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Green Building Curmudgeon

On Homes and Cars and Jets and Supermarkets

We build and remodel homes like we are shopping for dinner without knowing what we are planning to cook – neither one is a good idea.

Home building has undergone dramatic changes since the early 20th century. Houses used to be assembled from a relatively small number of different components—wood, brick, plaster, tile, pipe—and not too much else. In fact, many homes didn’t have indoor plumbing or wiring through much of the first half of the 20th century. They weren’t very efficient, but they were durable and low maintenance. We went through a major learning curve as insulation and air sealing improved faster than moisture control, trapping moisture within wall cavities, causing mold, rot, and a host of other problems leading to building failures and occupant health issues.

Homes today are so much more complex that we must carefully engineer them and aggressively manage the process to assure that each element is designed and installed properly. Homes also require regular maintenance and repair in order to remain healthy and efficient throughout their lives, not unlike other complex products such as jets, cars, and even appliances.

We build like we shop, but worse

Unfortunately, homes are rarely given the attention they deserve in either the design or construction process. We build and remodel them like we’re shopping for dinner without knowing what we are planning to cook. Walking down the aisles of the supermarket (or, in this case, maybe The Home Depot, Lowe’s, or the local lumberyard), we throw the different things we want in our basket. We pick a style, regardless of whether or not it is appropriate for our climate, then we add in some features like a garden tub or a skylight. Finally, we wrap it up with the finishes—tile, carpet, cabinets, floors, and maybe some fancy hardware.

A defective process

Be they a builder, remodeler, or homeowner, everyone goes through this process in some form or another. The project is designed by a professional, or just someone who likes to draw, or scratched out on a piece of scrap drywall, or by, my favorite, what I like to call “arm wavers.” They walk around the house and wave at this and that, explaining (clearly, they think ) what they want. This particular habit is not limited to homeowners. I have experienced it with the occasional (but rare) design professional who is either lazy or incapable of putting ideas on paper. Once the design is finished, it is handed off to a contractor, who hires subcontractors, who in turn hire employees to do the actual work. Vendors are contacted for advice and pricing on the hundreds of products to go into the house. Many of the links in this long chain of people involved may have little or no training or experience in the work they are assigned to do.

With much of home building and renovation reduced to a commodity sold for the lowest price, there is little incentive or time available for quality control during the process. Careful details that add to the efficiency and durability of the structure, even if they were considered at the design stage, are rarely inspected and, more often than not, are installed incorrectly.

Finished or abandoned, then ignored

Once homes are finished, the regular maintenance that they need and deserve is often neglected. How many homeowners know how to change the HVAC filter, if they even know what it is or where to find it? Jets and cars have maintenance and repair manuals and are serviced on a regular basis by professionals so that they have a long, efficient life. Green building programs either require or offer incentives to contractors for providing homeowner manuals, which, while a good start, are subject to being ignored by the owners, who often avoid regular maintenance and repairs until they become critical problems. We can blame some of this on our “disposable” society. There are few products that we own these days that are worth repairing. It is cheaper to go out and just buy new, even if you can find someone who can repair something for you.

Homes are sophisticated machines

We need to start treating our buildings like the sophisticated machines that they are. Trained, experienced professionals from all disciplines must be involved throughout the process. Assumptions must be questioned and issues resolved through the design phase instead of leaving critical details for the last (and often least-skilled) person to figure out. If we built and maintained our jets, cars, or appliances like we build houses, they would not work efficiently; heck, they probably wouldn’t work at all.


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