Reader Feedback: Issue 197, August/September 2008
The economics of home buying
Kevin Ireton’s essay “Is green building too expensive?” (FHB #195), as thoughtful as it is, misses some important considerations in the cost of buying a house. Ireton states that over the life of a 30-year mortgage, a $350,000 home actually costs $796,000—a lot of money. But the real cost is vastly more if you account for the pretax dollars you must earn, then pay taxes on, before paying the mortgage with what is left.
If you consider taxes and other costs that reduce your income—for argument’s sake, say 40%—then you have a different equation for determining the earnings needed to afford a $350,000 home. The $796,000 30-year mortgage payback cost becomes a whopping $1,327,000, plus or minus. Add to this the cost of transportation, clothing, and so forth required for the job over 30 years, and you easily push needing to earn more than $1,500,000 to pay for a $350,000 house.
The equation of having to earn about $4 to $4.50 for every dollar spent to buy a house certainly is an incentive to build your own house, where your labor becomes sweat equity. If you can get the cost of the $350,000 house down to less than $150,000, including land and utility hookups (and I’ve seen this done many a time at even lower figures), you give yourself the gift of not having to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for the same housing results. Not bad pay for a year or two of work. If you were making a modest $35,000 a year, this savings would mean not having to put in an extra 15 to 20 years of work, with the resulting societal and carbon cost of getting to and from the job.
—Richard O. Byrne Staunton, Va.
Shear walls need better footings
The article by Roxana Vargas-Greenan and Trent Greenan in your last issue showcased what architects do best: design attractive, functional houses to meet difficult restrictions (“Small, Spacious House for a Skinny City Lot,” FHB #196). But as the authors mention, narrow houses are notorious for having shear-wall issues, and the design, as shown in the article, still has shear-wall issues.
I’m hoping that the authors accounted for shear wall overturning in their design and that this element was just not illustrated in the article. However, the way the information was presented could lead your readers to think that shear-wall forces simply disappear once those forces reach the footings.
You can make a footing resist shear-wall overturning forces in one of three ways:
1. Pour enough concrete into a hole so that the very weight of the concrete could resist uplift from the shear-wall tie-down. (However, this solution could require a lot of concrete; the 1-in.-dia. anchor rods referred to in the article could each lift 5 cu. yd.)
2. Design the footing so that the friction between concrete and soil is sufficient to resist uplift forces. This design would depend on soil conditions at the site. (In reality, friction usually resists at least as much uplift as the weight of the concrete does.)
3. Design the footing to take advantage of the fact that the uplift force at one end of a shear wall is always paired with a downward force of the same magnitude at the opposite end. Such a footing usually extends several feet in both directions from the ends of the shear wall. (Think of an upside-down T where the stem of the T is the shear wall.) This sort of footing has much heavier reinforcement than a standard residential footing. As an approximation, you want the bars at the top and bottom of the footing to be the same size as the anchor rods that connect to the shear wall.
The footings as illustrated in the article do not meet any of the three criteria above, and the shear walls could easily tip them over. Such an attractive house should be built to last.
—Thor Matteson Mariposa, Calif.
Editor’s note: The fault was ours, not our authors’. We failed to illustrate the footings as they were actually built. By the way, Thor Matteson, who has written for us in the past, is a structural engineer and the author of Wood Framed Shear Wall Construction: An Illustrated Guide, which is available from the International Code Council (www.iccsafe.org).
Is brute force necessary?
I was delighted to see an article addressing simple, tasteful casing details in your last issue (“Craftsman-Style Casing,” FHB #196). As an architect working for a large window manufacturer, I cannot condone the author’s recommendation to “apply force if necessary” to solve a window-installation problem. Depending on the forced used, that solution could damage the window, compromise the sash operation, compromise the seals, compromise the flashing, and possibly void the product warranty should damage be attributed to this action.
I have worked with enough talented trim carpenters and do-it-yourselfers to know there are better techniques to move an installed window into a more-favorable position for proper trim conditions.
—Dan Grubish, via email
Author Tucker Windover responds: All the carpenters I know who have seen my article love the photo of me yanking on the window with my foot against the wall. The photo is so real world that it’s almost shocking to see it in print. It’s a dynamic representation of what we have to do sometimes to get our job done. In any case, I’m certain the performance of the window was not compromised.
Easier eased edges
In his article “Craftsman-Style Casing” (FHB #196), Tucker Windover recommends easing the edges of the casing with a block plane. I have found that it’s easy to become aggressive and remove too much wood when easing edges with a block plane.
Many years ago, I saw an ad for a tool called a Radi Plane, and I ordered one. It has been an indispensable tool in my nail bags ever since. With one pass, it can apply a perfect radius to any trim-piece edge (except end grain) that has been milled on a planer or saw. No more slightly irregular block-planed or sandpapered edges for my projects. By the way, when you’re using this tool, make sure you plane with the grain.
The Radi Plane is available online from a variety of vendors. Best of all, it costs less than $20 and will last a lifetime. I have yet to use the extra blades I purchased with the tool many years ago.
—Greg Metzger Pendleton, N.Y.