Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Think Outside The Box
Let's go to The Big Rock Candy Mountain today. Fantasyland. Through the looking glass. Soar on a flight of fancy. Blue-sky. Let's lose our minds and pretend we're building a house.
I know, near no one is building a house right about now. But I'd like to illustrate a concept by the only important economist in contemporary American life -- a dead Frenchman, of all things --Frederic Bastiat.
When I was going to build my first house, I had no money. This seems to be a recurring theme in my life. I had attended architectural school for about ten minutes, until they'd explained to me that under no circumstances would anything to do with traditional residential housing be discussed, never mind taught. What I know I taught myself.
My head was as full of tapioca as the next guy, so I thought maybe there was another answer to the question: How should a single-family house be built? I looked into dozens of freaky-deaky approaches. I made piles of drawings, one bad idea after another, trying to get a free housing lunch. I was stupid, but not stupid enough to ignore the arithmetic each approach yielded. Ignoring arithmetic is for rich people, and seems to be enshrined in a Constitutional Amendment that got ratified while I was asleep, now. I ended up building a traditional, small, Cape Cod Style home.
So let's do some of the arithmetic I did. You're building a house (snicker) in the Northeast. How to frame it?
The standard platform framed (one story at a time) wood frame house has walls built from 2x4 "studs." A 2x4 stud is 1-1/2" thick and 3-1/2" wide, and is 92-5/8" long. It is made from spruce, pine, or fir, woods that are light, strong, easy to work, and easy to grow and harvest. Drywall and blueboard (for plaster) are sheets 4 feet wide, so two sheets laid sideways will leave about 1/2" extra between the ceiling and the floor, and the seams will mostly be at waist level and easy to tape. That's why a stud is 92-5/8" long; there's usually a good reason why things are traditional in these matters. Wood studs are placed on a single bottom plate, under a double top plate (plates made from 2x4s also) 16" on center. You start your framing 15-1/4" from the end so that exterior sheet goods (plywood or OSB, the ersatz plywood made from wood chips and glue) will break on the center of a stud. Sheet goods are 4' by 8'. Four studs on 16" centers equals four feet. Monkey-level adding and subtracting is enough to build a normal house.
In the "bays," the interior area between the studs, you place fiberglass batt insulation before you enclose them. The insulation is sized to fit snugly in the bay, about 15" wide, and comes in long rolls, usually. Batt insulation installation is one of the few things a dedicated homeowner can accomplish better than a trained professional.
Here comes the arithmetic. Energy worriers say a 2x4 wall isn't thick enough for enough insulation to suit them. They want a 2x6 wall instead. Or more exotic insulation than inexpensive, safe, easy-to-use fiberglass. Or both, usually. Thicker insulation will allow less heat to escape, and save money over the life of the house. This seems to make sense. Like most things that seems to make sense to intellectuals nowadays, it doesn't make any sense at all.
2x4 walls don't lose all that much heat in a house. Heat leaves mostly via your windows, and through air leaks and from opening and closing doors. Most heat leaves your house by going straight up, anyway --the reason why there's a lot of insulation in your attic compared to your walls.
Framing your walls with thicker framing costs a lot of money. The lumber costs more. The resultant walls weigh a lot more and require more men or machinery to lift up into place, as it's traditional to build them lying flat. The insulation costs more; it's thicker. Your windows and doors will cost more because they need jamb extensions for the additional wall thickness. The painter will want a taste for more woodwork.
People that don't care about anything but energy use will do the arithmetic for you, and they will lie about how much you'll spend (it will be more) and how much you'll save (it will be less). Even their rosy scenario will likely have you attending your unborn children's college graduation, if he's on the Blutarsky path, before you see a dime of savings. The truth is, it doesn't make any sense, and likely never will.
But that stuff's obvious. Obviously stupid things are written into law nowadays, never mind commonly tried. Let's go further. A 2x6 wall is 2" thicker than a 2x4 wall. Walls stand on your floors, not outside them. Your rooms are all smaller. No one considers this. The handwavers will ignore this calculation. I wouldn't.
The perimeter of even a small house is pretty big. My house isn't enormous, but its perimeter is 320 linear feet. Remember, two stories means you're doing this twice. 320' x 12" x the 2" you've given up is 7680 square inches, or 53 square feet of living space.
53 square feet of living space is a lot. It's almost 3 percent of the total. It's a half-bath's worth of room. If you're an energy loon, you'll counter that my house is too big. Everyone's house but the energy loon's house is too big, if you ask them. But if my house is too big, why wouldn't I just make it 53 square feet smaller and then frame it with 2x4s and save a pile of money that way? It costs 100-125 dollars per square foot to build a plebeian house. Saving 5300 to 6625 bucks by doing nothing is smarter than spending tens of thousands extra to try to save it over a half-century.
Spending enormous amounts of time, effort, and money to achieve vanishingly small, probably illusory returns while making the average citizen's life less comfortable. It's the New American Way.
[Update: Barnes and Noble and Amazon are having a price war over my book. Buy it now for only $8.60]