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3 Pillar Blog

How Builders Help Ensure Health and Comfort

Categories: Build Process, Design, Newsletter | Posted: July 4, 2017

Optimized heating and cooling is critical in a modern home.

Everyone wants their new home to be comfortable, healthy and energy-efficient. Professional builders satisfy these expectations with high insulation levels, careful air sealing and optimized heating and cooling systems. In fact, few homeowners realize that with today’s construction methods, their health and comfort depend more than ever on how the contractor chooses the mechanical equipment.

The most important pieces of equipment are the furnace and air conditioner. Unlike on a tropical island, where mild temperatures allow windows to be open much of the year, physical comfort in our local environment depends on having a furnace and air conditioner of the right size.

In the past, mechanical contractors used rule-of-thumb guidelines to match the equipment to the house. A lot of contractors still do this. For example, a guideline might be 30 BTUs of heating capacity per square foot of living space, or one ton of cooling per 500 square feet. The rule wasn’t very precise, but a drafty old home would lose much of the conditioned air to the outside anyway, so imprecision was no big deal.

Today’s efficient new homes leak less air and thus need less heating or cooling capacity, so rule-of-thumb sizing will likely give you a bigger furnace or air conditioner than you need.

But isn’t bigger better? Not in this case–in fact, it’s just the opposite.

An oversized furnace can actually make an efficient home less comfortable by excessively heating some rooms before the warmed air can reach the thermostat. An oversized air conditioner can cool things down so fast that it shuts off before the equipment has time to dry the air to a comfortable level, leaving the house feeling cold and clammy. No one will be happy, except perhaps the mold and mildew growing in the bathroom or behind the refrigerator, or the dust mites and other allergens that breed faster at higher humidity. That’s bad news for anyone who breathes.

Good mechanical contractors eliminate these problems by using only the most accurate sizing protocols. The most common of these, Manual J from the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, figures the exact amount of heating and cooling needed by considering all of the home’s features: air leakage rates, insulation levels, the type and square-footage of roofing and siding, the model and orientation of each window, the dimensions of soffit overhangs, and other data.

In the past, these measurements and calculations took a lot of time, but today’s mechanical contractors have the advantage of sophisticated software. Such programs eliminate much of the work by, for instance, automatically calculating the solar gain and average seasonal temperatures using data from Google maps, the local building code, and other online databases. The builder and mechanical contractor can then revise the numbers and make any adjustments needed to account for the home’s unique features.

These software programs also help the contractor size the home’s ductwork and choose registers that distribute just the right amount of air to each room without noise or drafts.

Accurate sizing is one reason that professional builders work only with top-notch mechanical contractors. In fact, the mechanical contractor is a crucial team member–a trusted advisor who understands that energy-efficient construction is an opportunity to use measured data to optimize comfort and health.

Building Success 101

Categories: Building Success 101, Design, Newsletter | Posted: June 30, 2017

Q: Should I demand a low-VOC exterior paint?

A: There are an increasing array of high-quality exterior paints formulated with low or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can contribute to ozone depletion; in fact, VOC emission standards for paint started with exterior formulations. Still, VOC emissions indoors from paint and other finishes appear to be a bigger occupant health hazard than a quickly dissipated exterior paint is to depleting the ozone layer. Consult your builder and his painting contractor for recommendations.

Extending Exteriors

Categories: Design, Newsletter | Posted: June 20, 2017

A home’s exterior finish is literally its face to the world. The right combination of material, color, and texture deliver a lasting impression, evoking pride and creating value. The right exterior finishes for a given climate and their proper installation reduce ongoing maintenance chores and repair costs.

In our experience, there are several factors that help ensure the long-term quality and value of exterior finishes, namely:

Top-Quality Materials. There’s no substitute for the best-made roofing, siding, and trim/accent materials. As a professional builder, we work to find the best available quality exterior materials within our client’s budget. Climate conditions and the style of the house can also dictate materials selections; wood might be a good choice for a moderate climate, but perhaps not in extended extreme weather conditions.

Professional Installation. An exterior finish is only as good as its installation. We work with and supervise professional installers to install and finish exterior products properly. We then inspect and approve their work. To ensure long-term value, lasting good looks, and low maintenance, we use the recommended type and number of fasteners, allow for slight, climate-induced shrinking and swelling, and seal joints between materials to avoid buckling and separation.

Water Resistance. We’ve learned to respect water. We avoid water intrusion behind exterior finishes by utilizing systems that shed and vent it away before it causes any damage requiring maintenance, extensive repairs or replacement.

Common solutions include weather-resistant barriers for the roof and sidewalls, flashing around windows and doors, metal drip edges and kick-out flashing at roof eaves. Where necessary we provide airspaces and weep holes for brick or stone veneers and rain screens behind stucco finishes.

Proper Painting. The value of a high-quality, exterior-rated paint cannot be overstated. Paint must be applied over a well-prepared surface…a job in itself. We apply a universally thick layer of paint, which can often last twice as long as the conventional 7-10 years before it requires a new coat. The best way to achieve full coverage and a uniform thickness is with a sprayer (not brushes or rollers) and it is essential that the paint be applied over a completely dry surface.

For wood-based siding, such as clapboards or shingles, we may specify a factory-applied primer that encases the entire panel against moisture and enables better adhesion with the finish coat.

As a professional builder, we take pride not just in how our new homes perform and meet a buyer’s needs, but also how they look–especially over time. We also want to minimize ongoing maintenance chores and avoid expensive repairs or replacements. Properly applied exterior finishes are critical to achieving those goals and exceeding the expectations of our homebuyers.

Picture Perfect

Categories: Build Process, Design, Newsletter | Posted: June 6, 2017

A great finish doesn’t come cheap, but it can make or break the look of a custom home.

Many homeowners expect plumbers and electricians to be expensive but are surprised at the prices charged by other subcontractors. The most obvious example of this is the professional painting company.

Although people tend to see painting as intuitive work, there’s a vast difference in appearance and durability between a do-it-yourself finish and one applied by a pro. A professional paint job may run as high as 5 percent of the total job cost (for example, $35,000 for a $700,000 home) but will produce lasting results that make your new home pop.

Professionals get these results by paying attention to details that most homeowners and casual painters miss. In fact, really good painters—the kind of people whose work meets the quality demands of an expensive luxury home— are nothing short of obsessive. They spend unbelievable amounts of time prepping surfaces, following a multi-step process that includes sanding, masking, caulking and filling, then priming, sanding, and caulking and filling again before they even think about applying the finish coats. The final appearance has as much to do with all this prep work as it does with the paint.

When it comes to paint, pros stick to products that have proven themselves over years in the field, and they have the experience to know which ones work best where. They understand the differences in sheen and coverage between different products, as well as what kind of surface each covers best and in what environmental conditions. They also know how to mix paints in the right quantities, what additives to use, how to make crisp lines at edges and intersections, and how to create even looks over multiple surfaces.

It’s no surprise that pros also invest in high-quality tools. There are an overwhelming number of choices in rollers, brushes and spraying equipment, and it takes experience to learn which ones will provide the exact look the homeowners want, whether that’s a traditional brushed finish or one with a glass-like sheen.

The payoff for all this work is a finish that looks great and stands the test of time. Due in part to the careful preparation and right materials, a finish applied by a skilled painter will last much longer before it needs painting again, which of course lowers the long-term cost.

But what if the homeowners have worked with a professional painting company in the past and want the builder to use that company? There are a couple of concerns with this.

Professional builders vet all subcontractors using the same criteria. Their trade partners are reputable companies with a track record of satisfied customers. They all have adequate insurance coverage. And because they get steady work from the builder, they tend to show up on time and offer fair pricing. To ensure that a new subcontractor can meet these criteria, the builder will insist on trying them out on a couple of small jobs.

The bottom line is that successful builders become successful because they zealously guard their reputation for quality work, and the quality of the paint job can make or break the look of a fine custom home. The final finish is one area where you definitely get what you pay for.

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.