Housing’s history is litteredwith failed attempts to integrate advanced home building techniques into a critical mass of construction practices. Even though builders routinely over-engineer homes, and code-approved construction methods allow fewer structural members, nothing, it seems—including periodic lumber price spikes and a continuing lack of skilled framing labor—has been able to produce enough momentum to push optimum-value engineering (OVE) into the mainstream.
Sure, some builders and framers are well-versed in the terms and techniques of two-stud corners, single top plates, and 2x6 studs on 2-foot centers. But even they admit that the potential cost and labor-saving benefits are, at best, a break-even proposition to framing the old-fashioned way. Builders who aren’t among the converted wonder whether the “potential” savings are worth the risk of buyers thinking they cut corners, literally and figuratively.
The recent wave of support for reducing home energy use and the natural resources required to build a house appears to be pulling OVE and advanced framing in its wake, giving new hope to advocates that the practices may indeed catch on for good.
“Much of what’s being preached has been preached for 25 years,” says Patrick Miller, a former builder and now a senior consultant for SMA Consulting in Orlando, Fla. “Builders need to realize that their addiction to green building begins with value engineering.”
“More frequently it is inwillingness rather than inability [that stops builders from implementing] advanced framing.”—from a Building America report regarding the program’s results from 1995–2002
Texas builder Chris Miles, for one, agrees. Dedicated to creating high-performance housing, including two net-zero energy homes he’s built since starting GreenCraft Builders in 2005, Miles says OVE practices are a cornerstone of that effort. “The ability to maximize insulation values is the No. 1 reason [to incorporate OVE],” says Miles, whose homes feature wall assemblies that approach R-30 as a result. “It makes a huge difference.”
Miles is less sure that he’s saving much in materials and labor costs with OVE. While he admits that direct-costs savings from a variety of construction efficiencies have helped offset price premiums on other products to achieve his performance goals, he hasn’t calculated an advanced versus a standard framing package stick-to-stick. But, he says, “I know we’re using less wood and correctly engineering our homes.”
Despite taking lumber out of the framing stage, he also hasn’t earned any discounts from his framer. “It actually takes more thought to build this way, so it really doesn’t take less time,” says Miles, recounting the story of another framer who walked off a job because the task was too complicated. “You still have to lay it out, build it, make sure it’s plumb and square, and stand it up, just like a 2x4 wall.”
But Guy Haskell, a semi-custom builder in Bountiful, Utah, who has been perfecting OVE in his projects for 15 years (culminating in the creation of his own patent-pending building system), has added it all up. He says he takes up to 4 percent out of his overall costs to build high-performance, energy-efficient homes—the opposite of a similar cost premium that most builders report to build that way—and has seen his framing costs drop from $4 per square foot to $2.80, a 30 percent savings. “It’s the same amount of board feet [of lumber], but I’m using a third fewer pieces,” he says of his comprehensive approach to OVE, which has also cut his construction waste (and related dump fees) to a few wheelbarrow loads. “It’s so easy.”
Historically, OVE practices have been pitched as piecemeal solutions, allowing builders to pick and choose which ones make the most sense or, despite universal code approval, get the least resistance from inspectors. Not surprisingly, historic market research data by the NAHB Research Center in Upper Marlboro, Md., where OVE originated, still shows sparing use among builders after nearly 30 years of promotion.
But the overall impact of advanced framing on a home’s energy performance, and the increasing popularity of that prospect, has some thinking about a comprehensive approach. “If these practices can be implemented as a package, the energy-saving benefits [for the home] will be much greater,” says Vladimir Kochkin, director of Applied Engineering at the NAHB Research Center. “OVE is now a tool to achieve other goals.”
Miller thinks the combination of the green building groundswell and the new economy will bring OVE and advanced framing to the fore. “Now that every nickel counts, builders are taking a harder look at it,” he says.
In fact, a 2003 report by the federal Building America program found a $250- per-house cost benefit with advanced framing in cold-weather climates, while the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated a savings of $1.20 per square foot and a 19 percent reduction in wood use among builders employing the practices. “When you value engineer,” Miller says, “everyone and everything wins.”