Ask the Architect

Do homes have to have foreign parts?

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Q. I know this may be hard to do, but with all the tax increases and tariffs, is it possible to build my new home with all or mostly American materials, and is there a way to control this so that my contractor won’t substitute things I want to be only homegrown, so to speak?

A. It’s possible, though highly unlikely, that you’ll be able to control the origin of the products going into your home, any more than you could control whether your car is completely American-made, which we know it isn’t. You can stipulate in your contracts that you want to be able to see the origination labels and markings of the materials, either before they’re ordered, as they arrive or in writing afterward, but I sincerely doubt that even with all the effort to control this, you’re in a position to have such high expectations.

I know you have good intentions to keep the commerce local or national, but consider this: The tariff situation has made the marketplace change in many ways. Countries we’ve done business with for a hundred years or more suddenly aren’t the ones we continue to deal with. Canada has hit its lowest level of exports of lumber in years, down 6 percent, and the leading countries with growing exports in lumber year after year are, in order, Russia, Germany, Ukraine and Austria. This is partially due to the trend toward open volleys of threats and breakdowns in communication with our major industrial trading partners. China has even been reported to have developed associations that are openly defying the code system for marking wood products by using counterfeit markings of American companies so that their products enter the U.S. without additional tariff costs being levied.

With practices like these, you’re going to find it nearly impossible to really know if the materials going into your home or business are really what they say they are. Over the years, I’ve seen this problem repeatedly, but mostly with materials being questioned about their claims of strength or durability. Lumber was notoriously weaker than claimed during the 1970s and ’80s, until the National Bureau of Codes and Standards stepped in, independently tested materials and set fines and restrictions, imposed by federal law.

The average consumer, and many designers, have no idea what products are really capable of doing, and almost everyone assumes that the products are what they’re said to be. While this problem has existed since the beginning of material production, the new wrinkle of controlling where products come from and how they get here just makes the whole system that much more confusing. Many people still remember the problem we were having when gypsum board production couldn’t keep up with the bustling economy 15 years ago and China flooded the market with cheap, unregulated gypsum wallboard that had harmful radon leaching and off-gassing from it into people’s homes.

© 2018 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.