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New homes or old - which is better

I was in a new build home a little while ago and was impressed with the space, light and general quality of the build. Good brickwork, well fitted out with top notch flooring, underfloor heating, good bathrooms and kitchen. This was a large detached that had been built on a small development and was at the higher end of the price scale. So all good - or is it?

One thing I noticed was that many of the screw heads had popped in the downstairs ceilings. To explain - it is normal nowadays to fix the plasterboard using screws, rather than nails. This is good, because it is a more reliable and controlled method, which ensures a stronger hold. However when people walked across the floor upstairs, the floor moved slightly and flexed,  caused the plaster to pop off the screw heads

Modern building regulations in the UK are largely very well designed. They ensure that buildings are structurally sound, safe, comfortable and secure. However I sometimes question the emphasis placed on engineering design when applied to residential construction. For example, in the use of engineered timber solutions which save timber by calculating the absolute minimum section required, if using natural timber, or in the use of fabricated timber such as I joists, which use small section timber rails with an OSB ( Oriented Strand Board ) web, or relying on additional bracing and strutting to achieve the rigidity that is required.

The engineering calculations prove the size is adequate to support the loads and the bowing ( or deflection ) will be within tolerable limits. However the engineering relies on human interface, to ensure the installation is precise and the use within the calculated limits. Often in the real world, these are not the case. Perhjaps a brace needed to be moved or a strutt placed inaccurately. Perhaps more use is made of the room that the calculation allowed for. In any event, reality has a habit of showing up any limitations in the calculations. Not that the floor will ever collapse, just that it migh deflect a little more that it should.

So we have a conflict, between the need to use our resources wisely and the desire for robust and " solid " feeling construction. THis is why you sometimes see people knocking on the walls of a new home and saying things like " they dont build like they used to "

Whether you are building your new home, or expending your existing property, there is the opportunity to eliminate these little problems. It is usually a simple matter to specify these elements one size larger than is strictly needed. This will have a tiny cost implication but will give a major quality uplift.

Years ago, houses were build using mass brickwork in the walls, with heavy timber joists and rafters in the floor and roof. These were what held the building together and gave it a " solid " feel. When kept dry, this type of structure will last for centuries. However there are downsides - this type of construction is labour and resource intensive, therefore costly to build and anything but " green ".

So we have the modern solutions, which are designed to save resources, be sustainable and provide homes that are easy and economical to live in. Some of the advances in technology are amazing - manufactured boards which use waste materials, engineered timber which enables joining lenghts of timber to minimise waste, Glulam beams which are far stronger than the natural timber, recycled glass for structural floors and foundations, recycled tyres to make roofing materials, thermally efficient glazing, ground source heat pumps, solar PV arrays etc. have revolutionised the way we build and live.

I really like contemporary architecture and the extensive use of glass, timber and steel. However I do think that sometimes the desire to be " contemporary" can lead to the use of materials that may not be as durable as they should be. For example, I have just watched the construction of  a new house, which has been clad externally in vertical timber boards. Leaving the aesthetics aside, on the basis that taste is personal, I would question the advantages of using timber as cladding. Firstly on economic grounds - the walls were built in thermal blockwork, before being protected by a sheet membrane, then battened and clad witn timber, which would seem to be equally as costly as brickwork. Durability must also be an issue. We know that brickwork will last for centuries, so even with constant maintenance will timber have the same lifespan? I doubt it. 

Will modern buildings have the longevity of the older stock? Only time will tell. One thing is indisputable though and that is that modern homes are more comfortable, more efficient, cheaper to rum, easier to maintain and better for the environment than ever before, so perhaps a possible shorter lifespan is a price worth paying.