Wed 25 Aug 2010
Homebuilding techniques are not a topic I usually spend much time reading about, but I’ve found a new book titled Crafting the Considerate House to be surprisingly intriguing.
The word “considerate,” by the way, is being used here to mean more than just environmentally considerate — although that’s included. Indeed, the book in places argues that certain so-called “green” construction techniques are in reality not all that friendly to the environment.
I probably wouldn’t have picked up the book were it not that the author, David Gerstel of Kensington, has been a friend for more than 30 years.
David is a successful homebuilder, as well as a writer. Crafting the Considerate House is his fourth book, three of which are geared to builders. What sets this book apart from others in the field is that its often-humorous narrative describes the actual construction of a house, which the author built in 2007 on 19th Street in San Pablo.
At each stage of building — from designing the house to installing kitchen cabinets — David’s book explains why he decided to do what he did and what the tradeoffs were when he rejected the alternatives, whether they were in the foundation, the framing, the design of a staircase, or the carpet on the floor.
Architonic, a word David coined, is used to mean “the quality possessed by buildings that satisfy all our senses, not only the visual (with which the term ‘architecture’ is so heavily associated).”
Some of this is fairly straightforward stuff. Good ventilation is vital to air quality inside a house, for example.
By dollarwise, David means frugal spending so as to avoid waste, to preserve money for meeting various construction goals, and to keep within a budget so that a tradesman and his family can afford to rent the completed house. (David makes clear he is not writing about building “MacMansions.”)
An architonic house, meanwhile, looks attractive to passersby and fits the character of its neighborhood. It’s comfortable to live in for a variety of reasons: windows are placed to let in the proper amount of light, the floor plan is laid out so that sounds from one room don’t carry into another, there is plenty of space for social events, and so forth.
The most controversial part of the book is bound to be his calculations as to what types of construction are considerate of the environment. Some of his advice is generally accepted. Low-flow faucets and low-flush toilets save considerable water. However, he also notes that hot-water heaters that are too far from faucets waste significant amounts of water.
Nor does he believe that on-demand water heaters, which are often considered green, are the best approach dollarwise or environmentally. For example, they are more expensive to install and require more maintenance than hot-water heaters. In addition, they occasionally encourage overuse of hot water, he writes.
In contrast, creating a good “thermal boundary” with insulation and tight sealing to keep a house from losing hot or cool air to the outdoors is extremely important environmentally, David notes. It greatly affects the amount of energy needed for heating or cooling.
Creating rooftop gardens, on the other hand, can be an environmental travesty, according to his book. Do these “green roofs” on large, luxurious homes benefit the environment, David asks, or are they “merely… a green veil to disguise the predatory character of the building beneath?”
After listening to a biologist expound upon green roofs, David writes, he pointed “to a nearby old warehouse [and] asked [the biologist] whether he would like to put a green roof on top of it. ‘Oh yes,’ he replied. I explained that as a builder I saw a potential consequence that might not come immediately to his biologist’s mind. Putting a garden atop the warehouse would require that it be heavily strengthened.
“Constructing the concrete footings, columns, trusses, and steel connections required for that strengthening, not to mention all the components of the green roof itself — the waterproof membrane, protection for the membrane, drainage mats, irrigation systems, soil, and plants — would register a series of substantial environmental impacts.
“They included: Extracting raw material from the earth for every component. Processing it. Manufacturing it. Transporting it. Transporting workers back and forth to the site to reconstruct the building and install the green roof. Disposing of or recycling of waste. And then more impacts from extraction through transport and disposal for year after year of maintenance.
“‘Oh yes,’ the biologist assured me, he knew about all of that. ‘Well in that case,’ I asked him, ‘was it possible the environmental benefits that a garden atop the warehouse roof would deliver might be outweighed by environmental hits left in its wake?’….
“If, in fact, it appeared that the roof would result in net environmental damage, would he advise against the green roof? ….He said he did not care about cost/benefit analysis. ‘I’m not a numbers guy,’ he said. ‘Building roof gardens is not just what I do for a living. It’s more than that. Providing wildlife habitat is my spiritual life. I’m a birds-and-bees guy. It’s who I am.'”
That answer, David writes, “outraged a friend who has devoted much of her life to protecting plant and animal habitat. ‘The hubris of it,’ she exclaimed. ‘To create a small patch of artificial habitat, he is willing to destroy who knows how much natural habitat. And he calls himself a biologist!'”
Front porch of the 19th Street house.
Crafting the Considerate House has caused me to think about many of these issues for the first time, including how well my own cabin was built. Fortunately, mine was designed to minimize construction waste, and that, David writes, is crucial. Supposed “green” construction, he adds, often talks as if reusing, recycling, and reducing building materials are of equal importance when, in fact, “the mantra should read reuse, Recycle, and REDUCE!”
If you’re planning to build a house — or have one built — you might do well to first read David’s book. He takes you along as he makes decisions regarding everything from types of construction, to building materials, to costs, to potential problems. You may be able to save yourself some money, and you will certainly end up with a better house.
Crafting the Considerate House by David Gerstel, 243 pages, $17.95 paperback, published in 2010 by Latitude 67.