As I write, a U.S. Department of Energy report lists the average price for a gallon of regular gasoline in the Mid-Atlantic region at $2.94. In 1973 during the OPEC oil embargo, the price was about $1.80 in today's dollars (see www.zfacts.com). I can remember those days, waiting for hours in line at gas stations to purchase just a rationed amount.
The energy crisis, as we called it back then, spurred a flurry of energy conservation. The northern New England company I worked for in 1976 was an early adopter of 2x6 framing and later of foam sheathing to boost insulation levels. Double-pane windows, which were not well known at the time, soon became standard fare, as did set-back thermostats and more efficient HVAC appliances. Everyone's mindset seemed to change as well. Homes were designed with lower ceilings. Houses were positioned onsite to maximize or minimize solar gain, and people got used to low-flow toilets and fluorescent lights. And for a while there, remodelers became energy experts who were constantly looking for new materials and better practices, and actively educating their customers about better ways to build.
By the mid-1980s, the oil situation improved, the price of energy receded to pre-crisis levels, and people forgot all about gas rationing. And while many of the material changes became permanent — window insulation levels, for example, and HVAC appliance efficiencies — consumers quickly reverted to a pre-oil crisis mindset. American cars got bigger and so did American homes and, with them, remodeling budgets. Many remodelers went back to fulfilling homeowners' short-term needs and wants instead of educating them about superior long-term solutions.
Déjà Vu Now that gasoline is up around $3 per gallon, people are once again more energy-conscious. SUVs that were all the rage just a few months ago despite their 15-mpg rating now sit unsold on dealers' lots while buyers wait 90 days or more for hybrid vehicles. Ironically, some hybrids perform only marginally better than my 1972 Datsun 510 station wagon, which got nearly 22 mpg, and some perform considerably worse than my 1994 Honda Civic, which regularly clocked 40 mpg or more.
I suppose consumers can be excused for not thinking beyond tomorrow or the end of their driveway. But remodelers cannot. We should be taking the initiative to prevent problems, but instead we're reacting to failures.
Take moisture control, for example. We've known for centuries that moisture intrusion is the biggest threat to wooden structures, but we didn't take it seriously until someone filed a lawsuit over mold growth. Compared to 30 years ago, there are all manner of new materials and products — sill pans, housewraps, and self-sticking flashing tapes, to name just a few — to help seal out moisture and promote drainage and drying. And there are tried-and-true details to ensure good moisture protection. These should be built in to our practices and our prices, the nonnegotiable foundation of a quality project.
Dust control is a similar case. It's a no-brainer for any remodeling project and always has been. Maintaining a cleaner job-site is the easiest thing we can do to improve our image with homeowners. And again, there are a half-dozen ready-made solutions on the market. Why, then, do I still see 4-mil poly held in place with duct tape and replaced day after day? I can't help but wonder if we had taken care of this ourselves, the EPA would never have gotten involved. Why are we always reacting to some outside force instead of leading the way?
I hope gas prices moderate soon. But in that case the best thing we can do is to pretend they haven't.