been working, most notably the last 6 months, to educate anyone willing to listen, from potential clients to realtors and appriasors, about the difference between home A and a high performance home built above "minimum code". We've even tried to put the financials down on paper, detailing how a high performance home can create positive cash flow. The realtors have simply said: their clients want the biggest home for the lowest price.

This past year we have seen, all in homes 5 years old or less, bathroom tile failing because it was applied directly to drywall, a 2 story lake home on a 6 inch foundation without drainage, kitchen tile popping up, $400 winter energy bills, siding applied directly over sheathing. All of these homes have stainless appliances and granite counters. They look good long enough to sell.

In 2004 a small contingent of builders, court officials and a county supervisor conducted working groups to study re-instilling the building department. Let's just say the supervisor was voted out of office. North Idaho is the land of "How dare the government tell me what to do on my property."

We recently completed the first NAHB Silver certified home in the northern 5 counties (and probably more, I just don't know for sure) of the state and can't sell it, even with $45 energy bills in the Idaho winter. The price is about 5% over "comps" and realtors are telling their clients it won't appraise and that they can get more square footage for that price.

We are putting together a "Green Building" class for the local Association of Realtors (it will be elligible for continuing education credits). The head of the Association, new to the job this summer, is very interested in the "greening the MLS" movement. But, our biggest headache have been other builders and appraisers.

We would love a building department, implimentation of the 2009 IECC (and the 2010 IECC) and any kind of contractor licensing requirements. It's next to impossible to sell quality and performance in the Wild West of Home Building.


16.
Dec 13, 2010 2:02 AM ET

Barbara thanks for the thoughtful post
by Michael Chandler

Wish I could vote you up seven points. I used to work in a similar situation when I lived on my family farm in Maine. Couldn't make it go there and moved to a place where people will seek out quality over quantity. Codes serve an important purpose on so many levels. This week our battle to implement a better code in North Carolina is coming to a vote. we have our fingers crossed. it's been a tough fight. I wish you the best with getting code back in your area and most of all in finding a buyer for that house.


17.
Dec 13, 2010 1:30 PM ET

fences
by Brian Carter

Great topic! I have about 30 years working on buildings of all kinds. I've seen something of the evolutionary process in the construction of shelter. All too often it seems that new ideas are made mandatory before the true cost/benefit comparisons can be made.Because of this ,and the nature of mass production, it is all but impossible to go back.Those who invest heavily in the latest ideas are not interested in reconsidering,whether they are suppliers,enforcement people, or those builders who learned their job recently.What bothers me most is that alternatives to code-sanctioned practices are then illegal or unmarketable,regardless of worthiness.
There is some benefit to codes,just as there is in motor vehicle standards and inspections.But there must be enough room to work and improve before any idea becomes the measure of all success, if ,in fact, any should.
I've been trying for a few years to fence part of my property.Every layout I come up with always means I'm fencing myself out of something,even though I can better protect what's inside the fence.This is what rules do as well,so we have to be flexible and conscious about using them.


19.
Dec 13, 2010 3:38 PM ET

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
by Stuart Brooks

As a home inspector of both old, new, and all ages between, I see enough to make you want to have public floggings for developers, contractors, tradesmen, architects, and building inspectors. I've been asked if I noticed a better quality of home construction in older homes than the new. The answer is both yes and no. Lumber quality was much better back before the good materials were exported but there is a great improvement in other newer materials.

Workmanship? Way back when there were still carpenters who didn't know or care about what they were doing. Slipshod work, lack of training, ignorance, and don't care attitudes may not have been quite as common as today but still there.

The original post and most of the preceding comments hit the target very well. Just add, the event of "piece work" subcontracting and labor, pneumatic nailers, and power saws took all all the craftsmanship out of most residential construction. I have to add, the failure of contractors and tradespeople to read and comprehend manufacturer installation instructions is a big factor in the errors I find in newer work.

I find to my dismay there are way too many contractors/developers who
1) Hire workers:
a) who cannot read Spanish much less English
b) Have at best a minimal comprehension of spoken English
c) Can't read a ruler or simple diagrams
d) Don't know the purpose of, use or own a level or square.
2) Leave the inexperienced bodies on a job site without training or constant supervision
3) Have a "You get what you pay for" attitude - towards the people who buy the houses
4) Quickly spout, "It's built to code" line

I DO see great workmanship, really talented and capable carpenters and tradesmen. I do see homes designed by an architect with field experience and common sense, I do see bad work clobbered by building inspectors who apply the codes as intended. It's just that for every 1 good I see at least 100 bad. This may seem a little unusual but when I see good work I make sure to let the contractors know it.


20.
Dec 13, 2010 4:13 PM ET

there is very real harm from overregulation
by Nathan Hertel

Augustaga.gov site:

"Who Can Obtain a Permit
Building - Single-family permits will be issued to contractors. Single-family permits can be issued to the homeowner if he is going to own and occupy the house.

No permit, except for homeowners, shall be issued to anyone other than a properly licensed contractor under the laws of the State of Georgia and the ordinances of Augusta-Richmond County."

"Overview
A permit is required if the cost of the project materials is over $500, or if the type of work requires an inspection as provided for in the construction codes adopted by Augusta-Richmond County, or for the following situations."

###########

Guidance from the Augusta Dept of License and Inspection indicates that building a 10x10 deck or installing a garage door requires a building permit. My reading of the plain text is that owners can't pull a permit and have their work inspected, instead they're totally prohibited from minor work even on property they own and don't live in, much less helping a neighbor add function, value and safety to their properties.

The state of Georgia ***application to take the general contractor's test*** is a ~20-page form mandating candidates for licensure have an engineering/architecture/construction mgmt four-year degree and one year experience under a general contractor or four years of supervised work in the field combined with various documented education credits. Also, each applicant must have an active $25K line of credit, a $500K insurance policy, letters of recommendation from engineers or contractors, and must submit a $200 nonrefundable fee just to apply to take the test.

So under Augusta ordinance/Georgia law, there's no legal way for a property owner to even install a new kitchen countertop without thousands of dollars of fees/insurance premiums/bank notes and years upon years of supervised training... somehow I think this has a lot more to do with protecting special interests than any benefit to public safety. We're not talking about constructing a 16-story residential high-rise, this ridiculous, burdensome regulation keeps people from putting wood floors in a rental house's living room or adding a deck onto their neighbors house.

The laws of Georgia and ordinances of Augusta lead to (a) rampant violations of the law--most likely--, (b) artificially lower investment in housing stock, and (c) artificially high costs of labor for even small/routine services. Smart money would say that these unintended consequences probably make the public much worse off than a more realistic regulatory framework.


21.
Dec 13, 2010 4:35 PM ET

A Fourth Option
by Joseph Kulak

Another discussion point is a fourth option in addition to Peter Yosts 3 points and that is enforcement. Most codes today would provide the necessary standards and value that would make for good long lasting homes. The part that is missing is competent enforcement. My experience in the commercial side of building small box buildings is that the local building inspectors are poorly suited to enforce the codes both from a knowledge standpoint and from a time availability standpoint. In most cases of doing repair work over time (I"m in the Facility/Capital Management field), I frequently look at repair issues and say to myself how did the GC get away with this level of work. Undersized structure, incorrect material placement and installation and just wrong technique are allowed to pass inspection and once the building is closed in most buyers don't have the ability or knowledge to see the wrong doing. The inspectors are the key to any successful code system. We need to make sure they are qualified first and then have the amount of time they need to inspect correctly. Having built and managed facilities across the country, the quality of the end product was in DIRECT relationship to the quality of the municiple management of the code. OMO.


22.
Dec 13, 2010 4:36 PM ET

The Problem with Energy Star and LEED Homes
by Todd Witt

The Problem with Energy Star Rated Homes by Synergy Airflow and Ventilation, LLC

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Huntsville Utilities spend a lot of money marketing the Energy Right and Energy Star for Homes program. I am amazed at the amount of internet “pay per click advertising” that lists the program at the top of the page. These listings along with television and billboard advertising cost serious amounts of money and keep in mind that a portion of your bill pays for these programs that claim to reduce energy usage. Have you noticed how many of the larger production builders in Madison County participate and proudly tout their Energy Star designated homes? Larry Denman, the program director for Huntsville Utilities, does an incredible job. I have known him for years and he truly understands energy efficiency. Under his leadership, the program has been so successful that Madison County leads the state by a wide margin in the number of Energy Star designated new homes (See Energy Star Builders in AL). To earn the Energy Star designation, a new home must score at least 15% better than a home built to the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code. The homeowner gets an energy efficient home, the builder gets a substantial rebate, and the energy providers reduce the total amount of energy usage. In theory, it all sounds great. But in practice, many of these homes actually have increased, not decreased energy costs. Furthermore, many of the homes built to current Energy Star requirements will experience major comfort issues, moisture issues, indoor air quality issues, high radon concentrations, and premature HVAC compressor and fan motor failure.

The Energy Star for New Homes program isn’t the only program with these issues. The Homebuilder’s Association of Alabama has a similar program known as the Energy Key Program. Nationally, LEED certification is also another popular program (See LEED Lawsuit). However, the Energy Star program is the U.S. government’s seal of approval of energy efficiency and in 2008 one out of every five homes built received the designation. Personally, I believe that the current Energy Star for Homes program is a prime example of how a government program starts out with good intentions but with improper understanding, improper execution, and undue outside influence, it fails. With that said, I know that I take energy efficiency and performance home testing way too seriously. I remind myself often that it is just not that big of a deal to most people. I find myself getting so upset when I witness major issues in homes that we are called in to test, especially in new homes that were marketed and sold touting energy efficient features. I am slowly learning that writing a scathing article reporting our findings and assigning blame with an extremely condescending and critical tone may not be the best way to address the issues. The truth is that many of those at fault don’t know any better and are actually trying to do the right thing. However, it’s not very comforting to the customer when we have to report that their home has major issues that will cost thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars to repair. The simple fact is that doing something wrong with the right intentions is still wrong. Energy producers, energy suppliers, builders, subcontractors, architects, building inspectors, home inspectors, real estate agents, bankers, appraisers, and most of all, homeowners have got to understand the basic principles of building a home that performs and the simple truth is that the Energy Star designation does not ensure this.

My company, Synergy Airflow and Ventilation LLC is in business to test, identify, and repair major issues in homes. We also offer consulting services and design Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems. In our business, there is nothing harder than reporting bad news to homeowners that in most cases had no idea that their home had serious issues. At the same time, there is nothing more satisfying than helping a builder or homeowner plan, design, and construct a home that performs. Given the choice, our company would much rather consult and design for new homes than test, identify, and repair existing homes. Doing it the right way during construction is by far the easiest and most cost effective way for the homeowner. But there are many people that are lured into purchasing nonperforming homes by unbelievably low prices, especially when these homes carry the Energy Star designation. It is the purpose of this article to help you avoid such situations.

Most people would be shocked at the number of homes we test in which the homeowner is completely overwhelmed by the severity of the problems that exists. They just assumed that by passing code, their home was built correctly and in accordance with building science principles. But just this past month, one of the nation’s largest homebuilders announced “a sudden spike in construction defect claims” and as a result reserved $272 million dollars in cash with more expected claims in the future. Many times major problems don’t appear until after the warranty period has expired. The homeowner cannot afford anywhere near the costs of remediation and they are forced to either simply “band-aid” the situation and in many cases, they completely ignore the problem(s). But these problems don’t go away and eventually they must be addressed. Keep in mind that most home inspections only visually inspect and do not actually test systems. Appraisals certainly don’t include provisions for systems that will prematurely fail such as the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. How about moisture and mold issues? Could your home be one of the numerous homes where the time-bomb is ticking?

It’s important to understand that a home is an interactive system of heat gain and loss, air movement, moisture, and mechanical systems. In the middle of this system are people and their quality of life is determined by how well this system works. The absence or failure of one single part can cause catastrophic failure to the entire system. For example, building a well insulated, tight home is the foundation for an energy efficient home. However, without fresh air ventilation, a tight home is a recipe for disaster. I know this from personal experience. I spent years in the insulation business super-insulating and super air-sealing homes that later experienced major issues due to the lack of fresh air ventilation. Fresh air ventilation is simply the signature of excellence in new construction. Ventilation is so important that we included it in our name. Building Science dictates that for every amount of conditioned air that is exhausted out of the home by bathroom fans, kitchen fans, and clothes dryers, there must be an equal amount of air that is pulled in to replace it. Small leaks in tight homes are magnified and the air that is pulled in comes from unintended places like the crawlspace, attic, down the chimney and water heater exhaust. This air carries contaminants such as dust, moisture, pesticides, radon, carbon monoxide, soot, and insulation. Tight homes without fresh air ventilation also trap contaminants inside of the home. With that said, would it surprise you to know that most if not all homes are being built without fresh air ventilation?

Other requirements for an Energy Star rated home are a high efficiency HVAC unit and a tight duct system. The Energy Star for Homes program and the International Residential Code both require an HVAC system to be properly sized according to one of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America approved load calculation methods. Would it surprise you to know that Energy Star officials and local building inspectors are not enforcing the code requirements for proper load calculations (Manual J) and proper duct design (Manual D)? The simple truth is that few people know how to perform them correctly. I know because I have spent the last 18 months learning and perfecting the skill and it is the one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. (See ACCA Quality Guidelines and pay special attention to page (iii) in the foreward). Studies as well as our findings in the field show that many HVAC units are over double the size required. In fact, over-sizing an HVAC system has become the accepted way of masking problems in a poorly built home’s construction. But in tightly built home, oversized units create a multitude of issues including higher energy costs as well as comfort and moisture issues.
To add insult to injury, most improperly designed and oversized units typically have improperly designed, installed, and undersized duct systems. Tightly sealing a properly designed, sized, and installed HVAC system is one of the simplest and most cost effective ways in reducing energy costs. However, tightly sealing an improperly designed system results in creating many other problems such as reduced airflow. Reduced airflow means the proper amount of heating and cooling does not get delivered. This leads to comfort issues, higher energy costs, and premature compressor and motor failure. Additional problems are created in homes with undersized returns and the lack of returns or jumper ducts installed in the bedrooms. Air that is supplied cannot be properly returned to the air handler to be reconditioned. When bedroom doors are closed, this pressurizes the bedroom and forces conditioned air through holes in the exterior envelope and creates moisture issues in the wall cavities. At the same time, this depressurizes the main body of the home causing it to pull in unconditioned air from unintended leaks in the exterior envelope. Symptoms include doors that close on their own and the smell of your fireplace when the HVAC system comes on. Our simple strategy is to build it tight, ventilate it right, design and install the HVAC system right, and then allow the interior air to move freely within the home. Finally, we test the home and its systems and adjust them as needed.

The Energy Star for homes program performs only two tests to certify a home. First, a duct blaster test is performed to determine the tightness of the duct system. Most experienced home energy auditors will tell you that the test is oftentimes inaccurate and that it doesn’t provide much valuable information. A simple test we perform and most strongly recommend is a static pressure test. It is the commonly accepted first test of airflow diagnostics by HVAC professionals. It confirms the actual airflow through the duct system and it is the equivalent to having your blood pressure tested when you go to the doctor. Until the proper airflow is confirmed, refrigerant cannot be properly added but HVAC companies do it all of the time. Finally, we use a flow hood to measure and balance the individual supply registers and return grilles so that the right amount of air is delivered at the right temperature to each room. Without this step comfort can rarely ever be achieved.

The second test of the Energy Star program that is performed is a blower door test. A blower door helps evaluate the air tightness level of the home and it helps to locate the actual air leakage sites. It is the foundation of home testing. However, it is possible to build a tight home that performs well on a blower door test although it is not properly insulated. Keep in mind that I am no longer in the insulation business, but I know generally what the market prices are for insulation. Purchasing decisions by most of the larger builders are made most times by purchasing agents solely on the basis of the lowest initial costs and it rarely includes quality installation. I still enjoy stopping by and inspecting insulation work being performed in the field. The majority of Energy Star Homes are insulated with fiberglass which is less expensive initially than blown cellulose or spray foam. Fiberglass insulation is also prone to installation defects that create thermal bypasses. It used to be that once the insulation was covered up and hidden with sheetrock, there wasn’t much that could be done to prove whether or not the insulation was installed correctly. But that has all changed. I recently read an article that featured the Energy Star Program Director, Sam Rashkin, stating that the infrared camera will trigger demand for more insulation in homes as well as better installation practices. The infrared camera allows us to see thermal bypasses, especially when used in conjunction with the blower door. We have learned from using the infrared camera that if insulation, other than foam insulation, is not completely touching the interior air barrier such as the sheetrock, it is not working. We have also learned from using the infrared camera, that walls exposed to the attic that do not have hard-decking behind them simply do not perform. With an infrared camera in hand, we plan to change standard practices in the field. But be aware that the Energy Star for Homes program does not perform an infrared scan. As a matter of fact, there are no insulation inspections performed by an outside agency during the construction of an Energy Star Home. The builder assumes responsibility for verifying that the thermal bypass checklist has been inspected and passed by signing it. The checklist states that, “The purpose of the thermal bypass inspection is to constructively work with builders to provide more effective thermal envelopes. If the general intent of an air barrier requirement is met, but not perfect, use good judgment before failing. Use field observations as an opportunity to help the builder be more successful in the future.” When a homeowner purchases an Energy Star Home that does not perform and experiences major issues can a good defense be that the builder had a general intent to do better? Can a good defense be that the builder was more successful in the future when he built the neighbor’s home? With such lax standards and inspections, are TVA and Huntsville Utilities more concerned with signing homes up as “Energy Star Rated” or are they really serious about building homes that require less energy to operate, and that are more comfortable, durable, and healthy?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administers the Energy Star program and they admit the current standards are too weak and need updating to address these issues. As a matter of fact, the new Version 3 of the Energy Star program was just released. It requires pressure balancing, ventilation, and humidity control. It requires 3rd party verification for thermal and HVAC systems. It requires bringing the entire HVAC system into the conditioned space and air balancing the HVAC system. It requires complete documentation for the Manual J and Manual D calculations. The EPA’s head of the Energy Star program stated that the new Version 3 guidelines will make existing homes obsolete. It is my interpretation that this means that homes built to the existing Energy Star Version 2 standards fall into the obsolete category. Many of the builders that advertise the advantages of the Energy Star designation are already complaining and demanding postponement of the new guidelines. It will be interesting to see how quickly TVA and Huntsville Utilities adopt the new guidelines. It will also be interesting to see which of the builders that are currently building under the Energy Star label remain in the program and conform to Version 3 guidelines.

• Home energy audits start at $.15/sf. If you have an Energy Star Rated Home, we offer a discount of $100 off of the total cost of the audit.
• We recommend that you demand documentation of your home’s Manual J Calculation and Manual D design.
• Call your local building department and ask them why the International Residential Code requirements for Manual J and Manual D are not being enforced.
• Call TVA and Huntsville Utilities and ask why there is no verification program for Manual J and Manual D documentation in the Energy Star Program.
• We recommend you demand fresh air ventilation and returns/jumper ducts in every bedroom.
• We recommend you demand a static pressure test, interior pressure test, and air balancing.
• Call us to inspect that your attic insulation is the proper depth and density, that you have attic rulers installed throughout your attic, that you received an attic card that states the square footage of your attic space, the number of bags installed, the date of installation, the R-value of the insulation, the company’s name, and the installer’s name. See more info at FTC Rule 460. Remember, each individual violation can carry a penalty for the insulation contractor of $11,000 for each violation.

If you are interested in learning more about the Seven Steps of Building a Synergy Home please checkout our website at www.wetestothersguess.com or call us at (256) 686-0168.


23.
Dec 13, 2010 4:37 PM ET

Code compliance is not a measure of quality
by Milton Gregory Grew, AIA

No one who is truly conversant in the building design and construction misunderstands the role of codes and that they are not a measure of quality but merely the minimum requirements and no one would want a house that just barely met all the building code requirements. I wrote about this in my blog at :
http://grewsviews.blogspot.com/2010/07/passing-inspection-does-not-mean-...

Thanks,
Greg
Milton Gregory Grew, AIA
Architect / building official / builder
Woodbury, CT
www.grewdesign.com


24.
Dec 13, 2010 7:14 PM ET

America's WalMart mentality: "Always Low Prices"
by Brent Lerwill, Brentwood Building & Home Inspections

I believe many Americans think that the best deal on every product and service is always the cheapest. Usually the best deal is the best VALUE, which isn't necessarily the cheapest. If I can get a good VALUE at a cheaper price I will always do that. If the product or service is valuable and the consequence of it's use and performance is an important consideration, I will alway insist on spending more for the desired result. If the consequence is of little importance, I may choose the cheaper product or service. Obviously, if it can be determined that the products are exactly the same and one is lower cost, I will probably buy the cheaper one, assuming service and other considerations are equal. For example, I will not buy a $29 cordless drill. I will probably buy the one for $129, or $229 because I understand the difference in VALUE, performance and service. Intangible services are more difficult to quantify. It is often difficult, or impossible to read specs or a review on a service or service provider. This applies to builders to some degree, but people can usually get some idea of knowledge and experience by investigating references and asking pertinent questions of the builder. Problems sometimes occur when people assume that all contractors or service people are the same and equally qualified. It is often assumed by much of the public that if they are legally licensed, they are acceptable and will do a good job. In my state, like many, there is no requirement to know Anything about building to be a general, or specialty contractor. All you need to have is the money for the license, bond and insurance and almost anybody can be a contractor. Of course, for electricians and plumbers, there are knowledge and training requirements.
I started my professional building career in 1966 and have been a licensed general contractor in Oregon for the past 18 years and a State Certified Home Inspector (not code) for the past 7 years. Although, Oregon does have some of the most stringent home inspection law and standards in the country, there are still differences between individual legally licensed and state certified home inspectors. In Oregon, unlike many states, you do have to take a comprehensive test and prove a minimum level of knowledge and competence and are required to get continuing education. That gives the public some degree of assurance, but many people, including real estate agent (who should know better), still don't ask questions and make the faulty assumption that all inspectors are the same, or will give equal service and protection for their investment and for their families .
This all comes down to educating the public of what the facts are, as stated in your article on codes and building practices.
As far as home inspection standards go, we don't inspect based on "code", but rather on accepted, good building practices and safety. Much, or most of that is also based on code, but in many cased exceeds code. I inspect a 100 year old building the same way as a brand new home. I don't care what "code", if any, it was built to.
Again; public education is lacking in these areas.


25.
Dec 13, 2010 11:29 PM ET

Good Workmanship
by Anonymous

Look, it is pretty simple. In days of old, those who worked on houses did their own "guarantee" of workmanship. The homebuilders were personally known to the homeowner.and when you had someone build a house, they backed up their work (they didn't get any work if they were no good). Now days there is a disconnect between builder and homeowner. The homeowner just gets a final product, and "looking under the hood" isn't done. Building codes are an attempt to have "good workmanship" inspected into the product (the home) by those who should know better. For some things, it does work, but for others, minimums are terrible.

Codes HAVE evolved over the years. How would a home built to 1900 electrical codes fare in today's environment. Well things have changed over the years, and we have much more electronics (what I do) than 100 years ago, so there are different requirements. That's how it goes.

The unfortunate thing is that the consumers (homeowners, bankers, appraisers) are not very educated in what is called "total cost of ownership". The initial cost of being "minimum code" combined with glitz features (granite countertops) is more highly valued that insulation which can easily pay for itself in a very short time. Only when this mindset is changed will things improve.


26.
Dec 13, 2010 11:50 PM ET

Comment about codes, etc.
by Walter Anderson

I understand the above comment about not buying the $29 cordless drill, but instead buying the $129 or $229 version. I can't afford them, they get lost, stolen, mistreated regularly. I do buy $40-$80 cordless drills and Li-Ion batteries ($89 ea) because they last longer and perform better. But I also like the new model that will be out next year with more features and I won't feel so bad when I break the older one or give it away and buy the new one.

Lots of great comments above. I think most construction workers would like to do better, and education is the only way to improve that. Requiring new codes without education at the worker level will not work.

I currently live in a mobile home. Why in the world would anyone ever permit the use of particle board in the subfloor and elsewhere in a home that WILL HAVE moisture problems? From my fixing of my 30-year-old mobile home, I believe that it would be possible to build a really energy efficient unit with just a little bit of change in better materials, more careful construction, etc. I think I could end up with a very efficient single-wide mobile home, but it is going to require a great deal of additional insulation and sealing of leaks. I really hope there will be some real effort at developing more fire and moisture resistant materials appropriate for use in these homes. Built properly, these homes could really be great, comfortable, and energy-efficient.

My old stick-built home was brand new in 2000. I was amazed when I went in the attic at how many of the nails holding the sheathing on the roof had missed their mark. How could one of these homes possibly withstand high winds or mild tornadoes with such poor attention to something as basic as proper nailing of roof sheathing? I could see rows of nails missing their mark. I kept wondering if the builder went back and made the worker do it over or should I expect to see a portion of the roof blow off when we got a little wind.

Great thread, really interesting. Codes, enforcement, education, quality, performance, and all of those other things are so important but are so hard to achieve uniformly and consistently. It really comes down to pride in workmanship from the workers at all levels, including the managers, bankers, inspectors, everyone; but education is the key. If everyone knew how to do it correctly (and could agree), we would have far fewer problems. The comment above from Idaho about a new home with a $40 a month electrical bill. Oh, wouldn't we all prefer that, if we had the choice.

Thanks to all!


27.
Dec 14, 2010 6:34 AM ET

Re Apprenticeship, Charles Shade & a coupla other things...
by Fumbletrumpet

The 8x12 timber tenoned down to 3 x 4 is actually something that was probably intuitively developed after many years of 'tried and tested'. Joist end Xsectional area isn't so critical 'cause the stress is mostly shear and the timber can stand a smaller X section. The mortise may well be into an area of the joist which is mostly under bending stress, in which the timber (by Xsection) is somewhat weaker, so more material needs to remain. Simpson Strong Tie might not have been around in 1850, but this is the kind of thing that builders 'knew', without entirely knowing why. When the proportions were wrong the building fell down and the king of Mesopotamia invoked due compensation.
Codes set a baseline for the way the industry is now. They're not great and sometimes the different sections contain things which contradict each other (in our case in the UK anyway), but they do serve some sort of purpose to perhaps ensure the tenon size above isn't 2x1, perhaps.
Those of us that care about buildings, that take responsibility, will always generally exceed code for the good of the building life or the occupant comfort, but sometimes we do need to challenge the code's 'line in the sand' because it just isn't appropriate for the individual circumstances.
I've always thought a series of performance measures would be better, but then one relies on even more expensive post-build tests to check they've been done. It's a tough one, but thankfully, when one knows a few things, has seen a few things and is keen to keep learning we allow good sense to be our code. I always recommend some 'discussion' with Inspectors when thy're just ticking boxes - if something's not safe, then it's wrong, but otherwise petty bureaucracy shouldn't get in the way of quality building.


28.
Dec 14, 2010 9:18 AM ET

Quality building
by Andy Engel

It is absolutely clear to me that if home buyers and remodeling customers paid as much attention to the quality of the construction in what is the single largest investment they're likely to make as they do to the amount of foam atop their morning latte, building codes would not be necessary.

It's simple. We get what we demand. Lazy consumers get and deserve crap housing.


29.
Dec 14, 2010 9:34 AM ET

Andy, it's not a question of laziness
by Martin Holladay

Andy,
You are certainly riled up this morning. How many morning lattes have you had?

Home buyers are not necessarily lazy consumers who deserve crap. Just because you worked as an editor at FHB, and have a thorough knowledge of residential construction specifications, doesn't mean it is reasonable to expect every home buyer in America to get up to speed on all the technical issues involved in home construction.

The code is there to protect the public. That's a fine goal. Such regulations relieve home buyers of a burden you would put on their shoulders -- an almost impossible burden: that they go to school and study building science before they purchase a house.


30.
Dec 14, 2010 1:33 PM ET

On "Minimum-Code" Building
by Scott Yahnke

I posted a lengthy comment on Fine Homebuilding about this at: http://www.finehomebuilding.com/item/14429/do-building-codes-really-do-u...

From what I've read herein, I think "Barbara" would be interested in comparing what she's experienced in her neck of the woods to what I've been seeing in Omaha.


31.
Dec 14, 2010 2:08 PM ET

Building Codes
by Scott Yahnke, Omaha Realtor

Posting a follow-up to my last one on building codes & home-building quality or lack of it. I'm the poster going by "go greenER." I find Barbara's comments about how things roll in Idaho very intriguing. Guess "government in Idaho" is, indeed, being held to very limited scope. It may be interesting for Barbara or anyone else who reads this to note that when I was getting some building materials at a Lowe's awhile back, one of the workers there was telling me about some problems people were having building on acreages in Iowa. Specifically, he told me about one guy who found out that the roofers were using one nail per shingle on his brand-new build, among other things. Having to withstand winds of often over 40mph around my home, I can only imagine the debris flying off that house in a storm. Best wishes for working toward your goal, Barbara, of consumer-driven build quality in a state where those who try to instill a modicum of common sense oversight & protection in the building process get "run out of town"!


32.
Dec 15, 2010 12:22 AM ET

Edited Dec 15, 2010 10:55 AM ET.

Andy~ There is hugh deception involved
by ROY HARMON

When I submitted the original question that prompted this discussion, I was refering to the majority of the new homes that have been built over the last 20 years. The communities and developments that popped up by the hundreds of thousands almost overnight in many area's. Suburbia if you will.

Most folks that have hung around sites like GBA , or, that have immersed themselves in quality publications such as the Taunton's, would not be a part of the "plastic shack" type of environment that I refer to. The absolute majority of new homes built were not examples of "Fine Homebuilding" practices that are more often used by the trained craftspeople in the custom home building arena.

Building codes, regardless of how or why they are created are implemented into process by government at many levels. These codes become the backbone of justification for the very existance of hundreds of Government building departments. With these depts. come Plans Review, Zoning, Health and of course Permits and Inspection (code inforcement). This hiarchey, along with associated fees and expences is, by design, supposed to protect human beings from harm, or to keep them safe from scientifically proven, dangerous building practices and or materials. Rules ,regulation, certification, licensing requirement, bonding and insurance requirements all work toward the common goal of "protecting and keeping safe" those that are not capable of doing so for themselves~ you really don't have a choice~ it's the law. Laws and ordinances are made as tools of inforcement to punish violators while keeping others in step. We should all be grateful for such a complex system of care and concern for the health and well being of human beings . After all, the majority of the human population is not capable of caring for or protecting itself from harm.

People depend, even rely (for some reason) on this percieved service of care that is provided (at great cost) by the power of government. Apathy is nurtured as confidence as Oz grows. The people trust that they are being protected, but don't realize that this protection is based on the minimum requirement at every level.
Large, "greed driven" mass housing developers, bankers, lawyers, realtors,building material manufacturers /suppliers and of course, the associated politicians recognized the obvious huge money opportunity that was tied directly to the " minimum code requirement" arrangement, and
naturally joined forces in producing the minimum standard in housing that was (and still is)allowable by laws, and selling, financing, insuring and appraising to the maximum based on geographic location.

None of the strategicly marketed "model homes",so cute and pretty, had signs in them telling potential buyers that the homes were built to minimum code requirements. Rather, many focused on the cheaper versions of early Energy Star rated appliances as a marketing strategy. These homes were, and still are in many area's built as cheaply as possible, and marketed by deception, to the dumbed down by design but very trusting human being public.
This is a problem in the housing industry that can not be solved or explained away by todays homebuilding scholars. It is a problem that is causing familys to suffer with hardship in many obvious ways. These people trusted the system of safety provided by government thru code.While
their" lifes largest investment" the home, may not be structurally collapsing in on them, most are falling apart around them and losing even the minimum efficiencies that came with the "Plastic Shack" package. I guess that in the grand scheme this could be viewed as safe suffering to some.


33.
Dec 15, 2010 1:15 AM ET

Thanks Michael and Scott
by Barbara in Idaho

A little validation go a long way. I just read about the Federal Reserve's interim rule on appraisals and hope that will help. Time will tell.

Michael, loved your class about Homeowners Manuals at the conference. Hope to take another class from you in SLC.

Scott, completely agree with you!

Last month one of our city council members introduced an initiative to encourage infill development, greater densities and hopefully affordable housing. One of his initiatives would have rewarded certified "green" homes with reduced City fees (currently $15K for a home with a $200K sales price). The council member most vocal against the incentive is a local builder. The greater density aspects of the initiative passed, the green building incentive did not.


34.
Dec 15, 2010 11:46 AM ET

Edited Dec 15, 2010 11:50 AM ET.

Great posts Barbara and Scott~ Thank You!
by ROY HARMON

It's great to see people that are committed to making a real differance.
Barbara, have you looked into the less expensive natural home building techniques?
Perhaps an opportunity to offer more in a home for less cost to the purchaser would be a little easier to market in this economy.
I have designed a home that far exceeds Maryland minimum code requirements and can easily be built at a 30% cost savings. Conventional thinking, like the" vocal local" you refer to, would have a tough time explaining the differance in cost and quality in a side by side comparison. The current conventional green building market does in fact cost more to acheive when using scientifically designed building materials and techniques, people are leary of something new that cost a little more because of what they don't know. Painted green or not. This is the fuel that the "vocal local" uses to stiffle great intentions. Whle I am not in opposition to the new, efficient green building techniques and materials that are offered and used today, as you have clearly demonstrated with your post~ they can be a hard sell.
I believe that we need to create simple, easy to accept green techniques that have already proven the test of time as a base. The structural cost savings will then allow the opportunity to compliment the structure with a few of the newer green techniques, to offer much better homes for people at the same cost of building conventionally.
This can be done today!


35.
Dec 18, 2010 7:27 AM ET

Building Codes Buffonnery
by Don Schanzenbach

I am old enough to remember when craftsmen used to sit on their lunch buckets and discuss how to build better houses. They were not so much worried about codes but about the quality of work being done. The responsibility to buid well was theirs. The codes have only removed responsibility from the craftsmen and left them with nothing but a profit motive. What else is there? The government has determined everything and the guy who builds is just the person who assembles the government approved house.
Meanwhile, the massive amount of law enforced has not guaranteed anywhere near ideal results. The abundance of codes really just locks in by-gone technologies. The vapor barrier requirements are a perfect example of government laws screwing up the housing industry. With millions of houses too tight we have been seeing massive re-fits to remediate mold and various rot problems connected with the over-zealous air infiltration standards made into not choice but into law. We all had to act like idioits because the government said so.
We are not lacking laws. Weare lacking proper morality to do the best workmanship God will inspire us to do. Moral people will produce better buildings because they want to. Heavily regulated, immoral men will produce sub-standard products as a reflection of who they are. I say lose the stupid codes and reinvigorate the business by giving the trade back to the craftsmen. We need to think about producing people with a stronger sense of good morals as relates to this trade, not producing an ever expanding code. Laws will not help us. Better men in the trade will. WE need to be changed into better men not just better followers of government codes.
This is partly why I work to promote the rebuilding of Christian culture.
Don Schanzenbach
MissionToRestoreAmerica.com/blog/


36.
Dec 18, 2010 6:26 PM ET

Great post Don!
by ROY HARMON

Great Post ~ better mission


37.
Dec 10, 2011 12:35 PM ET

Building Codes - Yes
by bill thomas

There are places in this country where there are no codes, or at least no local codes or inspections. My brother-in-law's for example. His house is scary in every way, bad electrical, a fire trap, and everything is out of square. The whole town is like that...and he doesn't see any need for codes either. What do the insurance companies say about these places.


38.
Jan 16, 2012 5:44 PM ET

Building and Green Codes
by John Cleveland

Americans are idiots. Is safe food communism? Is safe airline travel "socialism"? Wake up America.
I am an American so I know.
Codes are no better or worse than any other law. Americans break laws continually. Problem is that in this country profit and power are the only considerations; everyone tries to get away with anything and everything. Business is unethical and immoral: Screw the customer; just get your money and run. if people did the right thing, we would not need laws or courts. if builders were moral, we would not need Codes. But Codes don't stop them from hurting people in pursuit of the almighty buck.
Most builders are worthless because they learn to do something by rote then never change. They are only concerned with profits, and most became builders because they weren't smart enough to do anything else.
Building inspectors are worthless because they, as a rule, do not stay current, and they allow their buddies in the industry to get away with Code violations. Kick-backs are another motivator.
Home inspectors are worthless: they take a correspondence course and hang out a shingle. Their motivation is to sell homes for the relator they are in bed with. They lack accountability and can operate unfettered and without fear of reprisal.
Home improvement contractors are worthless: Here in Brown County, Indiana, $15 buys you a license--no experience required. Same price licenses you to build houses. In Maryland, you must pass a test designed to verify your knowledge of tax, labour, and motor vehicle laws. Not one single question that tests your ability as a contractor.
Most electricians and plumbers are worthless as well: No consideration for anything but get my job done and get mine. Screw everybody else. Joists in the way? Cut them out. Who put those damn things in my, anyway?
I have seen the trades in action for 40 years, and they have nothing to be proud of. For every 100 there is one good one, and I am hoping they are the ones on GBA and Fine Homebuilding. Most of the contractors I talk to have never heard of GBA or FHB or Mike Holmes. They learned how to build from their grand-daddy and haven't changed a thing since.
I am not negative; I am a realist. The trades need to change.
To change there must be self-policing or government intervention. If you find a contractor who has violated Code, turn him in to the appropriate agency (which we need to establish) then he loses his license to work in the trade. That is the only way we are going to clean up this god-forsaken mess we created.
PADI, the Professional Association of Dive Instructors, of which I am a member, has a system in place to weed out bad instructors. Would you trust your life to a incompetent SCUBA instructor? Of course not, then why do we trust our lives, the lives of our loved ones, and all of our worldly goods to contractors and builders who are incompetent?


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