Building Science: How climate change is changing the way today’s homes get built
Anyone who has lived in the Bay Area long enough has witnessed firsthand the impact of climate change on our everyday lives. The natural beauty and high quality of living that make this part of the world such a desirable location is undeniable. So too are the wildfires, drought, and “extreme heat events” that have changed the way we work, play, and build in Northern California.
That’s right, new building codes designed to create thermal envelopes that in turn create safer, more energy-efficient structures have impacted virtually every aspect of home construction—from windows and walls to heating and cooling. Add the understandable demand for more fire-resistant structures, and you can see why the homes we’re building and structurally upgrading today are remarkably different from the projects we completed just a few years ago.
New codes, new challenges.
While no one can fault the intentions behind these new building codes, they haven’t made the already tough job of the builder any easier. In fact, each code change creates a cascading flow of variables and new challenges that keep our jobs from being anything but boring.
Up until the 1960’s or so, most residential wall construction consisted of little more than some drywall, 2x4 studs, maybe insulation, and an exterior finish of either stucco or shingles. While these homes “breathed” in ways that allowed for natural airflow inside the home, they were not exactly energy efficient for heating and cooling. The 80s, 90s, and 00s saw improvement in these areas but today’s building codes call for the construction of thermal envelopes around the home, separating the heated and cooled parts of the house from unheated and uncooled areas. This means not just creating walls with multiple layers, breathable moisture barriers, and more complex (and effective) forms of insulation but incorporating new window and door technologies to create an air-tight living space. Of course, this means also incorporating new ways to ensure that the air quality inside these envelopes remains fresh and healthy.
EXTERIOR WALL ASSEMBLIES THEN
EXTERIOR WALL ASSEMBLIES NOW
And that’s just one new challenge. With the emergence of heat pumps to replace gas-fueled water and space heating, roof shingles doubling as solar panels, and car-charging ports and emergency generating systems as standard equipment—to name just a few more—you can better understand why success in today’s construction environment requires builders to be equal parts craftsperson and scientist.
Change is real. Growth is optional.
Lest it sounds like we’re complaining, let’s clarify: We believe the best jobs you can have are the ones where you never stop learning. And that’s why we love what we do at MN Builders.
While the building trades in the United States have historically been slow to update their practices, we understand that our future growth depends on getting up to speed—fast—on all the ways building technology has changed in the past few years and will continue to evolve in the future.
This learning requires a ton of extra work on our part. Whether it means regular trips to trade shows and manufacturing factories or hosting demos in our shop, we are constantly expanding our awareness and knowledge of the latest building innovations that new building codes require—and customers now request.
And it’s not just about expanding our individual expertise, either. As general contractors, we also need to expand our knowledge network. This means seeking out new subcontractors and consultants who we can team with at every stage of the process to ensure that the structures we build are as beautiful and durable as they are energy-efficient.
Now, more than ever, a general contractor’s experience is not just measured by what they know but by who they know. And we continue to pride ourselves on the ecosystem of partners, subcontractors, and consultants we have created to help keep us ahead of the curve.
It takes a village to build an energy-efficient home.
Of course, the onus for building better homes does not rest on just the general contractor’s shoulders. Everyone involved in the process—from clients and architects to city engineers, consultants, and manufacturers—needs to make a real commitment to expanding their knowledge and expertise in new building technologies and practices. This new chapter isn’t a competition. It’s an opportunity to learn, to teach, and to each do our part to preserve the Bay Area as a great place to call home.
This is a responsibility that everyone at MN Builders takes very seriously. Because while building codes and building techniques constantly evolve, our mission to stand behind every project we build will always stay the same.