3 Pillar Blog

Building Success 101

Categories: Building Success 101, Newsletter | Posted: May 25, 2018

Q: Aren’t “prefab” components cheap?

A: Like any new industry or idea, factory-built framing components—including roof trusses and wall panels—went through a maturation process that included some growing pains, particularly in their performance. Today, however, computer-controlled design and manufacturing equipment ensures that these components are built to exacting standards, with their quality controlled and verified at several stages of the process. Despite these advances, factory-built components remain a cost-efficient alternative to traditional stick framing, yet deliver superior results.

Construction Process: Framing

Categories: Build Process, Newsletter | Posted: May 15, 2018

One of the most exciting and dynamic periods in the construction of a new home is the structural framing stage. It is the time when two-dimensional plans take on three-dimensional shape. As floors, walls, and a roof rise from the ground, the owners can envision the finished home and walk through its spaces.

As a professional builder, we are constantly looking for superior ways to build. The framing stage affords several opportunities to construct a home faster and within the budget without sacrificing the home’s quality. In fact, the new techniques for framing actually improve a home’s structural integrity, performance, and durability. Here are just a few of the methods and materials we consider for this stage of construction:

Advanced framing. In essence, advanced framing techniques allow us to remove excess and unnecessary structural components, such as extra wall studs and blocking. Elements which add nothing to the stability or ultimate performance of the house are the byproducts of outdated framing methods that linger in our industry, costing money without additional value. By reducing the amount of lumber we use in a home’s structural frame, we lower both costs and waste. Because each length of lumber is a preplanned piece of a larger puzzle, there’s less chance that we’ll make unnecessary cuts and create unusable scrap. Because it supports increased quality and reduced waste, advanced framing is a tenet of green building practices and programs around the country.

Engineered lumber. Like advanced framing, engineered lumber uses less wood to build a better structure. Engineered lumber is made from strands or chips of wood which are reassembled with glue, heat and pressure into large beams and I-shaped sections. Tough and stable, engineered lumber framing components allow us to span the longer distances common in popular open floor plans and high ceilings. Because of their strength, we can use fewer lengths of engineered lumber. Thus, the quality of the house is increased simultaneously with a reduction in labor costs. Because these products are frequently made from smaller and sustainably grown timber resources, instead of old-growth trees, they are more environmentally attractive, as well.

Panels and trusses. For decades, quality builders have used roof trusses (premade sections of the roof’s frame) to build houses better and faster. The same technology is now increasingly applied to floors and walls, with similar benefits. A house framed with panels and trusses is a truly amazing sight, seeming to spring into existence overnight. Furthermore, as skilled framing labor becomes more difficult and expensive to find, factory-built and quality-controlled panels and trusses allow us to create unique spaces and forms almost impossible with traditional framing techniques. Finally, even more than advanced framing and engineered lumber, these components reduce our waste stream significantly and leave a clean job site during what can be a very messy stage of construction.

Despite appearances, homes today are built quite differently than they were even a decade ago. Nowhere is that more evident than in the various advanced, engineered, and factory-built framing components and techniques now at our command. These systems allow us to build more efficiently and to a higher level of quality than traditional “stick” framing, delivering new homes that perform as promised to meet the needs and expectations of our owners.

Thinking About Appliances

Categories: Newsletter | Posted: May 1, 2018

Take the time to get the models that work best for you.

We find that most homeowners like to take plenty of time researching their kitchen appliances. And, many of them also want some advice when making the final choices.

In fact, the sheer number of models to choose from can feel overwhelming. Appliance manufacturers offer styles and features for every taste and lifestyle, and they update those models about as often as car makers do. Narrowing the choices can be a challenge.

The choice of refrigerator, range or dishwasher will depend on personal taste and on how the homeowners intend to use the kitchen. They also want models that are well engineered, have solid warranties, look good with the cabinets and won’t get outdated over time.

As part of their research, most homeowners like to factor in how their choices will affect the home’s marketability should they decide to sell at some point. Entering “2018 Appliance Trends” into a search engine will return links to dozens of articles and videos on the subject–this content is a great start, but much of it is driven by advertising. That’s one reason the “top selling” models and the hottest trends vary from article to article.

One way to supplement the content served up by commercial publications and websites is to look at industry research. For instance, sales data from the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) is a good reflection of homeowners’ priorities.

According to the most recent data, the top priorities for buyers include time, convenience and status. Let’s look at a few examples.

Time. Today’s consumer can’t get enough of time-saving appliances. For instance, they have been flocking to induction cooktops, whose market share doubled in the six years from 2010 to 2016, jumping from 8% to 16%. AHAM credits that gain to shorter cooking times and more precise temperature control.

Convenience. Sales trends show that, besides wanting to save time, people also want appliances that require less effort to use. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the yearly number of refrigerators sold with bottom-mount freezers doubled from 2009 to 2015. The fridge gets opened a lot more than the freezer and most of us don’t want to bend over whenever we’re looking for a container of milk.

Status. The clearest sign of this priority is the growth of stainless steel appliances. About half of dishwashers and three-quarters (76%) of bottom-mount refrigerators shipped in 2015 had stainless steel finishes. Five years before, the percentage for refrigerators was just 44%. This has nothing to do with durability, as today’s factory-applied color finishes are durable, attractive and able to stand up to anything a home cook can dish out. But stainless steel has become a status symbol, and as such it appeals to the highest number of future buyers.

By the way, some homeowners don’t understand that not all stainless is the same–hues can be warmer or cooler depending on the nickel content. That makes it smart to take a sample of the cabinet or wall color to the appliance showroom to see which stainless makes the best match.

The most effective way to sort through all the available choices and make the right ones is to work with the builder’s team–usually the interior decorator and kitchen designer. It’s also wise to start this process as early as possible, as homeowners who can take their time in selecting appliances will likely make better decisions. It’s important to make the final selections before the cabinets are ordered so the kitchen designer can make sure everything fits together correctly.

How Long Will This Take?

Categories: Newsletter | Posted: April 17, 2018

Builders hear this question a lot. The answer, as with most such questions, is “It depends.” But on what?

People who haven’t built before often have an unrealistic concept of how long it can take to plan, budget, and build a home. Many variables can affect the timetable. Three that stand out are design, permitting, and site work.

Design. A stock plan the builder has previously built will take less time than a fully custom home, even if the homeowners make some changes to that stock plan. A custom home can take months to design and a year or more to build.

Some people see size as the best indicator of how long the project will take. Not so–cost is a far more accurate gauge. Imagine a pair of 2500-square-foot homes, one for $200,000 and another for $1 million. It’s a good bet that the latter will have a more complex design that will take longer to build.

Permitting. The legal approvals required before construction begins have multiplied over the years. Signoff will certainly be needed from the zoning board, the building department, the health department, the fire department and, when building in a planned community, the homeowners’ association. In some areas, design committees, historical commissions, water authorities, or other entities want their say as well. Not surprisingly, the wheels of these bureaucracies can move slowly, but an experienced builder should be able to estimate the time required to negotiate the red tape.

Code requirements also have lengthened the process. For instance, in many jurisdictions, estimates of the home’s heating and cooling loads are now required before a permit is issued.

Site work. Is the lot in a flat subdivision with roads and utilities already in place, or is it a sloped rural parcel where the contractor will need to cut a road to the site, then excavate and fill to accommodate the foundation? The second site obviously takes more time (and requires more permits and approvals).

Keeping on track

Fortunately, there are things the homeowners can do to keep the job moving. These include taking deadlines seriously, providing details on how they will live in the home, and minimizing changes.

Agree on a timetable. Most busy architects and builders work hard to get things done promptly, but without firm dates things can slip. Homeowners should always be sure there’s a date for the next meeting and deadlines for the next steps. “The plans will be done in a couple of weeks” is vague. Compare that to “The plans will be ready on March 15,” which provides a clear understanding for all parties. On the other hand, homeowners who postpone scheduled meetings with the builder or architect will also throw off the timetable.

Think the home through. The more detailed the plan, the less chance of hang-ups. For example, vague electrical plans can stop a project in its tracks. The homeowners need to think through where they want furniture and cabinets so that the architect can specify the right number of outlets. If artwork is to be displayed on a wall or above a fireplace, the architect needs to know it in order to specify the correct lighting. If the homeowners don’t drill down to this level of detail until the job is well underway, things can be held up while new wiring is installed or walls and ceilings re-framed to accommodate it.

Minimize changes. Change orders are a huge time killer because they require lots of time to plan and coordinate. Changes made late in the design stage can extend design time; those made after project kickoff can extend build time.

The bottom line is that, if moving in by a certain date is a priority, the homeowners need to be absolutely clear with the builder about it, and need assurance that the builder is on board. Then the homeowners, builder, and architect can plan effectively to meet the date.

Making Sense of Allowances

Categories: Newsletter | Posted: April 3, 2018

For best results, narrow down the options up front

Allowances–that is, budgeting general costs for items before the specific items are chosen–are a fact of life on many projects. Some homeowners have trouble making decisions before work begins, most commonly for appliances, cabinets, floor coverings, and plumbing and electrical fixtures. In those cases, the builder can allocate a dollar amount to each category and let the homeowners choose specific products later.

That doesn’t mean homeowners can postpone thinking about these products altogether. For an allowance to serve the homeowners’ interest, it must be based on accurate numbers. For example, the homeowners should at least decide what grade of products they want. That decision can require legwork as well as self-awareness.

The builder can provide average dollar numbers based on past experience with similar projects, but this is only the first step–the homeowners need to ask follow-up questions. For instance, the builder may suggest a $6000 allowance for light fixtures. How many of what kind of fixtures does that represent? Does it include bulbs? Recessed cans, sconces and chandeliers come in a range of prices, so it’s important to be realistic about like-to-haves versus must-haves.

Or take the example of tile. That $5,000 shower allowance might cover a large-format ceramic or porcelain, but what if the homeowner really wants travertine? It’s best to decide up front and budget for it, including finding out whether the price includes labor.

Some people go online to compare products and prices, but the results can be misleading. Although internet pricing may show the relative costs of different grade levels, the quality and warranty coverage may not match that of products sold by a professional supply house.

In most cases, the best way to create an allowance budget is to visit the builder’s recommended supplier or showroom. The builder can work with the showroom after the initial visit to generate a realistic number for the grade of products the homeowners want. The time invested in this work will yield allowances based on real-world numbers, not on guesswork or wishful thinking.

The homeowners should also consider allowances when choosing a builder. Ask the builder’s references if its allowances were realistic. Professional builders make sure customers understand what their budget will and won’t cover because they know the customers will be happier in the end.

When soliciting bids from more than one builder, make sure that each uses the same assumptions for each allowance item. If one bases its cabinet allowance on particleboard boxes while another assumes plywood, it’s hard to make a meaningful comparison. (Comparing bids is notoriously difficult, which is why it’s better to find a trustworthy builder and then work with them to create a reasonable budget.)

Note that the builder will set a deadline for every allowance choice. Meeting this deadline is crucial to getting products delivered in time for installation. If the homeowners miss the deadline, the allowance money will still be there, but the delay will throw off the job schedule and raise the final cost.

It’s best to make as many product choices as possible before work begins. But since most projects will have allowances, homeowners can help keep the job running smoothly by thinking through their needs and doing their homework on schedule.

Maximize the Beauty of Natural Light

Categories: Newsletter | Posted: March 20, 2018

Walk into most new homes and you’ll notice a big difference from many older homes: an abundance of natural light. In older homes, poor thermal performance forced builders to scale down the size of windows and glass doors.

Today’s builders, however, are able to maximize the capture of natural light by taking advantage of advanced technologies and materials, a wider range of sizes and styles, and a number of new products and creative applications.

For clients who prefer a modern look, glass walls can be used to maximize natural light. For those preferring traditional housing design, professional builders usually work within historic housing forms to increase interior natural light. Window manufacturers have helped this effort by providing a wide variety of products to match traditional house styles.

For example, a roof window (or series of these units) over the center of the kitchen can bring in a tremendous amount of natural light without having an adverse impact on a traditional façade. This is especially true if that room is on the back or side of the house and thus out of view from the street. Unlike skylights, roof windows can open to vent stagnant or hot air and odors. They have a flat design, only slightly raised above the roof finish, which further reduces any intrusive appearance.

For smaller interior rooms, such as a water closet, walk-in shower, or storage area, traditional approaches to bringing in natural light are almost impossible, or at least impractical. Tubular skylights offer a solution. From a small, unobtrusive opening in the roof, light enters a tube lined with mirrors and reflective material that magnify available light into the room below. These small devices pour large quantities of light into tight spaces, making them feel more spacious and comfortable.

Fixed or operable transom windows may also be used to bring natural light into interior rooms. Set above passage doors to bedrooms and bathrooms or even in interior walls, transom windows can carry natural light from rooms on the outside perimeter into otherwise dark, inner spaces.

A kitchen backsplash can be used creatively to increase natural light. Glass block or fixed panes of glass may be installed in the space between the countertop and the wall cabinets. Light is brought onto the work surface without sacrificing kitchen cabinets for a large window expanse.

When homeowners prefer traditional architectural styles, experienced home builders will assist homeowners with design and product solutions, made easier with the wide array of technologically advanced windows now available. With new products to choose from and some creative design work, home owners are able to enjoy both their home style of choice and the aesthetic and cost-saving benefits of natural light.

Is Voice Control for You?

Categories: Newsletter | Posted: March 6, 2018

More and more home systems are adding voice control technology. Let’s look at the pros and cons.

The star of this year’s International Builder’s Show was a smart lady by the name of Alexa. As you know, she’s the personal digital assistant that lives inside Amazon’s Echo smart speaker, and we seemed to bump into her around every corner.

Two years ago, manufacturers at the show–the largest annual exhibition of homebuilding-related products in the United States–were touting appliances and home systems with smartphone control, but that’s old news now. These products and systems are moving strongly toward voice recognition.

Should you embrace this trend when building your new home, or is it better to wait? Most of the press we’ve seen about this technology gushes with optimism, but we believe it warrants a more critical approach.

On the plus side, we’re big fans of any technology that solves a real problem or offers benefits such as convenience, security or energy savings. We especially like gadgets that make life less stressful, and some voice-activated products certainly fit the bill.

Take plumbing fixtures. You can command Delta’s new voice-activated kitchen faucet to turn on or off while your hands are caked with cookie dough or carrying a heavy pot filled with water. Moen’s digital shower will set the water to whatever temperature you say. Kohler even lets you tell the tub to fill to a precise depth and temperature, via a microphone embedded in a nearby mirror.

As for appliances, GE showed a new Kitchen Hub with a voice-activated assistant named Geneva (available in late 2018). The hub screen is built into an over-the-range microwave, useful for displaying recipes and playing music and TV shows. GE claims Geneva will have a conflict-free working relationship with Alexa or Google Assistant.

On the other hand, some of the technology at the show seemed like solutions looking for problems. At one booth, a company rep asked the refrigerator the status of the dishwasher and waited patiently for an answer. Why not just turn around and look?

These were just a few samples of the countless voice-activated products on display, which included everything from window shades to light fixtures to thermostats.

We expect to see more voice-activated products in the future, many of them building on technologies that already enjoy a market. For instance, Apple’s Home Kit controls lights, shades, door locks and security devices with Siri, the voice-activated assistant built into the iPhone. The company’s new Home Pod speaker has Siri inside, which means you can control those devices without touching your phone.

That begs a question. With digital assistants multiplying, what happens if you have one product with Siri and another with Alexa or someone else? Will they really get along? Even if you limit yourself to a single platform, it’s not clear yet that every device on its list will work without glitches or without the need for programming, at least in the near term.

Finally, there’s the question of updates. Sure, lots of us are reconciled to buying a new phone every few years, but we expect major appliances to last at least a decade, and that includes their tech features. Much of this voice recognition technology lacks that kind of track record.

The bottom line is that we want our clients to enjoy their new home, including any built-in tech amenities. That’s why we advise working with your builder to ensure that the products you choose will fulfill that promise.

Size Matters: Choose Your Contractor Wisely

Categories: Newsletter | Posted: February 20, 2018

The low-bid, budget company may cost more in the long run. Here’s why.

Does your builder have the size and–more importantly–the management systems needed to handle a custom home project? If not, the final cost in dollars and frustration may be more than you bargained for.

There are innumerable ‘horror stories’ on the Internet about the downsides of hiring the lone contractor. In the extreme, you may read about solo builders who lack the needed licenses and insurance to protect the owner from accidents or fraud. They may lack written warranties or human resources to keep their promises and complete a job as promised. The failure rates of homebuilding companies are second only to restaurants, and there is no guarantee they will be around when problems surface.

On most jobs, this type of fly-by-night operator isn’t our real competitor. Customers looking to build complex custom homes are savvy enough to avoid the blatantly unethical builder. A more subtle, yet often equally difficult set of issues is presented by a builder that lacks the internal management systems to focus the manpower and attention required to successfully complete a complex project.

Understaffed companies typically talk up the personal attention they supposedly provide. This kind of company often has a field staff of one: the owner. If the builder is present on a job all day, every day, who is running the business? Along with managing a project, the builder must market, sell, bid future work, schedule subcontractors, meet with new prospects, pay bills, and on and on. Can anyone spread this thin provide the attention to detail that a complex custom home requires?

By contrast, the adequately staffed, well-organized professional builder delegates work to a team of specialists. Custom homes have innumerable details that require the coordination of dozens of employees, suppliers, and subcontractors, all of whom need to start and finish at just the right time. The professional builder has the manpower to smoothly manage all these moving parts, including onsite project managers, office contacts, purchasing agents, designers, and others.

This staffing, along with comprehensive communication and project management systems, means that when multiple jobs are underway, no one has responsibility for more than he or she can handle. No one is overwhelmed.

It stands to reason that when adequate human resources are available, customers get better service, jobs stay on schedule, and the inevitable issues that come up during a lengthy project get addressed more efficiently.

Established, larger custom homebuilders also have more leverage with suppliers and subcontractors. We provide more work for our subcontractors than the small operator, so our jobs get priority.

Staffing, systems, and relationships can mean greater efficiency. This enables the professional builder to get homes built faster–often months faster if it’s a large home. Many homeowners are paying construction loan interest and real estate taxes during the build, along with current living costs, so this saves real money.

The bottom line is that the best company for a custom home will have the experience and organization to handle that particular type of project. Hiring a professional company with the resources needed to do a great job, on time, and with minimal stress can save big and be a better value in the long run.

Better Than Bidding

Categories: Newsletter | Posted: February 6, 2018

Identifying the best pro to build your new home starts by clarifying your wants and needs.

Should you heed the conventional advice about getting price bids from three builders? Maybe, but once you understand the complexities and uncertainties that go into a bid, you will see why there may be a more effective approach.

The biggest concern with the three-bid method for deciding on a builder is that custom homes are by definition unique. The hundreds of processes and thousands of parts that go into a project make it tough to ensure that each bid uses the same assumptions.

If you already have a set of plans and want apples-to-apples bids, your plans need to be excruciatingly detailed, including written specifications for each faucet, floor surface and door knob. Specs like that are rare, to say the least. To create an accurate bid, the builder would need to ask a ton of questions to flesh out the details. Then each builder will unintentionally lead you in a different direction because their business procedures and preferred products will differ. And each builder will present the bid in a different format from the others, making them hard to compare.

What if your plans were drawn by an architect? That seldom changes anything. Architects are creators. They know how to turn your vision into a plan but usually leave the details and timetables to the person most qualified to implement it: the builder.

If you’re determined to get three bids, consider hiring a professional builder to detail the plans and specs before sending them out to bid. This investment would help ensure that every bidder works from the same documents, allowing a more realistic comparison.

Even then, bidding has another drawback in that it reduces everything to cost. Yes, cost is crucial–everyone has a budget–but so is finding a builder with the right experience and personality for you and your project.

If you don’t have a builder in mind, an excellent approach is to interview three builders, focusing on identifying a good fit, not on shopping for price. You are committing to a business relationship that could last for several months or longer, so the builder should be someone you like and trust and will enjoy working with. Follow your gut. Part of a good match is personal compatibility, and part is how the builder does business. Make sure the builder communicates effectively and answers your questions and that you are comfortable with their processes and way of doing business.

If you’re working with an architect, then it’s best to choose the builder before design work starts. With both professionals involved from the beginning, the builder can create budget estimates as the plans get drawn. This is the best way to avoid ending up with a design you love but can’t afford.

When the builder and architect work as a team, you can start by walking the site with them. The architect can then develop a preliminary design and the builder can offer a ballpark price. If you don’t like or can’t afford their first drafts, ask for some value engineering. Once you’re satisfied with the general approach and price range, they can work together to create detailed plans and specs. You will end up with a negotiated price you can live with and likely be happier than if you had gotten conventional bids.

Building Success 101

Categories: Building Success 101, Newsletter | Posted: January 23, 2018

Q: How do draw schedules work?

A: Lenders don’t want to pay for work that isn’t done yet. If it’s a big job and the contractor can’t complete it for some reason, the lending company will want to protect itself. Most lenders require that construction loans include a draw schedule that ensures they pay only for work that has been completed. For instance, if the foundation and framing are budgeted at $75,000, the check issued at the completion of framing cannot bring the total amount paid to that point to more than $75,000. A good draw schedule not only protects the lender and homeowner, but will be welcomed by a professional builder who does work on time and on budget.