GBA readers get a steady diet of advice on how to improve the energy efficiency and comfort of old houses. The list almost always includes basics like air sealing and adding insulation, and may extend to upgraded mechanical systems and windows.
BlueSolar isn’t so sure that makes sense.
Writing in a recent Q&A post, BlueSolar says he’s not finding good building lots in convenient neighborhoods in the two areas he’s considering, Tucson and Las Vegas. So he’s thinking about buying a cheaper house, tearing it down, and building a new one.
BlueSolar can see pros and cons. On the plus side, he’ll get energy efficiency, comfort, roominess, and all the building details he wants. On the downside, this will probably cost more and take longer.
“I don’t like old houses in general,” BlueSolar says. “They tend to be ridiculously inefficient, uncomfortable, and low tech. I think landfills are fabulous, so I have no problem with sending a bunch of debris to one. I actually think a lot of houses should be torn down and replaced with much improved ones, just like that federal program that encouraged people to junk their old, high-polluting cars.”
So what’s the best route: raze and replace, or fix what you’ve got? That’s the topic for this Q&A Spotlight.
There’s no single answer to that question
That all depends on what you’re starting with, Akos replies. If an existing foundation can be reused it could save a lot of money. If the house is balloon-framed with clapboard siding, demolishing it and rebuilding would be cheaper than trying to make it energy efficient.
“All brick is a bit different,” Akos adds. “Tearing down and rebuilding brick is not cheap. Generally you want to re-use as much of that and only demo the rear wall to extend.
“Around me there are a lot of mid century cinder-block+double brick mini bungalows,” he adds. “Those are built like a tank and can easily take 3 stories. With those it is cheaper to build on top.”
In Tucson, BlueSolar says, construction tends to be wood frame with stucco, brick, or a material he calls “slump block” (large brick-like components). In Las Vegas, houses are mostly wood frame plus stucco or siding.
“We’d be true to the community and context as far as style of home, though I think we could do virtually anything for the underlying structure,” BlueSolar says. “Though I wouldn’t feel bound to use the same structure or veneer as the old home. It would depend somewhat on the community and context, history, etc.”
Lack of wall insulation not a big deal
In a warm climate, says Akos, lack of insulation in the wall is “not as big of an issue.” Even an R-5 wall “gets you most of your energy savings,” and block walls are easy to air seal and insulate.
Cooling loads will come mostly from the roof and windows, he says, with the R-value of the walls having very little impact. Akos cites as an example a single-story house of about 2,000 square feet, its 9-foot-tall walls adding up to about 1,700 square feet.
Suppose the temperature is 70°F inside and 95°F outside.
“With an R-5 wall you loose 8.5k Btu,”Akos says. “If you go up to R-11 (2×4 with batts) that drops down to 4.3k Btu, about 1/2 ton, not that much difference. Instead of insulating the walls, you can probably get more energy savings from better window coatings/shading or a cool roof.”
In order to get lower air conditioning bills, Akos adds, insulate the roof, get a correctly sized and efficient air conditioner and keep the ducting inside the house. Make sure to air seal properly.
“Southern construction seems to be notorious for not having any of the above,” he adds. “Wall insulation is a good thing but would be very low on my priority list.”
Are landfills really fabulous?
Zephyr7 suggests that BlueSolar consider an estate sale before demolition. Selling bits and pieces of the house—old circuit breakers, switch plates, fixtures, and the like—could help offset the costs of new construction.
But it is BlueSolar’s assertion that landfills are “fabulous” that really catches his attention. He predicts the comment will draw some surprised reactions from other GBA readers.
“About the only good thing about them is that they’re using the methane for electrical generation on many of them now instead of just flaring it off,” Zephyr7 says. “I’ve always hated seeing anything get flared off, except in emergencies. At least do something useful with the stuff you’re burning!”
Indeed, BlueSolar replies, landfills really are great.
“Yeah, I figured my views on landfills (good) and recycling (irrational) would be idiosyncratic here,” he writes. “I’m a social psychologist, and I’ll be researching the psychology of environmentalism over the next few years. I think landfills in modern countries are great engineering achievements (and they’ll be thoroughly mined—by robots—within the next 50 or 100 years), and I haven’t yet encountered any compelling reasons to not fill them.”
The urge to recycle, he adds, “taps into a powerful moral intuition against perceived waste.”
The real benefit of recycling, adds Brendan Albano, is not so much about diverting materials from a landfill but about reducing the amount of new material that must be produced. Even better than recycling is reusing.
“Perhaps you’re just overstating your love of landfills to have some fun and ruffle some feathers,” he adds, “but landfilling an entire house when there are plenty of parts in it that can be productively reused or recycled seems pretty silly.”
Recycling is a ‘strange ritual’
Landfills are not only well engineered but also take up a trivial amount of land area, BlueSolar says. Recycling, on the other hand, has some serious drawbacks.
“Recycling looks ridiculous when I see these enormous trucks guzzling diesel and polluting the air, crawling incredibly loudly though neighborhoods, **stopping at every house**, picking up morsels of detritus, a few cans here, some newspapers there, etc.” BlueSolar writes. “Then they truck it to recycling centers where people sift through all the detritus, throwing a lot of it into the trash because it’s not recyclable, and then truck it to more specialized processing facilities where all kinds of energy-intensive, elaborate processes are used to break stuff down and make it into something useful. It’s a strange ritual from an anthropological perspective.”
That said, BlueSolar is himself a recycler even though it pays him nothing. “It strangely feels good,” he says, even though he’s always on the verge of giving it up.
Sometimes demolition makes sense
DCContrarian is in the process of deconstructing a 100-year-old house built and enlarged by amateurs, with the hope of keeping the original foundation for a new house.
With the help of his sons, DCContrarian has been stripping the house and donating as much as possible to a local non-profit. “It is dismaying how little in a house is reusable,” he says.
So far, he’s donated two truckloads of materials and put 12 tons of material into Dumpsters.
“As I deconstruct the house I just keep uncovering more an more concealed problems, with the mechanical systems but also the building envelope,” he says. “The insulation is uniformly atrocious. The roof leaks, the siding leaks, the basement leaks. There are big gaps in the building envelope. I don’t feel bad about tearing the house down and building a better one.”
If you buy in the right neighborhood, says Walter Ahlgrim, a tear-down and rebuild can make financial sense. Developers may look for a small house on a big lot, meaning they can build two big houses.
“Would I call it green to tear down a old house to build a new one?” Ahlgrim asks. “No but that is me. Most of the houses that were torn down were run down, small and unremarkable building[s]. A few were nice houses but on very big lots or had commercial zoning.”
There’s also a good case to be made for modernizing an existing structure, says Doug McEvers. He’s done that in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area to a number of existing homes. The advantages include being in an established neighborhood, close to schools, with infrastructure in place.
“I would look for a solidly built existing home that can be brought up to modern standards with possibly just some TLC or an addition,” McEvers says. “A lot of floor plans are basically sound but maybe just lack kitchen space or a big of living area.”
Our expert’s opinion
Spruce up or raze? Here’s what GBA Technical Director Peter Yost thinks:
There are quite a few ways of looking at this question. One perspective takes embodied carbon into account. The graphic below is from Bruce King’s book, The New Carbon Architecture (see Martin Holladay’s review of the book here). It illustrates one approach to tear-down-build new versus renovate. The embodied carbon sink in existing buildings strongly favors honoring that investment by renovating rather than tearing down and building new.
I also have my own experience to draw on. When we moved to Brattleboro, Vermont, nearly 20 years ago we knew we could not afford to buy anything but a fixer-upper (and we knew who that fixer-upper would be….me). We found an existing home (see this GBA case study). The house had some positive features: it was in a great neighborhood; it was within walking distance to work, the grocery store, and both a doctor and dentist; it had good bones with a solid foundation and on a well-drained lot; and it had a decent layout inside (except for the kitchen…see this case study for more on that).
But my brother took one look at it and pointed out that the knob-and-tube wiring had just three circuits and a 60-amp service; the house needed 1,500 gallons of fuel oil a year to stay warm; it had a butt-ugly split-faced architectural block exterior and a damp basement; and it had dark, walnut sheet paneling throughout over failing plaster.
“Tear it down and build new,” my brother advised.
The moral: if you find an existing home you like, it’s probably worth fixing up.
Here’s another perspective, this one from a recent client of mine. Their recently purchased home had these characteristics:
- Really lousy layout, including two huge storefront windows facing the street in a downstairs bathroom
- Vermiculite insulation in attic
- A water table within inches of the dirt floor in the basement
- An unvented, uninsulated, crawlspace underneath the kitchen addition
- Frozen pipes running up a leaky chase to the second floor
- Intense efflorescence on rubble foundation with at least one rot-compromised sill
The moral: if you hate the building, it’s not worth fixing up.
A ton of research has been done on this issue, including work that I did for the EPA while at the then NAHB Research Center. Also have a look at this from the Building Materials Reuse Association. The economics of deconstruction versus demolition can be complex and daunting. It’s very dependent on labor rates, local demolition tipping fees, markets for finished versus structural components, hazardous material content, re-grading issues for used structural components, and for-profit vs. non-profit deconstruction companies (the latter involving tax deduction value of donated materials).
About the landfill perspective: If you think the economics of commingled recycling are questionable, they are dwarfed by how hard it will be to mine landfills for “valuable” materials. Separating out plastics, glass, and newsprint—already made challenging by relatively low landfill tipping fees and highly volatile markets—is child’s play compared to mining landfills. We have likely topped out the highest and best use of our landfills with methane recovery and superior PV array locations.
I agree that R-values won’t drive performance in mild, sunny climates. When evaluating the energy retrofit priorities for these climates, it’s all about air tightness and the amount/cardinal direction and shading of glazing.
–Scott Gibson is a contributing writer at Green Building Advisor and Fine Homebuilding magazine.