An Indictment of the Green Movement (The Sequel)

By
Home Inspector with Charles Buell Inspections Inc.

Several years ago I wrote a post called, “A Reasoned Indictment of the Green Movement.”

In that post I detailed a method of building super-insulated houses that did not cost any more than conventional 2×4 houses. A question that came up in comments on that article boiled down to, “That sounds great, but how are they doing now, some 30 to 40 years later.”

I had no adequate answer to the question, so I made it my mission to get back and check on some of them. Fortunately some of them were still occupied by, or at least owned by, the people I originally designed and built them for. I made the trip to the Oswego/Syracuse NY area this past summer and had a blast reconnecting with my clients and visiting the homes.

It is not without a certain amount of trepidation that one takes a step into the past like this.

The very first house I ever designed and built was this house in Oswego NY.  Being just before the Bi-Centennial Year, it even had the Armstrong flooring with the printed date on it.

The first, 1975, 2×6 construction

It was the only house I built on a concrete foundation—concrete block actually. All the houses that would follow, were built on wood foundations.  It has some early passive solar ideas built into it but was a far cry from where the houses would be 10 years later.

Some of the angst over these homes revolved around them being built on wood foundations. While all the homes appeared to be doing fine, the least of their problems were the wood foundations.

Of all of the houses I designed and built, I think my favorite is the octagon house I originally designed for myself but built for my clients in 1983. But before I discuss that house, I will post some pictures of the houses that came before that. There were others besides these, but these are the ones I visited, or at least drove by to take some pictures.

The next two were done in 1976/77. I truly had no life back then as I would work on my client’s house from 4 in the morning until about noon and then go home and work on my own house until it was too dark to see.

1976/77, 2x8 construction with sliding interior insulated shutters.1976/77, 2×8 construction with sliding interior insulated shutters.

 

1976/77, 2x6 construction, the deck came 20 years later by others.1976/77, 2×6 construction, the deck came 20 years later by others.

 

1976/77, 2x6 construction, the deck came 20 years later by others.
1976/77, 2×6 construction

 

In 1978, came the duplex that was entered in the 1979 New York State Energy Research & Development Administration (NYSERDA) competition and was one of the winners published in 1979 NYSERDA Passive Solar Design Awards.

1978, Duplex, 2x8 construction, with interior sliding insulated shutters.1978, Duplex, 2×8 construction, with interior sliding insulated shutters.

 

1980?, 2×8 construction, with interior sliding insulated shutters.

(The addition with the inadequate overhang at the back of the house came later, as did the wrap around deck.)

 

And now the real stuff starts.

1983 begins the use of 2×10 truss type studs for wall framing. The first of these was in 1983, in Skaneateles, NY—the octagon house.

 

1983, 2×10 truss studs, with interior insulating shutters1983, 2×10 truss studs, with interior insulating shutters

This made the walls R-42+, with R-50+ in the attic—all blown cellulose fiber insulation. There were insulated shutters for the windows.

Before visiting this home, I figured that for sure the shutters would be long gone. But nope, like most of the interior, it looked like the day I left it 33 years ago.


 

The custom cabinets, built on site, also looked like the day I left.


This house was constructed over a crawl space, and even though it has totally inadequate ventilation by today’s standards, moisture levels in woodwork throughout the space were well below 10%. A double 6 mil vapor barrier under 4 inches of concrete and a small dehumidifier can be credited with these moisture levels. Interestingly, this house is in a high radon area, and levels tested well below 4pCi/L. This result is consistent with all properly installed wood foundation systems that naturally resist radon infiltration to the home.




At the time I built this house there was an idea that felt paper was not really necessary under shingles. All my building career I had the good fortune of having clients that were as big of risk takers as I was and were willing to try out new ideas. After 32 years the roof needed replacement (not bad for a standard 3-tab shingle roof) and the owners were kind enough to share pictures taken of the roof replacement. Here is a picture of one of the segments with just the roof sheathing showing.



My immediate reaction was, “VERY nice job replacing the sheathing!” His reply was, “No—that is YOUR sheathing!” I couldn’t believe it. It looked like the day I installed it 32 years earlier. Note that even along the edge, there has clearly been no ice-damming or signs of moisture at all. As you can see in this next picture, there is ample opportunity for ice damns with the normal snow fall in the area.



By modern standards the attic space would be considered “under-ventilated” yet the attic looked as pristine as the day I left it. This is a testament to 14 inches of blown cellulose fiber insulation, vapor barriers painted on walls and ceilings, raised heel trusses, and adequate air sealing.
dscn0257

The attic as pristine as the day I left it

 

The next house was done somewhere around 1985, and I was only able to do a drive-by of this house.


1985 or so, 2x10 truss studs1985 or so, 2×10 truss studs

The last house I built in the area was 1988.  I was fortunate enough to be able to spend the night with my good friends and clients on this visit.


1988, 2x10 truss studs, R-60 in roof.1988, 2×10 truss studs, R-60 in roof.

With this house I learned that even I am capable of inadequate installation of cellulose fiber, as some settlement was noted with infrared camera.


     
      The purple area at the ceiling to the right of the stove pipe is an area of settlement.

While I still am sure it is possible to install cellulose fiber so it does not settle, I am now equally sure it can be installed such that it does settle. When you have walls that essentially have no boundaries—as with truss type studs, it is difficult to get the necessary compaction consistently throughout the wall cavity.

The anatomy of a truss stud wall

Newer high density installation processes would eliminate this concern and of course these spaces can easily be re-packed with minimal invasiveness. My estimate for this house was that settlement amounted to about one good sized window—and of course the wall would still have a higher R-value than any double pane window.

So while most of these houses seemed to be behaving themselves remarkably well, they still had a lot to teach me. Like any home, some need maintenance more than others. All could benefit from more modern standards and certainly could benefit from what I know now as opposed to what I knew then.

But I guess this is how progress is made. This last house, now 28 years old, had a recent blower door test of under 1 ACH50 (air changes per hour at 50 Pascals). Not too bad when compared to the cost of homes today that meet that level of tightness.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Rainmaker
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Carol Williams
U.S.: I specialize in helping agents who have been in the business 2 years or less create a thriving business. - Wenatchee, WA
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Hi Charles,
Thank you for this trip back into your past.  I really enjoyed reading this post and applaud your high quality work!

Nov 28, 2016 08:28 AM #1
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Anna Banana Kruchten CRB, CRS, Broker
Phoenix Property Shoppe - Phoenix, AZ
Arizona's Top Banana of Real Estate!

Charles this is a fascinating look back over your career of building green homes. It's so awesome that you were able to go back and actually visit and see the homes and the owners/friends. Doesn't get any better than this! I'm so glad you shared your stories!

 

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Nov 28, 2016 09:11 AM #2
Rainmaker
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Gene Mundt, IL/WI Mortgage Originator - FHA/VA/Conv/Jumbo/Portfolio/Refi
NMLS #216987, IL Lic. 031.0006220, WI Licensed. APMC NMLS #175656 - New Lenox, IL
708.921.6331 - 40+ yrs experience

An amazing accounting of your efforts and life, Charles Buell ... and one that you can obviously take great pride in.  With so many of the homes standing the test of time you should pat yourself on the back.  Well done!

Gene 

Nov 28, 2016 01:46 PM #3
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Dick Greenberg
New Paradigm Partners LLC - Fort Collins, CO
Northern Colorado Residential Real Estate

Hi Charles - That's a fascinating look back and interesting results. And you can build me a home anytime you decide to get back in the biz.

Nov 28, 2016 01:51 PM #4
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Jay Markanich
Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC - Bristow, VA
Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia

My experience with the "green" movement is that everything costs more green!

However, smart building, like thick walls and better insulation is not green, it is simply smart.  I enjoyed the post and how smart you were with putting those houses together! 

Nov 28, 2016 03:00 PM #5
Rainmaker
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Jay Markanich
Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC - Bristow, VA
Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia

No, what has happend to green is politics and it has gotten away from smart thinking in favor of thinking like some bureaucrat wants the sheep to think.

I LOVE LED bulbs, which have gotten cheaper because of economics and the profit motive and NOT politics.  I have a bunch in my lamps and fixtures in the house.  The first one I bought was for the lamp in my front yard, which was 800watts, and lights up the whole street!  But it cost $18.  It better darn well last a long time.

But when "they" (the bureaucrats) banned incandescents I went out and bought a boat load of them, not because I think they are the best (because they aren't bad, albeit hotter), but because I DETEST the idea that I am perceived by some office idiot somewhere to be a sheep that will do what the office idiot wants.  I am a Son of the American Revolution - we react to tyranny like that, soft or hard.

Remember the sheep in Animal Farm?  They were the group that simply repeated whatever mantra the pigs (Russian bureaucrats) wanted them to repeat.  The pigs had them saying "Four legs good, two legs bad," at the outset and then, when the pigs changed to two legs had the sheep start repeating, "Two legs good, four legs bad."  It's all optics. 

Green as a word and concept has become so watered down it is undefinable now - like the words rights, and racist, and bigot, and islamophobe, and homophobe, and all the other phobes that have been wrongly overused, and watered down to meaninglessness...

You weren't being green all those years ago, you were perceptive and smart. 

You weren't saving the planet, you were saving people money by smart forethought.  Hey, you were saving their green!  Now that's an indictment of green!

 

Sorry for the rant.  I still loved the post, Shadow.  Say, how is the Shadow doing these days?

Nov 29, 2016 10:36 AM #6
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Kathy Streib
Room Service Home Staging - Delray Beach, FL
Home Stager - Palm Beach County,FL -561-914-6224

Charles- I am in awe of this and Larry wants to read it as well.   Larry built homes in Texas and Florida and the main question asked was why they couldn't build a home to withstand a hurricane.  They could but not eveyone was willing to pay for it or like your clients, take a few risks. 

Nov 30, 2016 09:11 AM #7
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Kathy Streib
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                                    Thank you Charles Buell 

Dec 03, 2016 05:44 PM #8
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Sandy Padula and Norm Padula, JD, GRI
Realty National - Carlsbad, CA
Presence, Persistence & Perseverance

Charles Buell These subsequent homeowners of your creations are very lucky homeowners indeed. This is a very positive post and you should be very proud of these homes.

Dec 04, 2016 04:48 AM #9
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Gita Bantwal
RE/MAX Centre Realtors - Warwick, PA
REALTOR,ABR,CRS,SRES,GRI - Bucks County & Philadel

Thank you for sharing this interesting story. Have a good day.

Dec 04, 2016 05:04 AM #10
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Wayne Martin
Wayne M Martin - Chicago, IL
Real Estate Broker

Good morning Charles. Some ideas well ahead of their times and adaptable today! Thanks for sharing. Enjoy your day!

Dec 04, 2016 05:12 AM #11
Rainmaker
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Nick & Trudy Vandekar, 610-203-4543
Long & Foster Real Estate Inc 610-225-7400 - Devon, PA
Tredyffrin Easttown Realtors, Philly Main Line

Very interesting article. As mentioned in your comments we cannot build the same house everywhere, unfortunately looking around America that seems to be what builders do, because it is cheaper and more profit oriented than focusing on the client needs. 

Dec 04, 2016 08:42 AM #12
Rainmaker
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Sharon Tara
Sharon Tara Transformations - Portsmouth, NH
New Hampshire Home Stager

I really enjoyed your trip back in time and am so glad you shared it with us.

Dec 04, 2016 01:29 PM #13
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Patricia Kennedy
RLAH Real Estate - Washington, DC
Home in the Capital

Charlie, I really love the looks of these homes!. They have indeed withstood the test of time!

Dec 04, 2016 07:11 PM #14
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