Sam Rashkin, until very recently the head of Energy Star for Homes, recently published Retooling The US Housing industry, a book of his opinions on, and suggestions of how to improve, the new home industry. The book is a fairly quick read with a great history of housing, and a good analysis of how the U.S. home building industry evolved to its current state.
The book starts off with a recap of the financial crisis, and the involvement of the home construction industry in that crisis. While this is not new information to most people in the construction industry, a couple of statistics clarify the depth of our problems: In 2006, housing accounting for 6.2% of GDP; in 2010, that figure dropped to 2.4%, and we are not likely to see a full recovery soon, if ever.
One major point with which I agree is that the long-promoted concept that everyone should own a home is no longer valid. Here’s a quote in the book from a 2010 Price Waterhouse study: “Not everybody can afford or should own a home.”
There are two separate history lessons in the book. The first covers the expansion of suburban development following WWII, encouraged by FHA and VA mortgage programs, that “discouraged renovation of existing housing stock, multifamily homes, and mixed use buildings.”
The second is a timeline of developments in construction, starting with the Egyptians, and moving quickly into a brief recap of several key eras described as:
• 1750 – 1850: Birth of a Nation
• 1850 – 1920: The Industrial Revolution
• 1920 – 1950: The Electric Grid Emerges
• 1950 – 1985: Age of Cheap Energy
• 1985 – Present: Building Science Arrives
Each of these sections includes descriptions of typical techniques of the era for Foundations, Framing, Materials, Insulation, Windows, Space Conditioning, Plumbing, and Electricity, providing a nice overview of the development of building technologies.
Lessons not learned
One key theme running through the book is best described by this section subtitle: “Key Lessons From Prominent Failures Have Not Been Learned.” In a parallel structure to the historical review sections, key failures and the lessons that should be learned from them in each building component are addressed.
These include hardboard siding, urea formaldehyde in insulation, missing window flashing, and polybutylene pipe. This is followed by another review of very specific materials and techniques for each building component that, when employed properly, will lead to high-performance homes.
The main takeaway is that builders need to invest in quality design and construction, which will result in high-performance homes. The big question is whether or not home builders will actually be willing to make these investments, or will they simply continue to do the same thing over and over again, make their money, and move on, rarely if ever worrying about how their homes perform over the long term?
How long a warranty?
Probably the most radical thing proposed in this book is the concept of builders providing a 30-year warranty on their homes. This isn’t quite as far-fetched as it might seem, as this extended warranty will require regular maintenance, quite like car warranties, which, if managed properly, can provide a steady income stream for businesses willing to take on this work.
The book wraps up with a section on selling high-performance homes; the section provides a good outline on how to make the case for them to the consumer. I am not, however, hopeful that there will be enough of a market transformation, particularly in our currently troubled economy, to move the home building industry fast enough to make an impact.
I found the book a fast read, with enough interesting information to keep me engaged through most of it.
I am a little disappointed that our existing housing stock was not addressed at all, but that is clearly outside the scope of this book, and would probably fill a much larger volume. We can only hope that enough home builders will read the book and follow its recommendations as the industry begins to recover.
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