In Search of the Low-Maintenance House

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Though I have done more construction work than the average home owner, I hasten to state right now before I cover this guide with hand-split infinitives or paint its pages with purple prose or pour one footer full of concrete conclusions, that I am no expert in the art and science of low maintenance.

I am a typical homeowner, which means that my roof may sometimes leak, my faucets drip, my plaster crack, my chimney choke with creosote, my gutters fill with leaves, and my walls streak with vile discolorations that emanate mysteriously from the fingertips of little children. My expertise in these matters is to appear helpless until my wife takes care of them. If that were not the case, I could not have motivated myself to do the research this guide demanded. I, as much as you, want off the treadmill of playing Mr. Fix-it every weekend. The only thing I like to fix is a good lunch.

What I have learned first of all is that there probably isn’t any such thing as a truly low-maintenance house. Some are just more low maintenance than others.

In low maintenance, we deal in comparisons. As I take you on a journey from the bottom of your footer to the peak of your roof to show you how to avoid maintenance problems, or cope with them in an easier way, I would love to tell you that a basement wall has been invented that won’t ever leak; wood siding that won’t ever need paint or stain; trees for your lawn that grow fast to precisely the height you want, then never grow larger, but continue to sport beautiful leaves that vanish before they hit the ground in fall. Alas, miracles are rare indeed. Some basement walls resist leaking longer than others. Some woods weather better than others. No tree is perfect for landscaping. Even when some new material or construction method appears to promise 30, 40, or 50 years of low maintenance, we have to remember that these products and methods haven’t been around long enough to prove such a test of time.

Secondly, I learned that low maintenance can mean solving one problem while creating another—or choosing between the lesser of two disadvantages. What you gain one way you may lose another. Gutters fill with leaves, plug up, and the water cascades down to the lawn or to ornamentals below like a little Niagara Falls.

Put screens on the gutter and the gutter can’t plug up. But the water racing off the roof cascades nonetheless over the screen and makes little Niagara Falls anyway. One company (Raingo, 7034 East Court Street, Davison MI 48423), using a more imaginative approach, puts a novel outlet in the downspout that's sup posed to funnel leaves out of the spout, but not the water. Unfortunately, the leaves do not always cooperate.

Vinyl siding presents us with another set of low-maintenance trade offs. Vinyl is a relatively new siding material with wonderful advantages inside and outside the house. Vinyl siding is a quick way to cover an old wood house and rid yourself of the job of painting every five years or so. It is a good low-maintenance alternative in this respect. But what the vinyl salespeople are slow to tell you, and the house paint salespeople very quick to let you know, is that vinyl is a pretty good vapor barrier. Vapor barriers are handy to have on the inside of the house, but not necessarily on the outside. Warm air from inside the house meeting cold air from the outside somewhere in the wall can create condensation, which gets easily trapped inside the vinyl siding and won’t dry out. Therefore, the paint people insist, the vinyl siding remains in good shape, but the old wood frame inside may be rotting away not so slowly. Since most vinyl siding is fairly new, the full effects of its vapor-barrier capabilities on the house have not been experienced. People who paint, especially with a latex paint (latex allows the wall to “breathe” a little), opt for high maintenance on the siding, but low maintenance on the framing underneath. People who choose vinyl siding opt for low maintenance on the outside and take their chances on what happens to the house’s framing.

A third lesson important to homeowners seeking lower maintenance is that there are more products available than hardly any one person knows about. I am sure this is true, because it was not long after I started my search that I found building contractors with much more experience than I have who would prick up their ears at the mention of some of the more esoteric products. When I mentioned glazed clay roofing tiles in many colors to a roofer I was interviewing, he started asking me more questions than I could ask him! Hardly any of the contractors 1 talked to were aware of marble wall tiles with a new adhesive that makes them easy for do-it-yourselfers to apply. With these new tiles, do-it-yourselfers can overcome the higher price of marble instead of using some other higher-maintenance wall coverings. If the people in the business can’t keep up with new products, obviously the rest of us are even more desperately ignorant of them. I have therefore made it the main goal of this guide to include as many promising low-maintenance materials that I could get wind of. (They’re throughout the text and repeated in Appendix A for quick reference.) I slacked off a bit on vinyl wall coverings, however, when I found that even in our little village there were nearly 400 catalogs of samples to choose from! You’ll just have to do that kind of choosing on your own.

But as much as I have tried to emphasize products and materials, I have resisted the temptation to make this guide just another repair and fix- it manual. As I researched, I was amazed at how many newspaper columnists, magazine editors, and guide authors of the handyman variety appeared to be unaware of the amount of existing simple how-to information. Whenever you have to buy something to repair or renovate or add on, the product’s label generally gives you much better how-to instructions than can be given in a guide, since those instructions will be specific to the particular material or method being employed. In fact, so aware are manufacturers of the influence of the written word, that you can literally be inundated with how-to directions and brochures from the dealer you buy from. Given all this, I have passed along such how-to information only where a particular method is critical to low maintenance, such as in installing ceramic tiles in a bathroom. There are several ways to install them, but if the tiles are expected to last a long time without loosening, you will have to avoid the easier ways and stick with the proven methods.

Also I have included how-to information where the method isn't only critical to long life and low maintenance, but when in my experience the method isn't well known, such as installing standing-seam metal roofing. You will probably never install this kind of roof yourself, but you should at least know that the method is fairly simple if you have a strong back. By the same token, I do not descend into the details of sheet vinyl installation on floors because rapid innovations are making the tried-and true methods obsolete. Most of the leading vinyl floor manufacturers now have installation methods for certain kinds of vinyl flooring that are so simple you need only a pencil, measuring tape, and scissors to do the job. And the company will guarantee you can do it or they will replace anything you ruin by mistake!

How Not to Be Penny-Wise and Pound Foolish

Recently I stopped at an apartment complex under construction at the edge of a fairly large and rapidly expanding city, mostly because I could hardly believe my eyes. The size of the complex could only be described as colossal. Some 800 buildings (I was told) were going up, almost as fast as mushrooms, each containing six apartments, renting for about $350 a month. Young professionals were renting the units as fast as they became available—in fact clamoring to move in even before they were finished. The apartments were considered “nice for the price,” the new occupants said, and far enough out of the city to provide at least the illusion of “countryness” while still close enough to their jobs to make commuting fairly practical. Most of the renters were moving from similar apartments that were about 20 years old and already showing deterioration, just as these new ones would 20 years hence. Slapdash flimsiness and bare minimum standards were evident everywhere to the traditional builder’s eyes. I kept asking myself if it would not have been to the builder’s advantage, as far as his reputation was concerned, to invest in a little quality, to make the buildings last a little longer.

I was not thinking big enough. A little calculation showed why cutting corners in a large apartment complex really paid. If the builder could save just $500 on each of the 4,800 apartments, that meant $2.4 million saved! Obviously, the renters didn’t mind, nor even know how cheaply their apartments were built. These were temporary homes for temporary people on the move, affordable, comfortable, and attractive enough, and besides, most of the time the occupants wouldn’t be there. Why not cut corners? Even the tax system favors it. These apartments can be depreciated faster than they deteriorate.

Minimizing Building Standards—Save Now, Pay Later

It is only when these minimal standards for housing are carried over to the single family home that a clear loser can be pinpointed. The builders of large numbers of tract houses still benefit from lowering per unit cost even slightly, but for the homebuyer, minimal standards spell trouble:

endless high-maintenance costs and poor resale value. With the costs of material and skilled labor ever rising, the pressure to lower standards even further exerts itself. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has begun to speak well of wooden foundations for houses and wants to increase minimal spacings between wall studs from 16 to 24 inches, reduce the thickness of plywood for floor and roof sheathing, and get rid of floor joist bracing and plate sills. Although NAHB likes to say that reducing the costs of homebuilding allows more people to own their own homes, the reduction to the homeowner is slight and could mean costly maintenance work in the future. If a builder erects 100 houses a year and can save $2,000 on each one by easing building codes, that’s $200,000 saved. For the individual homeowner, the $2,000 is penny-wise but pound foolish.

A good treated wood foundation costs “a few hundred dollars” less than a masonry foundation, builders tell me. Although treated wood has been in use successfully for 40 years, it has not been used in underground foundations that long. Wood foundations are touted as being dryer than masonry, but this is a debatable issue. The key to a dry basement is good drainage (see section 2), not the wall material. And to depend upon a thin skin of plastic on the exterior wood foundation to keep water out is something of a risk—fill dirt and stones settling around the foundation might tear or crack that skin. But even if the wood foundation has some advantages, why would a homeowner take such a risk to save just a few hundred dollars on what is by far the hardest part of the house to repair?

Before you decide to save money by using %-inch plywood for roof decking instead of ½ inch, as some builders are tempted to do, check with a lumberyard to see how much you are actually saving. According to my calculations, on a moderate-size house it’s about $200. Is it worth it? The thinner plywood will not hold the nails nearly as well, and roofing will loosen and blow off more easily. If you put that Ye-inch decking over rafters spaced 24 inches apart instead of the approved 16 inches, then you are also asking for roofs sagging under snow load.

Crossbraces between floor joists do not really add to the strength of the floor, or so some carpenters maintain, but the braces make the joists— and therefore the floor—more rigid, and in case of not-so-dry joists, prevent them from warping and making the floor uneven. By not using them, you save maybe $75. Then as a reward for your penny wisdom, you may have to endure squeaky spots in the floor or cracks in the tile floorcovering forever. Even if that doesn’t bother you, contemplate this scenario: Some day in the future, you need desperately to get your house sold and you finally have a buyer just about ready to offer you a price you can live with. She steps on the squeaky board, and it sends a signal to her that the house might not be as solid as she thought it was. She decides to keep house hunting.

Another corner-cutter advocated by the penny-wise is literally a corner-cutter. The corners of a conventional stud wall are composed of three studs, the main purpose of the third being to provide a place to nail interior drywall or wallboard. Cost cutters want to eliminate the third stud and attach the drywall at the corner with metal drywall clips. Common sense says such a wall corner will be weaker and subject to cracking. What is saved? A few studs—peanuts for the homeowner, though in a year’s work, the saving adds up for the builder.

Another questionable practice is nailing roofing directly over rigid insulation in a cathedral ceiling situation. In this case, roof decking is nailed to the rafters, rigid insulation is laid down on the decking, and then the shingles are nailed through the insulation into the decking. It is much better to add another layer of plywood over the insulation before nailing on the shingles. The nails will hold much better. And without it, re-roofing— trying to remove shingles from the insulation without harming the latter— can be a real pain. Since the amount of cathedral ceiling is usually small in relation to the whole roof (except on high-priced mansions designed with lots of cathedral ceilings, in which case money is no object anyway), the low-maintenance investment in the second layer of plywood will pay better dividends, not the least of which is more insulative value where you need it the most.

I also wouldn’t recommend using No. 14 electrical wiring, even if codes allow it, because the difference in price between that and the superior No. 12 is hardly $50 on a small- to moderate-size house. Using the lighter No. 14 only means reduced voltage at the end of a long circuit. Also, if you are given a choice between, say, 150-amp service to your circuit box and 200 amp, take the higher even if your electrician says you can “get by” with the lower. You don’t know what increased electrical current you may need in the future, and the difference in cost is negligible—only about $50.

I, myself, think plastic plumbing pipe is great stuff. But it saves only a couple hundred bucks per house. Is that worth the risk in northern climates where extremely cold temperatures freeze pipes? You can unthaw a copper pipe much easier than plastic. Copper will withstand several freezes, usually, before it ruptures from freezing water. And a minor fire that could destroy plastic pipe might not hurt copper at all. If you do use plastic, use plenty of fasteners so it doesn’t sag and retain water when you have to drain it to avoid freeze-up.

In remodeling you are apt to run into a special problem when connecting new pipe to old. Most older homes were plumbed with galvanized steel. But copper is much better and easier to install, so you really should use it in remodeling. The problem is that copper and galvanized steel will corrode each other if connected directly. Use brass connectors to keep the other two metals separate, since brass will not corrode in contact with either of them. You could instead use new plastic piping—chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC) or polybutylene—that will handle hot water, but it isn't approved by many housing codes. Check codes closely when doing plumbing, as they vary from place to place. For example, one way plumbers connect copper to galvanized steel is with a dielectric union. It involves soldering a brass flange to the copper pipe with a neoprene gasket between the brass flange and the connecting galvanized coupling. If this pipe needs to be grounded, the gasket breaks the ground, and some local codes require a continuous ground.

Because of the corroding relationship between copper and steel, use only copper, brass, or plastic hangers for copper pipe, and steel or plastic for galvanized pipe.

Some builders would like to reduce 2-by-8-inch sill plates that are bolted to the foundation to 2-by-4-inch size, or eliminate them altogether in favor of metal strapping to anchor studs to the foundation. That would save you something less than $100. I not only wouldn’t do it, but advocate going in the opposite direction. If possible, build the stud wall on the ground with a 2-by-4-inch sill nailed across the bottom of all the studs. Then set the whole wall frame up on the 2-by-8-inch sill and nail it down. No toenailing of studs into the sill. The double sill ought to forever prevent rot due to moisture moving up from the foundation to the wall. And that strip of insulation you should put between the foundation and the sill keeps out cold that would be hard to deal with in a sill-less wall. Also, it's very nice to have that continuous sill to nail exterior siding to all around the bottom, not just at the studs. And it's extremely handy to nail bracing to the sill temporarily when putting up the stud wall.

Which Framing for Economy? Which for Durability?

Low maintenance in housing always brings up this question: Which framing technique gives the better house for the money, stud construction or post and beam? Because of all the variables the argument is never settled to everyone’s satisfaction. According to government statistics, the average life of a conventionally built stud house is about 75 years. The life of a timber frame is at least 300 years and some over 1,000 years old survive. But a house can be poorly built or well built by either method.

Stud framing looks flimsy and in fact is flimsy until you get all the diagonal braces and plywood sheathing nailed on. By comparison, try mortising a 4-by-4-inch brace into two 8-by-12-inch post beams. Then drill a hole through the mortise-and-tenon joint and drive a dry white oak pin slightly larger than the hole through it. Now you know what solid is. And as the dry pin swells and the greener beams shrink, the joint tightens so solidly that a hundred years from now, your descendants will not be able to take the frame apart.

In the pragmatic society in which we live, a well-built stud house is certainly strong enough for any home and provides an easier way to insulate walls, install plumbing, and run electrical wiring. But we feel squeamish about those frail studs held together by all those nails. We hide them behind layers of sheathing. On the other hand, mortised-and tenoned posts and beams have structural integrity. We know it even if we don’t know carpentry. We proudly leave the beams exposed whenever possible, for all to see. Their beauty, if nothing else, is justification for their cost.

Actually, post-and-beam construction need not cost more than stud construction. Jeff Arvin, of Riverbend Timber Framing, Inc. (9012 U.S. 223, Blissfield, MI 49228), a small business that makes posts and beams and last year built 60 timber frame houses, says: “We’re competitive with stud houses any time, and most of the time we can beat the pants off them.” As a rule-of-thumb estimate, Riverbend puts the cost of its post- and -beam house shells (with siding, windows, doors, and roofing in place and weather-tight) at about $20 to $22 a square foot. The post-and-beam framing skeleton alone comes to about $7 to $9 a square foot. Riverbend uses oak, but other manufacturers use maple or pine. Many other woods will work if not exposed to the weather or excessive moisture.

low-c1-p8: Insulated wall panels are erected over the exterior of the timber framing of this house, sealing the frame from the weather and at the same time leaving the lovely timbers exposed in side.

Although post and beam appears to use more wood, there is about the same amount used in stud construction. But studs and other dimensional lumber require a great deal more sawing and therefore waste in sawdust and scraps. Logs that are too knotty for boards might yet make good beams. Post and beam allows for more flexibility in design especially for solar heating, which requires large areas of windows or solar panels. Post and beam also lends itself well to the newly popular concept of the “great room”—combining living, dining, and kitchen areas into one large, open area with vaulted ceiling, dominated by a super-efficient, low-maintenance large masonry heater of the Finnish or Russian design.

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A Nail Is Not a Nail Is Not a Nail

Benjamin Franklin gets credit for a saying actually first written down 100 years earlier by George Herbert, and just as applicable today: “A little neglect may breed mischief: for want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; for want of a horse the rider was lost.” The same applies to a house with the addition of one word: For want of a proper nail, etc. Using the wrong nail in the wrong situation can indeed breed mischief.

The size of a nail is designated by the word penny or the letter d preceded by a number. A 6-penny or 6d nail is 2 inches long, and a 60-penny or 60d spike is 6 inches long. The rule of thumb in choosing the proper nail size is that a nail’s length should be about three times the thickness of the board being nailed, but this isn't a hard-and-fast rule. A better way of saying it's to be sure the nail goes into the base wood or other material to which a board is being nailed a little farther than the thickness of the board. In making gates, for example, where 1-inch boards are being nailed into 1-inch boards, the nail needs to penetrate through both boards by 1/2 inch and be bent over.

Common nails are made of common steel, rather soft and bendable. They are far less likely to break or chip with a bad hammer blow, sending a piece of metal flying into your eye. But they are very prone to rust and therefore are never used where the heads are exposed. If they are so used mistakenly, as on siding, rust will soon streak down the wall from every nail. So for roofing, siding, and many other specific uses, choose nails that do not rust—galvanized steel, aluminum, and in some cases, copper.

Common nails have smooth shafts, but where extra holding strength is required, as in flooring or roofing, nails will have threaded, ringed, or spiral shafts to grip the wood better. Even some very small nails, such as panel nails or trim nails, have these spirals to give added gripping strength to their comparatively small diameters. Some of these nails are very brittle, too (like panel nails), and a misplaced blow can send a chip of metal at you. Wear protective goggles. Old common roofing nails had smooth shafts, but the new ones used for metal roofs have rings or threads and should be used.

Scaffold nails have a double head so that they can be pulled out easily. Masonry nails have spiral shafts and are extra hard for nailing into concrete or masonry units or in some cases even stone. Here again watch your eyes. Instead of threaded flooring nails, cut nails are often used, and are also called flooring nails. They look like old-fashioned nails with their square wedge- shape shaft instead of a round shaft.

Finishing nails and casing nails have very small or virtually no heads at all so they can be driven neatly below the wood surface and covered with wood filler.

A very long ring shank spike is used to fasten joists and headers to poles in pole construction. These spikes are also very brittle and will not bend. And once driven into a pole, they are virtually impossible to pull out.

When you go to the hardware store, don’t be afraid to ask if there is a special kind of nail you should be using for the job at hand. At a good old-fashioned, family-operated store, the proprietor will know.

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Board, Linear, or Square?

Be sure that when a price is quoted to you, you know whether it's in board feet, linear feet, or squares. A board foot is a piece of wood 1 by 12 by 12 inches (it is a little less actually, since all commercial lumber measures less than its stated size). A price per linear foot is the price per running foot no matter how wide or thick the board. Thus, a 1-by-6-inch board priced at 35 per linear foot is equal to 70’ per board foot. Most siding and roofing is sold by the square, and a square is equal to 100 square feet. A square will take more siding or roofing than the actual width times height of the boards or panels used, because you have to overlap them. For example, a 1-by-6-inch length of cedar siding actually covers only a little more than 4 inches, because the other 2 inches of width lap the board below.

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Good Lumber Makes Good Framing

The quality of the lumber affects the soundness of the house’s frame and also affects your pocketbook considerably. Make sure you are buying what you want to buy. Economy studs are 77 cents each right now in my town; good quality studs are $1.22. This isn't to say that economy studs, cautiously used, can't make nearly as solid a frame as the more expensive ones. But make sure “you get what you pay for.” Boards for trim, door and window frames, etc., should be nearly free of knots. A No. 2 ponderosa pine 1 X 12 costs 85 cents per foot, versus 46 cents for a No. 3. In wood siding, knots can be critical. For low maintenance, buy top grade and then demand that top grade be delivered. In cedar siding, some knots are unavoidable, but if the knots are tight, they will generally be okay.

Some builders and homeowners make a big production out of scrutinizing the lumber delivered for the prospective new home. They demand quality, and they aren't afraid to reject a load of lumber if they find a knotty board or two not up to the grade standards they have specified. Since even the best lumber today leaves a lot to be desired, this may be a good practice, especially if you are dealing with a lumberyard you aren't familiar with. But by the same token, there’s probably no such thing as a load of lumber these days that doesn’t have some defects.

“Well, it gets to be a kind of little game we play,” one lumber dealer confided to me when I asked about the problem. “On some guys, we’ll send out something less than the best the first time because they are going to send it back no matter how good it's just to try to show they are no pushover. Then we deliver what we planned to send in the first place. Another time, we’ll send out the best we’ve got and when the builder sends it back, we’ll rearrange it and send it out again. He’s made his point and that’s really all that matters.”

I don’t know which side to be on in that situation, but the lesson isn't to be afraid to reject crooked, knotty sapwood-edged boards if you’re paying for better.

A Good Builder Can Make All the Difference

A stable lifestyle is a great advantage for building low maintenance into a home. It is also invaluable in dealing with lumberyards, building contractors, etc. If you are a stranger in a new community, it's difficult to know which builders build good houses and which just get by The community knows, but it may take a while before you find out because people won’t talk frankly to strangers. If you are in a hurry to get a house built, as is generally the case, proceed with extreme caution. All the good builders will probably not be able to get to your house for at least a couple of months or more. A builder who can start tomorrow requires more checking into. In almost every case, it's better to rent a while and learn the local scene. When in doubt, hire a bonded contractor who can legally be held responsible should something go wrong.

In buying an existing house, knowing the reputation of the builder is invaluable. Houses built by so-and-so will be good buys, and that kind of quality is often not reflected in the price. But other houses, built by another so-and-so with a reputation for poor work, may be selling at approximately the same price. Only the people who have lived in the area a rather long time know who built what.

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Building Codes for Minimum, Not Quality, Standards

Building codes became necessary when communities were no longer stable. In new suburbs where all the inhabitants come from hundreds of miles away and will be moving out in a few years to someplace another hundreds of miles away, there is no communal knowledge to guide people, to distinguish the honest from the dishonest. In place of communal knowledge, rules and codes must be promulgated and en forced, bloating the regulating bureaucracy even further.

Interestingly, when building codes came to our unusually stable community, it was the more honest builders who fought them. They argued quite rightly that codes established minimal standards and minimal standards sanctify mediocrity Mediocre builders can undersell good builders. The upshot is that newcomers hire mediocre builders thinking themselves protected by codes, and they get mediocre houses. Natives continue to hire good builders and save money in the long run.

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New Designs Haven’t Withstood the Test of Time

Finally, do not be overly influenced by new house designs that appear to promise lower costs in heating but are short on long-term proof of low maintenance and durability. I have observed people who decide that, for example, a brick or stone home would be “too expensive,” but who then turn around and pour more money into a weirdly shaped wood house that promises to reduce fuel costs by making use of the sun. What they save in fuel turns out to be less than the interest on the increased building costs they pay out. And because the house violates certain traditional notions about load-bearing walls, the only way the house can be built conveniently and at moderate cost is with wood, which generally means some kind of regular maintenance. I don’t care how durable a natural wood wall may be, you are tempting the fates by building great expanses of it two and three stories tall into the wind and the weather. There are even visionary architects who make a point of denigrating masonry—stone and brick—because they think masons make too much money and amateurs can't learn how to work with these materials. The first is arguable; the second is downright wrong.

The visionary architect is very important to society, without him or her new ideas would never be tried. But the right partner for a visionary architect is a rich client. The rest of us should watch and learn our lessons. A simple rectangular form with a moderately steep roof is a proven shape for a house. Any deviation from that's going to cost more money no matter how much the phrase “low cost” is ballyhooed. Beware of glowing descriptions of new house designs in which the word “cantilevered” is used profusely. Octagonal houses, round houses, tower houses, rambling floor designs that sprawl over half an acre, floors that jut out over the landscape all may be wonderful houses to look at, but they will cost more per square foot unless very cheap materials are used. Even if that should not be the case, unless you can find a builder experienced in that type of house design—which isn’t easy in many localities—it will cost you more because the builder and his workers are going to be learning as they go along.

We still have a lot to learn about underground houses and about some of the odd-shaped aboveground houses designed to catch the maximum winter sun and the minimum summer sun. The latest findings seem to show that underground homes aren't cost efficient, even if they don’t lead to terminal cabin fever. Much better is a home that just snuggles into a hillside away from the prevailing winds—a design idea that has been used effectively in northern dairy barns for centuries. And it will be very interesting to observe how well these new glass and wood, asymmetrical, sheer-sided trapezoidal and rhombic-shaped houses will hold up in 50 years, if windstorms don’t blow them over sooner than that. Just from the standpoint of fashion, if not obsolescence, they may be impossible to sell. I keep thinking of a quote from David Pye, the famous English woodworker:

“If you want to enable someone to sit, it will be idiotic to proceed in the way that students of design are sometimes advised to do—to think out the whole problem from first principles as though all the people who for the last 4,000 years have been making and using chairs were half-wits. Where the problem is old, the old solutions will nearly always be best…because it's inconceivable that all the designers of 10 or 20 generations will have been fools.”

So, too, of houses. Pye admits that new technology can sometimes change that general rule, but experience shows that “new” technology has a strange way of coming back around to prove traditional experience. Cheer for new developments in housing, but let the people who can afford it do the experimenting.

An example: David Wright is a well-known architect and builder whose name is almost synonymous with passive solar houses. Wright made his name designing and building low-cost, energy-efficient homes using nearby low-maintenance materials as much as possible. He is especially famous for the adobe houses he built in the Southwest and low- energy redwood homes in California.

It is interesting to look at the house he built and lives in now. (I’m reading from an article in the February 1986 issue of Harrowsinith.) The exterior of the unusually shaped house is cedar shakes and metal roof with enameled steel window frames. This gets a B+ to an A- for low maintenance, and it's the best compromise with cost—chosen, perhaps, because installing stone or masonry on such an odd-shaped house would have been difficult.

But inside Wright has no less than four different heating systems. His “backup” is radiant ceiling electric heat, the same as I have, which is, in my opinion, far and away the lowest-maintenance heating system of all, though it's also a high energy consumer. To cut down on that high energy use, Wright bums wood in a big monolithic fireplace. Water is heated via a coil around the fireplace and also by way of preheating tanks in the solar attic, in addition to an electric water tank. Hidden in the ceiling and floor joists are flexible plastic pouches that contain eutectic “solar salts” as they are now called, a combination of materials (mostly sodium sulfate) with a freezing-melting point of 73°F I’m not in a position to judge the merits of such a system, but I will add that in the article even Wright does not recommend it to others.

To mesh the workings of the somewhat complicated heating system, there is a remote sensor to monitor the temperatures of the solar salts, outside air, solar attic, preheat tank water, and fireplace water coil. There are adjustable dampers and fans to move air—five modes, including one for summer that draws cool air from the first floor and flushes it out through the skylights. Both the water storage tanks and the electric water heater located in an alcove off the master suite’s immense walk-in closet are “cloaked in thick batts of insulation.” Thermal venetian blinds cover the double-glazed windows. After describing all this, the writer concludes:

“In the end, a pittance is spent on hot water.”

Well, that depends on how you count dollars. Wright’s electric bill for 2,500 square feet of living space was quoted at between $40 and $75 a month during the winter. The house cost $140,000 to build. What part of that went into the complicated heating-cooling system isn't given, but I’m sure it's considerably more than the cost of conventional methods. And it demands regular maintenance.

By comparison, my winter electric bill for 3,000 square feet in a much colder climate is about $110 a month, heating with a simple wood stove and using electric heat only very sparingly. I would venture to suggest that the interest on the money differential between my wood stove/electric system and Wright’s complex solar/wood/eutectic salts/electric system would more than pay for the electricity he presumably is saving. And my larger house, a simple rectilinear brick house with the bottom floor nestled into a hillside, cost only half that much to build. Of course, mine was a built in 1975 and his in 1980, but I know that the price of wood and bricks didn’t go up appreciably during that five-year time period.

Such naiveté should not be blamed on Wright, of course, nor should his tnie costs be compared unfavorably with conventional housing, since he is admittedly experimenting with new ideas. But a comparison with conventional methods proves sobering to those who would jump too enthusiastically into new energy-saving methods.

To Sum Up: Some Low-Maintenance Planning Advice

1. If you have to make a choice, choose quality over quantity.

A good rule to follow in building for low maintenance is to price your house in the planning stages using quality construction methods. If that price is beyond your credit rating, cut the size of your house, not the quality. It is almost a law of human nature that people will build their houses just a little larger than they can afford, no matter how rich they are. Why space equates with wealth, power, grandeur, or status in the human mind is beyond me, but so it does. What is the use of having a nice, easy-living home if one must then spend hours of extra time cleaning the damn thing or worrying about getting a maid who will clean it? Not to mention the extra money spent to heat and cool all that status-loving space. Mansions end up as funeral homes. Castles become museums.

2. Consider remodeling instead of building or buying new, for affordability and quality.

I don’t think higher initial cost should be a deterrent to building low maintenance into a home—even a banker understands that since brick can last several hundred years without maintenance, its initial higher price over wood may end up costing less in the long run. Rather, I think that it’s the time involved, or perhaps the timing of the work, that forces home owners to choose the high-maintenance alternative.

A perfect example of what I mean is the woodworking shop that my son and I built. I had my heart set on laying up stone walls since we could get the stone for free. But it was the usual story. We experienced delay after delay, and it was late fall before we got a good start. I’m sure we could have laid the walls (between my son and his friend, who helped, I think we could figure out how to do anything but we were rank amateurs at it and we’d still be laying up stone in January. Even with an experienced mason, which we couldn’t afford, it would have meant going into winter without a roof overhead. So we put up a stud wall. Stud walls are fast. At least they seem fast, although by the time you hang the exterior and interior layers over it, I wonder. And so it's with houses.

There’s usually the wait for the loan to clear. Then, if you are moving into a new house, there always seems to be the necessity of moving NOW Husband is already at his new job. Wife and kids are in the old house, waiting. Or husband can’t find a house that fits his low-maintenance ideals in the right location. The old house won’t sell. Or the new house one has picked out can’t be vacated until its current owner finds another place to live. With pressures of time and timing on us, we shrug, say to hell with it, and buy or build the best we can, in the time allotted.

For this reason, remodeling a house may be a more economically practical way to achieve low maintenance than building new, as contradictory as that at first seems. You are more in control. You remodel at your own pace, taking on no more than your schedule and bank account can handle at one time. Current economic conditions favor remodeling any how. Homes bought at super high prices in the ‘70s and early ‘80s are difficult to sell at that price, if at all, in most areas. “Trading up” to a better home isn't as financially feasible as it used to be, so homeowners “re model up” instead.

Staying put, whether forced by finances or deliberately chosen (many people are opting to put down roots rather than continuously move around the country as they climb the corporate ladder), can be a tremendous money-saver whether one is building new or remodeling. Having decided to settle down for good, you can plan low maintenance and move slowly to achieve it economically.

Can’t afford brick? Plenty of free brick is available for the cleaning, if you know where to look. All it requires is your spare time. Learn masonry and lay brick yourself. Learning isn't hard—learning to do it fast is. But you don’t need to be in a hurry. Brick, stone, and decorative block aren't really so expensive; union masons are. A builder told me the other day in a moment of discouragement that he was going to quit. “A union block layer costs me $1,150 a week including all his benefits, and if he lays brick, he costs more,” he bemoaned. “That’s more money than I make” I don’t really begrudge a mason those wages—most of them wear back braces after 15 years at it, and they don’t make that kind of money every week anyway. But you can easily see how valuable your own labor becomes, however much slower you are, if you have a stable lifestyle that allows you to work several years, if necessary, on your new home or on remodeling your present one.

Landscaping is a good example. If you buy a new home already landscaped, you are paying plenty for that shrubbery whether you know it or not. Once settled in (or while leisurely building a new home), you can start your own trees, ornamentals, and lawn of the best low-maintenance varieties that you might not otherwise be able to afford (see sections 7, 8, and 9).

The same kind of economics applies to interior remodeling. Ceramic tile is gorgeous stuff. But it's expensive, comparatively, and gets a good deal more expensive when you hire a skilled tile setter to install it. I think ceramic tile is worth that cost anyway, but if you don’t and aren't pressed to finish that bathroom NOW, you can easily learn to install the tiles yourself and bring the cost way down (see sections 11 and 12). You’ll be slow, but no matter. Ceramic tiles, especially the small ones, have a quality about them in a finished wall, floor, or countertop that even when laid amateurishly (that is, not quite perfectly straight and square) still look great. And will still last forever.

3. Paying more initially for durability and low maintenance is a good investment in the long run.

Low maintenance and durability aren't the same thing. A clapboard house can last a couple of centuries and some in New England have, but they must be painted every five to ten years. Nevertheless, durability is the main characteristic of low-maintenance materials. For this reason, if no other, low maintenance means higher initial cost usually, but a good long- term investment.

Many times I have tried to devise a formula for expressing the true cost of using long-lasting low-maintenance materials compared to cheaper stuff. Simply put, it would be: initial cost plus maintenance cost equals true cost. The problem with that formula is that when interest rates are high, the interest on money saved from using cheaper materials or methods might nearly equal the money saved by avoiding maintenance with higher initial cost. That would mean that by using cheap materials or methods initially, you might lose the weekends made for Michelob, which you will spend instead painting, patching, plugging, etc. What really tips the scales in favor of higher cost initially comes as the house grows older and /or must be sold. You may be able to keep a minimum-standards house in shape by constant painting, patching, plugging, etc., but it will always look painted, patched, and plugged, too; it will not hold its value; and it will not sell well. Conversely, the low-maintenance house will increase in value and sell faster at a profit.

An example: Owner A built a minimal-standards house ten years ago, for let us say, $40,000. B went ahead and spent $10,000 more for more quality and low maintenance. In ten years that $10,000 meant B paid out perhaps $12,000 in interest. In the meantime, A had to spend $4,000 in maintenance that B saved, but is still $8,000 ahead in the financial game. Then comes sale time. A’s property won’t move at all for a year, while A is frantically driving 60 miles one way to a new job. He finally sells for $35,000. On the other hand, B sells his house in three months for $65,000. And no maintenance problems to hassle him in the meantime. Doesn’t take much of a calculator to figure out who won that game.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009 0:16 PST