Cutting Edge Insights
with Dr. Lee

No, Your House Does Not Need To Breathe

Breathing, as it pertains to living things, involves the exchange of gases – oxygen and carbon dioxide (unless you are an anaerobic bacterium. If so, I am sorry).

Breathing, as it pertains to construction, really means that a wall or roof assembly needs to be able to dry in one direction – in or out.

However, contemporary psychobabble has obfuscated its meaning (big surprise).

It is usually misinterpreted to imply that a wall assembly should not be built in a completely airtight manner.

And. That. Is. False.

I’ve even had builders say to me that they omit taping the seams/junctions of foam panels applied as continuous exterior insulation so that the structure can “breathe”.

Come on. Get it right.

Install the air barrier correctly, design and build the wall according to a well-thought out plan and in an airtight manner…and vapor will take care of itself.

In fact, I’ve already shared in a previous blog post (read it here) why water molecules can penetrate a wall when air can not.

Q: Why do we hear so much about a home needing to breathe? How do we know you’re right?

A: There are several layers we need to unpack. Put on your seat belt….

1. Your existing home, if it is more than 10 years old and maybe even if it isn’t, probably DOES need to breathe.

What I mean is that because your house was likely built with a relatively poor air barrier (meaning it’s somewhat leaky), any moisture that finds its way inside your wall doesn’t help grow mold because it is baked dry. And it is probably insulated to a code-compliant level, but remember that’s the worst way you can legally build a house.

However, this is problematic from an energy perspective – the energy that you paid for, intending it to heat your house, is partially consumed to dry your walls.

In summary, poor insulation plus poor air barrier – Hey, it works, but it’s costly.

(Before you get too crazy with that tube of caulk or hire that company to fill your walls with spray foam, remember this: enhancing your air barrier or insulation without regard to vapor can have disastrous consequences – mold, rot, destruction. Be very careful – you have to plan for all three items even if you only want to improve one of them.)

2. If your home was built in the last few years and is very airtight, and especially if it has high levels of insulation, any water that finds its way inside your wall (from a water leak or from air leakage followed by condensation) doesn’t have the ability to dry easily. So now you have all the ingredients for mold and rot.

Q: So what is the answer?

A: There are several:

1. Insulate well. You’re better off putting your money here than in the bank, to a certain point. Don’t try to impress me with your Dogecoin holdings if you have wimpy insulation.

2. Put every effort into making your structure airtight. Get obsessive about it. Have your builder employ a belt & suspenders approach. Make him feel like you’re developing OCD.

3. Ventilate well – bring in fresh air and exhaust stale air. This is known as balanced mechanical ventilation. Studies have shown that a lack of appropriate ventilation can cause “sick building syndrome” and all the symptoms that accompany it.

Ventilation is important because YOU need to breathe. And perhaps your family.

(Note that balanced mechanical ventilation is not unimportant in a leaky home – it simply isn’t as crucial because the home’s air leaks provide the fresh air for you. Supplemented, of course, by any humidity and/or particulate matter, mold spores, insect droppings, etc. that it picks up in the wall cavity. And hope that the outward leaks balance the inward leaks.)

Q: As usual, what in the heck does this have to do with real estate investing?

A: Lots:

1. I’m afraid that the building industry doesn’t understand this concept well enough.

2. Utility costs aren’t going to decrease.

3. However you want to spin it (and please don’t politicize it), it is becoming increasingly apparent that Mother Earth is in the process of climate change – a midlife crisis of sorts, you might say. The effect of humans on this trend can’t be overstated.

It’s no coincidence that building a very tight, very low energy home goes hand in hand with building in a green and sustainable manner.

While the latter topics are beyond the scope of this article, I’ll be delving into them in the near future.

Until then, consider this:

It’s no coincidence at all that the 7,500 sq. ft. office building for which I assisted in the design and construction phases has a heating bill (Bay County, Michigan, the northernmost county in Climate Zone 5) of $200-$300 per month in the dead of winter.

7,500 square feet…that’s probably larger than your house.

$200-$300 per month…that’s probably smaller than your maximum monthly heating bill.

“Why don’t you know the exact number?” I asked the owner.

“Because it’s so low it never really was memorable,” was his reply.

As you think about that, never be afraid to take an active role in the design and build process of your home or office. (Design means more than kitchen layout.)

If you want to learn even more about how correct & appropriate design/build techniques lead to higher real estate investment returns, download and read our ebook. The link is immediately below.

In the meantime, be happy that you now have a great cocktail party topic.

Until next time,

Dr. Lee Newton


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