Practical and Reasonable

Low income homes are often in poor condition and there are many reasons for this. Part of this problem has to do with the selection of material and construction techniques in such housing.

Some of this is obvious and well documented. It should come as no surprise that many of the manufactured homes used after some recent disasters fell apart soon after they were installed - some fell apart even before that. This appears to have been the result of unscrupulous construction practices. Poor quality construction techniques, designs and material selections were some of the other contributing factors.

Similar problems exist in all types of construction, particularly in the construction of homes on a limited budget. When initial costs are the dominant factor during the construction process, maintenance and repair costs are ignored. There are many examples: cabinetry that is almost impossible to clean or repair, tub and shower walls that scratch easily, unprotected entry doors that guarantee interior floor damage.

Occupancy levels are another factor: expensive homes are larger than less expensive ones and people on a limited budget tend to live in more crowded homes. More people in a limited space means that everything gets used more. More use equals more wear and tear. It also means that more moisture is collected in the home and moisture causes many of the problems.

Some lower income housing also depends upon do-it-yourself construction and maintenance. And this must also be considered during the design and material selection process.

The recommendations herein are based upon my observations and recommendations from many groups. I welcome comments from readers.


  • Nothing new here, as the old joke goes, these are the 3 most important factors in the value of any property. And it should also come as no surprise that with lower income housing the considerations are a bit different. The concerns here are primarily in regard to the proximity to:

    • Transportation,
    • Jobs,
    • Schools and Day Care,
    • Medical and Related Services,
    • Parks, Libraries and Community Centers, and
    • Shops.

    Proximity to such services must be calculated as a part of the cost and value of any property. Location must also be a factor in design and material selection. Heating and cooling needs, moisture control requirements, neighborhood safety considerations and flooding are but a few of the local factors that may require some extra development and maintenance costs.

    My experience suggests that many of these costs are not factored into the purchase price of properties, let alone lower cost properties.

  • It took people like Jane Jacobs to explore the importance of urban design. To explain why certain neighborhoods functioned well, had lower crime rates and thrived.

    Some of these design ideas are still controversial, few are simple to apply. My familiarity with these concepts is amateurish and so the only advice I can present here is that good design is critical. That the biggest design mistakes I see have to do with the inadequate time and resources devoted to this essential part of the development process.

  • As a general rule, the use of familiar products and construction techniques will result in lower construction and maintenance costs than construction with innovative alternatives. I wish that this were not the case and that I didn't have so many examples to help illustrate this point. I love to see new ideas and innovations but have found that the "early adopters" pay a premium for their efforts and all too often end up disappointed with the results.

    Straw-bale construction is just one example. Straw bales are cheap. They have adequate structural capacities, provide good insulation and can last for a very long time. The basic construction technique is relatively simple. But straw-bale houses are different than standard frame structures. They require some special siding and interior wall surface work. They also require different electrical and plumbing systems... Most of these differences are relatively minor but they do require some extra planing and different work on the part of several specialty trades. And those differences cost money.

    Good quality and standard specialty work runs on auto-pilot. For example, the apprentice electricians job is to nail up the boxes for the receptacles and light switches. They learn to place these boxes in bedrooms without even looking at the plans. Most don't even know how to read the plans. Bang, bang, bang, the boxes are up. But what about in that straw-bale house? How do you nail the boxes into those walls? The answers are not difficult but they are 'different' and 'different' work costs more time and more money.

    Most 'standard' work also tends to be good and reliable. In most cases, it has stood the test of time, has not resulted in too many call-back, legal problems and other expenses and complications.

    And "standard" materials and installation practices can be used to create wonderful and useful living spaces!

  • Type of Foundation Relative Cost Comments

    A concrete slab on the surface of the land.
    Construction - 1
    Maintenance - 3
    Useful Life - 10
    Requires special attention to under floor util., insulation, drainage and flood control.
    Crawl Space Construction - 3
    Maintenance - 3
    Useful Life - 10
    Requires special attention to drainage, flood and rodent control.
    Most codes require an 18" minimum "head-room" but in order for a crawl space to be accessible for maintenance and ventilation more clearance is essential.
    Basement Construction - 8
    Maintenance - 3
    Useful Life - 10
    Basements are a relatively expensive space with relatively low usage value. They maybe a good investment for some storm shelter application.

    For more information See: Basements and Crawl Spaces

  • There are many options in building residential structures, for example: adobe, straw-bale and concrete block. Some of these options have advantages over wood framing and some may turn out to be a better choice for residential structures.

    In the interim, wood framing is in almost all cases the most practical and reasonable choice for residential construction. It is strong, very long lasting, relatively inexpensive and well understood by the building community.

    I wish those who are interested in advancing 'green' building techniques the best of luck. I also prefer not to cut down trees in order to build houses. But until such new (or old) techniques are established and adopted by the building community such alternative structures will tend to be more expensive to build and maintain.

  • Manufactured roof trusses can be designed in many ways and provide for a very strong and cost affective construction process.

    Roofs with a slope of 4" or 5" in 12" are relatively easy to install and maintain. Such roofs are suited for standard composition roofing - a good choice in terms of cost and longevity.

    Here are a few more suggestions:

    • A good roof overhang on all sides of the structure will help protect the siding, reduce damage from clogged gutters and may also reduce summer heating needs.
    • All bathroom and kitchen fans should be vented out through wall or roof vents.
    • Gutters must extend the full length of a roof's drip line.
    • In areas that are susceptible to roof moss, zinc strips should be installed at the time of the roofing installation.