The ability to ‘value engineer’ the project is one hallmark of an experienced pro.
Stretching to get the most value for the dollar is a sport we all love to play. This certainly applies to building a home. It’s not unusual for the homeowners’ vision to be out of sync with the budget. Although this can be discouraging, a professional builder can suggest creative solutions that reduce costs while still delivering that vision.
The method for finding these solutions is called ‘value engineering.’ This is really just a fancy term for doing everything in a way that optimizes the return on every dollar—but pulling it off is easier said than done.
One of the differences between a merely competent builder and a real pro is the understanding that value engineering is not a random cost-cutting exercise; instead, it’s a systematic and thoughtful approach to satisfying the homeowners’ most important needs while honoring the budget.
Items that can be value-engineered include the design of the home as well as the materials and products that go into it. The builder will scrutinize the plans and specifications (or the homeowners’ concept, if plans haven’t been drawn yet), visit the building site, and then suggest alternatives that lower costs while maintaining quality. The goal is to support the homeowners to make informed choices.
Most people only understand these types of tradeoffs in broad terms. They know that a home with a complex roof, lots of wall corners, and granite surfaces in the kitchen and bath will cost more to build than an equally sized home that’s a simple box with a straight gable roof and laminate counters. But obvious contrasts like that aren’t what we’re talking about.
Real value engineering is more subtle. It’s not unusual to be able to shave tens of thousands of dollars off the budget for a custom home by making a lot of small adjustments that only minimally impact the home’s look and feel—if you know how to do it right.
How does the builder know where to make those adjustments?
By asking the right questions in the right way, identifying patterns in the answers, and reading between the lines. A builder who is good at this can often uncover priorities that the homeowners weren’t able to articulate. Solutions can then be tailored to those priorities.
For instance, the builder may tease out which spaces can and can’t be altered. If the conversation reveals that the homeowners aren’t likely to use the front porch very often, they may be receptive to making it smaller. If they have more enthusiasm about the master suite than about the kitchen, they might be amenable to less-expensive fixtures in the kitchen but not in the bath. Where substitutions must be made, the trick is in knowing which lower-cost materials and design features will deliver the needed performance, aesthetic, or warranty features, while not increasing maintenance costs or reducing the home’s longevity.
Value engineering can also include reducing exterior wall space by simplifying the facade. Exterior walls cost a lot more to build than interior walls, so a facade with fewer corners, nooks, and crannies will require less materials and labor. Changes could be as simple as moving windows or doors a few inches to eliminate framing members, or as complex as adjusting the home’s footprint to minimize waste in roofing and siding without sacrificing interior space.
It can even mean working with subcontractors to redesign pipe, wire, and duct runs. In fact, good value engineering is a team effort, and a good team of subcontractors will be accustomed to helping make it work.
Builders who do this well are able to draw on deep design and construction experience, solid business processes, and very good people. Those attributes are, of course, the hallmarks of a professional builder.
Companies built for production work aren’t built for excellent work.
On the surface, the difference between a production builder and a custom builder is simple. One builds the same basic house over and over, and the other builds a unique home for each customer.
But the real differences go deeper. These two builder types are, in fact, fundamentally different businesses.
This difference shows up in the quality results. A 2017 article in Professional Builder magazine cited a DuPont study on how much construction defects were costing US production builders. They found that the average big builder spends a surprising $4,919 per house on warranty claims.
This isn’t a dig at production builders. These companies play an important role in our society.
By adapting management systems developed in the auto industry, production builders supply affordable homes to millions of Americans. They build about 84% of the country’s housing stock each year. That percentage will likely grow. Thanks to a shortage of skilled trade workers, big builders are investing millions of dollars into automation technologies to let them build more homes in less time with fewer hands.
Many production builders also do pretty good work, with fewer defects than the industry average. But while manufacturing systems make it possible to roll defect-free cars out of a climate-controlled factory, getting similar results with homes built in the outdoor sun, rain and snow is a lot harder.
The desire for high quality is a big reason why many people opt for a new custom home. Custom builders also have to adjust to weather conditions and changes requested during construction by their home buyers, but they generally don’t have thousands of dollars in warranty claims. How do they do it? The answer is that, while many have quite sophisticated management systems, they are craft businesses at heart. They attract skilled workers and trade contractors who are also devoted to craft, and they pay these folks well for quality work. They strive for excellence and base their reputation on delivering it.
Professional custom builders don’t look at homes as units of output. Instead, each project is a carefully engineered work of art.
The custom builder’s business systems are also designed to ensure a great customer experience. You aren’t buying a mere product—you’re entering into a relationship with someone devoted to making your personal vision a reality. If you work with one of these companies, you may even have the chance to meet everyone who touches your home.
Although a handcrafted home will cost more than a production model of similar size, there will always be people who consider that extra cost a worthwhile investment. For these people, just having a roof over their head isn’t enough.
We see a similar dynamic at play in other industries. You can get a decent plate of pasta at Olive Garden but the experience won’t approach that of the one-of-a-kind, upscale Italian restaurant such as Uricchio’s. The same goes for dress clothes. “Most people are happy with a good-quality, $400 or $500 production suite from Joseph A. Bank,” quipped a well-known homebuilder consultant. “However, there will always be people who want a custom-tailored suit.”
Nowadays we seem to live in an age of bland, franchised sameness, but a quality-built custom home is a way to create a lasting, functional work of art that suits your lifestyle.
As a builder of high-quality homes, we strive to deliver something special to every customer. The days of “cookie cutter” housing are over! To insure that each home is unique, we rely on several resources to help our buyers fashion a house that reflects their individual tastes.
One resource is the showroom. Many of our vendors and trade partners include showrooms as part of their businesses, usually for retail (or walk-up) traffic but also for professionals like us and our customers. The best showrooms provide a wide variety of choices in real-world scenes or applications (called vignettes) that reveal how the products will look in a finished home.
The earliest showrooms showcased kitchen and bath products, such as cabinets, appliances, and plumbing fixtures. Recently, vendors of windows, doors, decorative hardware, countertops, lighting, fireplaces, and other products have begun to use showrooms. That diversity has allowed us and our homebuyers to create truly personal and distinct home features.
When we use a vendor’s showroom to make those choices, we usually have a standard allowance—or specific dollar amount—that we have allotted for those products in our house base price. We generally schedule an appointment to go to the showroom with our homebuyers and let the showroom know what the allowance is.
Our homebuyers are also welcome to visit the showrooms on their own. In order to help insure an enjoyable and stress-free showroom experience, it is important for everyone involved to follow a bit of etiquette.
The first point of showroom etiquette is to make an appointment and stick to it. With an appointment, our clients are certain to have the expert assistance of the showroom’s consultant. Keeping a timely appointment means that our clients are more likely to make their choices on schedule. Like many of the decisions made in the process of building a home, selecting the many finish products within the agreed schedule is the buyer’s responsibility and part of the partnership we strive to create between us.
The next item of protocol is to stay within the budget allowance. We make every effort to prepare (and remind) our homebuyers with regard to the budget choices they have already made. But showrooms are filled with variety and are designed to make the products look appealing. Some selections may be out of the range of the agreed budget amount. Whether a client decides to exceed an allowance is always their prerogative. It is important to remember that getting off-budget can have a ripple effect on other costs. We rely on our vendors, too, to stay within the identified budget and avoid “up-selling” to a higher-priced product line.
The last rule of thumb at a showroom is to make full use of the vendor’s expertise. Increasingly, these are design professionals who can help make product selection easier and more satisfying. Design professionals have a trained eye for cohesiveness and comfort, such as selecting complementary colors or finishes. They are skilled, too, in assisting buyers to identify and satisfy their personal tastes. We encourage our buyers to ask questions and share their dreams with these professionals. We select vendors who have the expertise to support our customers.
Equipped with these three simple rules, our owners can relax, enjoy their showroom experience, and make appropriate and satisfying choices.
Want to make sure your new home doesn’t feel dated in a few years? Then you need a good interior designer.
One great thing about a new custom home is that you get to create a space perfectly tailored to your needs. Once that’s done, however, your satisfaction with the space will depend largely on what you’ve put into it. Ensuring this satisfaction is the value provided by your interior designer.
Think of the interior designer as an artist and your home as the canvas. This professional will collaborate closely with you to create the perfect composition based on your style, taste, and vision.
An experienced designer will also help you make good decisions, thanks to wisdom born of a perspective that extends over time. Having seen the ebb and flow of trends and fads, the designer will help guide you toward choices you will still like a decade from now.
An essential part of the designer’s wisdom is the ability to predict which current trends will stand the test of time, and which will prove fleeting. Let’s look at a few examples.
It has been trendy in some markets to make the kitchen island a different color than the main cabinets. But color tastes change every few years, and properly refinishing an island is difficult. A good designer can help you think through other ways to get the look you want.
Or take surface materials. Floor tile with bright, flowered patterns may be all the rage but chances are you will tire of it over time. Your interior designer can help you choose a more lasting tile pattern. If you still want that splash of color, the designer can satisfy that desire with accents (such as upholstery, window coverings or wall stencils) that can be easily changed later. This strategy gets you the colors and patterns you want, but without the long-term commitment.
Other trends take established styles and add embellishments that can become quickly outdated. A good example of this is farmhouse style (popularized by Joanna Gaines), which is characterized by vintage accessories, neutral colors and shiplap walls. Although the style continues to be popular in rural areas, in other regions it’s waning in favor of more color and modern touches such as mid-century-inspired light fixtures and bold wallpapers.
A good designer will be aware of these and other trends and will help you choose finishes and decor that are current but not faddish. Unless your goal is to be faddish! In that case, the designer can help support your vision and fully embrace it.
Like all artists, each designer will have a signature style that may or may not work for you. If you don’t already have someone in mind, how do you choose the right person for your home? While you want someone whose style you like, personality is also important. A super-casual client might not hit it off with a very formal designer, and vice versa.
Professional builders understand this, which is why many have more than one designer they work with on a regular basis.
Homebuilding is a highly specialized and complex process. And like builders themselves, no two clients are exactly the same. Some homeowners are very interested in the home building process, while others are more content to follow the lead of the builder and be available only when needed. Most clients fall somewhere in between. Regardless of their approach or comfort level with new home construction, clients play a vital role in its success.
The ideal homeowner is a partner, making appropriate and timely decisions to help ensure the home is completed on schedule. In addition, pro-active homeowners become educated about the home building process so that they understand and respect its nuances.
A critical part of that education is knowing what is and is not in a builder’s control and having realistic expectations for how issues will be managed, questions answered, and problems solved.
One of the most obvious issues is the weather. Rain, freezing temperatures, and other severe climate conditions are out of any earthly being’s control. When the weather results in delays in the delivery of materials or their installation, however, it can have a ripple effect on the entire construction schedule. While professional builders cannot control the weather, they can prepare for it by communicating regularly with subcontractors and materials suppliers to gauge their availability once the weather clears and keeping homeowners informed about changes to the schedule.
Dealing with a global marketplace
Likewise, outside circumstances — such as a natural disaster in another part of the country, or even global trade trends — may cause the cost and availability of construction materials and labor to become volatile or unreliable. With proper controls in place, however, a professional builder should be able to mitigate or adjust for delays and cost overruns by providing adequate lead time for materials delivery and making sure each trade partner finishes his phase of the work before the next one begins.
To avoid other common delays, smart and successful builders are aware of how long it takes to get approval from the local building department to begin construction and the amount of time an inspector needs to schedule a job site visit to check over the progress to date.
Developing a reliable team
But even under the best of circumstances, barring any problems caused by weather or other outside forces, there’s always a risk in relying on other people to help complete any job, whether it’s the construction of a house, providing input on a financial report, or creating an advertising campaign. Increasingly, the housing industry exemplifies this shared responsibility among a complex network of players, as builders rely on subcontractors and materials suppliers to deliver pieces of the puzzle on time, within budget, and according to specifications and standards.
In fact, a builder’s role is often akin to a manager as much as it is a craftsman. Builders must manage complex scheduling and supervision of various trade partners. It’s a job that requires no less skill than building a wall or installing a heating system.
As a homeowner, consider what you can reasonably expect your builder to control. Communicate with your builder to be sure he knows and agrees with those expectations. This will help ensure a coordinated effort toward achieving overall success and satisfaction with the finished home.
A few key devices and some basic wiring will make your home ready for just about anything
Homebuilders are sometimes accused of resistance to digital home technologies. That’s not quite the case, but we have seen many high-tech devices hit the market with great hype, only to quietly disappear two years later. The best service we can offer is to only recommend technologies our customers will be happy in the long term.
Industry data is a good place to look for what has proven its value. For example, in 2018 Zillow analyzed 4.5 million home sales to determine what features reduced the time-on-market. The top of the 20-item list was dominated by luxury appliances, plumbing conveniences (think steam showers and pot fillers), and outdoor kitchens. The only digital devices listed were smart lighting and smart thermostats, and they were near the bottom.
It isn’t surprising they made the list, though, as heating, cooling, and lighting have an everyday impact on how people experience their homes. And today’s thermostats and lighting controls are sophisticated and user-friendly.
For instance, some apps make it easy to create lighting scenes. Pressing “awake” on your phone in the morning could switch on specific lights while selecting “goodnight” could turn off everything except the front porch light. Some home automation systems even let you use the phone to program these scenes into buttons on a wall-mounted touchpad.
Some of you are probably thinking—what happened to Alexa? Or to that video doorbell we’ve all heard about.
It seems people feel ambivalent about them. For a November 2019 story, NPR interviewed people in a “smart neighborhood.” The reporter found that about half the residents loved their devices, but the other half found them “creepy” and felt like they were being watched. Fortunately, these gadgets are wireless and can be installed later if the homeowners want them.
Speaking of wireless, the most common technical question we get from homeowners isn’t about devices at all—it’s about wiring. Given that so many things communicate via WiFi, do you still need data wiring inside your walls? For crucial applications, the answer is yes because wired devices are still more reliable. But wiring has evolved.
Ten years ago, “structured wiring” consisted of coaxial cable (for satellite or cable TV) and ethernet data wiring wrapped in a single jacket. It was brought to wherever the homeowners wanted televisions or networked computers. Today’s luxury home will have more wire runs, but the type will vary by need. Most computers now access the internet via WiFi, but the growth of smart TVs means that TV locations get more wires: Coax, HDMI cable, and as many as three data wires. A thermostat, on the other hand, will probably just need a single data wire (which can also supply the device with low-voltage power).
In a big house, we also recommend wireless access points (WAPs). These are connected back to the router by data wiring and boost the WiFi signal in all areas of the house or patio.
Most homeowners need help choosing what devices and wiring to spend their money on. That’s why the home automation integrator is an important member of the professional builder’s project team. This pro will advise the homeowners on what needs to be wired and can help them create a blueprint that balances their technology needs with their budget.
And whether the homeowners opt for a full home automation system or just a few smart devices, the integrator will make sure everything works seamlessly. That’s important—digital technology is software-driven, so it’s rarely plug-and-play. Even a basic lighting control package has to be configured.
The bottom line is that professional builders understand that up-to-date wiring and a few proven devices will satisfy most homeowner needs. And it will put them in a great position to add the devices they want when they want them.
Failure to make timely decisions is the number one culprit behind schedule and cost overruns. Homeowners play a key role in preventing these problems.
Some homeowners find it a challenge to make their final selection of products and materials. It’s easy to see why—with practically limitless choices in countertops, fixtures, tiles, windows, and other products, it can be difficult to settle on one model, style, or color. The decision process is further complicated by the vast amount of information available on the internet and popular home improvement television shows.
But decisions must be made at some point and making those decisions in a timely manner is crucial to keeping the project on schedule and on budget. Indecision and delay can cause costs to rise dramatically.
Professional builders provide enough time in the pre-construction phase for their homeowners to sort through these choices. The best builders not only set firm deadlines for when each choice must be made., but also require them to be finalized before construction commencement. These deadlines provide sufficient time for the materials to be ordered as well as to allow the builder to provide actual, current pricing for the items.
Take the example of windows and doors, where frame openings have to be sized to fit each particular model. If the homeowner chooses the windows after the framing is underway, that could mean going back and reframing openings as well as delay or stop the construction.. The same goes for decisions about plumbing fixture locations that would require the moving of pipes.
What about items that don’t affect infrastructure like framing or plumbing? The answer is that late selections anywhere can cause problems. Custom-made products like cabinets, specialty tile and countertops can have long lead times, so late selections can easily push the job past its original finish date. The same goes for decisions on flooring, paint colors, and landscaping.
The problem with extending the finish date is that time is money—every day the builder’s crew is on the job, expenses are adding up for labor and overhead (for example, items like the Potta Potty, security fence, temporary power, and so on).
During those extra weeks and months, homeowners run the risk of paying the costs for two separate homes: the expense for the home that’s being built, as well as the mortgage payment for their current residence.
Savvy homeowners reduce this risk by working closely with the builder’s design team, made up of the architect, interior designer/selection coordinator, and landscape designer. Selection problems are minimized when the homeowners and designers work closely together. The design team helps the homeowners to narrow the choices in models, styles, and color, and guides them to selections they will be happy with and will be enduring for many years.
The most effective thing homeowners can do to ensure a smooth project is to work with the builder and design team to make as many decisions as possible before work starts. Early selections eliminate a lot of stress and expense. The process of building a home requires a lot of decisions, and savvy homeowners help keep the project on track by meeting decision deadlines.
This article is more technical than most, but it addresses an important issue for today’s homebuyers: how healthy their new home will be. That concern is no surprise, given that we’re getting outside less often than ever. A 2018 YouGov survey of 16,000 people in North America and Europe found that most now spend about 90 percent of their time indoors.
If you want to know what all that indoor time is doing to your family’s health, you’re not alone. Every industry survey of homeowners shows a solid majority worried about indoor air quality. A YouTube video called “The Indoor Generation” garnered 8.4 million views between May 2018 and December 2019 and, among other things, asserts that kids’ rooms are among the most polluted spaces in the average home. Air purification has become one of the world’s fastes-growing industries, with billions of dollars in annual sales.
Although those sales include lots of portable air cleaners (the kind you can order online), they’re far less effective than a good, whole-house filtration system. That means a new custom home is a real opportunity to create a genuinely healthy indoor environment.
The filtration technology available for today’s homes goes way beyond the old paper furnace filter. A lot of homeowners ask their builder about HEPA (high-efficiency particulate) filtration because they’ve heard that HEPA filters do a great job cleaning the air. They do, but they are rare in-home systems because their thickness and density reduce airflow.
Fortunately, other high-efficiency filters work just as well, with MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) ratings of 7–13. While that’s less than the MERV 13–16 filters used in hospital and general surgery settings, it’s still impressive: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that these filters are “likely to be nearly as effective as true HEPA filters.” And they don’t restrict system airflow.
Good airflow is crucial when it comes to health, but getting it right requires an optimal system size. In a high-performance new home, oversized mechanical equipment will heat or cool the space too quickly to deliver the needed fresh air. To avoid that, a knowledgeable mechanical engineer will size the equipment precisely to match the home’s heating and cooling loads and will place duct grilles where they can best distribute the air.
If it’s hot and humid outside, a too-big system will also do a poor job regulating the humidity, which has implications for comfort and health.
Most people understand the health part. Lowering relative humidity (RH) in summer makes it easier for the body to lose heat, which means you don’t need as much cooling. The same principle holds in winter. If the house is cold and the air is dry, raising RH by 15% can let you reduce the thermostat by 3 degrees without noticing.
Relative humidity also plays a big role in health. Too high, and it will encourage mold growth; too low, and it can cause ailments that include asthma, bronchitis, sinusitis, nosebleeds, and dehydration. In any climate, an RH around 45% will provide optimum health and comfort. But of course, the equipment has to be engineered to consistently ensure this outcome.
Professional homebuilders understand these issues and know that safeguarding their customers’ health requires both a great mechanical engineer and contractor. That’s why the best builders look for the best they can find and make that company an integral part of the design and construction team.
Builders are always talking about “quality,” but few can explain what that means to their new-home clients. This should not be a mystery; construction quality is easy to see when you know what to look for.
As a professional builder, we not only take pride in creating high-quality homes, but also in making sure that our homebuyers experience quality and understand the difference it makes.
The building process is relatively foreign to those outside of the industry. The best way to help a homebuyer understand the construction process and appreciate the value of the high-quality materials and methods we employ is to schedule visits to the job site at key milestones. Walking through a newly framed home, for instance, allows us to poiint out the quality workmanship required from our framing crews. On-site, we can show examples and explain why these standards help to ensure reliable performance and comfort in the finished home.
After framing, homeowners can watch the ways that we install the home’s wiring, plumbing, and mechanical systems. Our exacting and specifications make sure that those systems perform as designed and promised. As construction continues, we encourage new homeowners to schedule similar walk-throughs so we can showcase the high-level materials and methods we use to build homes. What is difficult to articulate in the office becomes clearly demonstrated as the house takes shape.
We also consider the conditions of our job sites as an indicator of quality. We expect, for instance, that our crews and trade partners maintain a clean site. Disposing of trash and scrap materials not only makes for a professional work environment, but also a safe one. We believe that our insistence on a professional-looking job site translates to professional, superior-quality workmanship.
As a new home nears completion, quality is even easier to see and understand from a homebuyer’s point of view. Again, adhering to tight tolerances, we work hard to make sure that walls are smooth, that cabinets, trim, and other fixtures fit snugly into place. We make certain that windows and doors operate smoothly, and that flooring and other finishes are installed to meet the expectations of our discerning clientele.
But the true test of quality construction is occupancy. New homeowners will understand what we mean by quality after living in their home for a while. How our homes stand the test of time and the rigor of everyday living is a testament to the quality we strive to achieve from the foundation to the rooftop. This also results in our homes being recognized and coveted when they are listed for sale in the future by our homeowners.
Stricter code requirements and modern materials have raised the stakes for today’s builders
Today’s homes are engineered for comfort and health. Their walls are sealed to eliminate drafts, and they include thick thermal insulation as well as high-performance heating, cooling and fresh-air ventilation systems. They’re a far cry from older homes.
They’re about to become even more so. Pending requirements set by the 2021 version of the International Energy Conservation Code will push the average new home close to Net Zero Ready, which means it will use so little power that a smaller than normal solar array will satisfy its annual needs. Subsequent code updates promise to be even stricter.
Not surprisingly, many homeowners worry about the unintended consequences of this trend, especially the code’s air sealing requirements. Common questions we hear include “Don’t walls need to breathe?” and “Won’t a tight wall trap stale air in the home and make us sick?”
These are legitimate concerns. Air sealing and insulation do create risks. Fortunately, those risks can be fully mitigated by someone with knowledge and skill—the most knowledgeable of today’s builders and designers will approach the house as an interdependent system in which walls, roofs, windows, insulation, air sealing and mechanical equipment all play key roles.
Success at this approach requires a firm grasp of building science—a discipline that describes how heat, moisture, and airflow through a structure and how they interact with one another and with the home’s mechanical equipment. Building science also includes best practices for keeping rain and groundwater out of the structure (no small matter considering that 80% of building failures are water-related).
Training in building science also helps builders understand the limitations imposed by today’s materials. Take the example of framing lumber. Thirty years ago, framing lumber came from mature trees and was able to absorb lots of moisture without problems. That lumber was placed in drafty walls where it could easily dry out. The drying happened automatically and didn’t require special consideration.
But old-growth lumber is no longer available. In today’s homes, engineered and new-growth lumber—neither of which stores much moisture—are put into nearly airtight walls. The builder has to be very deliberate about making sure the wall will be able to dry.
The bottom line is that ever-more-strict code requirements implemented by a well-intentioned but uneducated builder can lead to moisture problems and stale indoor air. On the other hand, the new code requirements give the educated pro a helpful roadmap for creating a home that’s comfortable, quiet and healthy.
Which brings us back to the “walls need to breathe” question. The answer is that walls don’t need to breathe but people do, which is why fresh-air ventilation takes on more importance in today’s homes. What walls do need is the ability to dry out when they get wet, even when tightly sealed and framed with new-growth lumber. It’s like your clothing: you want it to retain body heat, but to release sweat and other vapors that you don’t want.
The construction details needed to ensure that results differ by whether you live in a hot, cold or mixed climate and whether it’s dry or humid outside most of the year. That’s why you need an educated local builder who knows what does and doesn’t work in your particular climate.
The word “foundation” evokes thoughts of strength, permanence, and solidity—the basis for everything that follows. A home’s foundation is simply the most important part of its construction and overall performance, if not top of mind among homebuyers and owners.
The reason there are different types of residential foundations has to do with the soil and other conditions of the lot, regional building materials, the skills of the local labor force, and, where possible, needs and personal preference.
Almost all single-family home foundations in the U.S. are built with concrete or masonry blocks or some close variation, such as precast concrete panels or insulated concrete forms; a few are built with steel or treated wood, but those are rare occurrences and for special conditions.
Regardless, a new home has one of the following three types of foundations:
Slab. A slab foundation is what is most commonly used in California and is a lot like it sounds: a monolithic, horizontal block of poured concrete. The slab is usually supported by a relatively shallow perimeter footing that runs along its entire boundary just below the ground. The center of the slab rests on or is embedded with a steel mesh over well-compacted and level ground.
The beauty of a slab foundation is its low cost and fast construction, especially for a simple house footprint or layout. Once the footings are excavated and the formwork and reinforcing steel mesh is placed, it takes only a few men and a few hours to pour the concrete, tamp and level (or “screed”) it smooth, cut control joints to accommodate surface cracks, and embed any connectors for the next phase of construction. Within a day or so, the slab is ready for the structural frame.
Crawlspace. Also called a pier-and-beam or raised-floor foundation, this type of foundation was commonly used several decades ago but has been replaced with the slab foundation due to better handle seismic movement caused by earthquarkes.
A crawlspace creates a shallow area between the structural frame and the ground using a short perimeter wall of poured concrete (called a “stem” wall) and strategically located short support posts (or piers) in the middle. Combined, the wall and piers hold up the structural beams and joists of the wood-framed first-floor platform upon which the rest of the home is built.
This creates a 3- to 4-foot space allowing easier access to plumbing and electrical conduits and central air ductwork serving the house. A moisture barrier on the raw ground and vents embedded in the stem wall help keep the crawlspace dry and free of water-related damage.
Full Basement. A basement foundation is basically a combination of the two other types. Excavated to about 8 feet below the ground, typically in geographic areas that require a deep footing below the ground’s freeze line. The basement foundation features a concrete floor (essentially a slab) and concrete or masonry block perimeter walls with as-needed support posts. The first-floor frame is built slightly above finished grade, creating a platform for the rest of the house.
Accessible from the rest of the house above, so-called “full” basements create at least an 8-foot clearance between the slab and the floor frame above. This full-height area can therefore be finished as living or storage space, utility area (such as the heating and cooling equipment and laundry), as well as mechanical and duct runs.
Most are “daylight” basements, with deep window wells along the perimeter that allow natural light and emergency egress. “Walk-out” types, meanwhile, take advantage of a slope on one side of the basement to create more conventional outside access to the basement … and perhaps even an outdoor living area, such as a patio or garden.
Regardless of the type, a foundation is literally the basis of a home’s strength and performance, from energy efficiency to withstanding high winds. A well-engineered and well-built foundation allows the rest of the home’s construction to go as smoothly and quickly as possible and maintains its structural integrity. It may not be visible or sexy, but a strong foundation is arguably the best way to maintain housing value.
How homeowners benefit from the established builder’s systems and relationships.
Since the rebound of home building from the great recession, lots of new contractors have emerged as homebuilders. This has given home buyer more choices, tempting some to choose a contractor based strictly on price.
Bad idea. It’s nearly impossible to compare apples to apples when collecting competitive bids, especially for a complex custom home. That’s why home buyers who have previously built prefer to compare builders rather than prices.
By some estimates, the U.S. economy boasts more residential contracting companies (general contractors as well as trade contractors like plumbers and electricians) than any other type of business. This reflects a low barrier to entry: all that’s needed to get started are a contractor’s license and the right insurance. Or course, licensing and insurance are crucial—no smart homeowner hires a contractor without them—but they are simply the ante to get in the game. They say nothing about the company’s work quality, budgeting skill, financial stability, or customer service. These factors and a multitude of others are the difference between a great building experience and an expensive disappointment.
The big advantage to hiring an established professional builder is that the pro has the systems needed to manage a custom home project. It’s a real company with a physical location and proven management systems. These include systems for customer service, design, estimating, construction, and warranty work, among others. Advantages for customers include:
Timeliness and accuracy. Professional builders have a team of specialists that handle design, estimating, purchasing, and construction. More gets done, in less time, and with fewer mistakes. One important specialist is a dedicated manager for each jobsite—this person takes ownership of the project to make sure work gets done on time and as planned.
No surprises. Detailed specifications that clearly define the scope of work, eliminate hidden costs and help prevent disappointing outcomes. Specifications take time and knowledge to create. The professional builder has the systems and staffing to develop and adhere to this ‘master game plan’. One of the pitfalls of ambiguous specifications is a low-bid proposal that is ultimately unrealistic and the source of surprise and disappointment.
Buying clout. Successful custom builders are highly skilled purchasers. They know the best places to get each of the hundreds of products that go into a home. Their relationships with suppliers help ensure the best available prices and timely delivery.
Value engineering. Years of experience have taught the professional builder the most efficient approaches to new home construction. The builder’s staff will work with the designer, architect and engineer to make sure the plan minimizes waste and is cost-effective to build.
High-quality trade contractors. Professional builders only work with professionally managed trade contractors. Because the builder is their steady customer, these contractors work hard to protect that relationship—for example, by charging fair prices and showing up on the job when needed.
Warranty confidence. Most new contractors fail after just a few years, often because they lack the financial resources to stay in business. Home buyers can’t be confident that the builder will be around to fulfill warranty requests. By contrast, the established professional builder has the resources to back up a written warranty of its work. Its longstanding relationships with trade contractors and suppliers help ensure a quick response to warranty claims.
This article isn’t meant to disparage the small or new builder. The company that lacks business acumen and capital may be led by a skilled trades person who does top-notch work. In fact, talented tradesp eople who are unable to grow their businesses often end up putting their skills to work for the professionally managed company.
Successful builders are choosy about the people they work with. Here’s why.
The best business relationships are those where everyone has high standards, both for themselves and for the other parties. This is certainly the case when building a new custom home—a complex, expensive and emotion-laden effort in which the homeowner and builder must collaborate closely for months. Successful outcomes demand mutual trust and confidence.
A smart homeowner will be picky when shopping for a builder and will take the time needed to make the right choice. But it also works the other way. If the builder is a real pro, they will scrutinize you just as closely, and that’s ultimately to your benefit.
Why might a builder choose not to do business with someone? The most tangible reasons are money (the price range the builder works in doesn’t match the homeowner’s budget) and geography (the home is outside the builder’s market area). But intangibles also play a role.
The notion that good relationships need a mutual “fit” has become a cliché, but that’s because it’s so true.
A common mindset that works against this fit is an obsession with cost per square foot. That may be a legitimate metric when comparing similar tract homes from competing builders in the same market, but it’s irrelevant for custom projects.
If you already have a design, it’s fair to ask the builder for a rough ballpark—you want to know, for instance, whether construction will be closer to $500,000 or $600,000. Final costs always depend on details, however. A fixation on making the project meet a square-foot cost you found on Google will be a red flag, and a sign that no one will be happy with the outcome.
Another potential problem is a reluctance to make firm choices. That includes making all necessary design decisions and product selections by the builder’s deadlines. Foot dragging will create delays, cost overruns and bad feelings.
Then there are standards. Professional builders are successful in large part because they do high quality work, and they prefer to work for clients who have high expectations. At the same time, builders usually follow defined quality standards.
Take the example of interior paint. The quality benchmark of the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America states that you shouldn’t be able to see a blemish on the wall under normal light conditions from a certain distance, and most good painters try to exceed that. A builder will try to get a sense of whether a prospective client is likely to scrutinize the paint job with a magnifying glass and be hard to satisfy.
Successful builders seek out clients whose approach is collaborative rather than adversarial. In fact, both parties should look for reasons they can trust one another.
The tone of this business relationship affects more than the home buyer and builder: it also rolls down to employees and trade contractors. That’s one of the biggest reasons pros are choosy about who they work with. The supply of skilled labor isn’t enough to meet demand, so it’s easy for a worker to leave for another company. And since most trade contractors pay market-based wages, the choice usually comes down to job satisfaction. The best employees flock to employers who are fair-minded and loyal, and who provide a positive work environment.
In other words, good builder/client relationships make it easier to retain high-quality workers. And that’s very good for the home buyer.
Communication is important in all relationships, and your relationship with your builder is no exception. Effective communication between client and builder will reduce concerns and stress before, during, and after the building process. Here are some tips for keeping the lines of communication open at key points.
When selecting a builder—The best time to explore your level of comfort with a builder’s communication style is while you are deciding on a builder. These early communications often reflect how your builder will communicate during construction and after closing. Builders who are effective communicators will encourage your questions and provide satisfactory and prompt answers.
As you reach a purchasing decision—Make sure you understand how you and your builder will discuss the project and its progress. Many builders encourage guided walk-throughs of the house at critical stages of construction, such as during structural framing, after electrical and plumbing rough-in, or after drywall. In addition, find out how the builder feels about informal meetings, phone calls, and emails, and ask how quickly you can expect a response when you have a concern. Most professinal builders use web-based construction management programs such as BuilderTrend to communicate with their home buyers and trade contractors.
On seeing the schedule—The builder should review and proviide access to a detailed scope of work that outlines the construction process and schedule. Use the scope of work as a guide to gain a better understanding of the building process and ask clarifying questions. The construction schedule most times will show deadlines for key decisions that need to be made as well as job site review meetings.
When working with change orders—An essential part of owner-builder communication is the change order, which is the builder’s procedure for making changes after construction begins. Few projects are completed without some changes along the way. Find out about this process before construction begins. Also, learn the details of your builder’s warranty and service program.
Successful builders have systems in place for communicating effectively with their home-building clients before, during, and after construction. These systems have been developed over years with many clients, and deserve our respect. At the same time, your needs, preferences, and comfort level matter. Once you’ve settled on a communication plan with your builder, stick with it! Good communication is a key to a predictable and sane building process that provides you and your family the home you desire and deserve.
The ability to weather storms is another advantage of hiring an experienced builder with up-to-date knowledge about building science
One often overlooked benefit of a high-quality new custom home is that it will better handle severe weather events and power outages. These are a fact of life in all parts of the country. Atlantic hurricanes routinely leave millions without electricity. Just this past July, thunderstorms put thousands of Midwesterners in the dark and a summer monsoon killed power for thousands of Phoenix residents. Outages even happen without bad weather, like the 2003 blackout that affected 11 million people in an area stretching from Ontario to New Jersey, thanks to a software bug.
Outages affect all homes, no matter how well built, but a new custom home can be crafted to stay comfortable longer without heating or cooling. “It’s called Passive Survivability,” says Alex Wilson, president of the Resilient Design Institute in Brattleboro, Vt. “It’s about building homes that remain habitable if they lose power.”
Wilson usually writes about green building, but the design and construction principles he advocates are routinely used by the best professional builders.. This is essential building science and includes making walls, roofs and ceilings more efficient with high R-value insulation, careful air sealing, and high-performance windows that offer passive solar gain. These improvements can keep a home habitable without power for days. Homeowners who want to keep the lights on during a blackout may add solar panels, a backup generator or a home battery such as a Tesla PowerWall. In fact, a battery can run a refrigerator, furnace, tankless water heater and critical basic circuits for up to 12 hours.
A resilient home also has good structural and moisture details. Elements like hardware tie-downs and plywood shear panels will make roofs and walls more resistant to damage from earthquakes and high winds. Careful waterproofing will keep wall and roof assemblies dry even in the fiercest rain or snow storms..
One of the best things about resilient construction is that it pays off even if the home never loses power. Careful waterproofing means lower long-term maintenance bills and less chance of mold and mildew growth. Insulation and air sealing reduce monthly energy costs while ensuring a quieter, more comfortable living experience.
The complication is that someone with just a nodding acquaintance of building science can actually create problems. For instance, the builder’s crew needs to understand the flashing details needed for today’s windows and doors—details that can vary by manufacturer. Insulation and air sealing need to be implemented so that walls and roofs shed moisture rather than trapping it, and the approaches vary depending on the local climate.
Building science has come a long way in recent years, and you want to hire someone who has invested time and effort in keeping current. In other words, you need an educated and experienced professional builder.
Even small changes made after work begins can have surprising effects on the budget. Here’s why.
Minimizing change orders is one of the most effective things homeowners can do to control costs. The reason is that seemingly small changes can have cost impacts beyond the builder’s control—costs that ultimately are borne by the customer.
We’re not talking about unscrupulous contractors who write vague specifications to create low bids and then nickel-and-dime clients with change orders to increase profits. We mean honest builders who write detailed specs and manage their jobs in a professional manner. It’s not unusual for customers of these builders to decide, after the project kickoff, that they want something different in part of the house.
The kickoff usually happens at the preconstruction meeting, where the builder and clients review the final product and design choices, and the clients sign off on those choices. After this meeting, purchase orders are generated and sent to all subcontractors and suppliers, setting firm prices for every part of the job. Any change that happens after that point will likely add cost.
How much cost? That depends not only on what is being changed, but also when. A common example is the clients who, after seeing the opening over the kitchen sink, decide they really want a bigger window. That decision will cost a lot less if they make it early, during the framing walkthrough. Once the window is in the opening and the insulation, drywall, and sink cabinet are installed, the change is more costly.
Less obvious are seemingly minor changes that have a ripple effect. These can multiply the cost of an item to several times what it would have been as part of the original specs.
For example, suppose the homeowners decide they want a pedestal sink in the powder room, rather than the small vanity they had chosen. The builder’s staff has to cancel the order for the vanity and possibly for a granite top. If those items have already shipped, the supplier will likely charge a restocking fee. The pedestal must be ordered from the plumbing supplier, taking additional time. If the hot and cold water pipes are already in place, the plumber has to move them, and the plumbing inspector has to inspect the change. If the wall has already been finished, the drywaller must be called back. This minor change may throw everyone’s schedule off by a week or more.
Every change also requires time from the builder’s staff—time to complete and track orders, to reschedule workers and subcontractors, and to update the budget. That’s why change orders include an administrative fee.
This explanation is not given to discourage important changes. Clients are entitled to make their home their own, and most clients decide to make at least some changes during construction. But they should do it with a clear understanding of the costs those decisions will bring when they are made after the specs have been written and the contract signed. It’s a reminder that making as many firm selections as possible up front is in the customer’s best interest.
Why choosing the right air conditioning equipment is more important than ever
The health and comfort of a new home has a lot to do with its heating, cooling and ventilation equipment. High-quality equipment will do a better job, but only if the builder works with the mechanical engineer and contractor to choose the right equipment type. With today’s high-performance homes, that choice is no longer so simple.
It’s especially complicated with air conditioning. Each new version of the International Energy Conservation Code further lowers cooling loads—how much heat and humidity has to be removed to keep a home comfortable. (The code has also lowered heating loads, but that’s a topic for another day.) That’s good news, in that the new code lowers cooling bills, but it can also be bad news if the system hasn’t been engineered for this new reality.
The problem is that the air conditioner usually has to cool and dehumidify. The mix of those loads has changed.
In older homes, air conditioners usually had to remove three times as much heat as humidity, and most were engineered with that in mind. But energy-efficient construction reduces cooling loads while leaving humidity about the same, so the net cooling and humidity loads are about equal. An older system installed in a new home could cool it but leave everyone feeling sweaty and uncomfortable.
This challenge doesn’t just affect hot/humid parts of the country. Even in the dry climates, homeowners can generate lots of moisture from activities like cooking and showering. And in temperate climates, there are plenty of days that are humid but not hot.
Proper system sizing is crucial. Old-school HVAC contractors relied on rules of thumb. Such rules worked fine for drafty, poorly insulated homes. With today’s high-performance construction, however, the result tends to be too much cooling capacity—a system that cools the home so quickly it doesn’t have time to remove humidity. That’s why the best mechanical engineers and contractors now use sophisticated software to calculate the exact system size for the particular home.
Manufacturers have adapted their equipment to this new reality. Older systems used one-speed compressor motors, which also tend to cool a new home too quickly. Two-stage compressor motors are available today which, if conditions warrant, will run at a low speed and do a better job of cooling and dehumidifying.
Today you can also get true variable-speed systems, which vary the compressor speed the same way the gas pedal controls a car’s motor. A good example is the ductless mini split, in which wall-mounted indoor units are placed in different areas of the house.
But while ductless mini splits are popular worldwide, Americans as a whole don’t like the look of them. If the budget permits, you can get a ducted mini split instead. Here, specially designed indoor units are placed in attics or utility spaces with short ducts running to different areas (a bedroom, bath and sitting area, for example). A ducted indoor unit can be placed in each zone of the house, so you get the precise cooling and dehumidification needed for that zone. These systems are also super quiet.
The bottom line is that with today’s homes, equipment choice is complicated. That’s why a professional builder will work with a professional mechanical engineer and contractor—who will recommend the best equipment for the home and precisely size it to keep the occupants cool and dry.
Understanding the construction process will help owners manage their expectations and emotions.
Here’s a quick quiz…
It’s four or five months into a new custom build. The home is weather tight, plumbing and electrical wiring have been roughed in, the insulation is in place, and sheetrock has been screwed to the walls and ceilings. The drywallers are completing the detaling of the walls and ceiling texture. How do most homeowners feel?
The question illustrates a crucial issue. There are two things going on at each stage of a project: the actual construction and the homeowners’ perception and evolving feelings about it. Fortunately, most people react in predictable ways at predictable times, so an experienced builder will understand how to help their clients through the inevitable ups and downs. If the homeowners know what to expect, the emotional ride becomes easier and more enjoyable.
As construction begins, homeowners are typically very excited—and why shouldn’t they be? Preconstruction ups and downs involving plans, product choices and costs are behind them. Their dream home is about to take shape!
Emotions tend to remain high as workers and trenchers dig the foundation footings, form and pour the foundation, build the walls and roof structure. How long this takes depends on the home but with some exceptions, such as weather delays, things move fast with obvious progress nearly every day. Excitement and anticipation build as the home they have been imagining for years is finally rising from the ground!
That visible progress slows dramatically during the next phase of construction.
Once the shell is complete, the electricians, plumbers, and heating trade contractors descend on the house to rough in their systems. This is when a homeowner’s emotions can be tested. This phase of the project is inherently time-consuming. Plus, it can be drawn out by complex scheduling requirements of different trade contractors. Progress seems to come to a crawl and excitement can quickly morph into anxiety. Will the home be done on time? What’s taking so long?
At this point, it helps to remember the importance of good lighting, plumbing, and heating to a home’s livability. Investing the time to do them right will pay off big later on.
We understand how challenging this phase of the project is for homeowners. This is the time when, as professional builders, we continue and at times increase our communication about the progress that is being made behind the scenes. We find that educated homeowners can better manage their emotions through the whole process, but especially as we get ready to move into the home stretch.
The next phase includes installation of trim, cabinets, countertops, shower surrounds, flooring and finish fixtures. Here, excitement begins to rise again as the finish line pulls into sight. By the time the keys are handed over, emotions will be at a point nearly equal to where they were at groundbreaking.
How best to navigate this emotional journey? How does one enjoy the highs and take the dips in stride? Awareness about the process goes a long way. Study the schedule and know what is going to happen and when. Think of the project as a story, and the schedule as the plot outline. A good builder will work with the homeowners to fill that outline with details that will help make the project a great experience and ensure a happy ending.
Creating Functionality and Beauty in Your Outdoor Space
A lot of homeowners are looking beyond the basic patio to a complete outdoor experience. They’re designing and building homes with multi-level patios connected to pools, spas, fire features and outdoor kitchens.
According to a May 2019 article on Zillow.com, a growing number of homeowners also want their interior design theme to continue outdoors. In other words, they want big spaces that serve multiple functions while also looking great.
Great spaces result from careful thought and planning. Before talking with your architect and builder, spend some time thinking about how you will use the space as well as aesthetics, views, maintenance and the weather.
Here are some issues to ponder:
What Will You Do?
In good design, form follows function. Do you just want a place to hang out and read? Something simple may be sufficient. Do you like to host sit-down dinners? You might want room for a grill, a dining table, chairs and a bar.
Do you prefer informal gatherings? Consider including discreet spots for intimate or small-group socializing, such as a step-down from a main patio to a few chairs around a low table. Will your toddlers use the patio for play? You’ll want doors and windows that offer a clear view from inside the house.
These are just a few examples. Your questions will depend on your lifestyle and priorities.
How About The Weather?
Outdoor living means planning for rain, sun, views, privacy and weather.
Think about how much of the year you want to use the space. An outdoor fireplace or fire ring can extend your enjoyment through fall and winter. The patio can have electric sun shade screens to repel bugs and the sun in summer,
A simple grill may be enough, but if you want to have a real outdoor kitchen, a good design is as an extension of the indoor living space and close to the kitchen. Placing the two spaces as close together as possible will allow easy movement between them.
Concrete block or steel studs with cement siding and stucco are good choices for outdoor cabinets, as is granite and glazed tile for the countertops.
Get the best grill you can. Quality, powder-coated steel will last if maintained properly but a better choice is grade 304 stainless, which has a reputation for long-term durability without rust. Also consider placing some shelter over the grill, such as a pergola for partial shade or a roof to repel rain.
If you want a sink, make it big enough to hold party platters. For the refrigerator, note that an expensive one may not perform better than a cheap one on a very hot day. You can also include a steel beverage trough in a counter and fill it with ice or integrate an ice chest in the cabinetry.
Thinking through these and other design issues takes time and effort, but in the end, you’ll have an outdoor space that enhances your lifestyle and that you’re proud to share with family and friends.