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Community and Q&A

What has code enforcement done to the residential building industry?

2tePuaao2B | Posted in Building Code Questions on

I have restored buildings historically for 32 years. Most of the projects have been buildings that have withstood the test of time.(100+years) There were requirements by apprenticeship for carpenters and builders, but no code inforcement when these structures were originally built. For the most part, it seems that these buildings only failed due to lack of maintenance~ neglect. Today in my area, Baltimore County, MD there are no skill or training requirements to become a builder, home improvement contractor or even to call yourself a carpenter. There are however a myriad of building code requirements being enforced. 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”. The untrained, in experienced workers are all that this process seems to have afforded.

The vast majority of the new homes in my reigon were built to minimum code requirements, using inferior profit ,not performance driven materials. These homes are failing as a result of both code enforced construction techniques and building material failure. Thousands of homes are losing their limited efficiencies by design. Whats worse is that the homeowners, with maybe half of their largest life investment paid off, had no idea that they were paying top dollar for a home built to minimum standards.

Could skill or training requirements without code be better than code without skill or training requirement? Are we getting any better at this code stuff or still experimenting with other peoples lives and money? Have LEED standards and materials proven the test of time?

A little confused,
Roy Harmon

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  1. Tony Olaivar | | #1

    All jobs have gone the way of McDonald's. Little or no training is given or required because it's important to be able to fire or let go tradesmen at the drop of a hat. Homes are manufactured, not built. While most of what you're saying is true, codes are not the cause. They are the result. If it weren't for for minimum code standards, shacks would still be common. I'd be willing to suggest that the shacks contemporary to your historic homes did not stand the test of time. To answer your last question: yes we are getting better at this code stuff. 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. If you keep your dedication to your trade, there will always be a place for you.
    Tony Olaivar- HERS Rater, BPI Professional

  2. SLS.Construction | | #2

    As a builder & remodeler I can honestly say it is not the codes

    The issues generally revolve around people trying to save a buck, using the improper product, not understanding how things work, and the biggest one - lack of maintenance

    LEED - has some pros & cons - some people just chase points which has caused some serious issues in those commercial buildings as they did not consider how everything itself works together. Fortunately the housing side is different on how certain aspects are done, but you should choose your builder & verifier carefully

    Sean @ SLS Construction /

  3. Riversong | | #3

    I agree with Tony that building codes are the response to a long-standing problem of inferior materials, workmanship and knowledge of building technology.

    America largely left behind the Old World system of apprenticeship and craft guilds. We quickly became an industrial society with adversarial labor unions to attempt to win a few concessions from the bosses. 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.

    Today, even among the best custom builders and much of the "green" building sector, there is too little understanding of material properties, heat flux and mass (moisture) flow and a strong tendency to use the latest artificial building products in order to speed production or as a quick and easy route to energy efficiency.

    And homeowners are part of the problem, as well. Most Americans are (or were) upwardly and geographically mobile, staying in the a home for an average of 7 years. And houses, which used to be considered multi-generational family homes, have long been thought of as an investment with guaranteed appreciation (at least until the banks out-speculated the housing market). Commercial buildings in the US have an average life of 30 years, not because they fail structurally but because the property gets "re-purposed".

    We've created a throw-away society and a profit-focused economy, at both the corporate and the personal levels. Skilled labor is no longer valued, since workers are just another economic input which can as easily be undercut or outsourced as any resource input. And we've resorted to such finely-divided specialization that the multiple elements of a building project not only require a manager (architect, contractor or boss) but rarely add up to more than the sum of the parts. There is far too little whole-systems thinking and even fewer authentic Master Builders who can see a construction project through from design to detail without an entire hierarchy of roles and responsibilities.

    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. 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.

  4. J99aAMQzYo | | #4

    I'd say LEED is still too new to have proven any "test of time" yet. But to be clear, that is simply a certification pathway and not a code. Yes, some areas, including Baltimore have adopted it into their codes for large commercial structures, but even then they allow for an "or equivalent" pathway.

    As Tony mentioned, all current codes exists because of prior failures and catastrophes (both natural and manmade). 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.

    As a contractor, I belong to the Maryland Building Officials Association as an "Industry Member." I see the conversations the code officials have where they really do care how the structures are built and they are aware of all the same failures and war stories that the rest of us hear about. They aren't any happier than most of us. But they have extremely limited budgets (especially these days) and they aren't miracle workers. Bottom line, I can see that they do care and they are trying (as a general rule anyway).

    So if neither the certification programs or the codes/inspectors are going to “save” us, then we’re back to the training. There are really good groups trying to tackle this monumental task such as 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 contractor these days. 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. I go to lots of NARI or USGBC meetings where people are happy to complain about the “next generation” but when I ask them what they are actively doing to address it, I get lots of blank stares.

    Just as we talk about buildings being systems, the same holds true for the process we use to create them. It’s training our current workers, training future workers, constantly updating codes to get better buildings, and implementing voluntary “better than code” certification pathways which will eventually identify methods to be moved from voluntary and into future codes. We have to do our best to improve all of them at the same time. We’ll never go back to the Master-Apprentice model from prior centuries, but we can certainly do better than we are right now.

  5. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Roy Harmon,
    I'm glad that all the historic homes you have worked on have been solid and well built. Here in Vermont, I've seen many historic homes like the ones you describe.

    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. 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.

  6. Allan Edwards | | #6

    To answer your question “What has code enforcement done to the residential building industry”, there is no doubt it has improved it. 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.

    I am one who believes in almost all aspects houses are better built today than in the past, although we all know of instances where pure junk is built. But I am sure some homes in past decades/centuries were poorly built too.

    The only two areas I can think were better in the “olden days” were the quality of wood and lumber and the all around skills that people building houses had. I think the latter has been dealt with (and improved upon) by the specialization of trades today. Trades people today (at least those building houses) typically do one thing, and one thing only. For example, my framer, born in Mexico (legal citizen) is one of the best framers in the country, one reason being all he does is frame houses. His quality is remarkable, especially given the complexity and size of the homes he frames, routinely approaching 12,000-15,000 sq ft. These homes all have pages and pages of structural plans from engineers, detailing nailing patters, beams, hold downs, steel components, and other structural specs.

  7. RaterPaul | | #7

    the building code has set the minimum standard for building quality ... it provides guidance for building the worst house allowable by law.

  8. J99aAMQzYo | | #8

    " it provides guidance for building the worst house allowable by law."

    Without a doubt ... and yet, we STILL have trouble getting many contractors to meet even these standards. So just imagine what we'd be dealing with if we didn't have any codes???

  9. Steve El | | #9

    Another problem is the appraisal process. Since we're a very mobile society, many families have to make their home buying decisions keeping in mind that they'll be wanting to sell sometime - often in the not too distant future. But selling prices are hemmed in by what lenders will lend (as they should be) and lenders will - or at least are supposed to - only lend based on a home's value. 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. Take two next door houses on identical lots, where the houses have the same basic floorplan. 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.

    I like building codes, and I think expecting builders to have skill and tradecraft is not the right focus. Instead, we should educate buyers to demand value and fix the appraisal process to measure value properly. If we can do that, then builders will follow suit or be out of a job.

  10. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #10

    I'm skeptical of your proposal. Do you really think that appraisers can be trained to do an adequate job evaluating home performance or above-code construction details -- because they will be better at that than builders? Why don't you think that training builders makes more sense than training appraisers?

    At least a builder knows the difference between a rim joist and a header, and probably knows a lot more about flashing than the average appraiser.

  11. 2tePuaao2B | | #11

    I see your point Martin, makes sence. The homes that were built poorly and did not last either fell apart or were not worthy of a restoration project. Probably the difference between the Plastic shacks that I tend to refer to and a well built Custom home built to todays standards. Thank You.

    The problem is , that there are,and have been, many more times the number of "worst allowable by law" homes built than quality custom homes in my reigon today. Many,many times the differance.
    So many times the differance, that the Plastic Shack Syndrome seems to have captured the market.
    Every angle, every loop hole, every profit driven product used seem to have been carefully and scientifically developed to meet the minimum requirements.
    The Custom Home Builders with training, that care, are not the norm. Green Building Advisor has really motavated me to seek some answers and perhaps soulitions to these obvious problems.
    For the most part, based on the numbers~ at least in my area, homes have not, and are not being built better as a whole.
    The cost associated with perhaps too much science seems to be passed on naturally to the consumer, making the best that science has to offer only affordable to Custom Homes.
    Perhaps the Green Building Industry should steer away from high cost processes and focus on building at the lowest possible cost while insisting on the highest standards of efficiency. This would provide for the first time, the best possible dollar value to the masses. In other words~ simplify by design. Science used in excess seems to drive up cost ,when many natural materials have proven the test of time, and are cost effective plus efficient. Code seems to be stuck with science and is not simple.

  12. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #12

    It sounds like Baltimore Country, Maryland is plagued by low building standards. I think there are pockets of the country (like yours) with particularly low quality in new homes -- and other regions of the country where quality is a little higher than you describe.

  13. Steve El | | #13

    And yet another problem is our fatally defective obsession with economic growth, which I wrote about in comments to this blog:

    As Robert said, we're a throw away society.... and as long as our economic system is one (such as that requires economic growth (which capitalism does) then we MUST be a throw away society, for reasons I described in those comments.

  14. Steve El | | #14

    Thanks for your comment Martin (#11). However, I did not actually propose anything other than we take a hard look at the status quo mortgage appraisal and ask if that status quo is:

    (1) making buildings better,

    (2) has zero impact on building quality, or

    (3) is in the way to making buildings better.

    Do you agree with the hypothetical described in comment #10? Specifically, that a status quo mortgage appraisal under today's rules will value the two houses almost the same?

    Steve El

  15. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #15

    I haven't been personally involved with the appraisal issue, so my information is all second-hand.

    If I had to sum up my knowledge in a few sentences, I'd probably say that (a) appraisers don't value green features or high-performance thermal envelopes based on their energy-saving potential or their cost; rather, they value these features based on the extent to which they affect home prices; and that (b) home prices these days don't value these features at their actual cost or savings value. That's not the appraisers fault, though.

  16. 2tePuaao2B | | #16

    I believe that Baltimore and Carroll Counties in MD are plagued by a few very large, greed driven developers that have been taking advantage of the low code standards allowed by law. This has been taking place for over 20 years now. Maybe there should be a law created that would require the developer/builder of sub-divisions, to post a sign in their Model homes stating that they are being built to minimum code requirements if that is the case. Educate and inform.

  17. Steve El | | #17

    PS well ok, I guess I did project my answer and call for some unspecified solution. I'm not smart enough to propose specifics. I apologize for making an ambiguous denial, for clarity it was in regards to specifics.... I didn't propose any specifics and would be happy to brainstorm ideas if others also perceive a problem with the status quo.

  18. 2tePuaao2B | | #18

    Perhaps marketing requirements would give appraisers a new tool in their box?

  19. Steve El | | #19

    Re #16, With apologies to appraisers I am not slamming them, per se. The world of appraising includes several different technical approaches to assigning value. For mortgage appraisal purposes somebody somewhere decided on the formula and methods to be used.

    This is a bit like quantum physics. In a mind blowing concept that I do not pretend to understand the scientist types tell us that just by LOOKING at those super tiny sub atomic particles they change the behavior of the particles. It is false to say that appraisers simply report selling price for the reason that appraisers also EFFECT selling price. If I am willing to pay the mortgage appraisal price for a normal house, but I am also willing to pay something above that because the house is above normal.... the bank will not let me even though the house is higher than normal because the appraiser says the house is not higher than normal. Why????? Because as a matter of social policy we have let somebody somewhere decide the definition of "normal" and as a matter of social policy we have told them (perhaps by silence) to ignore quality and energy efficiency.

    When I say "we" I mean us voting taxpayers.

    The mortgage appraisal is just a product that either buyer, seller, or lender purchase. Whether the product is acceptable for the lender's purpose is largely up to the lender. If the lender is getting government assistance of any kind - and many are - then us taxpayers have a say in what sort of appraisal is appropriate. Therefore, if we allow the status quo to virtually ignore quality and energy efficiency because it would be difficult to invent a different method and formula, we have only ourselves to blame for not trying. Buyer education is a part of this, of course, so some buyers would be willing to pay the premium for the better house of identical floor plan. After all, if a large enough percentage of the market is educated to appreciate value, a large enough percentage will be willing to buy house #2 at a much higher price *if* the appraisal process would allow that same house to be marketed for that same population of buyers next time. Similarly, some of the those buyers would buy House #1 and would be willing to invest the money to make it much better. But they might stop their improvements when they hit the financial ceiling imposed by the status quo mortgage appraisal process (and that's assuming no change in home prices in general).

    I agree none of this is the appraisers fault, but the voting taxpayers fault, for tolerating the status quo method and formula the appraisers use.

  20. Riversong | | #20

    the all around skills that people building houses had. I think...has been dealt with (and improved upon) by the specialization of trades today

    Of course someone who makes his living simply by contracting other people's work would think so. But, as I pointed out earlier in this thread, the specialization of labor is one of the factors that has diminished the integrity of the whole while at the same time driving costs through the roof - in part because it necessitates a GC (or several layers of administration) to orchestrate the disparate "players", none of whom have any idea what the "score" for the other players might be. Hell of a way to create a harmonious symphony.

    Allan Edwards: my one of the best framers in the country...His quality is remarkable, especially given the complexity and size of the homes he frames, routinely approaching 12,000-15,000 sq ft.

    So much in our society rests on a confusion between quantity and quality. There is not a family on earth who needs a home bigger than 2,000-2500 sf, and most families can live quite well in half that size (remember the standard HUD house of the 80's was 1200 SF for a family of five and the larger post-WWII Levittown models were 800 SF).

    In fact, it requires much more design and construction skill to build a quality small home than a McMansion rambler.

    "You know you have reached perfection of design not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away." - Antoine de Saint Exupéry

  21. Riversong | | #21

    Steve El: Another problem is the appraisal process... But in my opinion, the process has nothing to do with value.

    ...if we allow the status quo to virtually ignore quality and energy efficiency because it would be difficult to invent a different method and formula, we have only ourselves to blame

    Real estate appraisal is neither rocket science nor quantum physics. And, yes, we have only ourselves to blame because we ARE the market that determines value.

    We have created or acquiesced to a culture that values nothing that does not have a price. In other words, we value the size of a home and its superficial qualities far more than we value the hidden qualities or the skill and dedication of the builders.

    The appraisal formulas are not broken - they very accurately reflect the market value (not intrinsic value) of property, using "comparables" in the neighborhood.

    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. 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.

  22. Riversong | | #22

    I was restraining myself in responding to Allan Edward's 12,000-15,000 homes - but more needs to be said.

    We are so conditioned from the cradle-to-grave to denigrate the small and simple and natural and coarse while aspiring to the large, complex, fine, expensive and luxurious, that we fail to notice that our culture - and every part of it, including the home building industry - has been corrupted at both ends.

    If the purpose of any industry (as in focused human labor) is to satisfy the needs of a population of people, then we should be as outraged by oversized, wasteful, extravagant and unnecessary mansions as we are by cheap, throw-away ticky-tacky boxes.

    But, because we have created an economy that runs on greed rather than need, our housing stock tends to be either obscenely supersized and outrageously expensive or disgustingly cheap (as in poorly designed, poorly constructed, and with inadequate materials). On either end of the spectrum, unscrupulous developers can make exorbitant profits - either by catering to the filthy rich or by cutting every corner to sell McDonald houses to the masses. Custom builders aren't much better, typically offering Burger King (have it your way) hamburger homes.

    The Golden Mean is what's been lost, along with the Golden Rule. There's no reason we cannot built quality, durable houses at an affordable cost. But that won't happen unless we relinquish the paradigm of greed-based action and return to a paradigm of need-based action. We are each on earth to serve the greater good, and - ironically - by doing so we best serve our own interests.

  23. 5C8rvfuWev | | #23

    The local Sunday paper -- yes, I'm one of the three people on earth who still read a newspaper -- had a celebretory article on a local builder whose homes are selling. He was the head of the local builders' assoc for a number of years and has a current development where he has buyers and, this week, a house open to tour. I went to see it.

    The building was at that wonderful point when the shell is up and intererior studs and rough work are pretty much complete, and drywall is just beginning ... It is fairly high end for this area: 5 bed/3 1/2 bath, >$430k and 3500 sf, samples showing nice cabinets, granite, a mix of exterior brick and thin stone, and so on. I spent some time going through and noting the 2x6, 16" oc, traditional (non-OVE) framing, the numerous unplugged gaps at penetrations, the builder grade vinyl windows, the lack of caulk or sealant or gaskets at plates and sills, a ripped piece of housewrap dangling from under the brick. Rolls of glass batt were in the garage, ready to go.

    While I tsk-tsked my way through, 3 other couples came through and I overheard their comments. They didn't observe the construction but noticed square footage, closet sizes, the granite, where they might put the sofa ... . The builder listened and smiled through it all.

    Once they'd gone, I asked a couple of questions re window choices, insulation, etc. and he nodded and answered politely. I mentioned t this site. "Why not build a smaller house with a more modern approach?" He said I was the first person who had (ever?) inquired, that his buyers weren't interested and that he had to get food on the table. He didn't seem greedy, just like he saw his work as a business and that he wasn't "custom." 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."

    My thought as I read the previous posts here is that the suggestions you've made that are rooted in education make good sense -- this guy wants to sell his houses; can he be taught to build in a way where he can sell in this market? The people coming through have ideas of what they want; can they be taught to buy something that will have, in fact, greater value for their future?

    I doubt that, in this market, appraisals and all of that make much difference at the moment ... shoppers have no idea of what characteristics are value-added and which are just mass-market cosmetics. At least that was what I overheard, and what that builder -- who seems to have some real street creds in the local community -- hears from the few people who are willing and able to shop.

    Joe W

  24. Riversong | | #24


    In a society in which the "Committee on Public Information" (sic), created by Wilson to propagandize the American people into protecting US bankers' interests in Europe at the expense of 37 million casualties, morphed into Madison Avenue (Edward Bernays, nephew of Freud, worked for both: "The essence of democratic society is the engineering of consent") we cannot expect modern Americans to base economic decisions on reason or prudence.

  25. Lucas Durand | | #25

    ...we cannot expect modern Americans to base economic decisions on reason or prudence.

    In this case, maybe building codes should do more than they already do. Maybe they should also provide standards for the quantity of material consumption as well.
    Now before someone tells me how rediculous I am for thinking this...
    It has been well established that many people think more building codes need to establish standards for energy efficiency - that is, operational energy efficiency.
    It is fact that the materials we consume are embodied with energy from the processes of extraction, manufacture and transportation - so in the interest of energy efficiency, does it not make sense to set limits on the consumption of materials?

  26. Michael Chandler | | #26

    No doubt that code enforcement has dramatically improved the quality, efficiency, and safety of homes built in America.

    Imagine what the "code minimum buildings" would look like if we didn't have even a code minimum? And imagine if you were trying to compete as a conscientious builder in a town where the house next door that the appraiser was comparing to yours didn't even need to be inspected, just good enough for the buyer to move in to?

    I look back at the homes I built back in 2005 when I first joined Energy Star that scored 70% better than code and wonder what they would score by today's standard. The code drives the industry to ever more meaningful "minimums." Energy Star scrambles to stay ahead of the code, and take a look at what we just passed in Charlotte for the 2012 IECC!

    In that the "minimums" drive the appraisals, more meaningful codes help conscientious builders get better value for what they do. It's all tied together, better codes will lead to higher appraisals and a healthier economy for all builders and remodelers, perhaps especially the conscientious ones who will have less of a learning curve.

  27. Riversong | | #27

    In that the "minimums" drive the appraisals, more meaningful codes help conscientious builders get better value for what they do. It's all tied together, better codes will lead to higher appraisals and a healthier economy for all builders and remodelers

    As most respondents have stated here, structural, safety and efficiency standards are not what drive the appraisals. Appraisals are exactly what they claim to be: estimations of market (not real) value.

    And conscientious builders are not the ones who need codes. Regulation is for the unscrupulous builders, which are almost certainly the vast majority.

    And higher appraisals don't make a healthier economy - they only feed a growing economy, which - by definition - is an unhealthy, unsustainable one. The only healthy or sustainable economy is a steady-state economy, based on the limited and prudent use of finite resources for authentic human needs and with concern for the "next seven generations" (as indigenous peoples have taught us).

  28. 2tePuaao2B | | #28

    Last Sunday my wife and I attended Maryland Green Show, presented by the Home Builders Association of Maryland and the Maryland Residential Green Building Council. Our hopes were to
    learn about green building techniques that could be applied to a home that we will build for our son.
    The home must be the most affordable, efficient, self sustaining structure possible. Also this home must provide the best dollar value without compromise. You see, we love our son very much and would create nothing less for him. The kind of concern that Robert Riversong seems to project in his writings. I've been fortunate to have worked with techniques that have proven the test of time structurally, but seem to have a lot to learn about current code technology.

    We spent the entire day gathering information from many of the vendors and listening to well rehearsed presentations but were really disappointed at the end of the day. High dollar green marketing stratagies by building material salespeople dominated the show. Every product available seemed to be high dollar, but with tax incentive propaganda attached. They all provided some sort of shiney paper that included all of the key logo's~ LEED, Energy Star, Geo Exchange etc. along with the science to back up their claims. I remember reading similar stuff that promoted first generationTrex. Didn't see one straw bale, cordwood, cob mix or any natural product in the mix.

    Anyway, I'm convinced now, more than ever that if all of the science, research,code developement / enforcement and personal energy, that is put into marketing green building products were put to the task of truely demonstrating the best solution, for lets say, young couples starting out and seniors with fixed income, that greed would be tempered and the best homes in history would come to be. It seems that we have the best of history and technology at our fingertips but can't figure out to make it happen. It ain't brain surgury scholars. Greed at all levels is the limiting force.

    I asked this question yesterday and am greatful for all of the answers and responces that have been submitted. I'm going to figure this one out for the sake of the "next seven generations".
    Roy Harmon
    The Glyndon Carpentry Shop
    Upperco MD

  29. user-869687 | | #29

    Lucas, what you suggest sounds like it would take the form of rationing building materials, basically describing a maximum allowable quantity of materials that could be used, relative to size or maybe to program. So, just as energy codes attempt to limit energy consumption (relative to size, not total energy) there could be a limit for combined embodied energy. It would essentially be rationing if the limits were overall rather than relative to size. Obviously making rules like that has downsides, like the burden of documenting and measuring what gets used, plus the bureaucracy of enforcement. Better to track those metrics on your own and try to draw attention to it.

    Similarly it would be good for car rating magazines or websites to focus more on life cycle energy rather than mpg, so people appreciate how consumptive it is to buy a new hybrid.

    There was some discussion in a blog a while back about giving new homes a dollars per year energy use rating like the energy guide rating for appliances. It makes sense because the units are understandable for laymen (dollars, years). But units of embodied energy don't have that virtue, so it's hard to judge what good numbers look like. You'd need a lot of examples for comparison.

  30. Riversong | | #30


    It sound like you're yearning for the best of the traditional ways enlightened by current building science. This is exactly the mix that inspires the natural building movement, which is alive and well in the Northeast, as elsewhere in the US and throughout the developed world. Municipal, state and national codes are starting to recognize straw bale and earthen construction as proponents offer test data that supports its validity.

    We in Vermont are hosting next year's Natural Builders Northeast gathering in March, which will allow me to attend for the first time (I'll be offering a workshop in Hygro-Thermal Engineering). It's by invitation only, and limited to those actively involved in natural building, but if you're looking for ideas or consultants I could pass the word around.

    There is also an excellent Natural Building Intensive 3-month long training program here in Warren VT at the Yestermorrow Design/Build School (, as well as a number of shorter natural building courses and timber framing workshops. I've been teaching there and have recently taken the slate roofing and advanced timber framing classes, which were both excellent. And I just had the pleasure of mortising 3x8 white oak sills for the latest timber frame class project.

    Perhaps an authentic timber frame wrapped with straw bales and earthen plaster is what you're reaching for. Both techniques are labor-intensive, but if you can do the work yourself combined with work parties for stacking bales and plastering (straw bale can be a very community-oriented and multi-generational process), then it can be done both beautifully and affordably. And the New England strawbale builders have figured out ways to combine the latest building science with the time-tested traditional techniques to make homes that are lovely, efficient, healthy, durable and a lasting testament to craft and care.

    Let me know if this is what you're seeking. You can reach me at HouseWright (at) Ponds-Edge (dot) net.

  31. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #31

    Here's a timely reminder of the kind of thing that happens in a country with poorly enforced building codes:
    India Building Collapse Kills Dozens

  32. Lucas Durand | | #32

    Robert, yes, rationing of building supplies according to some type of criteria such as number of occupants and climate zone for example.The problem of how to build more efficiently always seems to trace back to consumers who lack the awareness to make appropriate spending decisions. If consumers can't rationalize the benefits themselves then the rationalization should be made for them as it already is (in some codes) when it comes to the operational energy efficiency of homes.
    If someone put the effort into developing a comprehensive (and un-biased) database of material lifecycle energy consumption (we mapped the human genome - this shouldn't be too difficult), a software program similar to PHPP could be used to run through various materials scenarios to find the best overall configuration given the allowable maximums. For example, using local wood and strawbales, the software would offer you the use of more of those materials. Using imported materials and mass quantities of foam would result in a smaller materials allowance.

    ...making rules like that has downsides, like the burden of documenting and measuring what gets used, plus the bureaucracy of enforcement.

    This could be viewed as an upside if the bureaucratic process of permitting discouraged new construction (and the sprawl of infrastructure that goes with it) and pushed people towards deep-energy retrofits.
    Another possible advantage of taking this perspective could be that by discouraging the use of high-embodied energy materials by code, the building business could benefit local economies to a greater extent.

  33. Michael Chandler | | #33

    As most respondents have stated here, structural, safety and efficiency standards are not what drive the appraisals. Appraisals are exactly what they claim to be: estimations of market (not real) value.

    Appraisals drive what banks will loan money for. Recently we designed a house for a young couple with three kids one of which had a disability. They needed a home with good access and special needs design that was affordable to live in and accommodated their child’s environmental sensitivities. They had a limited down payment available due to on-going medical expenses but had a good income. They wanted a small house with two baths and a screen porch and space for home schooling that was energy efficient, with low on-going cost of ownership. They qualified for the amount that the design we did for them would cost and they were happy to pay. The bank would not loan them the money to build due to the fact that the energy efficiency items raised the cost per foot too far above code minimum. The solution the appraiser offered was to glass in and heat the screen porch and add a powder room. This increased the “value” of the house enough to pay for the four solar panels on the roof and the radiant floor but not enough to pay for the amount of additional insulation we wanted to have as part of the design. Since it will be less invasive to them later to go back and blow in more cellulose attic insulation that is where we decided to cut costs. If the code had recognized the need for more insulation we would not have had to make that decision.

    And conscientious builders are not the ones who need codes. Regulation is for the unscrupulous builders, which are almost certainly the vast majority.

    A building code that calls for better envelope insulation will keep appraisers from saying that they won’t give us any more value for R-38 ceilings and R-23 walls than for code minimum R-30 and R-15 this will enable us to sell more efficient homes and enable people who need to borrow money to build or renovate to borrow the money they need to build with the efficiency features they want.

    And higher appraisals don't make a healthier economy - they only feed a growing economy, which - by definition - is an unhealthy, unsustainable one.

    I actually prefer to build smaller homes for working people who don’t have a lot of money to blow on expensive details and I like to find ways to bring high performance within their budgets. (I don’t always get my wish here, but can’t afford to lay off my employees while I wait for the perfect client) So long as the code sets the comps my appraisers are using at a very low standard the way I want to build will require a very large down payment from many clients and force them to accept lower efficiency in order to get financing. This is a limiting factor in the economic health of the green and high performance building community.

    The only healthy or sustainable economy is a steady-state economy, based on the limited and prudent use of finite resources for authentic human needs and with concern for the "next seven generations" (as indigenous peoples have taught us).

    I can agree with this but it doesn’t keep me from needing to feed and care for my family and the families of my employees. I choose to pay taxes and child support and the $76,566 per year health and liability insurance ($1,472 per week) for my team and their families. My commitment to my people and the long term sustainability of my business requires that I participate in this dysfunctional economy so I do what I can to make the best of it and build homes that meet the needs of my clients and bring value from my work. I don’t believe that I would be a better agent for change if I dropped out and stopped paying taxes and insurance and worked solo. It’s a compromise I can live with and not an easier or better path than any others promoted here. Just the choice I can live with.

  34. 2tePuaao2B | | #34

    Michael Chandler,
    While I understand, and truely respect your un-wavering commitment, to provide the best that you can for those in your circle, I stil have questions about the need to participate in the realm of so many greed driven, in-efficient, regulating forces that cost you so much money to maintain. Doing things differently can not be viewed as "dropping out". If you continue to pay the going rate for fuel oil to heat a drafty old house with an old furnace, just to keep warm, well... there are better ways for less. Seeking these solutions is like the strive to attain better r-value. The way that we manage our buisness must keep in step with the products of our creation. The dysfunctional economy only provides opportunity for improvement ,if you refuse to be trapped in it. Situation improvement is always better for everyone. I can't live with the statis quo, for the sake of those that I have responsibility to

  35. Allan Edwards | | #35

    The houses I build are very well built in every aspect, my clients are very happy with the finished product and my company, the houses are magazine quality when completed, I make a reasonable profit on every house, I pay the government a lot in taxes every year. I am very passionate about building houses and love every minute of it. Business is very good right now, I have over 8 million$ in sold homes under construction. My company consist of me, a very experienced project manager, one office person, and some very talented subcontractors. I am truly a happy capitalist.

    Anybody have a problem with this?

  36. 2tePuaao2B | | #36

    What's the name of your company Allan?

  37. Allan Edwards | | #37


    Here are some photos of recent homes completed and under construction.

  38. Riversong | | #38

    My commitment to my people and the long term sustainability of my business requires that I participate in this dysfunctional economy so I do what I can to make the best of it

    Though you correct this statement below, it is a fallacy born of lack of imagination and courage that we are "required" by necessity to live within this (admittedly) dysfunctional economy. This is as absurd as to suggest that "there is nothing certain but death and taxes". Ironically, our culture is one that strives mightily to put off death (what it can't) while doing nothing (except the petty cheating that most people do) to avoid paying tribute to Caesar (which it can). In everything we do, there is choice, though for most of us those choices are unconscious or delegated to society's expectations, morés and laws. It is not the freedom to choose that we fear, but the consequences or our freedom.

    We need to become a conscious people, making choices that are not limited by what is socially acceptable, but rather determined by what is best for the greater good. The late great Granny D (Dorris Haddock, who walked across the country for campaign finance reform on her 90th birthday and then ran for US senator from NH) once said: "In my travels across this nation, I came to understand that we are not divided by Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, left and right, but into these two groups - there are those who are awake and those who are asleep, and it's the responsibility of those who are awake to awaken the sleeping."

    I don’t believe that I would be a better agent for change if I dropped out and stopped paying taxes and insurance and worked solo.

    And that is precisely what limits our choices: belief. There is an old adage that reflects reality better when turned around backwards: "I'll see that when I believe it!" Unless we first believe that a different way is possible, we cannot even see that it is an option. Without an expansion of belief, we are trapped in a prison of our own limited expectations - and each of us holds the key to our freedom.

    Chris Hedges, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author, recently said: "You can either be complicit in your own enslavement or you can lead a life that has some kind of integrity and meaning."

    It’s a compromise I can live with and not an easier or better path than any others promoted here. Just the choice I can live with.

    Of course, a conventional life is experienced as "compromise" only once we are able to perceive the dysfunction of the culture that our lives support and enable, but then it becomes a conscious choice of how long we're willing to dance with the devil.

    340 years ago, when time seemed to spread infinitely out toward the horizon, George Fox (the founder of the Friends, or Quakers) when asked by William Penn (the Royal Governor of Pennsylvania, and also a Quaker) whether it was right for him to carry the ceremonial sword (since Quakers opposed military action and violence), he responded: "Wear it as long as thou canst".

    If, today, we had the luxury of hundreds of years to come to our senses, I would say the same as he: "Dance with the devil until you feel you can no longer tango." But I'm hardly a lone wolf crying in the wilderness, as many scientists and thinkers and critical observers of modern life believe we are fast running out of time to change the dance tune (if we haven't already passed the point of no return).

  39. 2tePuaao2B | | #39

    Great looking homes Alan, I love the stone- stucco combinations.
    Do you use a standard framing technique?

  40. Riversong | | #40

    Allan Edwards: "I am truly a happy capitalist. Anybody have a problem with this?"

    "The goal of a good society is to structure social relations and institutions so that cooperative and generous impulses are rewarded, while antisocial ones are discouraged. The problem with capitalism is that it best rewards the worst part of us: ruthless, competitive, conniving, opportunistic, acquisitive drives, giving little reward and often much punishment -- or at least much handicap -- to honesty, compassion, fair play, many forms of hard work, love of justice, and a concern for those in need."

    - Michael Parenti, an award winning, internationally known American political scientist, historian, and culture critic who has been writing on a wide range of both scholarly and popular subjects for over forty years

  41. Allan Edwards | | #41


    I do use standard framing, all of my homes are on concrete foundations. Most are 16" OC, 11' ceilings down, 9' up, 2x6 walls, plywood sheathing, 3/4" decking, 2x8 rafters, most have tile or slate roofs, open web floor trusses. I try to incorporate OVE methods, it is a real struggle with framers, inspectors, and engineers.

  42. Steve El | | #42

    I'd just like to celebrate that Robert and I are in 100% agreement with the thing that (in my opinion at least) is the most important point in this discussion.... and in Roberts words that is......

    "The only healthy or sustainable economy is a steady-state economy, based on the limited and prudent use of finite resources for authentic human needs and with concern for the "next seven generations" (as indigenous peoples have taught us)."

  43. Riversong | | #43

    That's why I use Seventh Generation toilet paper ( in my outhouse. That and because I ran out of Sears and Roebuck catalogs.

    It was said that the Sears catalog, printed from 1894 until 1993, "serves as a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living."

    What better way of making room for a new paradigm than by using that cultural chronicle to clean off our sh*t and start each day fresh..

  44. Steve El | | #44

    (re #36) Alan, I have a capitalism based business also. But when I take time out to ponder about inflation, it quickly becomes evident that inflation makes my money less valuable. As a result, I have to do more business just to tread water, financially. Everyone else is in the same boat, and so as a people using capitalism as our model we MUST have economic growth to prevent backslipping.

    NOTHING on earth grows forever.

    Yet our economic system is built upon the assumption that our economy will be the first thing to ever do that. All I'm saying is that this is an unreasonable assumption, one that defies all knowledge from every hard and social science. Nothing grows forever, and our global growth oriented economy won't either. I'm not smart enough to know how that effects daily operations in my capitalism-based business, but I do know that change is a-coming. If not in my life, then my kids or theirs or theirs. The sooner the change, the softer the landing. That's all I'm saying. (Of course, I wouldn't mind a healthy dose of economic growth so my business returns enough profit to get me out of debt first!)

  45. Lucas Durand | | #45

    Change is a-coming alright. It'll be sooner rather than later.

  46. Riversong | | #46

    Ironically, inflation isn't a threat to capitalism (only to people who have to live off the money they earn). The purchasing power of the US dollar has dropped, since the establishment of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, which unconstitutionally gave away the power to mint money to private bankers, from $1.00 to 10 cents. Where did the rest of the value of the dollar go? To line the pockets of the banksters so they can enjoy 15,000 SF houses in Texas while millions of hard-working Americans are being foreclosed out of their homes due to a securities fraud Ponzi scheme that makes Bernie Madoff look like a corner thug.

    It's ironic that people here are complaining about the difficulty in getting banksters to allow their customers to go into debt so that they can make gazillions from the fractional reserve banking system, package those debt obligations into securities and then repackage them into "collateralized debt obligations" and market them as AAA-rated instruments when they are, in fact, worthless because there is no paper trail for the original mortgage. And, after making gazillions more from these trash financial instruments, they hire robo-signer foreclosure mills to force people out of homes which will be sold (1/3 of all current sales in the US) as distressed properties, bringing in yet more money for the criminal capitalists.

    What IS a threat to capitalism is deflation, which the Fed is now frantically trying to avoid by printing money as fast as they can, thus diluting the money supply and making our hard-earned dollars even less valuable.

    There is one institution that all modern monetary policy has helped, while it has made tens of millions of people destitute or deprived them of the financial security they thought the American Dream promised: and that is Goldman Sachs, which has run the last three administrations (at least) and was the principle benefactor of Bush's and Obama's Big (too big to fail) Bank Bailout.

    For a short video animation which explains the Fed's current strategy of "quantitative easing" and cui bono (who profits), check out:

    And for a complete history of how Goldman Sachs has been behind, and profited from, every economic collapse since the Great Depression, read this:

  47. Steve El | | #47

    The only threat to inflation is the inability of earth to sustain never-ending economic growth. Nothing short of earth's inability to keep up with demand will generate the political will to try a different approach. If I am correct, then the dire collapse you write of, Robert, is a necessary and natural process.

  48. Riversong | | #48

    The dire collapse is a necessary corrective to an unnatural process initiated and controlled by humanity's hubris, greed and myopia.

    Politics will not correct the imbalance, since it looks only as far as the next election cycle and only as deeply as who is paying the piper.

  49. Steve El | | #49

    Its hubris to think we're not natural. When we voluntarily decide to limit our population and resource use by reason and intentional will, then I might agree we are not natural.

  50. 2tePuaao2B | | #50

    Today was spent crunching numbers,as a result of yesterdays commitments. I'm looking forward to tomorrows promise of progress. Hope the collapse doesn't occur before the results are in.

    I did 2 take takeoffs for 1400sf basic house plans, nothing fancy. The first plan was for a home built to current code requirements using conventional techniques and materials. I did not include finishes in kitchen or bath rooms, but did include all plumbing and electric necessary. This plan used a poured concrete foundation. A standard heat pump system was included. A very basic plastic shack tract house. This was not much fun and the cost was as expected~ $128,000.00 with no profit, sitework or landscape included.
    The second plan was alot of fun. Same size, but I chose the freedom of Riversong as a mindset, rather than the code. I used what amounted to a Hanover Pole Barn frame standing on a slab that had a 12" curb around the perimeter. These pole barns come as assembled packages that include metal siding and roof systems. I had their salesman back out the cost of the siding and modify the roof to provide 2' overhangs. They told me that in 3 days this type of project would be under roof and ready for me to begin infill with strawbales. The horizontal framing that comes with the pole barn package will be upgraded and mortised flush with the outside of the posts at window and door header heights. I have know idea of what I'm doing at this point and make no claims, but it sure feels good. So far, calculating cost for both homes has been simple using available unit costs. I got a price of $3.85 ea. for wheat strawbales from Glen King hay and straw and the size is 3'x 2'x 16". Not sure if this is a good price but it's what I used. I dreamed up a quick metal lath installation technique for both stucco on the outside and plaster on the inside perimeter walls.I have lots of experience with plaster and stucco restoration technique and associated cost.I used those numbers for the new work. While banging out these numbers my mind is racing toward the detailing opportunities ahead. This house might look like one of those built by Alan Edwards before I'm through dammit! In all fairness to the comparison, and to my time constraints I plugged in the same LF of conventional interior wall building cost, as well as same window and door allowance. I added the cost of installing radiant tubing into the slab but no heating source. R50 recycled denim was used above the ceiling. Thats it so far, and todays numbers have really been interesting. Not knowing the appropriate weather infiltration detailing or radiant heat source cost among a few others, it seems that there is a $41,000.00 difference to the favor of a polebarn, strawbale structure. If I can learn the proper detailing, heat source and slab insulation technique for this simple structure, that cost will be added to $87,000.00 giving me a reasonable, un-scientific, but todays cost comparison. There would probably be some cost associated with paying off the code folks as well. Thanks for the inspiration Mr. Riversong~ I'm a real "greenhorn" at this, but intend to educate myself and hopefully others as opportunities flow.
    Tomorrows Project ( after real work): Bracing the dire collapse~~~

  51. Riversong | | #51


    Nice number crunching. That straw bale price sounds like what it used to cost here when farmers were just selling it for bedding. Once they realized there was a growing demand for it as a building material, the price doubled to about $6 a bale.

    A pole barn is a great alternative to an overpriced timber frame. Just a few tips on finishing straw bale walls: no lath is needed as the straw has excellent "tooth" for plaster. Metal or plastic lathe is used for curved window returns to create a uniform shape. The big trick is to air seal the joints between wood and straw, but that can be done with felt gaskets that span the framing members and tie into plaster on each side.

    Avoid cement stucco on straw bale as it's an invitation to moisture problems. Earthen (clay, sand and chopped straw) plasters work best and make the house exceptionally healthy to live in. Depending on your soil type, clay can often be harvested right at the building site or nearby and sand trucked in inexpensively. Some hydrated lime in the exterior finish coat makes a good weatherproof coating, particularly with occasional limewash (Huck Finn's white wash) to renew it. The lime carbonates over time and becomes limestone, but remains breatheable.

    For interior plaster, the finish coat can be mixed with some local cow or horse manure for a very fine fibrous binder and a lustrous sheen and rich natural color. So the final cost should be less than what you calculated for cement stucco.

    Don't forget to insulate the slab if it will be heated (that pretty much has to be XPS). For a small well-insulated house like that, the "boiler" could be a good quality water heater, like a Polaris, or solar thermal with a small electric backup.

  52. Lucas Durand | | #52

    Some hydrated lime in the exterior finish coat makes a good weatherproof coating

    Robert, I just read of something called "tadelakt" which is a Moroccan lime based plaster that is apparently undergoing somewhat of a revival. Sounds like it provides a beautiful (and waterproof) finish. Is this similar to what you are suggesting?
    If I could have my time back I would be getting ready to build a strawbale home... Alas it wasn't meant to be. They are beautiful to look at and oh so sustainable.
    Here's that article I mentioned:

  53. Riversong | | #53


    That may be a type of hydraulic lime, which sets fast and hard (even under water). But all lime finishes are highly permeable to water vapor (which is what makes them such wonderful finishes for straw bale walls). Hydraulic lime is available in the US from Saint Astier in CA (natural hydraulic lime since 30 BC) for historic preservation (it's a bit pricey).

    Here in the Northeast there is a revival of earthen and lime plastering among natural builders, but mostly using local, native sources (clay, sand and limestone are prevalent in most areas). It is a fine art, and practitioners are still experimenting and learning the qualities of an almost infinite variety of possible admixtures. Most keep barrels of slaked lime in their garages, as the longer the slaking (soaking in water) the better the qualities.

    Lime makes cementitious mortars a bit more absorbent of water but much more breatheable to vapor (on the order of 7-10 perm compared to 1 perm for cement/sand), while clay/sand plasters tend to have a perm of about 16.

    Siloxane, while not a natural material, is an excellent sealer for exterior plasters, making them virtually non-absorbent to water but without changing their permeance at all. But the nice thing about a lime finish coat is that it can be renewed with a brush and some limewash.

  54. 2tePuaao2B | | #54

    I visited a pole building jobsite today~ this stuff is so simple that it's almost silly. The project is a pavilion for a Luthern Church that will be open for the most part. One end will be closed in and finished for restrooms and storage. The footprint was built up with stone and leveled . Why on Earth are developers and builders not utilizing the simplest green techniques to build the absoulute best all around homes possible. This has to happen on a hugh scale for the sake of general well beings. Smart homes must become readily available to the masses, They are incredibly easy to achieve, and do not have to be more expensive than conventional building techniques. In fact, I'm now confident that as much as 30% savings of the basic structure cost can happen today- with no additional engineering or study needed.That 30% could by some serious solar activity. So... for the same dollar amount, homes that are more fire retardant, far more energy efficient, healthier in terms of air quality and generate most of their own electric can be built~ TODAY. Without drastically increasing the cost these homes can look any way that would prefer.
    I came to this great site seeking to learn a bit about current green building techniques. The term- "be careful what you wish for" is now tatooed across my forehead. I can't believe how simple or complicated the processes can be. Anyone have a sturdy soap box for sale? People need to learn about the Politics of Green Building. The best, can in fact happen now, why wait, whats the deal?

  55. Allan Edwards | | #55


    I am not understanding what you are trying to do. Build a house for yourself? Someone else? Develope a spec program? Just looking for ideas?

  56. 2tePuaao2B | | #56

    With many years of restoration experience under my workbelt, I've been able to see~ and deal with many types of building failure. In my younger days, at one point, I employed 147 people on an average of 5 projects. The approach to a restoration is entirely different than that of a new home, or new home design process.
    My son recently asked me for advise as to how he should go about building a new home, and only then , did I realize how much that I didn't know about new home construction. For 32 years I have lived a life of restoration and while some of the techniques tend to mingle, most are entirely different.
    This has led me on a mission~ a labor of love if you will to seek out the best possible answer for my son. As a result of this learning process, I have instinctively taken the restoration approach, it's what I do very well, and all I know. I seek out points of failure, or even potintial points of failure and attempt to address them one by one to come up with a doable repair design. The new housing market is most interesting to me and very much in need of serious change in my opinion. Yes , I am looking for idea's, specs etc., not to build a home for my self, but for kids starting out and seniors down sizing that are on fixed, limited incomes.
    Thanks for your interest !
    Roy Harmon

  57. homedesign | | #57

    The new housing market is most interesting to me and very much in need of serious change in my opinion.

    Roy, I strongly agree with your opinion.
    I think that for the most part "we" are doing what Tooley calls "The WRONG thing right" or the more common doing the "WRONG thing wrong"
    We are not seeing very many "Elegant Solutions" that can be built by Not-So-Perfect Humans.

  58. Steve El | | #58

    To support the new home market, we need to revamp the mortgage appraissal process. When I mentioned this before, folks generally said appraisers figure out street value. I disagree for the reason that appraisers process DOES NOT CONTAIN DATA for that slice of some select markets where people are willing to pay a reasonable mark up for longevity, eco, and energy improvements. Since the appraisers process does not contain the data for how much extra some people would pay the current mortgage appraisal process is crippled. It does not return the real street value, at least not in those areas where such people make up a meaningful slice of the market. The number the current process returns is artifically low, keeping appraissals near the appraissal of the otherwise identical code-minimum house next door.

    Consumer education, codes and appraisal rules are all needed to crack this nut.

  59. Lucas Durand | | #59

    Roy, I have lately taken to opining about retrofits vs. new construction. Though I think it is possible to justify some new construction, I think the future is in retrofits and rehabilitation of existing stock. Considering your background, maybe this is a path that would appeal to you.

  60. Riversong | | #60

    I am looking for idea's, specs etc...for kids starting out and seniors down sizing that are on fixed, limited incomes.


    That is a wonderful target to design and build for and much needed in our culture which "supersizes" everything and demands that every product is "new and improved" when that typically means little more than making them more complex, luxurious and expensive.

  61. Riversong | | #61


    You continue to confuse market value, which is what appraisers measure, with some undefined abstraction that you call "street value". Is that the black market value of homes, like the "street value" of drugs?

    In fact, many lending institutions DO consider energy efficiency when determining debt-to-equity ratios that a homeowner can afford. If the operating costs of a home are considerably less than standard homes, banks will either require a smaller down payment or offer a larger loan.

    Market value will always be determined by what buyers are willing to pay, and American home buyers are far more interested in space and amenities than in hidden quality. The problem is not with appraisers but with the superficiality of public values.

  62. Steve El | | #62

    I confuse nothing. If 10% of buidling-savvy folk in.... oh let's pick Boulder Colorado. Maybe Ithaca NY. Let's say 10% of the population would be willing to pay 20% more for a truly green, built to last, super energy efficient house, than they would pay for a code minimum house next door on an identical lot. I'm here to tell you that the standard mortgage appraissal process is going to look at square feet, bedrooms, bathrooms, location, and the two homes will appraise out only slightly different..... even though in my example 10% of the buyers would be willing to pay 20% more.

    BUT..... I can not prove that such an example exists and I can not prove it because there is no data and there is no data because....... those willing buyers can not get financing to purchase at the true market price - the price they would be willing to pay - for the reason that the appraisers mass-production-low-labor methodology ignores the improvements on house #2 and therefore is blind to the true market price these folks would pay if they could pay but can't pay because the appraisers ignore these extra attributes. Get it?

  63. Steve El | | #63

    BTW, My complaint about the process, of course, is skewed with the glut of foreclosures. If we enter better economic times, then what I just said is much more important than it is right now today.

  64. Riversong | | #64

    I confuse nothing. BUT..... I can not prove that such an example exists

    Sounds like Rumsfeld and Cheney's assertion about Soviet weapons systems in the 1980s: "The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence."

  65. 2tePuaao2B | | #65

    I like the way you think. Rehabilitation by retro-fit could be a very worthy endeavour if the existing conditions of a property are right for it. The Maryland Green Show that I attended last Sunday seemed to be all about this type of process. Most of the vendors were marketing products that appeared to be designed for this type of application. I did not like the atmosphere that they created though. I know that restoration can be expensive, with tons of variables to be considered, while I'm not familiar with rehabilation, I would have to imagine that there would be similar considerations. The design-build process would have to be taylored to the specific property, owner requirements, code requirements and associated specific engineering plus a host of other material and cost considerations. It would seem that just getting projects started could get expensive. If this process could somehow be widdled to simplicity, without sacrifice to the end result the great building gods would probably smile. The next part would be to justify the "cost" compaired to the " result "at project completion for the owner. A hugh percentage of the homes that I have seen built over the past 20 years would require major work with major cost that those funky bankers and appraisers probably wouldn't understand at this point. The home is only going to be worth what it's location dictates, and not it's functionality.
    If you have any thoughts about a way to "fine tune " the process into an affordable option I would say yes, the need and market are there.
    Thanks for your thoughts,

  66. Steve El | | #66

    Its not just the bankers and appraisers that need educating. Buyers too. How do we educate home buyers and then assess whether the education effects their willing purchase price assuming they can get financing?

  67. 2tePuaao2B | | #67

    The school of hard knocks seems to have a very large attendance rate currently. You are right Steve!
    Now would be a great time time demonstrate much better ways. Lets get a group of like minds together~ develope a simple currriculum with no strings attached and find or fund a non-profit with resources to mass email it. GBA site seems to have some committed, collective brainpower that might better serve the masses if the opportunity existed. I'd donate time and cash to a cause this worthy.

  68. Robert Hronek | | #68


    Regarding 10 and 15. I think most of the compliant about the appraisal process is from people that want it to be something it is not. I will preface it to say that the mortgage process has broken down. Much of it caused by federal regulations, and set in practice by fannie and freddie, that watered down lending requirements. It was assisted by wall street, As it is government is as much if not the bigger problem in many areas.

    Back to appraisals. When done correctly an appraisal measures the value and not sets the value. I see comments all the time on this site about how someone wants the appraiser to set the value of something that they think is more worthy from a societal goal. The job of the appraiser is to measure what a likely buyer will pay for a house. Buyers pay for what they can see and touch. In many cases they want liviable area, granitie counters, bigger garages, etc. They are not so concerned with whats in the walls and whether the house is super energy efficient. That is if the home costs more to build because it energy efficient the buyer may not pay any extra for it. It is not the appraisers job to assign extra value to the house if the market is not willing to pay for it.

    The other problem appraisers have is that there may not be market evidence to support something that is new to the market..Most MLS systems do not list information on energy efficienct features. An appraiser has no way of knowing if a sale of a property was influenced by energy efficienct features. Also MLS fields only include items buyers are interested enough to justify thier inclusion in a listing. IF the buying public is interested in energy efficiency them it will creep in to the MLS system. As it is now a buyer says I want a 2,000 SF ranch home with 2.5 baths, 3 bedrooms, a finished basement , 2 fireplaces, and a 3 car garage. An agent can put that information into the search and pull all such listings. An appraiser can use the same search to find homes that sold with those features as well as the current listings.

    The agent and the appraiser are unable to search for energy efficiency features. Without such data the appraiser is unable to isolate and value the energy efficient features.

    Then there is what is referred to as an over-improvement. That boils to something the most buyers wont pay for the full cost of the item. A good example is a swimming pool. IT costs a lot of money but buyers will only pay a little more for that house. So should an appraiser add the cost of the pool to the appraisal or should the appraiser value it based on what the market will pay? The same would apply to an extra $10,000 or more for energy efficient. Should the cost be added to the appraisal or should it be based on what the market will pay.

    AS a buer it wold be hard to know what to pay for efficient items. They are not versed in the cost or how effective they will be in make the home more comfortable and how much it will save on utility bills.

  69. Steve El | | #69

    Well said!

    Flint Michigan is an unlikely place to find folks willing to a "real" number for energy efficiency or other very desirable thing for functionality. So to grow this concept I'm only talking about select markets. In those markets ASSUMING educated shoppers would pay a "real" number for energy efficiency, they should be allowed to. Appraisers set an artificial cap for those buildings because it is assumed those buildings should be appraised at the same amount as the rat infested but otherwise identical minimum code foreclosure home next door.

    Appraisers do not "set" the floor price for anything

    Appraisers do not "set" the max price for code minimum anything

    Appraisers ((do)) set an artifical max price for above-code improvements in those markets where educated buyers would pay more than they would for the code minimum identical house next door. Is there such a place where these buyers exist? Maybe, maybe not. Could we grow such buyers, or more of them if they do exist un these likely markets? We should use gov't assisted financing in some test markets as a foot in the door to do sociological market research to find out.

  70. Riversong | | #70


    You just don't get it. Appraisers' don't "set" anything. They rate a home's market value based on how the buying public is valuing home features in a particular housing market. Their evaluation is nothing but a reflection of the choices of the collective public.

    It is WE who determine market value, not appraisers. You're fishing in the wrong pond.

  71. Riversong | | #71

    Robert H,

    The only responsibility the federal government has in the housing foreclosure crisis is in NOT adequately regulating Wall Street hustlers, hedge funds and mortgage bundlers.

    Mortgage institutions were aggressively pushing sub-prime and high debt-to-value and high debt-to-income loans because they could charge more fees and interest on them, bundle them into "securities" for sale to investors who then repackaged them into "collateralized debt obligations" which no one understood and were entirely unregulated and left no paper trail.

    Now it's the same Banksters who are running foreclosure mills with robo-signing, in some places approved by foreclosure courts tasked with cranking out hundreds of cases per day without even reading the paperwork.

    It's more than a little disingenuous to blame gov'mint for the bank's greed, when it's Goldman Sachs that has been running the last few administrations, nixing any kind of reasonable oversight and then handing themselves the US Treasury so they can rip off the public some more.

    The gov'mint is the problem only in so far as it is the handmaiden of corporate and Wall St interests, which it has been since the days of the Robber Barons - a period which pales next to the level of control and greed that today's speculators exhibit when almost all federal legislation is written by lobbyists (26 lobbyists per Congressperson, spending more than $5 million per legislator to get what they want).

  72. 2tePuaao2B | | #72


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