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


Casey Klahn said...

R-value explained away with one of the classic three R's: 'rithmatic.

Your story makes too much sense. But, that's what keeps bringing me back.

John Lien said...

Good to hear. The "new" house, built by pros, is built with 2x4s and I thought we were making a big concession. The small, unfinished house I built, 100 feet away, with 2x6 walls, is rather hot and chilly given that it still needs insulation and drywall.

Yeah, I bought into the energy saving madness.

I think the energy crisis of the 70s had a warping effect on me akin to the effect the Great depression had on my and my wife's parents.

Anonymous said...

Well done. Been enjoying your site for years (a la Gerald Gerard Van der Leun's recomendation). Just bought your book and will give you my assessment via amazon (I am certain the only rating it will take is 5 star so I won't even bother with any of the others).

BrettonPoint said...

Would Mr Al McMansion Gore be aware of your radical un progressive thoughts on home building? Thought so!

Jimmy J. said...

Too much common sense in this. As you mentioned, for energy savings the builder would be better off spending the money on very good windows (triple pane, gas infused), sealing all the little cracks and gaps, and making sure the insulation is well done. A very good, leak proof vapor barrier helps a lot.

In a sunny climate like Colorado, passive solar design can save big on energy bills. But it takes some know how to get the south facing windows sized right and the passive mass (collects and radiates heat) right. I lived in a passive solar house in Boulder, CO some years back. It had too much south facing glass and not enough passive mass (stone/concrete). A sunny day in January would overheat the house. Had to open the windows to keep things comfortable. It did save on heat bills.

Anonymous said...

Don't say "energy". "Energy" is a scam, a handwave designed to confuse the issue.

Physicists came up with "energy" as a unifying concept that makes some of the maths easier. Something that's up high has "potential energy". Something that's moving fast has "kinetic energy". Something that burns has "chemical energy". What do a hammer lying on top of a ladder and a fire have in common? Energy.

In every case, "energy" is the unseen and unknowable that allows work to be done -- that is, power. Energy is only visible when it's converted to power.

They aren't telling you to "use less energy". They're telling you to have less power.


SippicanCottage said...

Hi Casey- Thanks as always.

Hi John- Thanks for reading and commenting. I hope you'll be happy in your new home.

Hi Derek- Thanks for your purchase and for your kind words. I have a great deal of respect and affection for Gerard.

Hi Bretton- One aspect of the whole shebang I omitted is that thicker walls allow less light into the interior of a house, because the windows are in a sort of niche. You generally need more artificial light in a thick-walled house. More waste.

Hi Jimmy- As you say, American houses should vary by location. A kind of numbing sameness in house design all over America is a real problem.

I find window placement and the solar orientation of the house is more important than how expensive the windows are. Windows are just placed willy-nilly now, and the whole house is just nailed on the ass end of a garage a lot, too. The sun never shines into a lot of modern houses. It's an (expensive0 shame.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

Hi Ric- Thanks for reading and commenting. I share your distaste for euphemism in these matters.

Thud said...

Another classic post, i may just give up blogging and work and hang out here for edumakation.

jed said...

Just recently arrived here by way of The Smallest Minority. Nice place you have here.

But I'm wondering about that only important economist in contemporary American life. I dunno. Thomas Sowell? Henry Hazlitt? Ludwig von Mises? Friedrich Hayek? Nothing against Bastiat, of course.

Ben David said...

All my Yankee rule of thumb knowledge about houses went out the window when we moved to Israel.

Here prospective buyers are so suspicious of sheetrock that they rap their knuckles on the wall to make sure it's solid lath-and-plaster-on-cinderblock. I can't begin to describe the mess and expense of even minor electrical/plumbing repairs.

Wood? The Turks and Brits cut down what little forest there was to build railroads. Anyway it's all concrete, brick, stone and block - lotsa "passive mass" in this climate.

Also some interesting designs based on Roman/Arab prototypes - tall L or U shaped houses whose interior courtyards are shaded by the house itself. Open living areas/passages under second-story overhangs or loggias. Sleeping porches enclosed by breeze blocks.

And various nifty roof vents.

Around here recessed windows are a plus. In fact our equivalent of stupid modern house design is picture windows without shutters or roller-blinds, in a locale with a brutal 6-month sunny season.

And totally ignoring solar orientation when laying out developments.

SippicanCottage said...

Hi Thud- None of that now. Get back to work!

Hi Jed- Thanks for reading and commenting.

We just paid Americans to take perfectly usable cars out back and destroy them, so we could all get rich replacing them. We made everyone smash their perfectly good lightbulbs so we could get rich replacing them. The United States is now a negative railroad themepark.

It's Bastiat morning, noon, and night around here. The other fellas can't get a word in edgewise.

Hi Ben David- There are parts of the southwestern US that need the same sort of housing you're describing. The housing stock in America used to be more varied, and more suitable to its surroundings. Uniformity is leading to bad houses everywhere.