Energy Efficient Framing: Building Green Homes With Wood

When it comes to energy-efficient home design, most people envision the sort of rockstar technologies that have captured the public imagination in recent decades: photovoltaics, wind power, corn ethanol, or even algae. On the architecture and construction side, exciting new green innovations, such as building integrated photovoltaics and smart glass, make headlines every day. Avant-garde, green houses, more artistic showpieces than dwellings, grace the covers of architectural design magazines and construction quarterlies alike.

Yet, without question, the vast majority of homes built today aren’t constructed of straw bales, or designed by a starchitect focused on bestowing a vision of creative genius upon the world. With all the buzz and hype surrounding the next new thing, architects, designers, engineers, contractors, and the general populace at large, often lose sight of one important fact: we don’t live in the perfectly curated pages of a glossy design tabloid.

Most of us live in homes that are designed, built, packaged, and sold by big builders. And for the most part, those homes are made of wood – a cheap and cheery smattering of 2×4’s studs, nails, and drywall. Yet when it comes to building for both economy and sustainability, the ubiquitous 2×4, as it turns out, is not a bad building component at all. It’s actually quite good. And when it’s used correctly, it can form the bones of a very eco friendly home.

Waste Not, Want Not

Wood framing gets a bad rap these days. Many consider it a cheap, throwaway component – and in truth, it is often treated that way by some builders. Nowadays, we are extremely efficient at framing single-family homes. With experienced crews and contractors, land developers can put up a subdivision in a manner of months. Yet, the typical building methods employed in turn-key developments are riddled with inefficiencies and an unsustainable degree of waste.

The typical residential construction process produces on average 4 pounds per square foot. For a typical 2,500 square foot single-family home, that amounts to 10,000 pounds of landfill waste, much of it wood, from construction alone. In any given year, the home building industry consumes an excess of 2 billion board feet of lumber, while generating over 2.3 million tons of wood waste.

However, with the right building methods and techniques, the typical home today could use as much as 40 percent less wood while achieving 50 percent higher R-values. Because wood is a better conductor of heat than insulation, optimizing its use increases the wall’s overall R-value. In fact, many of these techniques and methods can be done at no added cost for production builders, which translates to greener homes for consumers at an affordable price.

Back To Basics: Wood Framing

Perhaps surprisingly for some, the tenets of optimal wood stud design were actually developed some thirty years ago by the National Association of Home Builders Research Center. These guidelines, tested and affirmed through decades of homebuilding experience, form the basis of practice of many green builders today. Optimum Value Engineering, also known as advanced framing within the industry, prioritizes wood reduction as the primary means of achieving both energy efficiency and economic savings while still meeting structural requirements and safety considerations.

The benefits of OVE are myriad. Besides reducing the amount of lumber consumed, and thus lessening the strain on our forestries, advanced framing techniques reduce costs in a number of ways. Less wood that needs to be framed means less labor. Although the costs of labor are difficult to quantify, they are certainly significant. Energy efficient framing also improves thermal performance, thus providing increased value and a differentiating edge over the competition in the eyes of savvy buyers.

The reduction of interrupting studs within the wall also greatly cuts down on the number one reason for callbacks – drywall cracking. Some homebuilders report a reduction in callback costs per home of up to 90 percent after switching to an advanced framing system. That is certainly significant savings.

3 Advanced Framing Techniques

Frame Studs On 24 Inch Centers

By widening the space between studs to 24 inches on center (oc), rather than the more common, but less efficient 16″ oc with origins from 17th century Europe, ecobuilders are able to add in more insulation while decreasing materials usage and more importantly, reduce the number of thermal bridge points within the frame. The importance of proper spacing can’t be overstated and represents the single largest reduction in lumber.

Build in Modules

For maximum savings and building efficiency, rigorously coordinate to a 24 inch module in conjunction with your 24 inch on center framing. Obviously in reality, not everything will work perfectly with those dimensions. Things such as corridors don’t always work to those dimensions and must break the grid in order to fulfill a building’s overriding design intent or the desires of the owner. However, whenever possible, place doors and windows within the 24 inch grid in order to maximize space for insulation.

Stack Framing

Logically speaking, it makes sense to align structural members between one floor and the next. Stacking framing members one atop the other allows for an efficient transfer of weight, thus eliminating the need for a double top plate. In other words, the exterior walls become exclusively load bearing which allows for flexibility and thus reduces costs when it comes to interior partition walls.

The Beauty of Wood

From a sustainability standpoint, the beauty of wood lies in the fact that it is a sturdy and highly sustainable building material when properly employed and sourced from USDA-managed forestries. Better yet, it is by far the cheapest, quickest way to build a structurally sound house at a reasonable cost.

By applying energy-efficient OVE techniques during construction, ecobuilders can build homes that are also incredibly sustainable, without breaking the bank. Hidden behind plaster, gypsum, and drywall, OVE systems may not be highly visible or glamorous, but they often form the bones of a darn good, high-performance home.

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