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2x4 vs 2x6 Exterior Walls for New Home Construction

Should You Invest in 2x4 or 2x6 Wall Studs for Your Dream Home?

 

Once you’ve picked your perfect house plan and hired a contractor – and are ready to get started on the construction of your dream home – you may be confronted with the question “should I invest in 2x4 or 2x6 wall studs”?

What are the advantages and disadvantages to increasing the size of your home’s exterior walls by two inches? There may be more differences than you would expect, and it’s an important issue to consider as you build your new home to your ideal specifications.

Home built with 2x6 framing (House Plan #108-1794)

This 3-bedroom, 2-bath, 2-half-bath home plan is designed using 2x6 wall studs in the exterior wall framing (House Plan #108-1794). Although many homeowners would consider 2x6 framing an upgrade, this 2,518-sq.-ft. plan comes standard with it, and depending on your local building codes, you may be compelled to buid with it.

 

 

Benefits of 2x6 Exterior Walls

In most areas 2x4 construction is sufficient; 2x4 construction will easily support a home's structure and weight. But there are several advantages to building with 2x6 studs, some obvious and some not so obvious. Depending on your location, you may not have a choice and will have to frame with 2x6s because local building codes mandate it. These areas tend to be in northern states with colder climates. Let’s look at the differences between 2x4 and 2x6 construction.

 

1. 2x6 Wall Construction Usually Provides Better Results

Not surprisingly, a 2x6 frame construction allows for more space between your interior and exterior walls. This extra space alone typically doesn’t result in better insulation, but it does offer more room for added insulation. It’s critical to discuss this advantage with your contractor, however, because the ability to add insulation to your walls doesn’t always translate into this actually happening.

Wall framed using 2x6s

This wall section is framed conventionally using 2x6s instead of 2x4s. The wall cavities are deeper, allowing the builder to pack more insulation into the spaces, reducing heat transfer through the wall. The thicker walls also mean you'll need extenders for the window opening because windows are normally designed for 2x4 walls (courtesy Ask the Builder).

 

There are a few different ways a home can increase its insulation and subsequent energy efficiency for a dramatic adjustment to the heating and cooling costs. The first way is to buy the insulation with the highest insulation capabilities. The type of insulation used may have a greater effect on your energy consumption than the size of the wall itself. The second best way to save energy is to build a “tight” home, which means restricting the uncontrolled airflow between the inside and outside of your home. This depends largely on the quality of the construction in your home – paying special attention to details like carefully wrapping the exterior (before siding) with an air infiltration/vapor barrier, sealing openings for plumbing and electrical runs, making sure insulation is well fitted and extends into corners and odd-shaped spaces, and carefully weatherstripping window and door openings – and the materials used such as better windows and doors.

When building a new home with a 2x6 frame you are increasing the area between the interior and exterior walls where you could place more insulation for added energy efficiency; however, this is something you’ll need to talk to you contractor about. Just because you’re building with 2x6 frames doesn’t mean you’ll automatically benefit from that added insulation because builders may still stick to the minimum insulation requirements as laid out by the building code.

Difference in wall space between 2x4 and 2x6 construction

This illustration demonstrates that you have the potential for 69% more uninterupted insulation in a wall cavity if you use 2x6 studs on 24-in. centers instead of 2x4 studs on 16-in. centers. Although many builders prefer to maintain 16-in. centers even when using larger 2x6 members (and running up material costs a bit), many building codes allow 24-in. centers with 2x6s (courtesy HomeSource).

 

There is something to keep in mind, though: with the blown-in-insulation available today, most homes can pass the Mec-Check, (Model Energy Code) with 2x4 construction. Also, most of the heat loss in any home occurs through the attic, as well as the windows and doors. If you're concerned about conserving energy, no matter what you build with, we would recommend putting more insulation in your attic and upgrading your south- and western-facing windows to at least double – or better yet triple – pane windows with low-E-type glass.

You’ll need to do your homework when researching the building codes in your area and the amount of insulation required. If yo go with 2x6s, make sure you’re investing in the insulation with the highest insulating capabilities and placing more of that insulation in the extra space of your 2x6 wall. That is the only way you can truly benefit from the adding energy efficiency that comes with 2x6 frame construction.

 

 

2. Often the Construction Just Looks Better

It’s a common misconception that you can tell no difference between 2x4 and 2x6 construction – because it’s in the wall after all! The truth is that the greater space between the interior and exterior walls allows for a deeper window well throughout your new home.

The larger depth of the window and door jambs often make a home feel more classic or rich. You’ll notice these added details, and so will buyers when it comes time to resell your home. These small, yet noticeable, charming elements are some of the things that would set your home apart from others on the market, which may help you justify the added expense.

Window sill in 2x6 wall

A 2x6 wall gives you 2 additional inches from the inside edge of the window to the finished wall compared with a 2x4 wall. This space, especially if combined with a stool that extends beyond the wall surface, provides a generous horizontal space and makes a good subconscious "quality" impresstion (courtesy Pinterest).

 

 

2x6 Upgrade Cons

1. Higher Cost – 2x4 vs. 2x6 Cost Differences

Because 2x4 studs are standard in home construction, the 2x6 size will almost always be considered an upgrade in the new construction process. It’s important to discuss this with your contractor very early in the relationship – even before he or she has been able to go over your plans – as it could mean some serious changes in the purchase of materials and the building process in general.

Framing lumber

Modern conventional home building normally makes use of 2x4 lumber (top line above, second from left) in constructing exterior walls. But 2x6 framing, which is a little more than 1.5 times wider, is a common upgrade and is required by some local building codes. Because 2x6 lumber comprisess more wood, it is more expensive. Wider boards, like 2x8s, 2x10s, and 2x12s are used for rafters as well as floor and ceiling joists. Posts like 4x4s and 6x6s (not shown) are used as support columns (courtesy Home Depot).

 

It’s not just the 2x6 framing that runs up the cost of your upgraded construction project, many of the supplies you will need in relation to your walls will require an upgrade at the new size.

What items will need to be upgraded in addition to your framing? You will need extended window jambs to accommodate the larger exterior wall space. You’ll also need larger door jambs and extra insulation to fit the 2x6 frame. Although it is not an upgrade, you will also need double top and bottom wall plates (to which the studs are attached). The bottom plate normally comprises pressure-treated lumber on the bottom and conventional lumber on top of that. All these – and more – additions will add to your cost, which is one of the major factors for more homeowners not opting for 2x6 framing.

Depending on your local code, you may be able to mitigate higher material costs using recently developed “advanced framing techiques,” which use less lumber and maximize the insulation for the building enclosure.

High-R-Value Wall Construction

This framing technique, which purports to maximize insulating value and minimize structural materials, uses a single top plate, studs on 24-in. centers insulating "nonstructural" exterior sheathing, furring strips, and rigid wood or fiber-cement siding, or cladding (courtesy Building Science Corp.). It also uses 2-piece instead of 3-piece corners and may require additional bracing between studs. Though structurally sound when installed proplerly, this technique may not be allowed in some local building-code jurisdictions. 

 

2. You'll Have a Slightly Smaller House

House plan square footage is based on the outside dimensions of the home footprint (and is divided between finished heated living space and unfinished space, like a garage). Because 2x6s are 2 inches deeper than 2x4s, a house built with 2x4 vs 2x6 walls will be a total of 4 inches wider and deeper inside than the same house built with 2x6s. That means that for a 2,400-square-foot house, the interior of a 2x6-built house will be about 33.5 square feet smaller overall than that of a 2x4-built house. At a construction cost of $125 per square foot, you would essentially be paying more than $4,000 for "unusable" square footage. If that would make a difference to you, you might want to consider building with 2x4s very seriously. But there are other factors to consider.

 

So Is 2x6 Construction Cost-Effective?

If you’ve been planning your dream home for a while and weighing the pros and cons of your home construction decisions, calculating the potential long-term cost savings or payback on your 2x6 construction decision is likely something you have already done or plan to do. So, which one – 2x4s vs 2x6s – saves you more money in the long run?

House plan with 2x6 wall framing option available (House Plan #142-1185)

This 2,742-sq.-ft. Transitional Farmhouse style home plan with 4 bedrooms and 3.5 baths is designed with 2x4 exterior wall framing but can be ordered with optional 2x6 framing for a $275 fee (House Plan #142-1185). It may be well worth it, depending on your needs and where you live.

 

The savings or payback on your 2x6 decision could be hard to calculate. First, let’s discuss the energy efficiency of your new property. If you’ve taken proper advantage of the extra wall depth the 2x6 construction offers by adding more insulation than most building codes require, you’ll likely experience a significant cost savings on your monthly heating and cooling bill. But this will also depend on several factors.

Factor 1 – Local Climate

First, what is the climate like in your home’s location? If you live in a place like San Francisco where the weather doesn’t bring huge fluctuations or extreme temperatures during the different seasons, you may not save all that much money. But if you live in a place like New York where winter weather can bring below freezing temperatures and plenty of blizzards, and summer can mean temperatures close to or even into triple digits on any given day, a little extra insulation could make a big difference.

Factor 2 – Degree Days

To determine what your climate is actually like – other than anecdotal evidence – it may be worth looking at something called degree days for your locality. Heating degree days are the number of degrees per day of the heating season that the average temperature is below 65 degrees F. The degree-day calculation takes the record high and record low temperatures for a day, adds them, and divides by 2; the result is subtracted from 65. The amount below zero is the number of heating degree days for that day; any amount totaling zero or above accounts for zero heating degree days. According to researchers at the Building Research Council at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a locality having 5,725 heating degree days or higher is a good place to consider 2x6 wall framing. (In any case, whether you are considering heating or cooling costs, or both, attic insulation may be more important than – or at least just as important as – wall insulation.)

Factor 3 – Neighbor Experience

It may be difficult to calculate the potential cost savings of 2x6 construction until you’ve actually decided one way or the other, and built your home. But calling on neighbors with similar-size homes with both types of construction may help you to better understand your potential cost savings.

Factor 4 – Resale

On top of the potential cost savings from your heating and cooling expenses, you also need to look at the potential resale value. Will 2x6 construction add enough of a charming aesthetic or energy efficiency to sell your home faster than the neighbors? Again, these tend to be metrics that are difficult to calculate, but not impossible if you have good comparisons to make in your area.

Residential framing

A lot of lumber goes into building a home, so choosing – or upgrading to – 2x6 exterior wall framing can add up in material cost just for the wood (courtesy Georgia Pacific). Other costs include more and higher-R-value insulation, more concrete for a wider foundation, and finishing materials like extension jambs.

 

 

Ultimately, It’s a Personal Choice

While you might not always recoup your money on this kind of upgrade, the same is true for other “must have” upgrades for homeowners building new construction homes. Studies have shown that items like pools, upgraded appliances, and state-of-the-art water heaters don’t always mean a return on your investment.

Most of the time, it’s about what aspects of your home build are most important to you and will add to the enjoyment of your new home. Do you prefer to have a cozy home that doesn’t require a lot of artificial heating or cooling? Do you enjoy the aesthetic that comes with doors and windows with large jams and sills? If so, 2x6 construction may be perfect for you, and the potential increase in resale value would just be an added perk. If not, you would likely be fine with 2x4 construction.

 

Just like your new construction home floor plan, deciding between 2x4 vs 2x6 exterior walls comes down to what works best for you and your family. If you are planning to live in your new home for a considerable amount of time, you should never base your new construction decisions solely on resale value. Invest in the areas of your home that are important to you, and the money spent will always be worth it.

 

Footnote: top left photograph in lead image courtesy Carter Lumber; bottom left illustration in lead image is of a 3bedroom, 2-bath Craftsman style home plan designed with 2x6 exterior walls (House Plan #141-1081).

 

 

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