Never Seen Again

When was the last time had your hair cut?  Did you walk in and say I have $15, do whatever you can for that budget, or did you have something more specific in mind?  Would you have been willing to spend a little extra to have it washed and styled?  How about having your eyebrows waxed or beard trimmed?  I know, hair is a little less important to some people than to others, but where I’m going with this post is you have choices.  This applies to the car you buy or to the type of apples you prefer at the grocery store.  It definitely applies to construction!

Building a new home or remodeling an existing one, choices need to be made.  There’s cabinets, countertops and flooring that all need to be decided.  There’s also room sizes and electrical placements that other professionals might choose for you.  And then there’s the choices that the builder typically makes.  How the walls are going to be built, the type of water resistive barrier used, the type of insulation installed and so on. Many of these choices will forever affect the durability, comfort and cost to operate the home.

Most builders use products that are based on price and ease of installation, or they use products they are familiar with.  Some builders have experiences they draw from when choosing the products they do, but sometimes these products have deficiencies that show up in the years to come.  Here’s an example:

I was recently at an energy assessment where the homeowner was complaining about a comfort issue with the vinyl windows in the home.  The windows were replacement sliders (think of sliding patio doors) that were around 5 years old (the home was 40 years old).  They needed to be covered with window plastic during the winter or the wind would blow through them.  There may have also been some installation deficiencies.  I’m sure the windows were also having a direct cost on heating the home. These windows were chosen based on price, I’m sure the homeowner gave the builder a budget and the windows selected were based on that budget. Had the homeowner done a little research or asked questions from a knowledgeable professional in building science, a different choice might have been made.  The homeowner is now looking for an alternative option to improve the performance of the windows.  My suggestion was an interior storm that could be removed in the summer or an insulated blind.  The vinyl window and vinyl siding don’t allow for an exterior storm option.

The window spec sheet from my home.  The U-.26 is an above code choice I made.

Windows are a good example in new construction as well.  Back when I was building, I would give a good, better, best selection for a window.  The problem was the windows all had the same basic performance.  The only difference was the type of materials used in the construction of the window. I was offering a code minimum Marvin and a code minimum vinyl product. The Marvin would usually be the better built, more durable product which would warrant the additional cost, but the overall performance of the two windows would be similar.  The lumberyard I ordered the windows from would specify the performance package based on the codes of the area.  Had I understood then what I know now, I would have been offering choices based on different performances.  I still would have given two or three different window manufacturers to choose from, but I also would have included two or three different window performance packages from each of the manufactures and explained to the homeowner what the differences would have provided in terms of energy cost savings and comfort.

Let’s look another example, water resistive barriers (WRB).  There are five different types with #15 tar paper being the most basic selection.  (I don’t know of a single builder using tar paper, but the product is a code approved method of controlling exterior moisture.)  Most homeowners in my area are going to be familiar with Tyvek, a mechanically attached WRB, just because it’s so common.  Homeowners probably also see a lot of other WRB manufacturers when driving past job sites, many with names of the builder or lumberyard printed on the products.  These mechanically attached WRB’s are often the lower cost, woven versions.  How many homeowners know the difference between a woven perforated product and a nonwoven polyolefin product?  How many builders know the difference between the two? Other choices are WRB integral panels such as Huber’s Zip, fully adhered such as Henry Blueskin, and spray or fluid applied WRB’s, which I have yet to see locally.  These are all choices typically made by the builder because they are the expert.  In my opinion, the options need to be explained to the homeowner and they decide which product to use.  I know that some homeowners won’t care, but they should still be explained the basics of the science behind which product is going to be selected and how they may affect both the longevity of the home and operating costs.  Again, a good, better, best approach.

This picture of the concreteless slab on grade home. The details used will never be seen again.

Why care?  Some of these product selections may never be seen again. That’s the reason, never seen again.  Changing a WRB because we are getting water in a wall assembly, or changing windows because of comfort issues, or increasing insulation and changing the air sealing of the home are very hard to repair after the home is completed.  Usually when I get called to conduct an energy audit, a home isn’t meeting a homeowner’s expectations.  If it’s a new home, that may fall on the choices made during construction.  If it’s an old home, well, the choices made during construction probably also affect performance.  Building science may have been less of a “thing”, depending on the age of the home.  The repairs are still usually expensive and difficult to perform.

The options for the “never seen again” parts of the home need to be explained to homeowners.  If they choose to let the builder, architect or consultant make the selections, then that’s their choice.  At least that choice was theirs to make.  Just my two cents.  Product selection, half the battle.  Proper installation, a whole different blog post.

For the record, with my thinning grey hair and the fact I always wear a hat, I get the $15 haircut.

2 Replies to “Never Seen Again”

  1. Great post Randy. Really enjoying your website! I wonder how much quality of life could improve if the building community could come together collectively to decide upon a universal envelope design- a “one size fits all” approach to simplifying these kinds of decisions so that homeowners can have reliable, consistent performance and endurance results regardless of the amount of skill, experience, or building science acumen that the builder of the moment possesses. Considering how vulnerable the existing modern method of home building is to mistakes, shortcomings, and material combination failures, and in light of how complex the BS landscape is to navigate, I would tend to think that customers could (perhaps should) have a much easier time with the parts of the home that, to your point, will never be seen again- the guts. I think we’ve got to step forward and have the guts to standardize the residential envelope and face the challenges of that change together, in order to collectively be able to deliver reliable, affordable performance across the board for the home buyers of the future. Looking forward to reading the rest of your content, and continuing to grow in respect for the body of work you’ve built here.

    1. Thanks for the great comment. I am hopeful that the building codes will eventually improve to where we have great houses, just going to take some time. Enforcement of the codes…not much in my area and that is part of the problem. In the mean time, homeowner education and getting them to ask for a better home is what can make a difference.

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