How houses get built in the DC area

I thought that when I lived in Florida, the construction there was shoddy. I was wrong. At least there they used concrete pillars and floors for the houses, and the building code was so strict everything was anchored properly, especially after Hurricane Andrew. When I moved to the DC area, I thought construction would be better here, since it’s a temperate climate and the houses should be built to last and hold up to the weather. I was wrong. Construction here is horribly shoddy.

I have never been so shocked at the cheap and flimsy “workmanship” I see every time I pass some house or building under construction. It never ceases to amaze me what passes code in these parts, and I’ve lived here since 2003. It’s downright thievery, I tell you. I’ll show you some photos below to help you see what I mean. I call it thievery because you’d think housing would be dirt cheap given the materials and level of effort that goes into the construction, but it isn’t. It’s terribly expensive, to the point that people making below what would be called upper middle class in other parts of the country can’t afford to live inside the Beltway, much less outside it. They have to go find housing either in bad neighborhoods, or way out in the boonies, in order to get anything affordable.

It’s not right. It makes my blood boil. Honestly, I can’t believe what goes on. It’s the same construction everywhere, from the (relatively) cheaper townhomes and single family homes right up to the McMansions that have sprung up on River Rd, Georgetown Pike and other richer places. The only thing that changes is the size and price of each monstrosity, but they’re all just as flimsy.

Do you want to see what I mean? Take a look at these photos. They’re from a house currently under construction in my area.

House under construction

Some unwitting soul is going to pay several hundred thousands of dollars for this piece of crap, and he won’t know what a lemon he’s getting. It’s all 2×4 construction. There’s nothing solid and concrete there except the foundation, and I’m not sure how thick that is, either. It’s all either cheap, soft wood or plywood, including the upper floor. Not only that, but the beams aren’t straight, and the joints aren’t secured properly.

House under construction

It’s basically a big plywood box. I’m not sure what its projected lifetime is, but I can’t imagine it’ll last more than 30 years. It’ll start needing serious repairs even before the mortgage is paid off. Isn’t that terrible?

Do you see that cheap, flimsy Tyvek plastic? That’s the weatherproofing. No, I’m not kidding. That’s it. That’s also the insulation. I doubt they’ll put glass fiber or any other kind of insulation between the drywall and the beams. They might, but I seriously doubt it. I’ve seen the inside of many walls, and they’re usually empty.

House under construction

Can you say cheap? I can. It’s cheap construction! It’s a travesty. Look at that horrible plywood shell. That’s going to be a tower. It’s going to look so nice, clad in fake brick or plastic siding only 1-2 inches thick… It’s also going to be horribly inefficient when it comes to temperature preservation. And if water should happen to leak in through that cheap brick cladding and through that flimsy Tyvek sheet, the plywood will rot away quietly and the owner won’t even know it… Wonderful, isn’t it? Isn’t this piece of crap worth mortgaging your life away?

Should we be ill-fortunate enough to get a hurricane or some tornado in our area, the roof on this thing will probably get torn off, and the entire house might or might not be standing when nature’s done with it.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I understand that America has a long history of 2×4 construction. It’s how the West was won. It’s cheap, affordable, goes up quickly, etc. But this isn’t the West, and it’s not the 1800s. This is the supposedly refined East. We should know better by now. It’s our nation’s capital. And the prices of these plywood boxes aren’t cheap. No, they’re so high most people can’t afford them.

I also understand the builders have to make a profit and the cost of land in this area is expensive. But this is ridiculous! If you’re going to build something that someone will want to call their home, and will pay dearly for it, sinking most of their productive, working years into paying it off, then God help you if you don’t build something worthwhile, something that’ll last. You’ll get what’s coming to you, don’t you worry about that…

What I wonder about is how the people and companies that put up these things can live with themselves. That’s what I want to know. How can they sleep at night knowing someone’s going to pay a fortune for something that’ll start falling apart after the first several years, for something that’s so horribly inefficient when it comes to energy use that they’ll be paying through the nose to cool it in the summer and to heat it in the winter? Don’t tell me about efficient windows! You can get the most expensive windows out there — if the walls themselves can’t conserve the inside temperature, you’ll still be nowhere. There’s such a thing as global warming to worry about. Have you heard of it? Everyone needs to reduce their carbon footprint, and it starts in the home.

Whatever happened to the good, old masonry work? What happened to quality stone construction? Yes, it’s more expensive, but isn’t it worth it? Why can’t you builders put a little more pride in your work? Why can’t you make a concrete skeleton, and use thicker insulation and better materials for the cladding? Is it so hard to do? So you’ll make a little less money. You might have to mark up the price a little. You might have to educate the consumers that know nothing about quality construction. But isn’t it all worth it in the end? Won’t you feel better knowing the house you built will last a long time? Won’t you feel better knowing the people that will buy your house will thank you for your solid construction later? Isn’t it it worth it to build good will instead of ill will?


14 thoughts on “How houses get built in the DC area

  1. I remember when living in Eastern Europe, once in while in the news I saw images of the entire towns razed down by tornadoes. As a child I was amazed by the sheer power of those winds that could bring down a house with 20″ thick concrete and masonry wall. That was my standard, because the house I grew in had such walls and I couldn’t imagine the wind that could break them.
    I also remember when in the early 90s I browsed through a Guinness Book of Records in some book store and found that a team of few karate adepts within several hours knocked down a house with their bare fists and feet only. Again I saw a masonry wall with thousands of bricks and concrete blocks being hit by those persistent karatekas and thought: “wow!”

    I missed one thing though – all those building were just sticks and fiberboard, so not real houses at all.

    It’s quite unbelievable that supposedly rich country as the US is thought to be, builds its houses out of junk materials that in the rest of the civilized world would be used to make scaffolding and create molds for pouring concrete and then reused or recycled.
    It’s even difficult to criticize it, since the home is sacred. The supporters talk about seismic zones forgetting that entire Mediterranean region is mostly seismic yet the buildings are full masonry. Some argument that it’s easier to rebuild a stick house after a hurricane. Following this logic it’s better to cover yourself with a newspaper and cardboard homeless-style, it’s even cheaper to rebuild when blown away.

    One of the main reason people are willing to pay big money for this junk is that they really don’t pay for it all upfront. They just rent it from the bank and in the spirit of political correctness become “home owners”, being ripped off twice as much: one for the abysmal quality, the second for the interest.
    In the poorer Eastern Europe people still build their own houses with their own money (or partial loan) and with their own hands. They will last generations, at least 150-200 years. Of course the stick houses can also stand for 200 years, but who wants to live in such an old, squeaking, moldy, infested shell, especially if the land that it occupies is more expensive? It’s just easier to raze it down and build from scratch, with a loan.
    This raze-down philosophy also translates to the ugliness of entire neighborhoods. Everything is temporary, people move every few years, nobody tries to beautify anything. At some point the neighborhood will become “bad” then after years the trend will reverse, it will be bought out, razed down and rebuilt. People will always say that it’s a young country so it can not be compared to Europe, and at the same time they will admire European architecture, cities built around pedestrian traffic, old beautiful buildings, Paris, Rome, etc. Using junk instead of real materials, they delay the moment when their cities will become historical landmarks. America has interesting downtowns, but they usually constitute 5 to 10 percent of the entire city area, the rest is filled with rows of temporary buildings, more or less ugly and shoddy.

    I have read a publication “Fire Death Rate Trends”. The authors are perplexed why the US building fire deaths are one of the highest of all the developed countries. Nowhere in the entire document words: wood, fiberboard or styrofoam were mentioned even once. In some European countries the insurance premiums for innumerous stick houses are high, which is logical if you want to live in a building constructed of flammable materials.
    It looks like lots of the building codes revolve around the fire risk. Mandated residential sprinklers (in some states already in effect) that will make the house uglier, builders richer and the “owner” more destitute. Doors have to withstand fire, window glass has to be tempered, egress windows in all bedrooms, more power outlets, etc. Everything instead of going to the core of the problem. It’s like taking pills and supplements instead of eating real foods.
    Of course other countries have institution of mortgage as well, but people are much more demanding if their life investment is concerned.

    We shouldn’t forget about health aspects of stick construction. All the chemicals used for impregnating wood, glues, insulation make the low quality air the house inhabitants breath. After they eventually stop oozing any fumes, the fungi and dust that accumulates in heat ducts and wall cavities kicks in to maintain the low air quality.

    As the conclusion I want to say that the mobile homes that litter mostly south(west)ern states are very sincere. Despite their hideous carpets, faux wood walls, flimsy support, they do not aspire to become something they are not. At least they are cheap. On the other hand the same cheapest materials in the “real” houses are being covered with expensive tiles, wood floors, equipped with expensive appliances and fixtures and the price is multiplied by 10.

    As PCL said, the masonry houses are not much more expensive. I used some estimators before to come up with a 15-30% premium, but again, who cares to pay more if his family will move to another place soon or if for the same money he can get something bigger, and bigger is always better? Also, most people would not see a difference between brick faced or real solid brick house as I noticed on some forums. Ignorance is bliss.

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  2. I live in the Northeast; we have the same lowly building standards here, but there’s much less effort to even put up the appearance of soundness. You seldom see brick veneer beyond the front to the house. One particularly stupid looking group of new houses I noticed in tony Wellsley, MA had brick fronts with protruding blocks at the corners suggesting great mass. Sadly, looking down the street, you could see a bit of the generic wood side of each house, exposing the brickwork for the fakery that it is. In cheaper towns, new neighborhood are often completely vinyl sided; the people moving in seem completely unaware of the fact that their new street looks like a collection of huge trailers. If it is pointed out that permanent concrete houses aren’t much more expensive than these boxes, these people would balk at the idea, concrete, brick, even stucco are not “homey” enough in the N. E. , but an OSB box covered with flimsy plastic designed to resemble “traditional” New England architecture is. We apparently like our crappy houses in this country, in spite of their vulnerability to rot, mold and fire. I have to admit that these buildings sometimes work in spite of their shortcomings. If the caulking, flashing and layering of the exteriors of these houses has been done right, they can go a long time without problems. And, though fiberglass and cellulose can be short circuited by the air currents in a cheap wall and can also make any water problems a lot worse, I’ve never seen a new house go up without any insulation. It’s very rare for houses like this to completely fail; most of them will last a lot longer than 30 years (look at some of the appalling houses that have already been up longer than that). But even minor defects in the construction and maintenance of these places, not to mention a big storm, can lead to huge repair bills. Not great, but it’s what we’re used to.

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  3. Being a construction engineer I was absolutely shocked when I visited California last summer. I had just lived for 6 weeks in Ensenada, Mexico, which is not exactly a rich city and yet it struck me that even there buildings were built better. Hell, I even spotted some insulation on several construction sites. It’s as if the States don’t have proper building codes or education for that matter. The amount of money people are willing to pay for such crappy dwellings astounds me. I find it downright weird that people put up with this sh**. I can’t believe people don’t see it. What is going on over there? I used to get mad when seeing contracters build without care over here in Europe but boy was I wrong!
    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a passive house to build (which is about 6,5% more expensive but uses ZERO energy).

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  4. This is why we bought a late 1940s Colonial north of Baltimore, constructed entirely with stone over concrete block, including the 2nd story and the back. The walls are about 12″ thick. When the hot weather comes in summer it takes the inside about two days to get warm enough to turn on the AC.

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  5. Well, I find it apalling. Why, these builders would get laughed out of business if they tried to pull stunts like this in Romania. And to think, Romania, which is here in the States considered a developing country, has better building standards than the States…

    You know what the difference is there? The people are more educated about building practices, because they can still build homes themselves if they choose to do it.

    You have to go through so much red tape here in the States that it’s not even worth it. And what does all that red tape and copious amount of building inspections and plan approvals amount to? Absolutely NOTHING. It’s obvious that it’s worthless. The builders know just how much they have to do to get by, and they still put out crap, while the people that would love to do better are put off by all the red tape and the costs.

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  6. Oh, and don’t even talk about warranties. A “license” to build a house here means paying a fee and filling out paperwork. Our leg has tried to craft some consumer protection laws, but they were pretty much penned by the building lobbies.

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  7. They build houses like this in North Texas as well. And what’s worse is that we have shifting soil conditions. Many houses need expensive foundation work within a year or two.

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