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Building Matters

Can We Make Green DIY Easier?

Standard details would help owner/builders, as well as more than a few pros

A new DIY magazine hits the newsstand. Quickly adopted by professional builders as a go-to source of information, FHB was largely written by and for owner/builders in the early years. Do owner/green builders need their own resource? The author ponders what that might look like...

I don’t feel old. Well, not mentally at least. But it recently hit me that I read the first issue of Fine Homebuilding, whose legacy GBA belongs to, in 1981. On the cover (shown above) was a gritty photo of a guy tearing plaster from a wall. You knew it was cold because he was wearing a down vest and the photo fades off toward a winter-darkness. He’s wearing no PPE. There’s something about his boots and the flare of his pants that suggests he inhaled a pack of Winstons daily and drove a Chevy van with a Waylon Jennings tape queued up in the 8-track.

No art director would consider running that photo today, even buried deep inside the magazine. That makes me a little sad. The photo told a story that was bigger than fixing up an old house—It reflected the zeitgeist that Fine Homebuilding was born into. Nothing about that photo immediately suggested “fine.” No one involved in choosing it for the cover had yet used the word “aspirational.” It showed a regular guy doing unpleasant work in ugly conditions. It promised a magazine that would make the real world of construction accessible.

That was perfect for the time. People with no particular training were figuring out how to build houses. It could have been because the population of Boomers had reached home-acquisition age, but building your house seemed to be almost a rite of passage. And I’m not talking about people saying they built their own house when what they really mean is that they wrote the checks. I’m talking about people, like Brian Berkey who wrote in Fine Homebuilding issue #14 that he had “…too much frozen snot in my beard and too little experience under my belt.” Many of the articles…

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  1. Expert Member
    Kohta Ueno | | #1

    Even the federal government gets it right a lot of the time.

    For what it's worth, if I were pointing folks at government resources, rather than the top-level EERE page, I'd send them to the Building America Solution Center. It's intended as a searchable guide for residential construction, with illustrated details (right/wrong) to follow. For instance, here's the attic kneewall page:

    1. GBA Editor
      Rob Wotzak | | #3

      Kohta, you and your colleagues probably have more familiarity than most people of what's available and where to find it. Is there any one landing page or list of the Building America/DOE resources that the average builder or informed homeowner might find especially useful? This is the best one that I was able to dig up in a quick search:

  2. Stephen Sheehy | | #2

    Well, doesn't this bring back memories. The first thing I ever built in my life was a house. In 1973, my wife, three year old daughter and I were year round residents of Martha's Vineyard. This was well before it became the playground for the rich and famous.
    Several of my friends were carpenters and building their own houses. I figured, how hard could it be? Do we borrowed most of what we needed to buy a half acre lot for $7,000. We scraped together a few (very few) bucks and I staked out a simple foundation. Hand dug the footings, called the concrete plant and placed the footings, then a slab. It was my first opportunity to finish concrete.

    Next step was getting a load of concrete blocks (called CMUs nowadays). I build a block wall about three feet high, with my little daughter learning to strike the joints.

    By now It was June and in MV, when June comes, you move out of the place you're renting, so summer folks can come. We erected a tent on our new land, put our king sized water bed in it, placed a portable toilet down wind and, over a weekend, with lots of help, some more or less expert, started framing our 20'x20' multi level dream house.
    We got a lot a single weekend. The framing party included friends, acquaintances and an assortment of people we had never seen before. Free beer and burgers helped. Unfortunately, we had an early summer thunderstorm which blew the tent into the woods. So we moved into our new house. Except for no water, no stairs, no windows or doors, and just plywood on the roof, it was ready for occupancy. Shingling the roof was a priority. The long saltbox roof came down to within a few feet of the ground, so my three year old and Goofy, the cat, could sit on the staging planks and chat while I shingled. Today, I'd be arrested for endangering my child.
    Over the next few years, I built windows and doors, cabinets, installed wiring and cheap electric heat, built a chimney for the wood stove, etc. I did hire a plumber.
    It turns out that building a cess pool is pretty simple, so I did that.
    Eventually, the house got done. We moved off the island the late 70s. We sold it in 1995.

    I was on the island a few years ago and to my delight (and maybe surprise) it's still standing.

    It was among the most satisfying and terrifying experiences of my life. I highly recommend it.

  3. Expert Member
    Michael Maines | | #4

    Last night my wife was searching for a recipe for dinner. (We have hundreds of cookbooks and can both cook without recipes, but she often looks for inspiration online.) She scrolled through the ubiquitous preamble saying, "I just want the recipe." Made me think about how DIYs and other interested homeowners must feel--they just want the recipe, but we insist on preamble, references, alternatives, concerns, etc.. We're Cooks Illustrated, but people want a recipe.

    Part of our goal as we slowly develop the Pretty Good House concept is to make it easy for newbies to follow a recipe, while also providing links to all of the solid content out there for those who want to understand the Why behind the How.

  4. Expert Member
    Armando Cobo | | #5

    Exactly my point on another Q&A... Many people have spent decades researching, learning and building with building science in mind, but nowadays, everyone wants a recipe, preferably in a 140 character text or tweet, or a 15 second tik-tok video. Lets not mind understanding the concepts for why or why not, or climate specific solutions, or codes.

  5. Vlad Shpurik | | #6

    Armando, I feel what you are saying about 140 character recipe and lack of understanding basics, but there is a good balance point somewhere in between. Recipes exist to increase productivity. Understanding all the science behind the recipes is not always necessary and a lot of times counter productive.

  6. Expert Member
    Armando Cobo | | #7

    I'll say it in a different way... Instead of looking for recipes, the industry and Builders should get EDUCATED in Building Science and Codes, and that doesn't happen in a text, tweet, tik-tok or even a day. A huge portion of the industry do not have a clue on either of them, and most depend on subs to know methods and codes. I see it every day on the field, its a reality of our industry.
    For many years I have been teaching or receiving teachings thru NAHB, LEED, conventions, symposiums, etc., and you always see the same folks. The majority of these "professional builders" do not participate... go figure why.

  7. KurtGranroth | | #8

    As a very-much-DIY home builder, I found the "Building America Best Practices Series" pdfs to be extremely helpful, if only because the host-dry one actually talks about Phoenix and so very few green building guides do so. The one downside (from a DIY perspective) is that maybe 3/4 of the book is specific to large scale builders. That and it's notably hard to find them if you don't already know what you are looking for.

    Here's the page that has all of them, although still pretty terribly listed:

  8. Robert Swinburne | | #9

    There are some good resources for us to check out for inclusion in the Pretty Good House website's recourse list. Thanks. We are hoping for Pretty Good House to be a "gateway drug" and provide an entry level portal for builders, architects, designers, homeowners, students, etc. Possibly, we can address the "Someone ought to do something" paragraph.

  9. Expert Member
    1. Expert Member
      Armando Cobo | | #11

      Thanks Malcolm, I re-posted this information on FREE EDUCATION Q&A.

      1. Expert Member
        Malcolm Taylor | | #13

        I had forgotten the Hammer and Hand Best Practices Manual. Great to see a firm create something like that, and make it publicly available.

  10. Tyler Keniston | | #12

    >"they just want the recipe"

    Yup, and cooking by a recipe also doesn't guarantee that the meal is 'environmentally sound,' or even taste good for that matter. Substitutions will inevitably be made ('this cut of meat is essentially the same as called for, right?) and the fundamentals of materials and how they go together may be missed, yielding a vastly different result.

    Simplistically, the two paths appear to be: provide really detailed recipes that allow some margin of error* (and hope they're followed closely enough to remain within those margins), or attempt to convey a certain level of fundamental knowledge adequate to allow autonomous decision making.

    Professionals should pretty clearly strive for the latter (I think). DIY is trickier.

    I agree with others that organizational structure is key for both parties (Pro's and DIY). Perhaps it's less about choosing a 'recipe' approach vs a 'fundamentals' approach, and more about providing an organizational structure that allows users to engage at the appropriate level, with sign-posts that clearly indicate when one is swimming too deep, or when they need to engage at another level.

    Environmental issues are, by definition, really complex. Before we even get to 'envelope design' we arguably need to zoom out much farther. I think we should all be searching to understand environmental dynamics. It will inevitably end up redirecting even our best current intentions.

    This suggests the 'organizational structure' necessarily begins with broad philosophical and environmental issues at the top. Somewhere in the hierarchical structure would be the tier of 'how to build robust and environmentally benign structures.'

    Within this tier (the realm of GBA) the even more specific tier of 'envelop design' would fall. The question is, if someone enters this organizational structure at some random point (such as 'how to build a wall!), will it make sense in isolation? Or is it predicated on understanding higher and lower tiers? Probably depends...

    *Perhaps a key here is to strive for allowance of higher margins of error. Robust, resilient, and forgiving. Is the 'forgiving' lane narrowing; are fundamentals becoming increasingly important for navigation?

    The other issue here is that none of this will ever be 'in one place.' While there have been 'bibles,' both literally and proverbially, there really will never be one resource that claims ultimate authority and that is wholly distributed and followed by the masses. We have— perhaps increasingly in this age—a collection of thoughts, ideas, etc. flowing through a distributed network. People get what they get depending on which nodes in the network they engage with.

  11. Peter Chapman | | #14

    Great piece, Andy, but one correction: Rob Thallon's Graphic Guide to Frame Construction is still in print...and now in it's 4th edition:

    And if you're looking for a book on standard practices for green building, this isn't a bad place to start:
    The Visual Handbook of Energy Conservation: A Comprehensive Guide to Reducing Energy Use at Home by Charlie Wing:

    1. Andy Engel | | #15

      Thanks, Peter!

  12. GBA Editor
    Patrick McCombe | | #16

    Hey Andy, I think that's Andy Wormer on the cover. I'll ask him.

    1. Andy Engel | | #17

      Wow! That would be funny. Never pegged him as a Winston smoker...

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