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.