61 Things We Should Ban to Improve Home Building

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Things we should ban to improve home building in America

Let's face it. The state of home building isn't good. Yes, we have building science and energy codes and green building programs out the wazoo. We have cool new products and home energy raters and even Joe Lstiburek. Despite all this, we still have wild ductopuses, holey air barriers, and insipid insulation installations. And I've finally lost my patience. I think the only way to improve the state of home building in America is to ban these ten things.

Wait! Don't leave yet. I know your blood may be boiling just after reading the title of this article, but please read all the way through. There's something for everyone here. You may not like the idea of banning batt insulation, but how about blower door tests?

This list is progressive. The things further down the list build on the earlier ones.

Here we go:

  1. Powered attic ventilators - They suck conditioned air from your house and backdraft water heaters.
  2. Ventless gas fireplaces - Even the industry has a hard time justifying these things, which are already banned in Canada and other places.
  3. Foil-faced bubble wrap - A small step up from insulating paint. Let's use real insulation.
  4. Batt insulation - It's almost never done right.
  5. Flex duct - Kinks and sags and ductopuses. Oh, my!
  6. Recirculating range hoods - Would you want a recirculating toilet? That's what Prof. John Straube compares them to.
  7. Smart vents - A poor solution for a bad duct system. Do the ducts right to begin with. 
  8. Rules of Thumb - Thumbs are great things but shouldn't be used to size air conditioners.
  9. Vented crawl spaces - They're moisture and mold factories. And they sometimes allow you to breathe dead possum!
  10. Vented attics - Too often a place for ducts, powered attic ventilators, and dead bats.
  11. House wrap - It's never installed well enough to be a great air barrier and installers still haven't figured out how to flash windows with it.
  12. Attached garages - If you like to breathe carbon monoxide and other toxic gases, this is a great way to add those vital nutrients to your lungs.
  13. Dormers - Too hard to insulate and air seal
  14. Complex roofs - Likely to cause moisture damage
  15. Electric resistance heat - It may be 100% efficient...but you can do better!
  16. Recessed can lights - They're a problem when they're put in the building enclosure, especially vaulted ceilings.
  17. Panned joist returns - A guaranteed way to suck in that moldy air from the crawl space...and the dead possum particles that come with it.
  18. Undercut doors for return air from bedrooms - They're just not going to let all the air get back to the main return.
  19. Dryer vents terminating near air conditioner condenser units - Blowing lint into those fins is a good way to kill the efficiency of your AC.
  20. High flow range hoods - You really don't want your house to suck that bad, do you?
  21. Excess wood - Less room for insulation, more thermal bridging, and it's just a waste of money and resources.
  22. Zoning that requires less than 12 units per acre - More density is better for location efficiency.
  23. Unbalanced ventilation - Like that unbalanced cousin of yours, you just don't want it in your house. 
  24. Thermal bridging - Would you leave cow-sized gaps in your cattle pen?
  25. Airtightness higher than 1 ACH50 - Air-sealing gives you the most bang for your buck in making homes energy efficient. You know this is where we're heading, right?
  26. Carpet, vinyl, and other offgassing products - “If there is a pile of manure in a space, do not try to remove the odor by ventilation. Remove the pile of manure.” Max von Pettenkofer said that in 1858, and it applies here, too.
  27. 2x4 walls - Eventually all walls will have to be at least 12" thick.
  28. Ceiling fans - People don't turn them off when they're out of the room anyway.
  29. Manual J load calculations - Sophisticated HVAC contractors have figured out how to get rule-of-thumb results from computer programs. 96 occupants. Single pane windows instead of low-e. Worst case orientation. It's easy to add load when you need to justify that oversized AC and furnace.
  30. Combustion appliances - Long after our caveman ancestors discovered fire, we're still polluting our caves with combustion products.
  31. Bonus rooms - Nobody uses that room anyway. It's too uncomfortable
  32. Attic kneewalls - One of several reasons bonus rooms are so uncomfortable. Rarely done right.
  33. Energy modeling - See Manual J above.
  34. Storm doors - They're not a great investment for saving energy.
  35. Thermostats - Too many people set them incorrectly anyway, sometimes at the suggestion of their helpful HVAC service company.
  36. Rim and band joists insulated with anything other than spray foam - It's just not going to work.
  37. Spray foam insulation - It smells. It shrinks. Some greenie weenies don't like it.
  38. Rim and band joists - Since there's now no way to insulate, they must be banned. Ban the band!
  39. HERS ratings -Wildly imprecise. Didn't you see my article on the Stockton study?
  40. HERS raters and energy modelers - Why should we pay for something so imprecise?
  41. Cantilevers - We'll never get to 1 ACH50 and no thermal bridging without eliminating cantilevers.
  42. Homes without advanced framing - See excess wood above.
  43. Stick building - We might as well just go all the way and admit that stick building is the root of so many problems with home building.
  44. HVAC contractors - The industry is broken. It's time to start over.
  45. Home builders - Ditto HVAC contractors
  46. Windows - One of the biggest liabilities for heat loss/gain and moisture problems.
  47. Site-built homes - The only way we'll ever get good houses is to build them in factories in China.
  48. Blower door testing - We should use that money for air sealing instead.
  49. Single family homes - Too inefficient
  50. Tiny houses - A fad for millennials who don't know they're just expensive trailers
  51. Mansions and McMansions - Just as no one needs more than 640 kB of memory in their computer, no one needs more than 500 square feet person in their home.
  52. Ugly houses - As Joe Lstiburek said, "Ugliness is not sustainable."
  53. ENERGY STAR New Homes Version 3 - Builders abandoned it in 2012 anyway.
  54. LEED - Can we really support a program that requires all-glass houses!?
  55. Passive House - A boutique program for architects who think they can do physics.
  56. Know-it-all bloggers - Someone's always got to come behind them to dispel the myths they create when they try to dispel myths.
  57. Stack effect - Too controversial
  58. Psychrometrics - Too complicated. Have you seen that chart!?
  59. Rain and snow - The cause of so many problems with houses
  60. Hot and cold weather - A terrible waste of energy
  61. Occupants - The number one reason high-performance homes never reach their full potential!

OK, that's it...for now. Clearly we have some issues in the world of home building. And as you should have been able to figure out by the time you got to the bottom of the list, I don't really think we should ban all these things.

The root of the problem isn't really using the wrong products or even doing things the wrong way. It really boils down to motivation. Builders are motivated to build to code when they know they'll have to pass inspections. They're motivated to build energy efficient houses when there's demand for them. They're motivated to build houses without comfort or moisture or IAQ problems when they've had too many callbacks to fix those problems.

Of the 61 items on this list, there's only one I would definitely like to see banned: ventless gas fireplaces. I'd like to see less of some of the others or better ways of doing them, but I think the real problem is getting home builders and other stake holders — including home buyers — motivated properly.

And the good news is, as Joe Lstiburek likes to say, the gap between stupid and hurt is narrowing.

 

Related Articles

The Gap Between Stupid and Hurt Is Narrowing

Why Won't the HVAC Industry Do Things Right?

11 Building Science Secrets Every Home Builder & Remodeler Should Know

 

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Comments

Jun 12 2017 - 9:53am

I know a lot of this stuff was in jest, but I have been trying to design a wall detail without the rim joist. Slab on grade is easy, but most people want full basements in this area. My idea was using a top-mounted joist hanger attached to the sill plate to avoid the rim joist. But every wall detail I have found online has a rim joist. Is the rim joist just a necessary evil?

Jun 12 2017 - 2:46pm

If you accept Allison's recommendation of 12" walls, then I have a some ideas for you to explore. I would suggest a double-wall (2x6 & 2X4) with an ICF foundation. An interior band joist can be hung off of the exterior 2X6 wall and floor joists can be hung off of that band offset from the exterior studs. There are a lot of additional details with vapor/air barriers and window & door openings, but I could write a book here to explain it all. I do not believe in eliminating band joists for structural reasons (including convincing a code officer that you don't need one), but there are ways to pretty effectively insulate them.

Jun 12 2017 - 5:27pm

Bill - I designed a house a few years back for handicap clients that needed no steps to the main floor. What I did was to install 2" rigid foam against the concrete on the inside, then we framed a 2x4 wall 17 1/2 shorter than the basement to accommodate 18" floor trusses and 1 1/2" of the sill plate so we could install 1 1/8" floor sheathing over the trusses and treated sill plate. You still have a 1 1/2" rise from concrete to wood floor, but you could ramp it with concrete or wood. You still end up with 1 1/2" rim joist, but it is the best solution I've done.
I also designed a house 2 years a go with a pier and beam conditioned crawl where the concrete wall had a reversed brick ledge to set the 18" floor trusses in it. You need a sill plate under the trusses and a second sill plate for the bottom plate of the perimeter wall. The top of the wall was 6" wide, so a 2x6 sill plate took must of the width and we install the floor sheathing right to 1/4" off the edge of the concrete. Not step up anywhere, however, the trusses were 1 1/4" short on each end to accommodate 1" of rigid foam between the concrete and the truss ends, to avoid rot on the trusses later on.
If you have more questions, go to my website and call or email me. I hope those two ideas work for you.

Jun 12 2017 - 9:58am

Number one on the list should be misaligned interests. It is without a doubt the single largest problem we have in building high-performance buildings. Until we start clearly identifying performance targets and communicating them witth team members that performance test all of their own work, we're going to continue seeing pathetic results.

Jun 12 2017 - 10:15am

Nice list. I like that it's a good chronological order.

Jun 12 2017 - 10:18am

I believe the largest misconception with home buyers is twofold - 1. Home value always increases if you take care of the cosmetic issues (unlike any other consumer product). 2. Homes are designed to last forever if you take care of the cosmetic issues (unlike commercial structures that are admittedly designed to only last 30 years).
I think the real solution for single-family homes (as opposed to multi-units) is to only have insulated slab-on-grade platforms that can accommodate prefab/modular high-performance homes that will be razed in 20 years to make way for even better new units.

Jun 12 2017 - 11:24am

Interesting. Only problem is that the primary residence is a store of wealth for a majority of homeowners living the US. This is why almost every decision is made with regards to the minimum investment for maximum return.

Jun 12 2017 - 9:50pm

True, but only if the house is kept modernized, the location has a high demand for that type of housing (when you decide to sell), newer (younger) buyers want to live in that type of house with that layout/location/lack of amenities. Too many "ifs" to guarantee that residences are truly a source of wealth. If you total all the resources (both time and money) you continue to pour into a house while living there it is, at best, a hedge against renting because everybody still has to live somewhere. But think of what better uses you could use your resources if you had a different view.

Jun 12 2017 - 10:21am

Excellent list! Now that we know what not to use, the question is what system will work for the masses? Low VOC foam (open & closed), pre-engineered plywood, low permeable water plan, little to no fenestration, and ERV/HRV based on HDD-no?

Jun 12 2017 - 10:50am

Nice try, but if we're really going to solve the problems I suggest we ban homes. See, a shorter list.

Allison
Bailes
Jun 12 2017 - 12:09pm

That's definitely a good direction to take it, Bill. I decided on the equivalent method of banning occupants, however, because it won't increase unemployment the way banning homes will. ;~)

Jun 12 2017 - 11:30am

Great list - there's been more than one time when I've just wanted to implement #61 - that would cure so many problems and lower my blood pressure!
So many times writing rules has overridden common sense - like your example with the excess wood being used to in a header to support a load that isn't there. Somehow we have to get to a balance between what the rules are and why they're there.

Jun 12 2017 - 12:36pm

I'll riff off Mike MacFarland's comment about goals. Publish energy use as EUI at resale. Predict EUI for new builds. Track and rank builders, home performance contractors, etc. Rankings are a carrot and a stick, and they'll get rid of a lot of this crappy stuff.

This problem needs to be solved with demand rather than "there should be a law" type thinking. (I think we agree on this one, Allison!)

BTW, I second getting rid of ventless fireplaces!

Jun 12 2017 - 1:03pm

You forgot:

62. Property - which, as any anarchist will tell you, is theft.

Jun 14 2017 - 10:46am

That would be property taxes. ;)

Jun 12 2017 - 1:16pm

With a few notable exceptions, the problems are rarely the products themselves. Application and execution are more often the cause of problems associated with the various materials and assemblies on the list.

Again with a few notable exceptions observed over the years, I don't think installers purposefully mis-install the products. Rather, they use them the way they learned and acceptance by the builder, inspector and owner gives tacit approval to their execution.

In my opinion the only way to change the quality of construction is to inspect and reject that workmanship and those products and systems not code or standard compliant. Codes are pretty good. Standards such as material application instructions are pretty good. If they're both followed to the letter as a minimum acceptable threshold, our buildings would be durable, safe and comfortable. Yes, they'd also be energy efficient, but I believe energy is the least important measure of building performance.

The challenge is to educate inspectors to recognize proper application and execution. Everyone reading and embracing this blog should be in front of building inspectors regularly. In my experience, building officials and inspectors want to know and want to get it right, but they're charged with a near impossible task. They are required to know, understand and apply the entirety of the IRC, IBC, IMC, IPC, IEC, IECC, and several others. Print all of the codes and it's a volume about 3 feet long! They need and appreciate your help.

Making improper application and execution painful is the only way to change behavior in the construction industry.

Jun 12 2017 - 1:24pm

Skylights

Jun 12 2017 - 1:34pm

Excellent list. Only thing I would add are thermally-massive asphalt-shingle, or 'oil', roofs.

Jun 12 2017 - 3:11pm

Great list Allison and I do believe that some could be eliminated right now. The others will require more thinking to find better ways and/or consumers need to shift their preferences. I do agree with Andrew MacDonald about skylights. I would like to add in another fad, light tubes, which if their benefit were ever compared in a lifecycle analysis to CFs or LEDs, I believe that their payback would be measured in millennials.

Jun 13 2017 - 12:08am

#56 should be a target but then we lose much of the entertainment! ;)

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