Carpenters love wood. The smell of fresh sawdust on a crisp fall morning, the slap and ring of hammers on boards, the sturdy feel of a new house frame—what's not to love?

So it's no surprise that when we set out to frame a home, sometimes we use a little more lumber than we really need. Sometimes we use a lot more. And sometimes, as building scientist Joe Lstiburek puts it, framers use wood like drunken sailors spending their paychecks on shore leave.

But wood isn't free, or even cheap. It has a cost in dollars, in forested acres logged, and in natural ecosystems disrupted. Over-framed walls also leak more energy—enough to show up on fuel bills, and to make a difference in comfort. And there's a labor cost: more sticks to handle, more cuts to make, and more nails to pound.

Other things being equal, economizing on framing lumber makes a lot of sense. For builders willing to learn, there are proven ways to cut back on unnecessary framing lumber use, without compromising structural strength—and while saving energy.

BUILDER EVOLUTION

Around the country, a handful of leading builders are fine-tuning their building shells to save both lumber and energy. For companies such as New Town Builders of Denver and Veridian Homes of Madison, Wis., advanced framing is just one part of a larger concept.

ENOUGH ALREADY: If framing details aren't spelled out, framers may run amok, observes building  scientist Joseph Lstiburek. He jokes, “If four studs are good (above, left), than  five studs must be better (center), and nine studs (right) must  be best of all!”

ENOUGH ALREADY: If framing details aren't spelled out, framers may run amok, observes building scientist Joseph Lstiburek. He jokes, “If four studs are good (above, left), than five studs must be better (center), and nine studs (right) must be best of all!”

“We started off as a member of Colorado's Built Green program,” explains Bill Rectanus, New Town's manager of building systems and technologies (referring to a state-wide environmentally friendly building initiative sponsored by the state HBA). “Then, we set a strategic planning goal to be the market leader in energy efficiency. We wanted our brand to be associated with an energy-efficient house that's durable and comfortable.”

For third-party verification, New Town turned to Masco Corp.'s Environments For Living (EFL) program, aiming to qualify for EFL's “Diamond” class (the top tier). In addition, New Town hired a nationally known consultant, Bexley, Ohio–based 3-D Building Solutions, to pilot the company through the reinvention of its building systems.

3-D is a partnership of Nathan Yost, Peter Yost, and Steven Baczek, three alumni from engineer Joe Lstiburek and architect Betsy Pettit's Building Science Corp. Says Rectanus: “That gang has helped us really revise the way we build a house, starting with best-practice details, all the way through high-performance building and whole-systems thinking for the house.” One key to the approach, says Rectanus, is efficient framing methods.

It took New Town a year and a half to rethink its building systems, redraw all its plans, and rewrite all its scopes of work, says Rectanus, “and we've just finished rebidding all of those out and have completed our first handful of Diamond-class–level houses.”

Veridian Homes is going through a similar evolution. A leader in Wisconsin's Green Built Home program (a green-building program similar to Colorado's program and to others now taking hold in many states), Veridian has been working for years with Norwalk, Conn.–based consultant Steven Winter Associates in the U.S. Department of Energy's Building America program. All Veridian's homes earn the Energy Star label. And in 2006, the builder completed six homes as part of the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED for Homes pilot program, an ambitious and strict grading system that requires third-party verification of a whole cookbook of environmentally friendly construction practices.