How New Technologies And Materials Have Transformed Home Renovation!
This Old House Magazine|September/October 2019

Cordless tools, wireless-control systems, engineered beams, fiber-cement siding—we look at some of the innovative tools, building materials, and technologies that have revolutionized remodeling over the last four decades

Thomas Baker

“They don’t build them like they used to.” At This Old House, the reply to that curmudgeonly complaint is “That’s right. We build them better!” And that’s due in no small part to the inquisitive, adaptable contractors at the heart of this venerable TV show. When they find a product or material that performs better, lasts longer, and still looks good, or when they find a tool that enables them to work faster with less effort and without compromising quality, they’re quick to make it their new standard going forward.

On the following pages, we revisit some of the most notable advances in building technology since TOH launched 40 years ago. At that time, many of these changes would have been impossible to imagine, just as we can’t imagine what new developments might arise in the coming decades. But the trend lines are clear: Fewer tools will have cords, more things will be controlled by our phones, and we’ll be using energy and water more wisely. And the good contractors of the future, the ones who strive to improve their craft and their clients’ lives, will be honestly giving the same answer to future curmudgeons: “You’re right. We’re building better than they used to!”

Tools

The first cordless tools had brief run times, minimal power, and long recharge times. But lighter, smaller, and more powerful lithium-ion tool batteries, coupled with highly efficient brushless motors, made it possible to cut the cord on almost any electrical tool, including table saws and compressors. Now these batteries are even replacing the gas engines on chainsaws and lawnmowers.

Chainsaws Tree-topplers with lithium-ion batteries, like those made by Ego, are lighter and quieter than gas-powered models, but cut just as fast . Power+ chainsaw with 18-inch bar; egopowerplus.com

Table saws Hard to believe the workhorse of so many job sites no longer has to be tethered to a cord. This 18-volt version rips through 600 feet of OSB on a single charge. M18 table saw; milwaukeetool.com

“ The nice thing about battery-powered tools: no cords to get tangled, hung up, cut, or unplugged.” —TOM SILVA

Self-leveling levels These portable devices, which shoot fanshaped beams horizontally and vertically, come in handy when installing cabinets, laying tile, and framing. The bright green laser lines on DeWalt’s level can be seen at 100 feet. 12v Max Cross Line Laser; dewalt.com

Energy Efficiency

The oil-price shocks of the 1970s spurred the fight to control our profligate energy use. Nearly 50 years later, we have 98-percent efficient boilers, furnaces, and tankless water heaters; Energy Star programs that push for more efficient appliances, fixtures, and heating-and-cooling equipment; certification programs for window performance; and many new energy-saving products. And with the advent of affordable solar panels, houses can produce as much power as they consume.

Heat pumps

In most conditions, this type of heating-and-cooling equipment captures and concentrates about 3kw of thermal energy for every 1kw of power it consumes. However, many heat pumps suffer a steep decline in heating capacity when outside temperatures drop below freezing. Mitsubishi’s inverter-driven, cold-climate heat pumps are an exception to that rule; they maintain 100 percent capacity down to 23 degrees F. H2i Heat Pump; mitsubishicomfort.com

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