20 years ago we watched Bob Vila and others who showed us how to build many things. Bob showcased high quality work and his customers were generally happy. Floors were laid, toilets were installed and everybody got nice flooring. Highly entertaining for those involved in construction.
But there's been a change in public taste for entertainment. Michael Holmes takes on horror stories, and we all get to live vicariously through him as he scolds the homeowners and contractors for their stupidity. He has a much bigger audience because of the voyeuristic nature of the show. I'm a huge fan of stupidity in all of its glorious manifestations so I find it hard to turn away from the train wreck, building nightmares that Mike deals with. It's a more complete entertainment package because there are heroes, villains and victims and our hero is given an obstacle to overcome just as Shakespeare would have it. Mike dosen't get the girl although I'm sure he gets plenty of off camera opportunity. But in the process of fixing the blame, I think these shows tend to put people off of building things for themselves.
Here's something to consider. Why does Mike Holmes exist?
And why does that whole television and newspaper genra exist? The whole "look at this, what a bunch of dummies, how could they let this happen, everybody is stupid except me" thing.
I believe this state of affairs exists because the building code, architects, building officials and manufacturers of building products have complicated the process of building houses so much that even well-intentioned contractors get it wrong. When I watch these shows I'm struck by the many complicated processes demonstrated. This goes before this goes over that make sure you this and make sure you do that and if one little thing goes wrong you're screwed. Problems are solved with expensive high tech materials and mechanical devices in a spare no expense flurry of activity. Experts of all types mill around the property as Mike points out the intricacies of their particular field of expertise. If I hadn't already built things myself I might be led to believe that I was unqualified and incapable.
I don't recall Mike ever saying: " Putting this many roof lines on a single-family house is a bad idea." " Build things as simply and practically as you can, avoid over complication." " Don't build a house with inadequate roof overhang". " Let's figure out the simplest way to do this." " Build from as few manufactured materials as you can get away with". " Houses should be oriented to take full advantage of natural sunlight for solar heating". For all I know he may agree with these things but the viewer is constantly presented with expensive solutions which require experts who employ expensive materials in the process. The finished project comes complete with many electrical and mechanical devices which will require both energy and maintenance. On the whole I believe it shows things to be much more complicated than they need to be.
The entire building culture of North America headed down this road generations ago. Mike Holmes is an expert in this field and in doing the show he constantly points out deficiencies. But the villain is always some contractor or home inspector who has screwed up. It's never suggested that people need to get more in touch with how things are built so they can do it for themselves or so that they can feel confident in hiring someone else. The system is never questioned, the idea that houses come from the store and they just need to be assembled. Everything centers around using these materials. They don't question the system and say, "Should housing be this complicated?"
I like Mike and I like his byline " doing it right." I believe that doing it right means also doing it in an environmentally sound manner that can be easily understood by the builder and the homeowner. And doing it right should mean doing it inexpensively so that more people can afford to own the building they live in.
Thank you: Dale Hodgins
The same situation happens with drugs. The most effective thing we can do to look after our health is to eat a good diet. Government ads tell us this but private sector adds need to sell us something in a package. Flax seed oil has been shown to be more effective against breast cancer than many drugs sold for the purpose. But you can't patent flax seed oil so the industry has no financial incentive to promote it.
But I think in the case of Mike Holmes, demonstrating simple techniques which could be mastered by most, would take away from the whole hero – villain – victim formula which has been so effective. I'd rather watch Tim Callahan one of the co-authors of Green Building. The economics of this might mean simply a DVD as others have done.
Mike Holmes pointing out failures of contractors to meet code and "build right" is a sinister but ultimately smart move if you're on the industry side of the fence. There is heavy criticism of building codes in many alternative circles. By pointing out failures of builders who are willing to ignore code, or cut corners to make a quick buck, he can effectively demonize those operating outside the current system and enforce the need for the code and regulation that creates customer dependence. It may even be in response to the growing popularity of alternative methods. The empire strikes back!
There have been billions of dollars in losses due to the failure of this building system. The government and media have both chosen to villanize individual building companies since they are the easiest target. They constructed these buildings using approved materials and everything was inspected to ensure that those materials were installed in the prescribed manner.
Any news story which attempts to examine the entire building system would require plenty of research and conflicting opinion. Stories about bad contractors can be researched with a few phone calls. Not surprisingly, stories about individual contractors tend to go in the same direction as Mike Holmes's television show. We have a problem, hero,victim and villain with the news reporter as hero since they bring it to light.
Of course this is ridiculous. If I'm holding a dinner party and the roof starts to leak onto the dining room table it's plain to all that there is a problem. The only hero would be whomever manages to get up there and fix the problem.
Once a new material is approved for use, manufacturers constantly try to find additional uses for their product and they lobby the government to make the use of certain products compulsory. This has happened with plastic vapor barriers and manufacturers have reaped billions in extra business as a result. Any attempt de-list a product is met with hostility and lobbying of governing bodies.
The whole problem lies with the idea that stakeholders should have input into public policy. I believe this catering to stakeholders works against the public interest. This happens in agriculture when chemical companies are allowed to influence policy. It happens with fisheries where government allows those who exploit the resource to have input in how the rules are set up. And of course it has happened far too often in the financial industry where banks and insurance companies have been allowed to set up their own rules. No matter which segment of society were talking about it makes no sense to allow the industry to make the rules concerning their own negative behavior. Anyone who is allowed to make the rules will tend to slant them in their own favor. Industry does it, I would do it and history has shown that almost anyone with power will use that power to change the rules in ways that benefit themselves but may be against the common good.
He also isn't in a position to change codes. He might well be willing to get on board with some sort of movement to modify some of them but since he makes a living correcting things which have become disasters because contracters haven't followed the code this might again be expecting too much. The homeowners are already in a state of extreme stress, it wouldn't be helpful to them to point out that they were idiots to have built such a house in the first place, code or not, and he would soon be out of a show. I'm not sure that would be very productive.
There ARE other people out there doing stuff like Dan Phillips who has people with no building experience at all help build their houses using 70-80% recycled materials. He has seen his share of hassles but I suspect he does mostly make sure that houses are built to code or that he has official sanction for variance. The thing is he is a trained architect so understands when things can be swapped out for other things and still stay safe. He has some very insightful comments to make about the building industry. His TED talk is here if interested. http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_phillips_creative_houses_from_reclaimed_stuff.html
There is also Habitat, Houses for Humanity organization which allows people to learn through volunteering how to build houses, albeit conventional ones. They operate in most major cities nowadays.
I do agree that the manufacturers have lobbied to the point that some codes are bizarre. My house has 70 amp wiring and when I moved in I was told I could have 60 or 100 or 200 amp but not 70 as it was no longer code. I asked them to explain how it could possibly make sense that I could put LESS amperage in and be code compliant and eventually the inspector figured it wasn't a tenable situation and gave approval. It was otherwise going to cost me about $2000 just to bring the change into the house not counting any wiring actually beyond the junction box.
The problem is the same for agriculture as it is for the building industry and likely others as well; the people making the rules are POLITICIANS and don't know ANYTHING about the subject they are writing the laws about. Or, if they do have some experience in the field, it tends to be conventional..as in heavy reliance of fertilizers and chemicals in agriculture. So they ask and who they ask tends to be the big industry players, people who have axes to grind. John Deere and such equipment companies and Monsanto and other chemical companies in agriculture are regarded as the experts in the field, not a small group of oddball people in a niche market.
This is certainly partly as a result of marketting convincing people that unless they use the latest gadget or system they will be in line for disaster so these companies gain traction because they can point to the numbers of people using those gadgets or systems. This is to some degree the same in the building industry. This led to the widespread use of aluminum wiring in many houses 40 or so years ago, when inattention to the behaviour of aluminum vs that of copper and the interaction between the two led to all sorts of problems. Yet I saw the other day a suggestion on a website suggesting using aluminum wire to extend an electrical system with copper wiring, without suggesting in any way that there might be special problems which would need to be addressed in such an arrangement. If someone points out that that won't pass code, it might save someone from losing their house, as many did before the problems were considered instead of just the cost savings of aluminum vs copper.
I've heard that several months ago that there was now more information (good and otherwise) on the internet than was the whole sum of information in all media including books, in human history up to that point, and the rate of posting is increasing daily. People already live busy and stressed lives so they look to "experts" to do what they don't feel up to learning how to do themselves. I have known several academics who didn't even know how to change a tire or light a furnace pilot light and said, quite reasonably, that that wasn't their area of expertise. They operated within their area of expertise and earned enough money to pay someone expert in whatever other area to take care of things in that area. But then they have no intelligent thing to offer on anything OTHER than their area of expertise. So how would it make sense for them to make public policy in areas outside their own?
It surely makes no sense that the stakeholders should NOT have a say in policy making? Just look on the internet in the "FAIL" categories and you can see all sorts of examples of what sorts of things would be happening everywhere if everything was a free for all. I suppose if you believe that Darwinianism should be the guiding principle then perhaps but that seems a bit severe to me.
The fishermen on the east coast warned the government YEARS before the cod fishery collapsed that it was going to unless the rules were changed, but the government "experts" whoever they were, insisted they knew better. Those "experts" and the government officials who acted on their advice instead of the people actually in the industry, should be held directly accountable and everything they own should be confiscated to partially compensate the fishermen who lost everything as a result of the collapse of the cod fishing.
The same result should apply, imo for the people who gaily went ahead with making code laws which resulted in new buildings which complied with those having to be torn down or undergo extensive renovations to fix the resultant problems. I see the problem not as the stakeholders having input but that the people responsible are never held responsible, in spite of lawsuits all over the place.
Politicians are NOT held responsible for the decisions they make which become law. If there turns out to be a problem, then the government throws (taxpayers) money at it until it either goes away or at least temporarilly shuts up. There is more public outrage over a dui conviction where no one (luckilly) is hurt, than there is over a decision which negatively impacts thousands of people or more. Possibly because in any government decision everything can be bounced around through so many bureaucrats that it seems to become an exercise in futility, with at best generally ending in some poor shmuck way down in the bureaucratic food chain being thrown to the mob. This is a scenario where I tend to the view, fire them all and let the courts sort it out. This would tend to make lawmakers look a little more carefully for the downsides of any new thing which was being touted as a cure for something many of them didnt even think about as a problem in the first place.
And..any company bringing deliberately incomplete, false or misleading results of scientific studies as support for their product should have their company CEO and President thrown in jail for at least two years (which makes it a federal crime) - and not the country club type of jail either - automatically, like the automatic jail terms for people caught with drugs. They should also have their assets seized and sold to compensate for the damage, AND their company banned from bringing anything forward to get permitted for at least 10 years. If they try to get around this by going through another company, both companies are to lose their license to operate at all. If this is hard on their employees, then ..life is tough..perhaps the employees should be allowed to take over the company, rename it and try to do better.
As you can tell, I think that the problem is not that stakeholders have input but that neither they nor the politicians who put their products into use and indeed sometimes mandate those products to be used are being held personally and truly accountable. I think if they were, due diligence might become due diligence and not just sound bytes.
The show is silent regarding what should or should not be built or what is economically and environmentally prudent. They simply deal with the current state of affairs, show us a horrible example of some family's experience with a contractor and then they opt for expensive, high-tech fixes. I have never heard the words "environmental footprint", "sensible sized house" or "realistic budget" during the many episodes I've enjoyed. And I have enjoyed them but not because they have anything to teach me. I already knew not to be an idiot and not to hire idiots.
It's not that they advocate against simplicity or common sense, the idea that there is anything wrong with our current nonsustainable construction industry is never brought up. And I doubt that the sponsors of the show would allow sustainability issues to enter their forum. Building shows have always been subtle infomercials for product. This is an industry sandbox and we're not invited. I get that.
For the sake of simplicity in creating a villain for the program it only makes sense to go after a shoddy contractor. In this way the audience is never required to think.
The manufacturers of expensive materials which are showcased would certainly not tolerate a switch to green building methods, so I understand that Mike is limited in this regard should he ever wish to advocate change.
I see Mike's television persona as a player in a morality play rather than as a contractor. The moral of the story is always the same. Do things right, don't rip people off and be careful that you don't get ripped off. It's a very simple formula.
Back to the stakeholders. When I lived in Newfoundland in the early 80s they were busy catching the last decent breeding stock for cod. Every year an allowable catch was handed down from the government and every year the fishermen were seen on television griping that they weren't allowed to catch enough fish. I now live in British Columbia and see exactly the same thing. No matter what the allowable catch, the industry insist that this is not nearly enough. If industry had its way, Noranda mines, Canada's largest mining enterprise would now belong to the Chinese. They were stopped by government. Starting about 15 years ago the financial industry lobbied incessantly in an attempt to institute American-style lending policies where people with no hope of repaying could be loaned money. The people prevailed and we haven't seen the horrible banking fiasco and accompanying economic downturn which has hit the United States. I believe the entire financial fiasco and the state of American agriculture to be the result of stakeholders working in conjunction with sympathetic and many times crooked politicians.
Monsanto has many lobbyists all of whom work for this major stakeholder in agriculture. So far as I know a lobbyist can't exist without a stakeholder since that's who pays them. I'd be interested to learn of any lobbyist who doesn't claim to represent a major stakeholder.
Although I'm not a giant fan of many politicians, it makes more sense for representatives of the people to control public policy than to allow special-interest groups to make their own rules. When is the last time you heard of a politician doing something against the public interest without the involvement of industry lobbyists, sometimes in the form of bribery? Politicians don't have easy access to public funds over and above their wages. Crooked politicians need stakeholders and stakeholders need crooked politicians. They feed off one another. Politicians can potentially reap millions if they hop into the pocket of the right stakeholders. And very cushy advisory and lobbying jobs are always available to retired politicians who've paid their dues and demonstrated unquestioning loyalty to stakeholders.
I've seen a lot of mistakes being made, including some very dangerous ones, and I don't doubt that more than a few wouldn't survive a quake over 5.5 (and we do get them from time to time... last one was in '76), but I think that ultimately that sort of thing is the lookout of the owners and not the state - information about earthquake-resistant building is easy to find and skilled builders are available here.
I've never seen the show you're writing about but I sure am glad there are still places like this where we can build like cowboys in a frontier zone - I wouldn't have it any other way!
I built a house in ontario with freakishly large amounts of insulation, r-50 in the walls and r-60 to 70 in the attic. Insulated basement, insulated slab (4" high density foam).
I built it based on heat loss calculations that suggested I could just leave all the incandescent lights on, and keep the house comfortable in the dead of winter, assuming I insulated the windows at night.
Nobody believed it would work. I was told repeatedly, by many people, including friends and family, it would never work.
"You're gonna buy a furnace that first winter, I promise you."
I think they had such skepticism primarily because they had never seen a house without a furnace in Ontario. It's different so it has to be wrong. Thankfully, the building inspector was a pretty smart and reasonable guy, and let me build it with just a 32,000 btu gas fireplace as a furnace.
But I tell you, there were days when I had doubts. Swimming against the cultural current can be a huge battle.
Stick to your guns. We can change.
Dale Hodgins wrote:
I see Mike's television persona as a player in a morality play rather than as a contractor. The moral of the story is always the same. Do things right, don't rip people off and be careful that you don't get ripped off. It's a very simple formula.
I don't quite understand the problem with the moral, it seems reasonable to me. The question of what is "right" is perhaps up for debate, but when you are working within agreed parameters...
Dale Hodgins wrote:
Back to the stakeholders. When I lived in Newfoundland in the early 80s they were busy catching the last decent breeding stock for cod. Every year an allowable catch was handed down from the government and every year the fishermen were seen on television griping that they weren't allowed to catch enough fish.
That's a very interesting comment. I lived in Nova Scotia up until 1980 and we frequently saw newspaper reports about and interviews with fishermen saying that the government was wrong, that the fisheries could not sustain the level of permits that were being given out, but that the fishermen were being forced to fish at that rate by the government. If they didn't fill their permits. then others were only too happy to step in and take the fish. The government of the day verbally patted them on the head and told them not to worry about a thing, that the experts knew better than the fishermen and all would be well. Then..of course..it crashed.
The other thing is the whole question was complicated by foreign fisheries being quite happy to take any cod that the Maritime fishermen didn't...so it became a sort of national boundaries issue rather than a fisheries issue to some extent. The fisheries in B.C. had (has?) some of the same issues.nobody trusts anyone else to slow down their take so everyone is out to "get their rightful share" and pretty soon nobody gets any. ..
Back to technology..can't argue against technology per se..computers are kinda useful at times..but as a society we have become dazzled I think because we are mostly beyond our capacity to cope, really. I am barely computer literate..if that..and yet on another site which is full of very intelligent people, although many of them are extremely adept with anything remotely computerese, I have had numerous others look to me for help, which is bizarre in the extreme. So I think there is a sort of "authority" which people tend to give anything technological these days because they feel out of their depth to understand it. This is what I think governments need to understand and act to defend their voters from.
Politicians are supposed to defend their population and they are paid to take the time and make the effort to understand threats. They have the resources and the power. They are not using them to do that, but instead leaning over backwards to accommodate technology almost without question. Thus we get stupid decisions becoming laws which later need to get fixed. We get laws forbidding people to use herbs that have been in use for centuries but allow drugs which kill over 100,000 people a year,(according to some sources) even when taken according to the prescription. And so forth.
I think the world is too complicated now for people to cope with knowing everything they need to know. At some point, they need to have someone they can trust to tell them what they need to know.
Mike Holmes could undoubtedly tell them they don't need those big houses. He could undoubtedly tell them that they shouldn't have 15 different angles on their roof. He HAS actually used green materials and promoted them, one such I know about is using insulation made from recycled blue jeans of all things. But you are a contractor, how many jobs would you get if you tried to talk someone in a $500 000
house into putting a cob fireplace in their living room? If you modified it and made it a masonry heater then ok..but then all of a sudden the costs are much higher and it's more tech even if the tech has been around for hundreds of years. If you don't get it right it won't work and there'll be smoke everywhere and then...gotta call Mike...?
I have no desire to own one of the wasteful and hugely complicated monstrocities which I often see depicted on Mike's show or on many others. I want a house that is BETTER.
And by better I mean bigger,stronger,more durable,more energy efficient,more comfortable, less expensive,and requiring less maintainance than what the market offers.
I have the land and I already posess all the required skills to accomplish this.
So the only serious impediment I face is a legal framework and building culture which says that this is not acceptable. Because of this my number one cost in all of this will be related to paper and all the legal wrangling to obtain bits of paper in order to make my actions legal.
So this is the road I'm travelling.Working to convince people with far less building background than myself,many of whom are just there for the paycheque, that I'm capable of producing a good,safe house. I expect an uphill battle and I expect to win. Eventually things should become easier whether it is through code changes or through wearing down opponents incrementally on each new project.
Now we need William Wallace to rally the troops with some inspiring words.
Several new shows have cropped up since I started this topic. I like the ones where they go out and look at several homes that are for sale. Instead of hero, villain, victim, the buyers have a knowledgeable helper to lead them through the many choices and trade offs. Budget concerns dominate. Each house has it's problems, but once a decision is made, they fix the problems rather than the blame.
This is how it works for millions who don't get all of their repairs paid for by a TV show. There's not quite as much flash to these ones but they are more interesting and instructive for those with little experience.
As to the complexity of systems, hey if you choose to build in a certain style then you really should understand that style and in truth most styles are rather complex if you want them to both perform, be safe, and last.
DIY is great and I HIGHLY encourage people to DIY as much as they can but some people just aren't builders. I have a good friend who I wouldn't let hold my tools while I work, its just NOT a skillset he has nor has the time to develop. That said he is a novelist and that is a sill I don't have nor do I have the time to develop. As much as I encourage people to DIY projects or entire homes I've seen WAY too many people who have limited experience think that they know what they are doing and they really don't, or even worse they get one source of information and don't have the experience to quantify that source or place it in context and they go off building total junk, sometimes junk with a huge amount of financial and sweat equity behind it. Some are bakers and some are builders and some are bad bakers and some are bad builders... you really need to apply buyer beware to those you employ and yourself as you take on projects.
Building codes. Building codes come down to a few simple principals:
1. Liability. What happens when something goes wrong.
2. Inspectability. The inspector who can't be expected to know the theory behind every type of system so they stay inside a pretty general box. If you want to get outside the box you need to get an engineer to support your project. It falls back on 1.
3. How does what you're doing effect everyone around you. Again it falls back on item 1.
The 4000 year old “Code of Hammurabi” consisted of 282 laws. Laws 228 thru 233 dealt with building construction:
228. If a builder builds a house for someone and completes it, he shall give him a fee of two shekels in money for each sar of surface.
229. If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.
230. If it kills the son of the owner the son of that builder shall be put to death.
231. If it kills a slave of the owner, then he shall pay slave for slave to the owner of the house.
232. If it ruins goods, he shall make compensation for all that has been ruined, and inasmuch as he did not construct properly this house which he built and it fell, he shall re-erect the house from his own means.
233. If a builder builds a house for someone, even though he has not yet completed it; if then the walls seem toppling, the builder must make the walls solid from his own means.
Pretty extreme but hey it falls back on item 1.
So if you are boldly building a home with no inspection, insurance or real experience in the system you are building with then how are you handling your liability? If you're somewhat close to your neighbour and your shoddy wiring in you're home starts a fire that consumes both or more properties what are you going to do? What if his son dies in the fire? Can you replace that son? Can you fix their loss? Its harsh but its real. How about if someone is a guest in your home, do you tell them, "Yea I built this, but there is no regard for code, I've only ever done this once, I have no insurance and no way to accept any liability for you if it hurts you in any way. How about your own family... This is why codes and consultants come into play, they mitigate you're liability by trying to ensure that you're structure is somewhat safe at a minimum level. Generally speaking most jurisdictions will allow anything that an engineer or architect is willing to hang their designations on, you just need to be aware of the process.
Expertise has tremendous value. For example RMH is generally not covered under any code. However what's better you building one based on some YouTube videos or you employing the services of a professional who understands fire, flow etc and how those things actually work in an RMH to help you? Something thats been on my mind a lot lately is context, just because something works in the Nevada desert doesn't mean its gonna work the same in a northern climate or in a tropical climate. Seems obvious but its not necessarily so.
Everything works until it fails and failures take you back to item 1.