Edited by Ted
New ASHRAE Ventilation Standard
SPECIAL REPORT: Why OSB Prices Went Over
Insulating Forms Handle TNT Blast in
Clean, Smart, and Natural: BuildingGreen
Picks Top 10 Products
In Fire's Aftermath Come Builder Shortage,
New ASHRAE Ventilation Standard
While DOE has enjoyed smooth sailing on energy code revisions,
a committee working on a residential ventilation standard for
the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and
Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has had a much rougher
voyage. Published over home builder and industry objections in
December after eight years of work, ASHRAE Standard 62.2,
"Ventilation and Acceptable Indoor Air Quality in Low-Rise
Residential Buildings," is still dogged by controversy.
The standard's troubles began almost immediately when a
residential subgroup split off from ASHRAE's Standard 62
committee in 1996. The problems stemmed in part from the
difficulty of defining the standard's dual goals, preserving
occupant health and maintaining comfort. No authority has ever
set standards for exposure to pollutants in residential indoor
air, so the committee has had to finesse the issue with general
language. The standard's definition of "acceptable air quality"
still relies on largely subjective assessments, defining
acceptable air in part simply as a condition when most people
don't complain, and partly as a low likelihood of overexposure
to specific contaminants (but without naming them or setting
any permissible exposure limits).
But 62.2 has more concrete problems: Since 1999, the committee
has failed four times to release the document for public
comment because they could not reach consensus with the
National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) and the Gas
Appliance Manufacturers Association (GAMA) around either
general principles or practical details. Home builders
questioned the whole rationale and basis in science for linking
specific ventilation rates with definite health risks and felt
that engineers should not attempt to evaluate such issues.
Appliance makers objected to provisions that would limit
certain types of units and argued that regulating their
equipment was the province of other documents such as the
National Fuel Gas Code.
A series of major revisions, including dropping any rules that
might address pollution from unvented gas burners, were not
enough to persuade NAHB and GAMA, so ASHRAE 62.2 has now been
published over their objections. In a final appeal, NAHB, GAMA,
the American Gas Association (AGA), the Association of Home
Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM), and ASHRAE member Rodney King
raised a litany of issues: cost of compliance, conflicts with
other standards, lack of technical basis for some provisions,
and the absence of any authoritative standard for indoor air
quality or occupant exposures to pollutants. With these appeals
rejected by ASHRAE, NAHB promised a procedural appeal to the
American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and vowed to
continue resistance even after that. "Should all appeals fail,"
commented the NAHB-sponsored publication Nation's Building
News, "the standard would still not be mandatory until
building codes reference it and state and local jurisdictions
adopt and enforce the code."
Dropped from the final draft of Standard 62.2 were a mandate
for CO detectors and a provision for exhaust ventilation of
rooms containing "vent-free" equipment. Still in place are a
few main provisions: a requirement for mechanical ventilation
in most homes, sized according to occupant load and square
footage (almost all homes would need 80 cfm of air or less);
mandated kitchen exhaust fans; backdraft testing of
atmospherically vented heating equipment; and airtightness
testing for air handlers located in garages.
Similar rules are already code in some jurisdictions, but few
builders anywhere currently implement all of 62.2's
requirements. If the standard is referenced by the
International Residential Code — or merely gains
wide credence as a de facto "cover your rear" legal standard
— builders will be making adjustments in the way they
manage indoor air. Whether this will bring any health benefits
or reduce complaints, however, remains to be seen.Back to
SPECIAL REPORT: Why OSB
Prices Went Over the Top
Builders may be surprised to see OSB prices behaving
differently than sawn lumber prices, but students of economics
shouldn't be. It's straight out of Economics 101: a classic
example of the difference between an industry with many
producers and one with just a few.
Sawn lumber: many
competitors. The market for solid sawn lumber resembles
the ideal of pure competition. If you think the price from your
regular supplier of 2x4s sounds a bit too high, you get on the
phone and call around. Supply can adjust quickly as mills shut
down temporarily in times of weak demand or add a shift when
prices spike. By stocking extra inventory to cover
fluctuations, wholesale and retail middlemen take the more
extreme price changes out of the system, but they don't change
the underlying picture — in fact, they help the market
more efficiently find the "true" price where demand equals
OSB: few big producers.
Plywood and OSB prices can also be competitive at times, but
not these days. That's because there are far fewer OSB or
plywood plants than sawmills. OSB producers are big
corporations with serious market clout; through mergers and
acquisitions, these big firms are getting bigger and fewer. In
fact, the top five producers now account for 70% of production
in North America. Louisiana-Pacific, the leading OSB producer,
has boosted its market share from 20% to 27% in the last three
years by swallowing competitors.
The trend toward fewer and bigger producers is likely to
continue, because the sheer scale of panel production favors
huge companies. These days, a new OSB mill costs close to a
billion dollars and can pump out 2 million or more square feet
of panels a day. Each new plant to start operations is bigger
and more technically sophisticated than the last.
Fall and winter price data bears out a
September prediction by University of Massachusetts professor
David Damery, who told JLC he expected framing lumber prices to
drop sharply and soon, but that OSB prices would hold their
peak longer before the inevitable decline. The many small
companies producing sawn lumber have to take market prices as a
given, he argues, but big players in the relatively
concentrated panel industry can flex their muscle to move
prices when demand approaches production limits.
Producers in the driver's
seat. In a concentrated industry like OSB production,
price behavior depends on market conditions. When mill capacity
is high compared to demand, OSB pricing resembles a competitive
market: The producers fight for business to keep their huge,
costly plants producing around the clock. Prices drop toward
costs, leaving little room for profit. That's how the OSB
market looked in 2002 — a flat price curve, with most
mills barely covering costs and some losing money.
But when demand approaches the limits of production capacity
— especially if distributors and retailers have low
inventories — things can change in a hurry. Economists
notice a pattern that holds true in many different concentrated
industries: When sales get close to the "magic number" of about
93% of producer capacity, markets tend to flip from
competitive, cost-based pricing to producer-driven pricing.
Manufacturers hop into the driver's seat the way OSB producers
did last summer, when industry figures showed demand rising
from 89% of capacity before June to almost 96% from July on.
Once the line was crossed, producers put the pedal to the
metal, boosting the wholesale price on the benchmark 7/16-inch
North Central OSB from $197 to $465, an increase of 136%.
Hoping to make up for recent hungry years, these firms may be
reluctant to drop prices as quickly as they pushed them up.
Even so, high prices are not likely to stay with us for too
much longer, because three factors are working to bring them
New capacity. One big new
panel plant can have an instant impact on the market, and
several are expected to start production in the next 24
Imports. In a shrinking
world, U.S. suppliers face increasing foreign competition.
Brazilian plywood is one example.
Product substitution. No law
says builders have to use OSB. The minute OSB costs more than
some other sheathing product, they won't hesitate to
There's one more wild card for 2004: the economy. Panel
products, especially OSB, rely more exclusively on the new-home
industry than do other wood products. If mortgage rates rise
and the building market slows, panel prices will be hit harder
than the more diverse sawn lumber market.
David Dameryteaches in the Building Materials and
Wood Technology Program at the University of
Handle TNT Blast in Military Demonstration
After a blast demonstration involving ICF structures last
spring at the U.S. Marine base in Quantico, Va., military
builders are taking more interest in insulating concrete forms.
According to Insulating Concrete Form Association (ICFA)
director Joe Lyman, officials have included ICF suppliers in a
working group put together to find cost-effective ways to
engineer blast-resistant housing and work buildings on bases at
home and overseas.
A poured concrete box, protected by foam
forms, shows no structural damage from a 50-pound TNT charge
detonated 6 feet away.
The TNT's power is shown by its effect
on a steel wall set up to reflect the blast onto the ICF
targets. The charge punched a large hole in the reflector and
pulverized the concrete pedestal the TNT rested
For the ICF demonstration, ready-mix and ICF companies built
six boxes using off-the-shelf ICF systems and locally supplied
standard concrete and rebar, then blasted the structures with
50-pound TNT charges. Hit with the blast from 6 feet, ICF boxes
suffered no worse effects than singed and compressed foam and
some minor concrete cracks. Observers reported no structural
Lyman says compression of the polystyrene foam forms protected
the concrete by absorbing and distributing part of the load.
"We know polystyrene can absorb impact," he says. "It's been
tested in other situations, like wrapping a TV with it and
dropping it 10 feet. But we surprised the [military observers];
they told us the blast would demolish our box."
The performance of a steel wall set just inches from the
charge to reflect its force was impressive, says Lyman. "But
that wall costs hundreds of dollars a square foot. Our system
is $70 a square foot including drywall and finish exterior, and
it provides excellent protection."
Clean, Smart, and Natural:
BuildingGreen Picks Top 10 Products
Green" is a hard term to pin down, especially if you're not
an expert. So when a client has green leanings, choosing the
best products can get tricky.
One good place to turn for guidance is BuildingGreen, Inc.,
the publisher of Environmental Building News.
BuildingGreen's GreenSpec Product Directory lists more
than 1,700 products selected by EBN's editors based on
their own criteria (neither EBN nor GreenSpec
accepts paid listings or ads).
BuildingGreen's latest Top 10 list of green products gives an
idea of how the group defines environmental value. Choices for
the residential market include a soy-based insulation, a
"smart" vapor barrier material, a latex paint made with castor
oil, an energy-conserving hot-water recirculator, and a
water-powered motion-sensing faucet. Here's how each product
earned its green credentials:
• BioBased 501 soy-based spray insulation
reduces energy use; is made with renewable materials; is
economical compared with petroleum-based urethanes.
• MemBrain humidity-responsive vapor retarder
by preventing moisture damage and mold, improves building
durability and indoor air quality.
• American Pride latex paint made with castor bean oil
(Southern Diversified Products, 601/264-0442): uses renewable
materials; improves indoor air quality.
• Taco D'mand hot-water delivery system
saves water-heating energy by preventing standby and delivery
• TOTO EcoPower self-powering sensor-controlled faucet
conserves water and energy.
BioBased 501, a no-CFC, no-VOC spray
urethane foam made from soy oil instead of petroleum, leads
BuildingGreen's Top 10 product list for 2003.
New web resource.
BuildingGreen's knowledge base is now online as an integrated
suite of tools at
With three fully searchable cross-referenced modules, the
BuildingGreen suite supports in-depth research as well as quick
product browsing: In addition to the product listing, members
get access to twelve years of EBN and a database of 60
green-building case studies.
In Fire's Aftermath Come Builder
Shortage, Mudslide Risk
It's part of the California culture: Take your chances with
earthquake and fire, and if disaster strikes, start over.
Hundreds of homeowners wiped out by October's wildfires are
already vowing to rebuild their homes.
Their determination will have to overcome two immediate
obstacles: Press reports say many were not insured as well as
they assumed, and payouts may not cover all the costs of
reconstruction. Just as critical is a looming shortage of
builders and specialty trades. Even before the fires, Southern
California contractors had more work than they could manage.
And homes originally blasted out as tract houses may have to be
rebuilt by custom contractors, an inherently slower process.
Wait times of a year, 18 months, or longer are likely.
Next up: rain and mud. If
that's not enough, experts say fires in Southern California's
explosive chaparral brush are typically followed by powerful
mudslides known as "debris flows." Chaparral contains oils and
resins designed to protect the plants from drying out. The oils
burn like gasoline, then leave a water-repellent residue on the
fine hillside dust. When heavy rains come (as they will), the
hydrophobic dust collects into a mass that flows like concrete
and can crash down hillsides like a freight train, pushing
cars, boulders, and homes ahead of it. Major earthworks in the
hills are designed to direct and restrain the flow, but
officials don't expect the channels and basins to work
perfectly, and some homes that escaped fire will almost
certainly be crushed by debris flows.
And afterwards? They'll rebuild.
OffcutsIndiana's highest court has upheld the state's power to
regulate isolated wetlands,
reports the Indianapolis
. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2000 stripped that
authority from the Army Corps of Engineers, holding that the
phrase "waters of the United States" used in the 1972 Clean
Water Act did not refer to small wet areas unconnected to
rivers or lakes. But in a case brought by a Fort Wayne
developer, Indiana's Supreme Court ruled that the state's
authority over isolated small wetlands derives not from federal
law, but from a 1935 state law and from the 1943 creation of
the state's Water Pollution Control Board.
The Seattle Planning Commission is recommending zoning
changes that would allow homeowners to build small detached
housing units next to existing single-family homes on lots
throughout the city, says a report in the Puget Sound
Business Journal. The commission also wants to see
"cottage" housing made up of small detached dwellings that
share a common yard permitted in parts of the city. Advocates
claim that the change would help solve Seattle's shortage of
available housing without adding to sprawl and traffic
Minneapolis resident Roy Nguyen is happy with the location
of the home he's building near the city's airport, even
though hundreds of jets fly over the property at 200 to 800
feet every day. According to the Minneapolis Star
Tribune, Nguyen bought the lot at a tax auction for
$64,000. Minneapolis has spent hundreds of millions of dollars
on noise abatement measures for homes near the airport, but
Nguyen calls the noise issue "subjective." "Vacant lots are
rare in the city," he told the paper. Citing the area's
relatively low crime rates, he said, "I'd rather be close to a
plane than be shot at."
Home Depot has announced the purchase of RMA, Inc., the
nation's third largest replacement window and siding installer.
With 20 branch offices and 985 employees nationwide,
Atlanta-based RMA has been installing products for Home Depot
since 1998. Home Depot is the second largest retailer in the
U.S. and has been expanding its installed sales business by 40%
a year, says the company.
In spite of recent gains, women still own a scant 8% of the
U.S.'s 2.6 million construction businesses, according to a
wire service report. Women make up just over 9% of construction
employees nationwide, and hold mostly clerical and
The U.S. has cut countervailing import duties charged to
Canfor, Canada's largest wood exporter, according to
Canadian press reports. The U.S. slaps an average 27% surcharge
on incoming Canadian wood, to make up for what the Commerce
Department argues are unfairly low fees Canada charges its
logging firms to cut publicly owned trees. But Canfor
established that it pays more for the timber resource than the
U.S. had assumed, and the Commerce Department has agreed to
lower the firm's duty to just 12%.
In his second executive order as California's governor,
Arnold Schwarzenegger has terminated all pending
regulations. At least for 180 days, that is, while the
governor's office conducts a review of each rule to see whether
it conforms with the California Administrative Procedures Act,
which, in the words of the governor's order, "requires that all
adopted regulations be easily understandable, the least
burdensome and effective alternative [sic], ...and minimize the
economic impact to the regulated communities." Specifics were
not available, but presumably the California Building Standards
Commission's adoptions of the NFPA 5000 building code
and the International Residential Code are affected,
decisions that would not take effect until 2006.Back to