Tag Archives: Construction and Maintenance

Read of the Day: Buying Products for Home Building and Remodeling: Who and Where

Buying Products for Home Building and Remodeling: Who and Where

by Paul Emrath — Eye on Housing 

In a recent article, NAHB asked who is most often responsible for choosing everything from wood products to electrical and plumbing fixtures, finishing materials, siding, windows and doors, and other items that go into a new home or home renovation. Then, the surveys went one step further and asked, regardless of who chooses these products, where are they generally purchased?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the results show that builders and remodelers themselves have the greatest influence on product selection. The main exceptions to this rule are products like appliances, flooring, lighting, countertops and cabinets, which are often chosen directly by the consumer, particularly in remodeling projects. Meanwhile, products chosen most often by subcontractors are limited to electrical and HVAC equipment and ducts.


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Architect Shortage Ahead?

Architect Shortage Ahead?

By Building Experts Team

Architect 300x200 Architect Shortage Ahead?According to a rash of recent articles that might be the case. When the housing market burst in 2008 many architects found themselves out of a job as firms, both large and small, closed their doors or laid off a majority of their workforce. In addition, recent architecture graduate students found the prospective of even a low paying internship daunting, with many exiting the industry within months of graduating.

For those architects who decided to stick it out and weather the economic storm, the last four years have been an uphill battle. Projects have been sparse and far between and many older architects, who younger architects considered their mentors and teachers, decided to “retire early” to avoid the effects of a failing economy. Many industry insiders believe the combination has left a large hole in the growth of the architecture profession, both by the numbers and in terms of skills and experience. Unfortunately, the negative effects may be felt by the industry as early as 2014.

According to a recent survey of 1,007 U.S. designers, conducted by McGraw-Hill Construction, “found that nearly one-quarter of respondents anticipated a shortage of architects.” Furthermore, of the firms surveyed, “ both large (more than 50 employees) and small (less than 10) anticipated some kind of shortage of designers, but nearly half of respondents from larger firms expect it to be severe.”

And the anticipated shortage won’t be a problem for just designers, but also for the laborers and builders. As the housing market begins to revive itself in many regions across the country, builders are starting to talk about the looming labor shortage, which for many is already here. In a recent Housing Zone article, the author, a building developer, talks about the shortages he is hearing about in many cities in Texas, as well as Nashville and Charlotte. Similar to the design industry, the few workers that have remained don’t possess the experience, knowledge and skills their predecessors did, which makes for a very uncertain and shaky future.

As design firms and builders begin to rebuild their firms, win larger projects, and grow their workforce, it will be essential for them to market themselves as the workplace of choice. Although no one can predict what the next few years will hold, what we do know is that the industry landscape is changing, drastically. Being flexible and thinking strategically are essential concepts for architecture firms and builders to embrace now in order to attract top talent and prosper in the years ahead.

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Wood Science 101(5) – Soft hardwood, hard softwood, and vice versa

Wood Science 101(5) – Soft hardwood, hard softwood, and vice versa

by Chuck Ray
Softwood is soft…hardwood is hard. Right?No, not really. This is by far the most common misconception non-woodites have about wood when they browse the aisles at the Big Box Local Lumberyard. And you have to ask “Well, why do they call them that, anyway?”The most likely reason has to do with logging back in the old days, and variability. Farmers clearing their land in the east back in the 18th and 19th centuries would have encountered a great range of deciduous trees, scientifically categorized as angiosperms, those that have broad leaves, true flowers, have their seeds enclosed in a fruit, and shed their leaves in the fall (they are deciduous). The soil of the northeastern part of North America was typically thick and rich in the valleys, because of the ancient age of the Appalachian mountains and the temperate climate that inhibited frequent and large wildfires. The result was a widely ranging deciduous forest, and the varied species that made them up consisted of a large percentage of oak, hickory, and maple. The oaks and hickories were spread far and wide by animals that loved the mast (nuts) produced by them, and recycled them periodically in their ramblings.

Sugar maple (acer saccharum) seeds.

Maples, on the other hand, are prodigious self-seeders; their seeds are encompassed in a light fruit sack that has wings which take the seeds on a flight of the wind’s fancy.  They also are powerful stump sprouters, and reproduce themselves easily even when the farmers cut them down for timber or firewood. So, maple trees are everywhere in the Northeast, and provide it with lots of syrup in the early spring and color in the fall.

Now, the folks that were out there clearing all these oak, hickories, and maples with axes and two-man saws, and shaping them for utensils with draw knives, found them pretty tough customers. The oaks and hickories, in particular, are heavy woods, going from about 80 to 90 pounds per cubic foot when green. And the folks down south, who were harvesting live oaks for ship timbers and bows, really had a chore…live oak is the heaviest hardwood in North America, running well over a hundred pounds per cubic foot when green.

Apparently, these “heavy” species (technically, the ones with the highest “density”) left enough of an impression on these early pioneers that they generally thought of these deciduous angiosperms as “hard” wood, even though other species, such as cottonwood, aspen, American elm, and American chestnut, which were common back in those days, were quite a bite lighter. The aptly named cottonwood weighs less that 40 pounds per cubic foot when green, and whittles easily with a dull pocket knife, as I found out a long time ago. For this reason, cottonwood has always been one of my favorite trees…its leaves fan the air on hot Texas summer days when there is no air, and thereby help perpetuate the state of mind of a twelve-year-old boy that “it ain’t so hot out here…”

Now, those old-timers generally didn’t talk about different woods like scientists. They didn’t have time or mental energy to waste thinking about the relative variability of wood properties expressed in different angiosperms at different moisture contents or growth rates. They just knew that the deciduous trees really wore out their saws and axes, and their muscles…so they got in the habit of calling them “hardwoods”.

As opposed to the gymnosperms, which are those cone-bearing (coniferous) trees that have needles and retain them in the winter; that is, they stay green when the other trees drop their leaves. Most of the coniferous trees in the Northeast are fairly light species; the famous Eastern white pine, which was the favorite of the King’s navy back in colonial days for its straight, light, yet strong wood, and made perfect masts for their ships, is only slightly heavier than cottonwood at about 40-45 pounds per cubic foot when green. Eastern hemlock (the state tree of Pennsylvania), is just a tad heavier, at 45-50 pounds. Eastern redcedar would have been the heaviest coniferous tree the settlers of the Northeast typically wrestled with, at about 55-60 pounds per cubic foot. Naturally, then, when they compared the heaviest Northeastern conifers with hickories or oaks, the conifers seemed “soft” by comparison, and so became “softwoods” in the local vernacular.

But as we spread out into the rest of the country, our common man’s classification system started to break down. As we harvested the Lake States to build Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit, we found that aspen was a pretty “soft” hardwood. And early settlers out west found abundant red alder, a light-weight hardwood that has somewhat the look, weight, and feel of Western redcedar.

But the folks harvesting the southern U.S. were really confused, because not only did they find the super-light “hardwood” species basswood and cottonwood, but they found some of the continent’s heaviest softwood, of which four species, longleaf, slash, shortleaf, and loblolly, are now marketed under the unifying moniker of Southern Yellow Pine. Southern pine not only has a relatively high density when dry (try driving a nail into a southern pine stud with ten or more growth rings per inch, and you’ll bend a few nails) but it also has a resinous “pine tar” that served navies well in the wooden ship days (naval stores were buckets of pine tar and turpentine that were used to caulk seams and cracks in hulls, and seal wood from moisture), and this pine tar, or “pitch” retained moisture in the stem and added even more weight to the wood. Resultingly, old southern pine trees could yield pitch-filled logs that could weigh 90 to 100 pounds per cubit foot green even though the “specific gravity”, the relative weight of a wood species relative to the weight of water, is quite a bit lower than those tough old oaks and hickories.

Microscopic view of southern pine. Koch, P. 1972a. Utilization of the southern pines. I. The raw material. USDA Forest Service Agricultural Handbook No. 420. 733 pp.

As you can see in the above picture of southern pine cell structure, softwoods are comprised of long, thin tubular cells, and it is these that carry the water through the stem of the tree. It is this uniformity, in addition to the density of the wood, that makes softwoods seem relatively soft when being sawn or machined.

On the other hand, the moisture is transported in hardwoods through the larger diameter pores, or vessels. These come in different shapes, sizes, and locations in the different hardwood species, and this variation contributes to the woodworkers sense that certain hardwoods are rough, or “hard” to machine.

Microscopic view of white oak.  http://classes.mst.edu/ide120/lessons/wood/cell_structure/index.html

Nowadays, wood “hardness” is complicated (or, depending on your point of view, simplified) further by hardness standards developed and adopted for wood grading for different products. The most commonly used hardness metric used in the various wood industries is the “Janka-ball” hardness test, which measures the resistance of the surface of a wood species to depression when a metal ball is dropped from a specified distance onto the surface of the wood. These standardized results are then used as a relative measure of the hardness of a wood, the results of which are fairly easy to find, such as at this Wikipedia page. If you browse the Janka hardness table, you’ll see that the hardest woods are tropical hardwood species, but then below that, softwoods and hardwoods are relatively randomly mixed.

So, now you know the rest of the story…that hardwoods aren’t necessarily hard, and softwoods aren’t necessarily soft, and why. So next time, don’t go wandering into Home Depot Local Lumberyard and start asking questions that make you look like a wood neophyte; do what I do, and pretend to actually know what you’re talking about. 🙂

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2011: Record Low Placements of Manufactured Homes, and Record low Total Completions

2011: Record Low Placements of Manufactured Homes, and Record low Total Completions

by CalculatedRisk on 2/26/2012  

Last week the Census Bureau released the placements of manufactured homes in December and for all of 2011. Placements were at 3.4 thousand in December, and at a record low of 46.0 thousand for all of 2011.

Although the manufactured home data only goes back to 1980, it is pretty clear that total housing completions (single and multi-family) and manufactured home placements were at record low levels since at least the early ’60s. Here is a table of the worst years on record:

Worst Years for Housing Completions and Placements
Year Total Completions (000s)
2011 631.2
2010 701.6
2009 848.9
2008 1,200.2
1982 1,239.4
1991 1,265.3

Unfortunately there is no timely count of household formation, so it is hard to tell how quickly the excess supply of housing is being absorbed.

Note: Household formation is a function of changes in population, and also of changes in household size. During the ’70s, the baby boomers started moving out of their parents’ homes, and there was a dramatic decrease in the number of persons per household and that led to a huge demand for apartments. We can’t directly compare the level of total completions in the ’00s to the ’70s or ’80s – we need to know the number of households being formed.

Housing Completions and PlacementsClick on graph for larger image.

This graph shows total housing completions and placements since 1980. The net additional to the housing stock is less because of demolitions and destruction of housing units.

Although we don’t know the exact number, it is pretty clear that there are more households being formed than housing units completed last year – and the excess supply is being absorbed.

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Windows, Insulation Top List of Energy-Efficient Products Used by Remodelers

by Paul Emrath — Eye on Housing

NAHB’s quarterly survey of remodelers recently included the following special question:

Indicate which of the following energy related savings materials and products you commonly installed in your remodeling projects during the past 3 months (Check all that apply).

The items checked by remodelers most often are shown below.  The top four all involved windows or insulation.  At the very top, almost 80 percent of NAHB’s remodelers said they commonly used low-e windows.

Rounding out the list were on demand water heaters (commonly used by 29% of remodelers), UV coated windows (26%), thermal barrier (23%), insulated foundation (22%), high efficiency sealed combustion gas/wood fireplace with outside area (13%), space heaters/air conditioning (7%), and energy management system (3%).

These results are based on 559 responses to NAHB’s 4th Quarter 2011 Remodeling Market Index (RMI) survey.

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Construction Spending Rises across the Board in August

Construction Spending Rises across the Board in August

by Brian Lego

Private residential construction spending increased 0.7% on a month-to-month basis in August. However, total spending activity in the residential construction sector has been flat to date in 2011, with four month-to-month increases matched by four decreases. On a year-over-year basis, private residential construction spending increased is up 3.9%, the fourth consecutive gain and the largest percentage increase since June 2010.

Spending on new single-family homes increased 0.8% between July and August—the third month-to-month gain in a row. However, spending remains 3.5% down from its year-ago level as the homebuilding market continues to bounce along the bottom. Demand for new homes remains hampered by significant competition from distressed sales, tight lending standards and a weak labor market.

The multifamily construction market showed additional signs of improvement last month, as spending on apartments increased 0.8% during in August. Overall, multifamily construction spending has registered growth in five of the last seven months. Additional gains are likely in the months ahead as multifamily permits data have trended appreciably higher since October 2010. The NAHB Multifamily Housing Production Index offers a similar assessment, rising in the second quarter of 2011 to its highest level since 2006.

Home improvement outlays gained 0.5% in August, This marks the 11thconsecutive month it has exceeded spending on new single family homes. While this category also jumped 10.5% on a year-over-year basis, identifying a trend for home improvement spending is difficult due to frequent (and oftentimes large) revisions in the monthly estimates. Other indicators such as the NAHB Remodeling Market Index suggest a lackluster economic recovery and tight lending standards are slowing demand for home improvement projects.

Private nonresidential construction spending increased 0.2% in August, as gains in spending on power and manufacturing facilities, 2.9% and 1.8%, respectively, offset weaker or stable readings for the other sectors. Outlays on public sector construction projects rose 3.1% on a month-to-month basis, with strong gains in educational buildings (+4.3%), roadways (+3.5%) and mass transit (+2.2%). Despite these increases, spending for each of these categories remains appreciably weaker compared to 2010 on a year-to-date ba

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Builder Confidence Remains Low in September

Builder Confidence Remains Low in September

by pemrath

The NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) edged down from 15 to 14 in September.  The HMI measures builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes on a scale of 0 to 100.

The index has been hovering in a relatively narrow band between 13 and 16 for six consecutive months, reflecting ongoing low levels of single-family starts and builders’ perceptions that many consumers are unwilling or unable to move forward with a home purchase in today’s uncertain economic climate.

Written comments indicate that builders continue to confront challenges in accessing construction credit, obtaining accurate appraisal values for new homes, and competing against foreclosed properties.

The HMI is based on a monthly survey that NAHB has been conducting for more than 20 years.  The survey asks builders to rate  current single-family home sales and sales expected for the next six months as “good,” “fair” or “poor;”  and  traffic of prospective buyers as “high to very high,” “average” or “low to very low.”  Scores from each component are seasonally adjusted and combined into an overall index.

In September, all three of the HMI components declined.   The component gauging current sales s slipped one point to 14, while the components for expected sales and traffic each declined two points, to 17 and 11, respectively.

For more detail, including an extended history of the HMI and its components, see www.nahb.org/hmi.

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