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Construction Time Again

The quality crisis in American building

In the midst of the 1970s energy crisis, the provincial government of Saskatchewan wanted to help blunt the pain of skyrocketing oil prices. Heating and cooling homes was a priority in a windswept prairie prone to frigid winters, where most relied on home heating oil. The province’s research council decided to create a model home to inspire more energy efficient and affordable construction.

A team of architects and designers were empowered to build a solar home for Saskatchewan. It didn’t take long for team member and engineer Harold Orr to realize that simply slapping solar panels atop the home’s facade of dark-brown cedar wasn’t practical or particularly helpful given the solar technology of the day, which generated a fraction of the power of modern panels. Instead of trying to generate more power spontaneously, Orr focused on curtailing the loss of heat and energy in the first place; make a thermos, he thought, not a coffeemaker.

His brainchild, the Saskatchewan Conservation House in Regina, was one of the first to combine airtightness and extreme insulation. A trapezoidal home with small windows and a solar water heating system that looked like a fish spine, it boasted a double-wall insulation system and early examples of water and heat recovery ventilators, which transfer heat from stale exhaust to fresh intake air coming into the house. This feature is now standard in today’s more sustainable dwellings. The best windows Orr could source in 1977 weren’t triple-glazed like today, and, according to a project summary he wrote, were “essentially holes in the walls” which allowed cold air to penetrate the home. Insulated shutters blunted some of the heat loss. Still, Orr’s pathbreaking designs slashed the amount of energy needed to heat an average home by 85 percent. For the next two years, Regina was the global center of progressive, climate-friendly home construction, with tens of thousands of visitors coming to see his creation. “Engineers from Germany came to see the building and went back and said, ‘this is how we need to build homes,’” Orr told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

They did more than just talk shop. Orr’s design would help inspire what’s now known as passive house, an international home design focused on radically decreasing energy use via more efficient construction. The Passive House Institute, founded in 1996 to popularize the concepts Orr pioneered, ushered in a wave of experimentation that became shorthand for sustainability: 2,399 such structures have been built or certified in Germany to date (versus just 136 in the United States). The organization would even present Orr with a Pioneer Award for his foresight. The passive house was the cutting edge of the continent’s embrace of better building; in Germany and much of mainland Europe, new home construction meets a high bar for energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and outdoor noise cancellation.

The gap in housing quality, tenant wellness, and sustainability is considerable.

But back in Canada and North America, Orr’s model home was more of a footnote, along with other examples of energy-crisis-era experiments in the United States, such as the 1976 Lo-Cal House in central Illinois, designed to cut energy usage by a third. In 1979, the new owner of Orr’s model home dismantled and removed the solar system (to be fair, this relatively early insulation technology cost thousands of dollars to maintain). In a 2015 interview, Orr said that most Canadian homes still lacked the type of proper insulation he had pioneered. “There are more than ten million housing units in Canada and 99.9 percent are totally inadequate,” he added. A Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory report from April 2021 analyzing U.S. home energy retrofits was more dire; while some retrofits were done during the 1970s energy crisis, the target population for upgrades today is “effectively every home in the country.”

While great strides have been made in Canada and the United States in the years since Orr’s 2015 statement—home solar installations hit their sixth year of record-breaking growth in 2022, and scores of local and state regulations mandating better insulted and more sustainable homes have been passed—the housing stock of these two countries is far behind the advanced examples seen in the rest of the industrialized world. Across the Atlantic, where builders have been using new materials such as mass timber for two decades, pioneering new concepts around retrofitting older homes, and even reusing materials from demolished buildings, new and recently renovated homes tend to be significantly more energy efficient and higher quality. In Austria, for example, which has a rich tradition of funding social housing, massive, ecologically friendly, and economically accessible neighborhoods such as Seestadt, a passive housing suburb established in 2012, have offered affordable living in tree-lined, family-sized apartments for years.

The gap in housing quality, tenant wellness, and sustainability is considerable. Americans still tend to build homes and smaller apartments with wood, where Europe leans toward more prefabrication and concrete. American construction productivity has flatlined for decades, while Europe’s productivity has increased by 20 percent since 1995. Europe’s building codes, mandated by government regulators, favor much stricter energy efficiency policies across the multi-nation bloc. In the United States, an independent agency writes codes via consensus between homebuilders and large industry players, and cities and states adopt these codes piecemeal, or add their own additions, creating a mess of differing regulations and rules. Europe has decades of additional experience with panelized construction, passive house rules, mass timber, and next-generation retrofit technology, many of which are just beginning to catch on in North America. Even with new regulations and rules—British Columbia’s provincial push for better buildings; New York City’s cutting-edge Local Law 97, which mandates emissions reductions for large commercial and residential buildings; and the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, which watered down many building efficiency incentives initially proposed in the Build Back Better Framework—the United States and Canada are just starting to move forward where Europe is already in motion.

Yes, the continent is still far from hitting its goals, but a top-down application of rules, regulations, and funding has created domestic manufacturing, building codes, technical expertise, and the momentum toward a net-zero buildings sector. “We’re definitely not catching up,” says Stephen Smith, a housing expert behind Market Urbanism, a pro-building publication and philosophy, and his current nonprofit, the Center for Building in North America, “because while we’re improving, they’re improving as well.”

Short End of the Stick

“The majority of North Americans haven’t experienced high-quality housing, and so they also don’t know what they’re missing and what they can ask for,” says Joshua Vanwyck, a Canadian certified passive house designer. Numerous cultural, technical, regulatory, and economic factors are also at play, including better investment in housing standards and more maintenance spending in Europe, as well as their less speculative housing market. But one of the most significant reasons for the status quo is the cost of resources and energy, which are historically very low in the United States. “America is a rich society with a lot of energy, and we’ve chosen to throw a lot of energy at the problem,” says Smith. Alongside the expectation of homeownership and the zoning and financing system that has required, the very abundance of wood for homes and energy to heat and cool them has meant lower quality housing overall.

Single-family homes, a true luxury and status symbol in Europe, became an expected norm in the United States.

For this reason, it’s a bit simplistic to cast the differences in U.S. and European residential construction in cultural terms alone. Sure, there’s plenty of truth to the idea that Americans favor more spread-out spaces and large, single-family homes. These preferences were bolstered by everything from the G.I. Bill and a discriminatory mortgage market to suburbanization and urban renewal. The end result was sprawl on a preposterous scale, thanks to the housing shortage, postwar boom, and mechanization of homebuilding: the developers behind the iconic Levittown were able to complete a home every sixteen minutes. A steady diet of aspirational HGTV shows and the promises of white picket fences cemented a cultural requirement for housing. Single-family homes, a luxury and status symbol in Europe, became an expected norm in the United States, albeit one that’s been slowly chipped away by decades of inflated home prices.

One significant starting point for understanding the nature of U.S. home construction is the preference for the stick-built home. In the early nineteenth century, due in part to then-vast softwood forests providing a ready supply of building materials, Americans began building and framing homes on-site with newly mass-produced wood and nails. Balloon framing, a related technique that used machine-cut wood and nails, was so named because the walls, thin by the standards of traditional timber building, looked like they could float away. Postwar suburbanization would simply perfect this form, with large developers clearing tracts of land and setting up teams of workers to rapidly assemble housing. In comparison, in postwar Europe, where wood wasn’t as abundant, and the housing stock had been decimated by fighting, builders leaned on available materials such as concrete and brick. That said, the differences weren’t always pragmatic. The United States also embraced quickly built, more personalized homes due to what some found to be their more democratic and equitable appeal. Architect Paul Andersen, who co-curated a show about stick-built construction at the Venice Biennale in 2021, spoke about how the technique exemplified cultural beliefs: “No amount of money can buy you a better two-by-four than the one that’s also in the crappiest house in town. I think that’s really democratic, that everybody—you and Beyoncé—has access to the same materials, and they’re the best materials.”

The site-specific process of laborers knocking out suburban single-family homes has become ingrained in U.S. construction; neighborhoods in development use the same series of laborers, pickup trucks, and wood frames that were seen decades ago. This prevalence is why Smith calls stick-built construction “the original sin” of U.S. building; while it has its advantages, mainly speed, it also has significant downsides, which become apparent when looking to Europe and Asia, where builders have been much more open and adaptable to newer prefab and modular techniques. “Compare stick-built construction to the analogy of car,” says Gerard McCaughey, a serial entrepreneur and founder of Century Homes, an Irish pioneer of off-site construction. “Imagine all cars weren’t made in a factory. All cars were made in your front yard, by five guys coming out in a pickup truck with some welding gear, pneumatic tools, and starting to put it together. Imagine what that car would look like, compared to the cars that are made in the factory.” McCaughey adds that American comfort with stick-built has led the country’s builders to disregard best practices established by construction crews overseas, as well as the additional quality issues that come with using wood.

In Europe, when wood framing is used, it’s typically done in factory-controlled conditions with sophisticated automation. The wood is also usually kiln dried, significantly reducing the risk of trapping moisture inside, which leads to mold and pest infestations. European homes tend to be boxier and more standardized, while wood-framed U.S. homes have more turns on the facade; every time a plane meets another plane, it’s another chance for water to seep in and makes energy performance harder to achieve. In the United States, a typical suburban home is simply the best that a crew of workers in steel-toed boots can do. McCaughey is clear that it’s not a matter of the laborers doing a poor job or being unskilled; it’s more that they’re doing the best they can with the processes and tools available, and the United States hasn’t built a market for prefab and modular housing. As Smith puts it, “The American way of building is very good at building low-quality.”

The marketplace for higher-quality homes in the United States is also to blame for the discrepancy between American and European construction. Europeans see homes as more of a long-term investment, McCaughey says, and expect higher quality construction. Americans tend to see homeownership as a means to get on the property ladder and a tool for generating wealth. They are comfortable with living in a starter home for a few years before selling and trading up. “Anybody who’s involved with construction or architecture or design and travels internationally to see and to vet the buildings, you know, probably has an idea that the default is maybe nicer in some other places,” says Mark Hogan, a lecturer, author, and architect and founder at San Francisco-based OpenScope Studio. “But the average person is more hung up on, ‘I wouldn’t want to live in a small house.’ It’s just that people are conditioned to want more space, not higher quality.”

The preference for more space—and the expectation of homes as investments that may be quickly cashed out for even larger homes—also changes a significant calculus around investing in better housing. The payback period is much shorter. Combine that with the higher cost of energy in Europe, and it makes sense that overseas, the idea of paying for solar panels or better insulation becomes more financially sound, since you’ll likely see a quicker payback by cutting heating costs and probably won’t be looking to move to a larger home. American abundance means that instead of designing to use less energy, we simply turn up the AC and crank the furnace.

From building codes to systems of labor and construction, everything is designed with the detached single-family home in mind: zoning that bans apartments (and density and affordability) over large swaths of urban America; a mortgage, financing, and appraisal system with a long history of inequity and racism; and systems of neighborhood government and community feedback that favor homeowners. Changing this system, from both a cultural and construction perspective, is like “turning around a tanker ship,” Hogan says.

Code Red

When comparing the American and European experience, it’s worth seeing just how much scarcity, and a more consistent commitment to energy conservation, altered the trajectory of builders on both sides of the Atlantic. After World War II, a decimated Europe tended to lean into prefab and modular systems to rapidly construct more standard buildings in the midst of a great labor shortage. In the 1970s, when the energy crisis hit, European nations, which by and large didn’t have massive deposits of oil, tended to focus more on energy conservation, especially nations like Germany and Holland.

In the United States, a typical suburban home is simply the best that a crew of workers in steel-toed boots can do.

After the European Union was formed in 1993, the bureaucracy became an engine for better housing efficiency and construction. The combination of technical standards, safety requirements, and the right of free movement for workers helped bolster the construction industry. So did consistent investment in new technologies like heat pumps and domestic manufacturing of the materials and tools needed to build a marketplace for more efficient homebuilding. A database of such items reveals most aren’t available in the United States; this gap is especially prevalent in high-quality windows, as well as special appliances and tech for heating, air circulation, and cooling. The most important move the bloc made was passing the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive in 2002, legislation informed by the Kyoto Protocol that gradually raised energy efficiency standards for all European buildings. Currently, all European buildings are mandated to be net-zero by 2050, and some places have gone beyond that—Brussels has had a passive house energy code since 2015. The recent energy crunch of the war in Ukraine has only served to speed the transition toward alternative energy sources and more energy-efficient homes.

Such consistency of purpose and long-term vision stands in stark contrast to the United States, where efforts to improve building codes and cut fossil fuels out of new construction have been blunted by the fragmented nature of our regulations. They have also become the latest front in an endless cultural war. The gas industry has created public interest front groups and flooded neighborhood social media apps like Nextdoor to stop a campaign to curtail the use of gas stoves in homes, which have long been known to significantly increase rates of childhood asthma. The campaign has generated outrage bordering on the kinds of moral hysteria reserved for culture war battles over drag story time and critical race theory. Red-state governments and legislatures have even used their power to block laws passed in blue cities to improve building codes and mandate more sustainable buildings; passing state laws that supersede municipal regulations, many state legislatures have or plan to use the cudgel of preemption to halt any progress toward better building standards. Austin, Texas, has seen all manner of laws on housing codes, zoning, and even gas stove use made irrelevant by the actions of the state legislature.

Then there’s the International Code Council, a nonprofit industry group that creates the large consensus codes used by most American states. Its power could make a significant difference; the climate-focused think tank RMI estimates that if codes required electric heat pumps instead of gas heaters in new homes, the United States would save $27 billion annually. But the group’s consensus model has led to self-interested industries having an outsized voice on key decisions, and in many cases, the ability to overrule efforts to improve building standards. A New York Times investigation found that the ICC bribed one such trade group with the right to select four voting members of a key committee in order to forestall energy efficiency measures. In 2019, after planners and city leaders who were part of the ICC pushed for amendments to restrict emissions, a coalition of homebuilding industry representatives eventually got many voting members declared ineligible, stopping progress in its tracks.

In Europe, building codes have been wielded as tools for fighting climate change. In the United States, all sorts of industry players are in the room when the codes are being made, including contractors, home builders, and materials manufacturers. The U.S. government has pretty much abdicated the role to create national standards and instead just accepts these private codes.

Stop Breathin’

The lack of attention and investment in better homes means business as usual. Mass timber—compressed layers of wood that can be used to erect multistory buildings—has been a growing trend in the United States over the course of the last five years, but it has a two-decade track record in Europe. The gear needed to build energy efficient homes, like heat pumps, airtight windows, and even external blinds and sunshades, is commonplace in Europe, with dozens of vendors and a healthy marketplace of options; U.S. builders often need to import this kind of equipment, driving up the cost of building better. New types of insulation, such as Schaumglas, a type of recycled foam glass, and insulating concrete make it easier to achieve efficient construction overseas. Even older retrofits are more futuristic in Europe. The energiesprong, a system pioneered in the Netherlands which means “energy leap,” attaches airtight, weatherproof panels to the exterior of old structures, making huge gains in sustainability relatively fast and simple.

There is a temptation to conclude, reasonably, that in a nation in dire need of affordable places to live, we should be celebrating new supply in whatever form it takes.

All of this is made easier by uniform legislation and energy goals that create a marketplace for change. In the United States, the difficulties of penciling out affordable housing projects and accessing a web of public funding and subsidies makes encouraging new visions and architectural voices more difficult. The government more or less got out of the business of building public housing decades ago, and the existing stock has deteriorated; New York City’s public housing is $40 billion behind, repair-wise. In Europe, social housing projects are often juried competitions, which factor in environmental and energy concerns, and award smaller firms with the chance to showcase progressive designs. Vienna’s Bauträgerwettbewerbe (developer competitions), which factor in social and ecological factors, have led to the addition of many new passive house projects.

While there are undoubtedly examples of many visionary projects in the United States, such as the Bullitt Center, an ultra-sustainable Seattle office, as well as a number of affordable passive house projects, like New York City’s Park Avenue Green apartments, they often are the exception. This is because of both materials and regulatory limitations, as well as local building codes that constrain new construction. City codes in the United States have become bloated with zoning limitations, especially around fire codes, according to Seattle architect Michael Eliason of Larch Lab, an advocate for sustainable construction and urbanism. Concerns over urban infernos aren’t without reason—seventeen people died in a 2022 apartment fire in the Bronx—but the strict rules in the United States have tied the hands of architects. The building and zoning codes in Seattle alone currently run more than two thousand three hundred pages, and the National Association of Home Builders did a study that found regulations comprised 24.3 percent of a new home’s cost. In addition to fire safety, American building codes require two means of exit from most buildings, even small apartments. This safety requirement, born of century-old worries about fires, means that American buildings have to devote more space to hallways and exits. As a consequence, less space can be leased. It also leads to double-loaded corridors, which means apartments can’t span a floor and consequently boast additional windows and better airflow. So-called point access blocks, commonplace in Europe, require fewer exits and allow for more freedom to design, and also haven’t led to an increase in building fires or fatalities.

Building a more efficient home with lower utility bills may seem like a small problem in a country with a chronic shortage of affordable, accessible housing. The National Low Income Housing Coalition, in its latest Out of Reach report, found that affording a two-bedroom apartment in the United States requires forty hours of work per week at $25.82 an hour: three and a half times the federal minimum wage. Recent Harvard research declared the price pressure on housing was “unlikely to relent,” with home prices soaring 20 percent in the first quarter of 2022. Rents are not far behind: they skyrocketed 12 percent on average, with some markets seeing rates rise twice as fast. To make matters worse, the nation is short 2.5 million units of housing due to the thicket of zoning regulations, building codes, and NIMBY pressures pushing back on new home creation, all fueling a housing and homelessness crisis.

In light of a societal calamity of this level, bemoaning the state of housing quality may seem akin to ranting that “they don’t make it like they used to.” Even infrastructure expert Henry Petroski, a Duke professor who has written numerous books on the trouble with infrastructure and construction, has opined on the poor state of home craftsmanship, noting that new construction is another example of cutting corners and cost: “simply a function of finance, expected to survive only until it is fully amortized in a company’s budget.” Advocates of better building can take little solace in the curmudgeonly, social media-fueled cycles of complaints and celebrations of the contemporary, look-alike construction of new apartment buildings. These bland, boxy facades with matte-colored panels are labeled by detractors as Simcityism, Minecraftsman, McUrbanism, or fast-casual architecture. Amid all this, there is a temptation to conclude, reasonably, that in a nation in dire need of affordable places to live, we should be celebrating new supply in whatever form it takes.

But the issue goes beyond matters of aesthetics, or small gaps in quality. It’s true that the data show Americans tend to build faster and cheaper, and it’s also true that Americans get more for their money, in terms of square footage: housing and energy cost less here. But there’s increasingly more evidence that the quality of a home, in terms of its energy efficiency, air quality, and noise reduction, have significant impacts on human health. Some reports have found evidence of reduced upper respiratory symptoms, fewer headaches, and even less eczema and skin allergies in higher-quality homes. Emerging research, focused on offices but slowly making its way into our homes, has shown indoor air can contain dangerous levels of volatile organic compounds, mold, and pollution; sunshine hitting the emissions of a gas stove can produce chemical reactions “similar to what you might find outside on a smoggy day.” England’s chief medical officer recently said indoor air quality should be monitored in all public buildings since it may contribute to as many deaths as outdoor air pollution. Meanwhile, health care groups in the United States want to focus more on social determinants of health, such as housing. Since most of us spend almost 90 percent of our days indoors, the impact of this environment is significant.

It’s also the case that in a period of climate change, healthier, better performing homes and buildings—which contribute to 40 percent of carbon emissions—are both cheaper and safer to live in. Indoor heat exposure is an especially lethal risk, especially for the elderly. And many Americans, who may be scrimping and saving to afford rent or cobbling together savings to buy a house, don’t realize the raw deal they’re getting, especially those at the lower ends of the income scale. According to just-released Harvard data, the U.S. housing stock is “older than at any time ever recorded,” with 2.8 million owner-occupied homes and 3.9 million renter-occupied homes considered “moderately or severely inadequate” by the federal government (indicating large holes and leaks, or missing features such as plumbing, electricity, water, or heat).

This great housing divergence will have a larger and larger impact on human health, and more and more studies have underscored the vital importance of indoor air quality. Electrification, better insulation, and improved air flow due to the need for recirculation in airtight passive house projects means an investment in this kind of technology is also an investment in longevity. Recent studies of U.S. homes found mold and damp environments in 18.7 million households, concluding that “the risk of chronic exposure to these residential hazards are high.” An EPA report on the risk found that “excessive moisture accumulation plagues buildings throughout the United States, from tropical Hawaii to arctic Alaska and from the hot, humid Gulf Coast to the hot, dry Sonoran Desert.” The health risks become much more pronounced for those living in affordable or subsidized rental housing; nearly 60 percent of the country’s available rental units are more than half a century old. A greater show of concern over citizens’ health need not come at the cost of the environment: more energy efficiency means lower emissions and less acceleration of climate change, preventing a vicious cycle of rising heat triggering more air conditioning, and more air conditioning leading to increased emissions and even worse heat.

It would be unfair to say that the United States isn’t taking any steps in the right direction. Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act includes significant investment in home retrofits, renewable power, and improved energy standards in federal buildings. His recently proposed budget also includes more funding for retrofits of older, more decrepit homes. But for the most part, the plan still focuses on developing technology to fix the issue, as opposed to mandating less energy usage and more stringent nationwide building codes. And industrial policy is not being directed toward building materials like it is toward car batteries and electric vehicles.

It beats doing nothing. But rather than stop at encouraging people to electrify their houses, we need to actually reduce the demand for energy, regardless of where it’s coming from. Americans have been continually sold on a bigger, better, climate-controlled McMansion as their inalienable right. They have been sold on the idea that they, like their household-based consumption, never need to change. But, as Orr showed decades ago in Regina, you actually can get a lot more by using a lot less.