Monday, June 10, 2013

Tornado Cost and "They Just Don't Build 'em!" Discussion...

Tam commented on an article about how the prevalence of “cheap, vinyl-sided 2x4 and particle-board slab cover” homes in tornado country might be a reason for the increased costs of tornado damage in the Midwest. 

I disagreed.

You see, there is a general tendency to look at things being built today and lament that they “just don’t build them like they used to.”  In some cases, this is, indeed, lamentable, but I assure you that this is NOT the case when it comes to home building. 

As I’ve said before, I am a construction project manager specializing in commercial and institutional construction.  Some of the stuff that I do includes remodeling and structural upgrades to old, existing buildings.  When people tell me that “they don’t build them like they used to” my response is invariably “THANK GOD!” 

Even your typical, mass-produced, cookie cutter house being built today is almost INFINITELY more capable of withstanding a tornado than a house built even as recently as 20 years ago.  I won’t go into the particulars of balloon framing vs. stick framing, but trust me on this one – if you ever find yourself in the path of a twister, and you have a choice between running into a “vinyl-sided, 2x4 and particle board slab cover” or one of those “well-built” homes from any time pre-1990, choose the former instead of the latter.  Hurricane straps, anchor bolts, steel press-plates, and steel lumber connectors are standard now, whereas the old method was “drive a nail in it” if you were lucky, and “gravity will hold ‘er in place” (way more horrifyingly common than you’d ever want to imagine) if you weren’t.   

As for particle board, they don’t use that in construction except for non-structural items like floor underlayments.  What I’m assuming Tam was talking about was OSB, which is an engineered product called “oriented strand board.”  It has gotten a bad rap as being a cheap, recycled lumber item that is reminiscent of particle board, simply because it is a newer product and looks hokey as hell, but it is stronger on both axes and in shear than any similar dimensioned piece of plywood ever could be.  They use it because it is better, not because it is cheaper (also, it isn’t cheaper – the cost of 7/16 OSB and ½” CDX plywood is nearly identical).  My guess is that when plywood first came out in the 30’s that people were lamenting it as being “thin, glued together pieces of trash wood” and were touting how houses built with old strip-sheathing and ship-lap were way better (never mind that strip and ship-lap has zero shear capability) just because that was the way it was supposed to be done back then. 

As for 2x4, no one uses 2x4s for structural walls anymore.  Structure walls are invariably 2x6 by code.  Back in the day, however, 2x4 framing was all the rage.  This was true up until about 1990 – pretty much every home pre-1990 has 2x4 structural walls. 

Hate to say it, Tam, but I’d put a cheap-assed cookie cutter built in the last 10 years up against Roseholme as far as durability against a tornado any day of the week, and I’d win. 

Bob – Oklahoma has never been, nor will it ever be, a big concrete block building area.  Nor, contrary to what you would think would be pretty logical, are concrete block houses any more resistant to tornadoes than a well-built wood framed house.  In fact, the reason that concrete blocks fell out of favor for home building (or one of the reasons) is that they proved to be pretty damned fragile without putting a bunch of money into reinforcing them with bond beams and rebar. 

So what is causing the increase in costs in tornado alley? 

I think there are two factors causing the increase in cost for these tornadoes.  The first is anecdotal, and has to do with my Dad.  Dad bought a new truck in 1976, and paid $5,500 for it.  His uncle told him that he thought he was crazy as a loon, because my uncle’s FIRST HOUSE cost him that much.  Now, we have similar pickup trucks selling for $60,000 and a starter home is minimum $130,000, even in these areas.  Back in the day, when a tornado took out a house, it did $25,000 worth of damage.  Now, it takes out the same house, and the bill is $250,000.  It took out a brand new truck in 1976, and the bill was $5,500.  It takes out a brand new truck today, and the bill is $60,000; factors of ten times more expensive for the same amount of damage. 

Notice that I’m not just talking about inflation, here.  Inflation alone can’t account for the cost of trucks going from $5,500 in 1976 to $60,000 today – the fact is that our stuff is more expensive now than it was then, even adjusted for inflation.

The second factor causing this is a little more concrete – the Midwest is a more target-rich environment today than it was years ago.

There are a million more people in Oklahoma today than there were in 1970.  How many more homes are we talking? Even if you average 4 people per household (which is high as hell) that’s still a quarter million more homes.  A quarter million more targets for a tornado, and each of them a factor of ten times more expensive to replace when a tornado does eventually hit it. 

If that doesn’t sum it up, I don’t know what does.  

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