Chris Craiker's Architex Corner: Residential construction choices of the future

Chris Craiker's Architex Corner: Residential construction choices of the future


I’m constantly asked what future home building will be.

So many construction systems compete today, all with advantages and disadvantages. “New” and the “latest-and-greatest” building programs pop-up every day, but are they practical and realistic?

When an architect designs a home, garage, barn or doghouse, a wide range of issues are in play such as structure, sustainability, maintenance, budget and required skills.

As a general rule, the more that is built in a factory, the more efficient and cost-effective.

With only 500 words allowed, here are a few common building systems with pros and cons:

Wood frame

America’s most popular. Wood framing is quick, light, earthquake-resistant, contractor-friendly with high thermal balance. Fire is its biggest enemy, but new encasement systems can provide up to fourhours of fire protection, according to Mark Halverson, Building Design and Engineering.

With its low carbon footprint, wood is the most renewable building product, farmed like your carrots and apples.

Steel frame

Similar to a wood framed construction, the studs are light-gauge steel which is marginally stronger than wood.

Heavier steel frames are more often used for earthquake-resistance.

However, steel still needs fire protection treatment. Steel framing is specialized and not all trades are trained, so construction costs will be higher and future modifications will be more difficult.

Most of our steel comes from China, made from recycled automobiles, then shipped overseas. Steel’s carbon footprint is pretty high.

Masonry construction

Perhaps the world’s favorite construction system, concrete masonry units require steel reinforcement and robust moisture protection but can be highly lateral- resistant and of course, incombustible.

Perhaps the biggest disadvantages are the high cost of material and labor. In third world countries, that is not an obstacle but in California with its high cost of everything, it becomes a construction cost and labor challenge.

Meet the new contenders

Factory assembled components are becoming the future. We already have prebuilt windows, cabinets, and trusses, so why not walls and roofs?

The two basic methods are modular units: a “box” shipped and craned into place, or panelization: individual walls and roof panels shipped to the site and assembled.

Factory assembled wood and steel panels have been around for years. However, as wood and steel become more costly and vulnerable to fire, moisture, mold, earthquakes and just simple decay, alternate building systems emerge to file the void.

In addition to skyrocketing construction costs, last year our changing climate cost about $350 billion, according to FEMA. While there is no one disaster-proof building system, there are some standouts in the wings.

Re-Structure Group is one contender that creates a sandwich panel of steel wire frame, fire resistant insulation encapsulated in concrete.

When and if electrical lines, window frames, doors and exterior siding are installed at the factory, it could be a far better building approach.

This system is not new: Jimmy Carter and Habitat for Humanity built Florida homes back in the 1990s, according to the Washington Post.

Resilience, sustainability, structural integrity, low maintenance and cost effectiveness will be the key to making this or any other system the future of construction.

Chris D. Craiker, AIA/NCARB, is a Napa architect with Craiker Architects & Planners. He has been designing sustainable buildings for more than 40 years.

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