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3 Pillar Blog

Building Success 101

Categories: Building Success 101, Newsletter | Posted: May 23, 2017

Q: What’s the difference between green building and high-performance housing?

A: In practical terms, not a lot. High-performance housing is perhaps a broader term than green building, but the goals of greater natural resource and energy efficiency, durability, healthy indoor air, and comfort are similar. Green building may also incorporate elements such as resource management, recycling, and improved land use, but a “high-performance” house (or builder) likely considers those factors, as well.

Waste Not …

Categories: Build Process, Design, Newsletter | Posted: May 16, 2017

When we hear the term “green building,” most of us think of energy efficiency and, increasingly, healthy indoor air quality. While those are certainly central components of high-performance housing—especially given our nation’s current energy prices—they are not the only factors that ensure a truly sustainable approach to home building.

One of the lesser-known aspects of green building is resource management. We are convinced that meticulous resource management has a tremendous impact on a sustainable environmental future. Therefore, we have adopted a two-pronged approach in our construction practices: First, we work to reduce the amount of natural resources required to build our homes and second, we strive to recycle the amount of waste ordinarily produced during construction to cut down on what is hauled away to the landfill.

Our concern is based on some startling data. Approximately 40% of the raw materials consumed in the U.S. are used in construction. Residential building, renovation, and demolition account for about 58 million tons of trash per year, representing 11% of the country’s overall waste stream.

What can one builder do? We know that—by weight and volume—wood, drywall, and cardboard (from packaging) make up 60-80% of job site waste. Other common building materials, such as concrete and metals, are also found in significant amounts.  Using our two-pronged approach, we focus our efforts on first reducing and then recycling those materials, when possible, in order to reduce landfill waste.

Reduce. The most obvious way to manage construction waste is not to create it in the first place. To that end, we practice a variety of methods that limit the amount of wood, drywall, and other products that go into a new home without sacrificing its performance, durability, or comfort.

For the structural frame, we implement “advanced” framing techniques using engineered wood products or factory-built (and quality-controlled) roof, floor, and wall components to lessen the amount of wood needed for the project. To reduce the amount of drywall, we are very precise about how much material we need and we train our crews and subcontractors to install it properly. We also work to design our houses on room-size measurements that match the dimensions of 4×8-foot drywall panels. In that manner, when a panel is cut, the remaining piece can likely be used elsewhere instead of thrown away. Cardboard is a tougher problem, because it is a common packaging material for a wide variety of products, large and small. (Think of major appliances and cabinets!). This use of cardboard is not under our direct control, but we work with our suppliers to reduce or eliminate the cardboard they use for packaging and encourage them to pick it up for recycling.

Reuse/Recycle. The market for materials that can be reused and/or recycled is growing rapidly. We are always on the lookout for ways to efficiently recycle the construction waste we do create. For example, we can chip lumber and lot-clearing debris into mulch, drywall into soil amendment, concrete into road bed material, and metals and cardboard into various products. An increasing number of businesses with specialized equipment are available to perform these functions, on site.

In addition, we also look for high quality products with recycled content. By using these products, we make use of the latest science for the benefit of our homeowners while encouraging the growth of industries practicing sustainability. Our goal: homes of the highest quality for our owners and a brighter, safer, and more sustainable future for all of us and generations to follow.

Building Success 101

Categories: Uncategorized | Posted: May 10, 2017

Q: How do workers comp and liability insurance complement one another?

A: Workers comp and general liability insurance work together to protect the homeowner from claims for injury. If a worker falls off a ladder and breaks a leg, workers comp will pay for medical expenses and lost wages—but it only covers insured workers. If an unauthorized person should gain access to the site and get hurt, the liability policy will cover legal and medical expenses related to that injury. The litigious nature of our society makes both types of insurance crucial.

The Regulatory Minefield

Categories: Newsletter | Posted: May 3, 2017

Government red tape takes time, money and skill to navigate. That’s why you need a pro.

Some people don’t realize how highly regulated the construction business has become. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the costs of complying with government regulations now account for nearly a quarter (24.3%) of new home prices—30% more than just five years ago.

Some of these regulations are specific to the project and noted in the job cost summary, while others are hidden from the homeowners but raise costs for all projects. Navigating them and staying in compliance requires time, effort and knowledge.

Plans and permits. To protect public health and safety, building departments want to make sure that homes are built to comply with all applicable codes—the building code, mechanical code, electrical code and others. That’s why most municipalities won’t issue a building permit until they review and approve the project plans.

Plans that aren’t in full compliance will be sent back for revision. It’s up to the builder to work with the architect (if there is one) and the subcontractors to identify and correct potential problems before submitting the plans for review.

Inspecting the work. Once work gets underway, inspectors must sign off on it at various stages. There may be separate inspections of the foundation, framing, wiring, plumbing and insulation. The municipality will also conduct a final inspection before issuing an occupancy permit.

In addition to confirming code compliance, inspectors compare what’s being built to what’s in the approved plans. If the construction doesn’t match the plan, an inspector can stop work until the builder fixes the problem.

Inspections impact the job schedule. A crucial part of the builder’s job is to work with subcontractors to make sure the home is ready for each inspection at each stage, and to schedule inspections to prevent delays. The time to manage all of this is factored into the builder’s overhead. And of course, each inspection generally has a fee associated with it.

Other regulations. Depending on the project and the municipality, more red tape can come into play. The builder might have to apply for zoning variances or work with the planning or conservation commission during site development. Homeowners’ associations will also have their own rules.

Some regulatory costs are hidden. Recently passed Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) safety rules include time-consuming recordkeeping burdens. A new Department of Labor rule mandates overtime pay for a wider range of employees. Some states have training, licensing and insurance requirements that cost time and money. Product manufacturers, distributors and suppliers also must comply with an increasing array of government mandates.

The combined effect of permits, inspections and other regulations is to raise the price of materials, labor and project management.

None of the above is meant to minimize the need for regulation. All professional builders want to pay their employees fair wages and provide them with the training needed to do quality work. All aim to maintain safe, well-insured jobsites. All appreciate code inspections that protect their customers and reduce their liability.

But the truth is that the regulatory landscape is a minefield. It’s important for homeowners to understand the costs involved, as well as the time and know-how required to navigate that landscape without incident. It’s one of the many reasons for hiring an experienced pro to build your home.

Building Success 101

Categories: Building Success 101, Design, Newsletter | Posted: April 25, 2017

Q: What is a cool roof?

A: A cool roof is a combination of a reflective roof surface (usually a lighter-colored shingle) that is held slightly above the roof deck (or sheathing) to allow passive air ventilation underneath the shingles; a cool roof system also may include the application of insulation in the roof rafter cavities. The goal is to keep the roof surface from becoming excessively hot and transferring that heat to the attic or conditioned living spaces, thus reducing the burden on the home’s cooling system and energy use.

Insulation: Stay Cool without Sweating Energy Bills

Categories: Design, Newsletter | Posted: April 18, 2017

New homes are built to save energy, and a primary component of that goal is insulation. The definition of insulation, however, is rapidly expanding as homebuyers and energy codes demand even better energy-use performance from new homes.

Today, there are far more options than those rolls of fiberglass you see on the shelves of big-box home improvement stores. While batt insulation remains an inexpensive yet effective option, other materials have emerged that help optimize thermal value in new structures or when replacing conventional insulation.

For instance, in addition to insulating between the wall studs, we may add a 1/2-inch thick rigid foam insulation panel behind the finish siding of a new home. That technique is commonly called a thermal break, and many of the latest energy codes and standards, such as the federal Energy Star program, require it.

In addition to taping the joints between the insulation panels, a thin, woven air-water barrier (also called a weather-resistant barrier or housewrap) can be applied over the panels to shed incidental water that gets behind the siding or stucco and blocks air infiltration through the structure.

Another increasingly popular insulating technique is called “flash-and-batt,” a practice that combines conventional fiberglass batts with a “flash” or thin layer of expanding foam insulation.

Specifically, an insulation contractor will first spray-apply a 1-inch deep layer of foam layer into a wall cavity. As the foam expands, it seals any gaps in the cavity to block air and moisture vapor from flowing through the wall. The contractor then fills the rest of the cavity with uncompressed fiberglass to resist thermal (or heat) transfer. The result is an air-tight and well-insulated wall.

Most of a home’s energy is lost through the attic or roof structure. The difference in air temperature and pressure between the attic and the living space below can be dramatic. This causes air to escape into the attic and puts an extra burden to maintain a desired temperature on the home’s heating and cooling system.

A flash-and-batt application can almost entirely eliminate thermal loss into the attic. Often, after the flash layer is applied within the floor cavities, a loose-fill fiberglass or cellulose (made from recycled newspaper and similar fibers) effectively covers the floor.

Another option is to apply an air-tight version of spray-foam insulation to the roof rafter cavities to block air and heat from entering the attic space. The result is what is often called a “semi-conditioned” attic because the air temperature of the attic and living spaces below is almost the same, but without actually having to heat or cool the attic space.

The push to make new homes more energy efficient is driving new and better insulation products and applications, and professional builders are at the forefront of keeping up with that evolution to provide better indoor comfort and help reduce monthly energy bills.

Building Success 101

Categories: Building Success 101, Design, Newsletter | Posted: April 11, 2017

Q: What is contemporary design?

A: A contemporary kitchen is characterized by cabinets with simple lines (that is, without ornate moldings) and by metallic hardware finishes. This design style also puts high value on natural light and views to the outside, which means lots of window area. Explanations for this style’s growth include a more well-traveled populace (contemporary styling is popular worldwide) and the desire for homes with the sleek lines of high-tech products like the iPhone.

The Super Kitchen

Categories: Design, Newsletter | Posted: April 4, 2017

Recent research shows what homeowners want in this crucial room

Although the design of a custom home is a personal statement, most people give at least some thought to market appeal. For this, the most important aspect is the kitchen.

A great kitchen adds real value. A November 2016 article on Realtor.com reported that 69 percent of its home listings make the kitchen a central selling point and that homes with luxury kitchens sell eight percent faster than comparable ones in the same ZIP code.

Those luxury kitchens are hot. For its 2016 Kitchen Trends Survey, Houzz.com asked 2,700 homeowners about their product and design preferences and found strong demand for “super kitchens” that serve as the center of family life. The reason? Nearly two-thirds of homeowners spend three or more hours per day in the kitchen on activities that include cooking, dining, and entertaining.

With the range of activities going on in kitchens, people are adding more features than ever. These include dining tables, homework spaces, TVs, wine refrigerators, and built-in coffee makers.

And with the growing popularity of decks and other outdoor spaces, nearly two-thirds of homeowners want kitchens that open to those spaces, whether that opening is a sliding glass wall system or just a single entry door.

Who Wants What

Of course, these preferences aren’t monolithic. For instance, the Realtor.com article noted that they vary at least somewhat by region, with people in New England more likely to spend money on large kitchens than Midwesterners, who put greater emphasis on affordability and efficient layout. And homeowners in the Southeast are more apt to settle for a smaller kitchen if that means they can keep a formal dining room.

What homeowners want also varies by age group, especially when it comes to design styles. Millennial homeowners (ages 25 to 34) tend to be fans of contemporary and farmhouse styling while baby boomers (ages 55 and older) are drawn more to traditional designs. Millennials also spend more on pantry cabinets or islands, which are part of that farmhouse aesthetic.

Color choices vary by age group as well. “Younger buyers are more likely to keep resale value in mind and tend to choose neutral wall colors and white cabinets,” says Nino Sitchinava, principal economist at Houzz. “White also lightens up the kitchen and makes it feel bigger.”

When it comes to surface materials, homeowners value durability and ease of use. They want countertops that can take the heat of a hot pan, and flooring they can stand on for long periods without fatigue. Virtually all are interested in built-in storage, with homeowners prioritizing this “over all other functions of their kitchens,” according to the study.

Finally, while some appliance manufacturers are touting high-tech features, homeowners seem underwhelmed–a mere five percent opt for an oven they can control remotely from their smartphone. Durability and looks are more important, with 72 percent of homeowners opting for stainless steel. It seems like some things never go out of style.

Building Success 101

Categories: Building Success 101, Newsletter | Posted: March 15, 2017

Q: Can I buy my own fixtures?

A: In most cases, no. The brands and models that professional builders offer are those that have proven reliable and come with solid warranties. Items like toilets sold at home centers may be different than those sold to pros through plumbing distributors, even if they’re from the same manufacturer. The pro model will generally use higher quality parts and allow the builder to stand behind a product during the full warranty period.

Estimating Time

Categories: Newsletter | Posted: March 7, 2017

The work of building a price and schedule for your custom home is a project in itself.

There’s a reason that quality project estimates don’t happen overnight. Every home is a collection of thousands of individual components that range from large-scale assemblies like walls and roofs to small items like doorknobs and faucets. The builder has to consider every one of these elements when projecting what it will cost in time and materials to complete the home.

How long this takes varies by project type. For instance, a production builder that builds the same plan over and over will be able to generate estimates on the spot in its design center. That’s because even though the company offers some options to buyers, it’s really mass-producing a cookie-cutter product.

Custom homes are different because each one is unique. An estimate for a simple custom home can easily require 40 hours of staff time, and even more if it’s a complex architectural design. The logistics of getting the estimate done means those hours will likely be spread out over several weeks.

The builder needs to calculate the time and expense for everything from having the plans reviewed by permitting agencies to framing the shell and installing the roof, mechanicals, interior finishes and landscaping. Assembling all these numbers is a massive project that requires experience, knowledge and organizational skills. And, of course, time.

In addition, the builder needs to ensure that the products being priced for the home are the ones the customers want and that the budget will support. In many cases, this means investing time to complete the plans and clarify the product specifications, or specs.

People come to the table with dramatically different assumptions about costs, so the builder needs to clarify these assumptions. For instance, the home’s overall quality level may indicate that it’s safe to base the fixture allowance on standard Delta brushed-nickel faucets, until a discussion reveals that the homeowners are imagining something more expensive. This clarifying work may need to be done for every line item in the estimate.

The builder also needs to solicit prices from each trade subcontractor that will work on the home, from the excavator to the plumber and painter. This can be the most time-consuming part of the estimate. If getting the subcontractors’ bids in house weren’t enough of a challenge, those bids also need to be put under a microscope.

That’s because the builder needs to make sure that subcontractors’ estimates are realistic. For instance, if a drywall bid seems low, the builder has to know enough to ask the drywall contractor how many sheets the estimate was based on, and someone on the builder’s staff needs to check those calculations. When asking for bids from 30 trade subcontractors, it’s not unheard-of for one or two to submit inaccurate bids because they were busy and needed to get their estimate to the builder on deadline. That’s why bids must be carefully reviewed.

All this work is about getting the estimate right. Taking the time to do a thorough and accurate job today will save time, expense and headaches tomorrow. It’s an area where patience pays real dividends.