The Seven Sins of Building Design and Construction

By: David A. Bainbridge and Robert W. Bainbridge

Sustainable building reflects the ability of a society to produce, use, repair, and dispose of technology and materials without disrupting the environment or society, limiting future options, or harming future generations. Sustainable building can be done in any climate. We have excellent examples from around the world and from generations of vernacular builders. Sadly the very notion of “appropriate” or “sustainable” building has often been neglected by architects, engineers, builders, and building owners or developers.

Sustainable building technologies should be: biodiverse, resilient, with local control (to build, maintain, fix, dispose of safely), local material based, community-building, energy and material efficient, reusable or recyclable, soft, safe, fun, healthful, asset building, equitable, pleasing, and empowering. Sustainable buildings should improve access, quality of life, promote ownership and good stewardship. Materials should entail minimal impacts on the environment and at the end of their useful life be easily recycled or returned to nature.

This is not what building is like today, instead, buildings and homes account for a third of the material flux in our society, demand enormous energy and resource subsidies, and are a major source of global heating gases. The fundamental reason for this problem is the flow of money in the development process. Perverse incentives and social traps affect almost all of the parties involved, from preliminary civil engineering and planning to carpet and fixture selection. These incentives encourage people to do their worst – not their best – and through the seven sins of building design and construction.

1. Building Big rather than Building Well

Developers, home builders, and home buyers in America worship a low cost per square foot.  They don’t mind spending money on flossy gimmicks, but put the basic shell up as cheaply as possible.  The result is higher heating and cooling bills, and an early need to repair or replace cheap materials, surfacing materials, or fixtures.  Europeans and the Japanese provide fine examples of small, high quality buildings.

2. Abusing the Site

Inappropriate grading and stormwater management lead to flooding problems, moisture problems, offsite pollution, and damage to streams, lakes, and other water courses.  The damage often begins with clear-cutting the trees on the site, and the site may remain raw dirt for years.  By the time the clear-cutting is done, downstream waters are already degraded.  Required silt fences provide almost no real protection, even if they are installed properly.

3. Wasting Energy

While concepts of solar orientation and passive solar heating are widely known, they are almost universally ignored in practice.   The use of mechanical systems and fossil fuels to make things “work” is just too easy, even though it can be very expensive in the long term.  Natural heating, cooling and daylighting can reduce construction cost and provide savings of 60-90% in annual energy demand while improving occupant comfort and productivity. But building teams simply shrug off the savings, passing the costs on to someone else, down the road.

4. Poisoning Indoor Air

Indoor air pollution remains worse than outdoor air pollution in most buildings, facilitated by codes that favor sealed buildings. Clean materials and finishes are more available than ever, but often ignored under pressure for lowest first cost. Historically, heating and cooking were the worst offenders.  In the 1990’s, we learned of the problems of V.O.C.’s or volatile organic compounds in paints, adhesives, and binders.  Chinese sheetrock, imported during domestic shortages, contained contaminants that ate up electrical systems, discolored, and released terrible odors.  Million-dollar houses were torn down and hundreds or thousands will have to be demolished.  The other modern invader is mold, closely related to sin number 5. Many people who never feel well are suffering from mold exposure at work or at home.

5. Underestimating Moisture Risks.

More buildings are wounded and killed by moisture than anything else, and water is clever and sneaky about finding its way into buildings. Specific problems can include inadequate roof pitch, badly placed roof drains, limited or no overhangs, and poor detailing and installation of flashing around windows, doors and other penetrations. Wind driven moisture can flow uphill into the building if detailing or installation is poor. Ill-conceived or poorly managed grading can guide water into basements or crawl spaces.  Leaking pipes within the house can do long-term damage. These problems can be compounded by inadequate ventilation, inoperable windows, and wall building systems and materials that can’t breathe.

6. Tolerating Inferior Materials and Poor Workmanship

The drive for lowest first cost leads to poor construction and use of inferior materials. Inadequately trained workers, often immigrants, working very fast and without quality control incentives, have contributed to the enormous building defects litigation problem.  More problems will almost certainly be discovered in the future.

7.  Creating Excessive Waste

Construction waste is the largest single contributor to land fills, an increasingly expensive and difficult problem.  Automobiles are now being designed to be recycled, but little thought is given to buildings in most parts of the country.  Ideas as simple as designing to fit the standard size of materials such as plywood or OSB can significantly reduce waste.  Some valuable new materials, like Hardie-Plank siding, are durable but may be harder to dispose of than the wood siding they replace.

Using materials with short lifetimes and high maintenance requirements can reduce first cost but increases lifecycle cost. So does neglecting natural heating, cooling, ventilation and daylighting opportunities. But the largest cost of poor design is unhappy and unhealthy people. They will take more time off from work because their building made them sick, unhappy, or crazy. Even when they are “at work” they may get little done because they are uncomfortable and irritated by air pollution, inadequate lighting and ill fitting work environments.

Ultimately it is up educators and working professionals to learn to build buildings and communities that are good for people and the environment. Doing well for one, does well for the other. We need to create a new ethos and new incentives that favor buildings that work for people and the environment And we need to generate pressure to improve construction materials, construction codes, and practices, to reduce the impact of buildings on the environment.

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4 responses

  1. I’m having trouble reconciling sins #3 and #4. Don’t well-sealed buildings also have the lowest heating and cooling costs? As I understand it, this is a big problem in “sustainable design.”

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