Friday, July 24, 2015

Home Construction in the Wild West - so you want to buy a home in the Southwest

I decided to write an article about recent posts on Green Building Advisor (my favorite website) which covered examples of construction practices on homes in Arizona. The initial author of the posts took pictures of several homes during construction and they are absolutely horrifying in terms of quality. I suggested to this author that there needs to be a website (Facebook, blog, whatever social media that will reach people) showing these practices as one method of educating future home buyers. When homebuyers start looking at homes in these areas, this website will come up during their computer searches and become a source of information on buying a safe, secure home. So in an effort to back up my suggestion with action I decided to write one or more blog posts about this situation. That is what follows.

If you want to buy a home in the Southwest, you will be looking for an attractive home that will be comfortable and safe for your family. This article covers some of the construction details that you need to look for or ask about when you buy a home. It shows what is hidden details that you wouldn't be able to see.

One of the most important issues in making a comfortable home in this area of the country is energy efficiency. You want to be protected from the elements which can be brutal. For example in Phoenix, Arizona July 2014, the high temperatures reached above 100 degrees every day. The lowest temperature during the entire month was 80 degrees. Your home has to protect you or you will spend an exorbitant amount of money air conditioning the home.

How does a home do this? By the building enclosure also called the building envelope - the parts of the building the separate the inside conditioned part of a building from the outside elements.

The photo below shows what is called "open framing" where the the wood structural panels are only on the corners to prevent the home from moving. The walls in the center will be covered with a weather resistant barrier and covered with a one inch foam sheet, then stucco on the outside. The inside consists of fiberglass and drywall. In other words, there is not much separation from the elements. Also you see the flashing around the windows? Flashing is supposed to be taped to something solid so that any water that gets behind the siding will drain away from the wall. If the tape just hangs in the wind, it is unable to direct water away from the components in the wall. We call this "air flashing" or a waste of tape.

Photo courtesy of Green Building Advisor 
A better view of "Air Flashing" a Window
Air flashing as seen from the inside of the home
You can tell that the air flashing will not stop any water from getting into the wall of the home.

And what about things like bugs? Does this construction method keep bugs out?

Interior wall detail showing air gaps and the green pest tube
You can see light at the base of the wall. The paper is not remotely secured to the wall. Bugs have an easy time getting into the walls. So how do you fix that? "Pest tubes" are hollow tubes where high pressure insecticide is sprayed into the walls. I would prefer a more robust wall to keep bugs out in the first place.

Addendum 7-26-15: My cardboard halloween houses are more secure than this. Do you see daylight leaking through the seams? Even the windows are sealed all around with glue and tape.

How can you tell if you are purchasing a home built so poorly? It may not be easy. You might get distracted by the pretty finishing features like granite countertops, but you need to try because these construction details significantly impact how comfortable you will be in the home. You can push on the exterior wall and see how easily the wall gives. When you tour the home, see what the temperature is set on and what the inside temperature is. If the air conditioners can't even reach the set temperature, that's one clue that the home isn't built to energy code standards. If there are completed homes in the neighborhood, you may be able to ask the power company what the average home's electricity bill is in that area. Ask the builder how is the home insulated and is it insulated to at least building code levels. He (or she) will be shocked that you even asked, but that will be a good thing.

This is a just a brief introduction to poor construction in the Wild West. Other examples to follow, but also we will cover some excellent building practices in the west as well.

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