61 Things We Should Ban to Improve Home Building
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:
- Powered attic ventilators - They suck conditioned air from your house and backdraft water heaters.
- Ventless gas fireplaces - Even the industry has a hard time justifying these things, which are already banned in Canada and other places.
- Foil-faced bubble wrap - A small step up from insulating paint. Let's use real insulation.
- Batt insulation - It's almost never done right.
- Flex duct - Kinks and sags and ductopuses. Oh, my!
- Recirculating range hoods - Would you want a recirculating toilet? That's what Prof. John Straube compares them to.
- Smart vents - A poor solution for a bad duct system. Do the ducts right to begin with.
- Rules of Thumb - Thumbs are great things but shouldn't be used to size air conditioners.
- Vented crawl spaces - They're moisture and mold factories. And they sometimes allow you to breathe dead possum!
- Vented attics - Too often a place for ducts, powered attic ventilators, and dead bats.
- 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.
- 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.
- Dormers - Too hard to insulate and air seal
- Complex roofs - Likely to cause moisture damage
- Electric resistance heat - It may be 100% efficient...but you can do better!
- Recessed can lights - They're a problem when they're put in the building enclosure, especially vaulted ceilings.
- 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.
- Undercut doors for return air from bedrooms - They're just not going to let all the air get back to the main return.
- Dryer vents terminating near air conditioner condenser units - Blowing lint into those fins is a good way to kill the efficiency of your AC.
- High flow range hoods - You really don't want your house to suck that bad, do you?
- Excess wood - Less room for insulation, more thermal bridging, and it's just a waste of money and resources.
- Zoning that requires less than 12 units per acre - More density is better for location efficiency.
- Unbalanced ventilation - Like that unbalanced cousin of yours, you just don't want it in your house.
- Thermal bridging - Would you leave cow-sized gaps in your cattle pen?
- 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?
- 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.
- 2x4 walls - Eventually all walls will have to be at least 12" thick.
- Ceiling fans - People don't turn them off when they're out of the room anyway.
- 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.
- Combustion appliances - Long after our caveman ancestors discovered fire, we're still polluting our caves with combustion products.
- Bonus rooms - Nobody uses that room anyway. It's too uncomfortable.
- Attic kneewalls - One of several reasons bonus rooms are so uncomfortable. Rarely done right.
- Energy modeling - See Manual J above.
- Storm doors - They're not a great investment for saving energy.
- Thermostats - Too many people set them incorrectly anyway, sometimes at the suggestion of their helpful HVAC service company.
- Rim and band joists insulated with anything other than spray foam - It's just not going to work.
- Spray foam insulation - It smells. It shrinks. Some greenie weenies don't like it.
- Rim and band joists - Since there's now no way to insulate, they must be banned. Ban the band!
- HERS ratings -Wildly imprecise. Didn't you see my article on the Stockton study?
- HERS raters and energy modelers - Why should we pay for something so imprecise?
- Cantilevers - We'll never get to 1 ACH50 and no thermal bridging without eliminating cantilevers.
- Homes without advanced framing - See excess wood above.
- 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.
- HVAC contractors - The industry is broken. It's time to start over.
- Home builders - Ditto HVAC contractors
- Windows - One of the biggest liabilities for heat loss/gain and moisture problems.
- Site-built homes - The only way we'll ever get good houses is to build them in factories in China.
- Blower door testing - We should use that money for air sealing instead.
- Single family homes - Too inefficient
- Tiny houses - A fad for millennials who don't know they're just expensive trailers
- 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.
- Ugly houses - As Joe Lstiburek said, "Ugliness is not sustainable."
- ENERGY STAR New Homes Version 3 - Builders abandoned it in 2012 anyway.
- LEED - Can we really support a program that requires all-glass houses!?
- Passive House - A boutique program for architects who think they can do physics.
- Know-it-all bloggers - Someone's always got to come behind them to dispel the myths they create when they try to dispel myths.
- Stack effect - Too controversial
- Psychrometrics - Too complicated. Have you seen that chart!?
- Rain and snow - The cause of so many problems with houses
- Hot and cold weather - A terrible waste of energy
- 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.
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