Inexpensive Home Building

Cut through the jargon and nonsense of home building and house construction by starting from zero dollars and trying to figure best-value bang-for-your-buck when choosing construction methods or construction materials. My research might answer some of your questions and at other times perhaps you have the knowledge or experience to post the answers to my questions and thereby help others too. The goal is an affordable and sustainable home for all.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Efficient HVAC Plumbing: Levittown Family of 5 in 750sqft: Inexpensive Floor Plans Part 3

Previous: Maximize Living Space without Hallways: Inexpensive Floor Plans Part 2

A Family of 5 in 750sqft

How did they do it?

The first Levittown house (the icon of post-WWII prosperity) had no garage, no basement, no finished 2nd floor and fit the entire family on one floor of 750sqft with one bathroom.

The American Dream for Baby Boomer families and postwar affluence (first Levittown house, 1947 Cape Cod style):

2 bedrooms (12x12, 8x12)
1 bathroom
1 finished floor (750sqft)
0 basement

0 garage

The house sat on a concrete slab on a 60ft-wide 1/7-acre lot and sold for $7,990.

A family of 5 with 3 children in 750sqft,
1948 Levittown, Bernard Levey family:

Levittown workers display prefabricated components and included major appliances on an assembly-line concrete slab:

Levittown house designs used efficient plumbing and Heating-Ventilation-Air-Conditioning (HVAC):
  • Radiant-floor heating: Pipes in concrete floor slab instead of ducts and fans all over the place.
  • Furnace centrally located under the stairs in the middle of the house, inside the insulated living space ("finished" part of the building envelope) so even the furnace's "waste" heat was not wasted.
  • Consolidated plumbing and vents: Furnace, hot-water tank, bathroom, kitchen, and laundry area (in kitchen) clustered together.
  • Very little hallway space, compared to a ranch style.
Levittown 1947 Cape Cod style's efficient floorplan (shown below) resembled an American Foursquare:

The primary inefficiency came not from the internal house design but its placement, such as oriented relative to the street rather than oriented relative to the sun (depending on the climate, optimized for cooling or the opposite for heating).


Saturday, May 02, 2009

House Square Feet Per Person: Surprisingly Little Needed

You only need about 150 square feet per person (150sqftpp).

150sqftpp is a core or baseline that was not unusual for over a century in America until the strange McMansion culture of the late 20th Century and 21st Century housing bubble.

Source: NPR

Average Square Feet of US New Single Family Home (NPR, Census Dept., medians slightly lower)

2007 = 2,521
2000 = 2,266
1990 = 2,080
1980 = 1,740
1970 = 1,500
1960 =
1950 = 983

1947 = 750*

* 1st Levittown model, Cape Cod style, 1947, 750 sqft (not US average)

The explosion of space occurred as families shrank and "household size" shrank (divorces and living alone) so the change in square feet per person is even more stark.

Square Feet Per Person
(various examples, not all US average)

2007 = 970 (2,521sqft/2.6 people)
1954 = 125 (1,000sqft/8 people, Levittown ad)
1950 = 289 (983sqft/3.4 people)
1947 = 208 (750sqft/3.6 people)
1845 = 150 (150sqft/1 person, Thoreau)

Note how similar the per-person space was for 110 years 1845-1954 but the 2007 consumption is 3 TIMES to 8 TIMES more.

Next: The how and why of efficient square feet per person:
Efficient HVAC Plumbing: Levittown Family of 5 in 750sqft: Inexpensive Floor Plans Part 3


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Lower High Home Heating Costs, How To Cope with Rising Fuel Prices (#2 Fuel Oil, etc.)

Some people muse idly about the coming winter's fuel costs as if it were a storm over which they have no control. However, you do control your heat costs. Moreover, if everyone did these smart actions, lower demand would put downward pressure on fuel prices.
  • Insulate: What would you think if someone left his/her front door wide open all winter and then complained about his/her heating costs? Lax insulation is like leaving your front door open in winter. First, inspect your current insulation. You can upgrade from minimum to average or from average to super-insulated. The roof is the most important because heat rises. Control air infiltration/leaks with caulk, etc. When it comes to heat retention, windows are only the next best thing to a hole in the wall, so use the best combination of storm windows, shutters, plastic films, thermal drapes, etc.
  • Use Free Heat: Manage your windows to use free solar heat gain (insolation) through the glazed surfaces (eg, glass). Make a solar space to trap solar-heated air against your building (eg, cover the interior of a screen porch in black, fill it with thermal masses (water jugs, lawn mowers), and cover the exterior screens with clear plastic). Manage your yard to landscape for best solar gain on the whole house in winter. Basically, do the opposite of summer home-cooling techniques. Basements are free passive geothermal heat sources, when even their typical geothermal-heat 40-50F degrees are better than zero-degree (0F) outside air temperature (check radon gas if necessary). Earth-sheltered homes maximize free, passive, geothermal heat.
  • Reduce Usage/Lower Demand: Conservation (not burning fuel) is the cheapest and easiest method to keep heating costs low. Insulation helps after you already have heated a space, but consider all the heating and fuel-burning that you do not need to do in the first place. Size/service/clean your furnace to peak efficiency, which is like raising the MPG on your car (otherwise, you are burning gallons without any heat benefit, simply burning money). Get a programmable thermostat that lowers heat while you are at work or sleeping under blankets. Lower your "standard" temperature a few degrees and wear a sweater (yes, the cliche actually works extremely well). Make "winter rooms," the old-fashioned method to keep the key part of the house at standard temperature (keep water-pipes above freezing or shut-off/drain the pipes from, say, an upstairs bathroom) and close-off unnecessary square footage (adjust heat registers/vents, close/add doors between rooms, etc.), such as the "exercise room" that is more of a junk room anyway. Winter rooms simulate the efficiency of studios, tiny homes, or other low-cost, efficient, simple-living lifestyles.
Let me know if I forgot anything.

Good luck.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dubai Burj-al-Taqa "Energy Tower" Wind-Solar Powered Skyscraper

German architect Echhard Gerber is planning zero-emmission buildings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and designed the Burj al-Taqa (Energy Tower) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE).

"Wind And Solar Powered Dubai Skyscraper
Skyscraper to be built in Dubai will generate 100% of its energy needs with wind and solar power"

"The Burj al-Taqa (Energy Tower) to be build in Dubai will produce 100% of its electricity needs from a 60 metre diameter roof-mounted wind turbine and 15,000 square metres of PV solar panels. Another 17,000 square metres of solar panels will be located on a nearby artificial island visible from the tower. Any excess electricity generated will be used to extract hydrogen from sea water by electrolysis to be used to generate electricity at night through hydrogen fuel cells."

The Middle East is no stranger to wind power, such as the ancient Persian bagdir:

Passive Cooling Solar Cooling: Use Heat To Cool

Also see:

Ancient Egyptian Air Conditioner: Cheops Ships in 2600 BC Egypt

Friday, November 30, 2007

Maximize Living Space without Hallways: Inexpensive Floor Plans Part 2

Previous: Maximize Home Space Cheapest Cubic Space: Inexpensive Floor Plans Part 1

Hallways: The Living Space Thief

Hallways rank among the worst design features:
  • Create narrow, claustrophobic feel.
  • Create traffic blockages with open closet doors, etc.
  • Can (transversely) impair flows of light, heat, ventilation, view, etc.
  • Can rob you of at least a closet and possibly a small room when compared to an alternate allocation of the total floor's square footage.
  • Make whole house "feel" smaller.
Designing a floor plan so that common rooms (living room, kitchen) are at a nexus of private rooms (non-through-traffic rooms such as bedrooms or bathrooms):
  • Allows the common rooms to do double-duty as a hallway function.
  • Allows larger living areas (living rooms, bedrooms) with the same floor square-footage and wall perimeter.
  • Makes the whole house "feel" larger.

Friday, October 26, 2007

California Fire-Proof Concrete Roofs

NPR this morning belatedly did a story about how concrete buildings are more fire-resistant and might have prevented fire losses of homes in the California wildfires from the seasonal Santa Ana winds.

Readers of this site (IHB) know that I have advocated concrete for some time. See:

"Concrete, Wood, Steel, in New Construction"

Concrete has high compressive strength (downward pressure on walls) but low tensile strength (stretching), which is why builders often reinforce concrete with steel rebar to prevent sideways earth pressure from cracking basement walls.

Concrete's low tensile strength means short horizontal spans (the concrete's own weight pushes down and in effect tries to stretch its underside longer and crack it), which is why the Romans used arches or pillars with short lintel spans and narrow spaces between posts.

Modern concrete roofs can use steel reinforcement for high-tensile span strength and/or use lightweight concrete (concrete mixed with expanded Perlite to lower the density and hence the weight).

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Soddies, Sod Houses, Pithouses, Dugout Houses, Sunken Buildings, Earth Houses, Earthsheltered Homes

Simple Science and Ancient Wisdom from the Vikings to Dick Cheney

Lynne Cheney (wife of Vice President Dick Cheney) mentioned in recent interviews about growing up in Wyoming that a relative lived in a "soddy"/"soddie" (sod house made of sod "Nebraska bricks") and her grandparents lived in a dugout house (dig into a hillside and cover the opening with Nebraska bricks or a wooden frame). A pithouse (sunken building) is a kind of dugout house but usually refers to digging down into flat ground and building a roof over the pit, often with branches and sod.

Soddies, dugouts, and pithouses are prairie versions of igloos or adobe.

You can find Native American pithouses, Viking pithouses, Saxon pithouses, and Japanese farmer pithouses at Numa.

All these earth houses use the same natural climate-control principle of a root cellar/fruit cellar.

The fancy modern terms of "earthsheltered," "living roofs," "green roofs," and "geothermal heating" are just (sometimes pretentious--and pricey) re-labeling of old, inexpensive wisdom.

Proud Homeowner: "My first house in Neb. 1880 built from 'Neb. brick'" (Photography by Solomon Devore Butcher, c. 1886, glass plate negative 6x8)

Dugout House with Wood-Framed Opening, Robbins Dugout, West Union T.P., Custer County Nebraska (Butcher, 1886)

Photo Gallery of Dugout Houses