By Jesse Reimer, Architectural Technologist
I recently embarked on a journey to design and build my own house. This event has been profoundly transformative as I struggle with the weight of all the decisions and the importance they carry. There are plenty of certification programs out there for energy efficiency. Net Zero, for example is gaining in popularity and Passive House certified buildings are popping up around the world. As I gaze at the drawings of my newly designed house, which is currently in the early stages of construction, my mind wanders through the wilderness of energy standards and codes, flooded with contradictory statements and slanted statistics about ‘paybacks’.
This is my house. I get to design, and specify how it is made. I don’t have to pander to any system or certification (aside from what code dictates) and can run free with the items I find important. Now what are they? How do I decide, when my wallet is on the line, what I will take a stand on? What battles am I willing to fight for, and where will I allow ‘building tradition’ to overpower? We have come a long way in building science and technology, and the traditional rules are good guidelines and starting-off points, but I am determined to challenge and redefine them.
What I need is a proper balance to measure where the decisions matter. When deciding on the building system for my house I have to weigh the benefits compared to the costs. Should I do a simple payback comparison to decide on the depth of insulation in my walls? Should I try to follow some well establish standard? After all, they are crafted by committees full of smart people; they must know what they are doing, right?
When I think of a home I have a feeling of permanence. It is the place we all come back to, and is the setting to share life with friends and family. I want a house that will be generational, durable and sustainable (not in the ‘green’ sense but something that could be sustained, i.e. maintenance and running costs).
At the end of the day, the bottom line will be the closing statement. To clarify, after the house is built one of the prominent ruling factors is cost, and as such the cost should be kept close, or at least given an obligatory nod when the design starts. I am still the master here, but if I want to live in my house and be able to afford the payments (sustainable) then I need not design it with a roof top swimming pool (as nice as that would be). All this is to say that my decisions have a cost to them, and the weight I place on the cost is led by durability.
I recently read an article titled: Durability Matters: Lessons from a 1960s Ranch by Andy Engel. Early in the article, the author states contradictorily that “durability doesn’t matter”. He goes on to unpack this simplistic statement by expanding it to say “durability isn’t enough”. He explains that choosing a durable countertop for a kitchen that will likely only last 10 years, takes away the importance and value of the material, because the first thing the next owner of the house is likely to do is install a new kitchen.
This thought on durability and redefining it to life expectancy starts to change how I weigh my cost considerations. For example, when I consider the kitchen I may choose not to go with complete custom hand-made solid wood cabinetry, since the cost would be astronomical. If you are paying attention, it is here you should interject – ‘But Jesse I thought you wanted to build your house as a generational home to build a life in?” and you would be exactly right. But even in the temporary abode I currently call home, I renovated the kitchen. The simple truth is that it is easy to do, inconvenient but simple. The finishes of a house, its final dressing, are the easiest to change.
Did you know the easiest way to redo a kitchen and completely change the aesthetic is to replace the doors and hardware? If we go back to Engel’s thought-changing article reference, a simple paragraph title will tell all: Design affects the importance of durability. If I design a great kitchen layout and put in strong cabinets, all the next owner needs to do is change the door faces and they have a completely new kitchen designed specifically to their tastes.
The hardest part of the building is to change is the building envelope. If the average person had to decide between a good kitchen or a good foundation, I would estimate the majority of people would chose the house with the good foundation. It is common knowledge that the foundation is harder to replace, fix or change than the kitchen. I know the realtor will advise me to spend money in the kitchen because that is the best investment with the highest return. But the place where I put the most weight on value is the building envelope - the shell of the house. Everything, and I am not exaggerating when I say this, EVERYTHING is gravy if you have a good building envelope. You don’t paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel if the roof leaks.
When I began this design journey, a quote By Christopher Alexander came to mind. It was from a video series I watch titled: How Buildings Learn. In one of the episodes the question is asked – “What is it that costs the most in housing? Is it the plumbing, the foundation, the wall, the windows, the roof?… Actually the answer is it is the mortgage.”
In the series they go on to say that the mortgage will cost about three times that of the building itself. If I design my house to serve my current needs, leave room for future needs, and allow easy ways to change the interior use, then I have created a sustainable building. A simplified example of this is leaving an unfinished basement. This way the house stays more affordable and I can modify as I want, when I want. This allows for people to add to the house when they have the finances available. Leaving the future home owner to imagine the needs they have for the space.
Remember, I am building a generational home - not being cheap. On the contrary, I am building a house that far exceeds building standards. Build it once and build it right. As I continue with my decision paradigm, I will start with the building envelope. Now I just need to figure out how to do it wisely, after all, I am a building geek.