How does a book about homebuilding written shortly after World War I relate to today’s common construction practices?
In a book published by Weyerhaeuser in the early 1920s called “High Cost of Cheap Construction,” the authors highlighted the importance of high-quality construction and railed against poor materials and workmanship.
“Cheating on the construction of a house is like robbing a child of its health. It takes a lot of doctor bills to make a [healthy child]. The history of a house is written not [only in] the first purchase price but also the future maintenance, upkeep and repair bills.”
One key construction practice was obvious nearly 100 years ago: “Leaving a section of the house without insulation or failing to fit the material snugly at all points is on par with protecting against… a subzero night by tucking the bed covers in carefully at the sides of the bed and failing to do so at the foot.”
Yet we’re still building homes with insulation that’s unable to “fit the material snugly at all points” and seal our homes from the elements. And it’s costing us dearly in increased energy bills and greenhouse gas emissions over the lives of our homes.
Most of today’s homes are built with insulation systems commercialized mid-last century – air permeable batts hung between wood studs – that result in relatively low R-value and “leaky” homes.
Many of our homes unfortunately still lose too much energy due to outdated building practices, construction based on older building codes, and low-tech insulation.
Modern, high-tech building materials are much better at controlling the indoor environment and sealing our homes to keep the weather where it belongs.
How? While there are multiple highly effective plastic insulation products, many have something in common: trapped air. They use a small amount of plastic material filled with insulating pockets of air. Like those coolers that can keep ice frozen for days.
For example, foam board products are made to provide a continuous insulation layer that covers the wood framing to cut down on heat loss through the studs. These boards can be used to insulate exterior surfaces of the home, under foundations and on walls and roofs. They are also water resistant and help prevent condensation and mold growth.
Spray foam insulation and air sealing materials have similar qualities and can expand to fill wall and ceiling cavities to help block unwanted movement of air that makes homes uncomfortable. They also help keep out moisture, dust, insects, and other contaminants.
Plus, we can retrofit our existing, aging, leaky homes with these modern insulation materials.
How well do these materials work? As an example, a 2021 study found that if all U.S. single-family homes used plastic spray foam insulation, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be equivalent to taking nearly 40 million cars off the road each year. It also would reduce greenhouse emissions related to home heating/cooling by as much as a whopping 40%.
Plus, improved energy efficiency can reduce our energy needs. For example, a 2022 study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) found that if federally financed homes were upgraded to our nation’s energy efficiency requirements, homeowners would save thousands of dollars in energy costs over the lives of these homes.
So why are so many homes still built without modern insulation?
Most likely because some of these modern building materials may not be as economical in the short run – that is, they may raise initial building costs. But using them is sort of like installing solar energy: It may require an up-front investment, but it pays dividends over time. Dividends in increased energy efficiency, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and lower energy costs. (In the ACEEE study, payback time for the added cost of efficiency upgrades was only two years.)
Saving money over time. Helping create a lighter environmental footprint. All while contributing to a more resilient, lower carbon national infrastructure.
As the book “High Cost of Cheap Construction” reveals, we’ve known for nearly a century (and likely much longer) that it’s best to use up-to-date, high performing materials to prevent leaky homes.
We have the modern materials today that can help drive down the cost of homeownership. Let’s use them.