Cutting Edge Insights
with Dr. Lee

That Lovely Water Polygon

No, this isn’t a 21st-century version of a documentary of the area in the North Atlantic that urban legend says is prone to the disappearance of seafaring vessels; that’s the Bermuda Triangle.

I suppose you could call my water idea a water triangle, depending on the number of fixtures; or, a water quadrilateral if there are 4; a pentagon (5), hexagon (6), heptagon (7), octagon (8), nonagon (9) ,decagon (10), hendecagon (11), dodecagon (12), triskaidecagon (13), tetrakaidecagon (14), pentadecagon (15), hexadecagon (16), heptadecagon (17), octadecagon (18), enneadecagon (19), icosagon (20).

Q:  What in the heck is this referring to?

A:  The polygon is the imaginary shape created when you take all remotely located plumbing fixtures in an enclosure and connect the dots between them.
You then compare the size of the polygon (in area) to the entire footprint of the enclosure.

Bigger is not better, in this realm.

The upper limit would be 100% of the footprint of the enclosure. You would have to try hard to reach that level, although some luxury homes may come close. Average ratio (in my experience) of water footprint to home footprint is 30%-60% without giving it any advance thought or planning.

Consider the following 3 bedroom home:

Here you have a typical, albeit comfortable, 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom home, 2 car garage, foyer. Hey, this is what everyone wants these days. Problem is, you can’t find one. They last 2 minutes until sold. They cost more than you’d like to pay. But it’s the bread-and-butter enclosure for working class America which we all are if we are reading this, including me.

Now consider the “plumbing distribution map”…Call it a “water triangle” if you want, because the location of the fixtures approximates a triangle. That’s great for me, because I can easily figure the area of a triangle for the purposes of this discussion. For an irregular shape with multiple sides, I’d have to use CAD…but darn, CAD is not one of the things that I know.

If one were to compare the area of the plumbing distribution to the area of the entire house, one finds that the ratio is 576 square feet/1437 square feet = 40%.

This is about average. You’d think less of me if I picked a worst-case scenario to make myself look more intelligent. Either I don’t have to do that, or you already think I’m so dumb as to have no hope at all. Whatever.

Now consider a home that I designed:

Notice that the size and square footage is about the same as the previous home. The other – 1,437 square feet. Mine – 1,414 square feet.

I had to cut off the image for sizing purposes but I designed a generous deck. No, I don’t have a trayed ceiling in the master suite but I’ll throw in a bay window for you. I do include a cathedral ceiling in the living area. Another thing that’s not readily apparent is that my home has 9 foot sidewalls.

Have you ever really thought about the difference, visually/aesthetically, between 8 and 9-foot ceiling? Trust me, it’s huge. And the living room will have a 14-or-so-foot peak due to the cathedral ceiling (long live parallel chord trusses!). That’s better than most homes this size and price range.

The footprint of my home isn’t quite as interesting, a simple rectangle, but those students of value engineering (I am both a teacher and a continual student of value engineering) already know that the savings multiply from the foundation upward. See my previous article, “Mother Earth’s Impression of You,” here.

Enough on the home’s specifics. (Oh, I almost forgot, there will be a 2-car DETACHED garage. Cheaper to build and cheaper to insure. Do you want it attached? No problem, that’s a nominal upcharge.)

Let’s now consider the plumbing footprint and layout:

When you study the fixture layout, in which there are precisely the same number of kitchens and bathrooms, you will see that the plumbing layout of my design is 4.6% of the home’s footprint.

That’s better than the garden-variety 3-bedroom plan by an order of magnitude. Well, almost. About 9X, really. We could tighten it up more, but there’s no need to.

Q:  What does this matter?

A:  I thought you’d never ask.

First of all, you told me cost was important to you. Not only the acquisition cost, but also the operating costs.

Let’s analyze all the costs:

  1. The material cost of the supply lines: copper and PVC have experienced extraordinary price increases in the mid- and post-pandemic world.
  2. The labor of installing the supply lines: this aspect is also on an upward trajectory.
  3. The cost of drain lines: see #1 above.
  4. The labor of installing drain lines: see #2 above.
  5. The risk of failure – more supply and drain length, more fittings – the risk of future failure is 100% over a certain time interval. It’s even higher in any given year if the length of the distribution system and the number of fittings is higher than necessary.
  6. The cost of transporting water: if you are on a municipal water system, then this cost is built into what you pay. If you have a private well, then you have to pay for the energy used to push the water from the source of production and filtration to the fixture you are using.
  7. The wasted water: if you are attempting to wash your hands at a sink that is 40 feet from the water heater, supplying the water than you run/waste before and until the water leaving the faucet reaches desired temperature is an expense to you – water charges, sewer charges, the cost of maintaining a septic system, etc.
  8. The cost of heating unnecessary water – all the water in the line between the point of use (you, the faucet/shower, etc.) and the heat source (water heater) – has been heated and that heat is officially deemed as wasted heat – when you are done washing your hands or your body. Because when you turn off the faucet, that water, already having been heated, will give that heat away pursuant to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Here’s a question from left field: Which home will have a higher selling price?

The answer, to me, is obvious…the generic home will sell for more due to the aesthetics of the layout, the trayed master ceiling, etc.

But here’s a better question: Which home will be more affordable? I’ll let you answer that one.

This may be the best question:

Which home will produce the higher profit for the builder? I’m willing to say mine, but I’m going to have to build one and then answer that question. (In progress spring/summer of 2022.)

Bruce Hornsby says it best in this 2002 tune from Big Swing Face, “Try Anything Once.”

The cost of heating and distributing of water is an ongoing expense that implicates the prevailing utility costs (what is the going rate for a kilowatt hour of electricity, a unit of liquid propane, or a therm of natural gas?) and we know that utility costs are never going down.

“Demand” water heaters are thought to be the most energy-efficient way to heat water, and there is some truth to that…but now that you’ve had a course in the dynamics of placing plumbing fixtures, you know it is but one aspect of many.

Recently, for example, a plumbing contractor appropriately recommended an on-demand natural gas-powered water heater for a commercial building in which I was engaged with the design phase. Although it’s great that the occupants will never be paying to constantly heat a storage tank of water, we opted for the unit with a recirculating pump and recirculating line capability so that hot water will never be more than a few seconds away from the person who turns on the hot water faucet. Remember that water and sewer rates aren’t anticipated to go down either.

Gary Klein ( is an expert with respect to water heating and water distribution systems. He has a plethora of interesting information on his website. He takes it to the nth degree – sizing the diameter of pipes for the most cost effective production and delivery of hot water where needed.

The placement of your “wet walls,” or, the walls on which plumbing fixtures will be mounted, remains an important part of the value engineering puzzle when designing a new residential or commercial building.

You may not hear much about it in contemporary media and marketing – in favor of metal roofs, solar panels, electric car charging capability, etc.…because a discussion of the “how many,” “what type,” and “where” of plumbing fixtures isn’t the most engaging nor fascinating nor exciting part of the design process.

However, if someone dismisses it, they are in effect telling me that they’ll purchase my nickel…for a dime.

(How many nickels can you afford to sell for a dime? How many dimes can you afford to sell for a nickel?)

As you think about that, remember that there are many facets to the value engineering process – and they all affect both “now costs” and “later costs.”

Until next time,

Your favorite Value Engineer,

Dr. Lee Newton

How A Doctor Learned To Develop Real Estate

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That Lovely Water Polygon



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