FAQ from the 2015 Cool House Tour

Once again this year the Solluna team was met with a constant stream of enthusiastic tour-goers visiting our Rosedale Rebuild home during the 19th annual Austin Cool House Tour held on Sunday, June 7. This home also earned 5 stars from the Austin Energy Green Building Program. As always, we had a blast meeting folks on the tour, answering questions, and showing them around. Here are just a few of the questions we answered most often.

How much of this house was renovated? Actually, this house is totally new. It was purposely designed to fit with the existing neighborhood style.

So was this a two story home originally? No. In fact, adding a second floor was part of the original intent for the project before it became a teardown and rebuild.

Why did they decide to tear it down and rebuild new? A number of reasons. A 20-inch hackberry tree had been growing into the house pier and beam foundation for quite some time, causing substantial structural damage to the foundation and to the house as well. In weighing out the cost to fix the structural damage and then renovate the home versus the cost to tear it down and rebuild, we determined that rebuilding would be less expensive.

Seriously? Just because of the foundation? There wasn’t anything else? Well, the foundation was the biggest money issue, plus the owners’ desire to replace all the original windows with energy efficient ones and to increase insulation in walls and attic. Plus they wanted to add an upper floor for a new master suite. Added together, all these items drove the price up.

If the original foundation was pier and beam, why did you switch to slab? Simplest answer is because it wasn’t needed from an engineering perspective. Back when this home was built (early 1940’s), about all you saw were pier and beam foundations. Slabs just weren’t done. All of our concrete slab foundations are built to the specifications of a structural engineer, just as the framing is built to the specifications of an engineer.

 What kind of windows are these? Andersen 100 Series windows. They're a fiberglass composite, energy-efficient window designed specifically for our hot climate.

So where’s the water heater? We went with a tankless gas water heater, mounted on the exterior of the house.

And how much air conditioning does it have? It has one 2 1/2-ton 15.5 SEER system. That's 850 square feet per ton.

What was the original square footage? And now? Originally this house was 1,337 square feet of conditioned space with 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, living, dining, kitchen, and small utility space. Now there’s 2,107 square feet of conditioned space, with a living room, new small foyer, open concept dining/kitchen, actual multi-use laundry room, new media room, two downstairs bedrooms with Jack and Jill bathroom, and a new half bath. Upstairs is the master suite with two separate master baths and walk-in closets. And -- lest I forget -- a wonderful screened porch for outdoor living.

Wow, two separate master baths? That’s fantastic, but how efficient is that? This was a design requirement from the owners. The solution for extra water use? WaterSense plumbing fixtures, which are at least 20 percent more efficient without sacrificing performance. And when you get right down to it, it seems to make a lot of efficient sense to have two separate master baths! 

These wood floors are beautiful. Is that oak? No, it’s bamboo. The owners had wanted to reuse the original wood floor, but during deconstruction it was discovered those old floors had been sanded so many times they weren’t able to salvage as much as originally planned. However, there was enough wood salvaged that it was reused as the ceiling at the front porch.

Those are some beautiful big trees. Was it hard working around those? Well, this house is within the boundaries of the McMansion Ordinance so we definitely had to take the trees into consideration. But since there was a house here already, it was relatively easy to work within the old footprint for designing the new home. Well, all except for that old hackberry that was causing so many issues. It was removed.

Based on that sheet I read, they haven’t really saved that much on their utility bill. If this is a 5 star house, why isn’t their bill much smaller? Good question. It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. Those old dollar numbers you read were for the 1,337 square-foot original home. This new home has an additional 770 square feet of conditioned space, 665 of which is all upper floor. You’d think that taking the larger size of house into consideration, their utility bill would be much higher than the old house. But no! What a great thing: they added space to their home, experienced the Austin Energy rate increase (like everyone else), and yet they’re still paying lower utility bills than that old, much smaller home. 

How long did it take you to build this home? We built it in approximately eight months.  However, between the work done in the beginning for the renovation and then the change in gears to a whole new home we spent basically a year planning, designing, and permitting. By the time we were ready to build, all the decisions had been made, so actual construction went quickly and smoothly.

So there’s no solar panels and they still got a 5-star rating? Amazing isn’t it! Sadly, due to all the beautiful big trees, there’s too much shade on the house to gain anything from solar panels. But, you know, all that shade still helps in our hot, humid climate. Plus all the basics of green construction methods and materials. Plus proper energy-efficient design to fit the orientation of the lot. Plus, of course, following green building best practices. So the end result is you can have a 5 star energy efficient home that fits right in to your existing neighborhood.

And then last but not least of comments were heard…

It’s so nice out here. Can we just sit on that back screened porch a while?  Of course. Make yourself comfortable!

Helmet Time

Wayne on BMW motorcycleWhile researching for a blog topic this month, I spent some time looking back at all the past articles we’ve written. Do you know we’ve been writing and sending out these newsletters for almost five years? Five years! That’s a lot of material on the same general topic of sustainable home building. But -- as Monty Python would say – now for something completely different.

Three weeks ago, I took a ride out to Big Bend to enjoy the spring weather, see some bluebonnets, ride some roads I’d never ridden, and enjoy some helmet time. The BMW R1200GS adventure touring motorcycle I ride attracts a lot of attention. On one saddlebag, there’s a map of the United States, a map of Canada on the other -- you know, the kind of decal you can get at Camper World. I’m filling in the states and provinces with stickers of places where I’ve ridden a motorcycle. Yes, I tell people, my goal is to fill them all in. Seventeen more states to go. Another attention getter could be the fact that I’m usually loaded down with all my camping gear. Everyone has a motorcycle story and wants to share.

When I stopped for a break in Harper, Texas, a young man asked lots of questions about my bike. He was seeking a recommendation for a beginner motorcycle. Since I’d been a motorcycle safety instructor for five years, I was able to share what I’d learned. At one point, he asked how long I’d had been riding. “Do you mean today, or in my life time?” I said. “Lifetime,” he said. I had to stop and think for a minute. “Forty years,” I told him. Yeah, I’m that old. Then I had to admit that if I were to count riding a minibike at age 10, then it would be 50 years of riding.

After I got back on the road, the young man’s question stuck in my mind, and I began to think about why I ride.

No, I’m not going to get on my soap box about riding because it’s environmentally friendly and because I get great gas mileage. I ride because it’s fun. The closest thing to flying I can experience. I go places I would never go in a truck, and I meet lots of great people. But the number one reason I ride is helmet time. I own a t-shirt that says, “You will never see a motorcycle parked in front of a psychologist’s office.”

There’s not much that will clear your mind quicker that doing 80 miles per hour headed west on IH-10 on a motorcycle. With a clear head, I can focus on the important things. I can make plans. I can create. I can dream. I know -- you’re thinking I should be focused on the road and what I’m doing. Trust me I am. I am way more focused on the task at hand on a motorcycle than I ever am behind the wheel of a truck. But with that focus comes a type of Zen moment that truly allows my mind to explore.

During the summer of 2002, I took a three-week motorcycle trip to Canada. During that trip I created Solluna Builders in my mind. I planned what I would build, where I would be located, who would be involved, and how I would market the business. Much of that planning has come to fruition.

Just before I left on my recent trip to Big Bend, I was given the challenge of thinking about another phase Solluna Builders will be entering.

For years, we've tried to be a leader in the local business industry. We offer pre-construction services instead of competitive bidding. We’re a design/build firm instead of just a general contractor. We offer consulting services to developers, to homeowners looking to renovate, and to clients wanting to build new homes. We offer consulting, public speaking, and training to other sectors within our industry. We participate in Home Builders Association of Greater Austin Custom Builders Council and in the Hays County Chapter of the Greater Austin Home Builders Association. So what does all this mean?

Today is Earth Day. Even if you don’t believe in manmade climate change, green building, or recycling, today should be the day we at least take the time to stop and look at what we are doing to Mother Earth.

At Solluna Builders, our core business has always been based in building green, sustainable, healthy, energy-efficient homes.

In 1996, singer-songwriter Steve Forbert recorded a song titled Good Planets Are Hard To Find. Planet Earth the only planet we have. We have to ask: Can we continue down this path of using up resources without replenishment? Can we expect our planet to keep absorbing our waste? Can we keep ignoring a better way to do things just so a few people can make more money?

My helmet time gives me time to think about why we build the way we build.

When do you take the time to think about Mother Earth?

I’ll leave you with the words of cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead: “We won’t have a society if we destroy the environment.”

Working with the Environment

Photo of Wayne JeansonneAs a follow-up to my blog post Building in a Boom Town, I want to talk a little bit about working with the environment. Now I’m not going to go all Al Gore on you and start preaching about how building green is good for the environment. Nope, I’m going to talk about the specific space where you will be building, or about the house you will be remodeling.

Well, let’s say you got lucky and found a lot in Austin with nothing on it. It’s in the school district you want for your children, it’s close to work, there’s great shopping and entertainment nearby, and unicorns do exist.

Then you notice it’s the last lot in the neighborhood, surrounded by homes that were built 20 – 30 years ago. “Strange,” you say, while scratching your head. “How can this be? Why is there a lot left in a completely built-out neighborhood?” Ah, something is amiss, my dear Watson.

Ok, time to take off the rose-colored glasses and look around. What’s going on here? Well, for one thing, as a developer sells off its lots, sometimes the most difficult lot is the last one to go. Maybe no one ever built on this difficult lot for a reason. This could be due to, say, dramatic elevation changes or a steep slope. Could be because of the difficulty of getting utilities to the lot. Could be the view isn’t as good as others. Sometimes these leftover lots become a dumping ground. Look closely: If you notice chunks of concrete, gravel, or wash-out from concrete trucks, run like hell. This trash material will have to be either removed or buried, all at your expense. If too much of the lot is covered in this material, the base under any house built there will always be settling or moving. You’ll also discover that many of these types of lots are way overpriced. Why? Supply and demand. It’s likely more desirable to be in the neighborhood now than it was, say, 20 years ago, and there’s a limited supply of lots.

Another big factor to consider is water drainage. I always tell people: Here in central Texas, we end our droughts with flash floods. Look around. No, not just at the view, yes, it’s lovely. Look across the street. Look at the neighbor’s yard. Look for signs of water movement. Water runs downhill, duh, and it will seek its own level. So this means that if you plan on putting a house in the path of water getting to the creek, that water might want to pass right through your home to get there. You might need to build retention walls or rain gardens to capture, hold, and use excess water.

What about utilities? Are they at the curb? Is the nearest electric pole two blocks away? Or is it right there, but over-loaded serving all the neighbors? Yes, the electric company can put it a new pole, but who pays for that? Sometimes the utility company pays for it, sometimes you do, and sometimes it’s a shared cost. Same thing can happen with the gas, water, and septic utilities. Contact the utility companies serving that lot and ask questions. Also, I recommend you get on Google Earth and get a bird’s eye view of the property. This can give you a lot of information about the terrain and layout.

So what if you find a lot you really, really, really want to build on, but there’s already a house there. Maybe it’s an old a house in need of repair. Do you tear it down? Do you fix it up? Do you live in it for a while and then tear it down? Yes, no, maybe. People are always asking me if it’s better to remodel or to tear it down and start over. Depends. Lately, based on some of the things I’ve been seeing, I lean towards tearing it down and starting over, especially if it’s a really old house that’s suffering from deferred maintenance and was poorly built in the first place. There’s really only so much you can do to an old house.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate what I mean. I’m a motorcyclist. Way back, I used to ride Harleys. I told a riding buddy I thought it would be really cool to pick up an old barn find and restore it. (What’s a barn find? Read my last blog post.) My buddy looked at me and said, “Yep, but you’ve still got an old Harley.” Maybe that’s one of the reasons he and I both ride BMW motorcycles.

My point is that if you try to renovate an old house, it can be so wrought with problems that you can quickly reach a point of diminishing returns. You have to tear out what you don’t want, fix what is left, and make sure everything new looks like it has always been there and that it works. Plus, building code requires that anything you touch has to be brought up to current code. And you still have an old house with a footprint you might not like. If your goal is to create a more energy efficient environment, good luck. It can be done, but how much money do you want to throw at it?

One thing to help you decide whether to demolish or not is to get a home inspection report during the option period before you buy. It’s worth spending $400 to $500 to find out if the house has structural issues, wiring problems, or safety hazards. And please don’t call me after you get the report to find out what it will cost to make minor repairs so you can negotiate a better price. I’m a builder, not a handyman.

A tear-down will require a separate permit that can be pulled at the same time as the build permit. Don’t even think about doing the demolition yourself. It’s dangerous, the utilities have to be properly disconnected, and what are you going to do with the giant pile of rubble. Hire experts. If you put your team together early, your general contractor will be able to take care of the demolition. Also, I recommend not tearing it down until you are ready to build, as bundling the work will save you money. Upon completion of the demo and clearing of the lot, an inspection will be done by the city before you are allowed to begin building new.

I’ll be the first to admit it’s really tough to look at the over-priced cost of a lot with a house on it that you’re just going to tear down. It’s the law of supply and demand that’s driving house prices in this booming market. But if you do decide to tear it down and start over, you can get that new energy efficient home, designed the way you want it, with all the latest features. Just remember, please don’t beat up the builder for what you had to pay to get there. It’s really not our fault.

Just trying to help. Wayne

Building in a Boom Town

downtown AustinRecent discussions with prospective clients have got me thinking about a problem we face here in Central Texas: a shortage of lots for custom homes. I’ve heard from clients who want to be within walking distance of a certain school. Others want to be located in a certain Austin neighborhood that was built 60 years ago. Others want to build a “tiny house” in a subdivision of McMansions. I get it. These are all nice ideas. We’re still seeing impressive growth in Austin. They tell us 100 to 110 people move to the Austin area every day. Due to this explosive growth, any larger tracts of land are quickly snatched up by developers with deep pockets as soon as the land comes on the market. And do we really need another high-rise condo building?

So what do you do, if you’re looking for a lot where you can build a custom, energy-efficient home?

My first suggestion: Don’t move here. Okay, before I get the Chamber of Commerce all over me for being no-growth, let me explain.

Seriously, really think about it before you pack your bags and unpack in Austin. Sure, you fell in love with Austin after you attended ACL, SXSW, Old Settlers, Formula 1, etc. Who wouldn’t? But keep in mind we haven’t significantly increased our infrastructure in over thirty years, and we have a long way to go to solve our traffic problems. Welcome to Austin.

If you do decide to relocate, start your homework way before you get here.

As a custom builder, a big issue we often face is clients who come to Austin with unrealistic expectations.

Let me tell you straight up: Your money won’t go nearly as far in Austin as it did in wherever you’re moving from. Increase your budget. We’re in one of the hottest real estate markets in the country. We see houses with “Coming Soon” signs get multiple offers over the asking price. Be prepared. Get you money house in order first.

Your homework should start at home, with you. What are you looking for? A fixer-upper? A lot to build on? A tear-down? Are you looking in the city of Austin or in one of the suburb cities? Do you want to deal with a home-owners association? Do you want to be in a certain school district? Do you want to be near your work? Do you want to be near your church, grandchildren, shopping? Do you want an older established neighborhood with smaller homes, or a newer, modern subdivision with larger homes? Do you want to live in the county or rural area? Do you want solar panels, geo-thermal, and a rainwater harvesting system? Do you want a true zero-energy home? Once you have answered these questions, and many more, you can start looking.

Use a Realtor. Don’t worry about the cost, as the seller is paying the commission. A Realtor has access to the MLS (multi-listing service). Find a Realtor who’s knowledgeable about the area you are seeking. Many times they will know about lots or houses that are coming on the market. They can also give you more information about the schools, shopping, churches, et cetera in that area.

But don’t only use a Realtor.

Okay, here is where you have to get creative. I’m about to give you trade secrets that come from years of experience. So lean in and listen well. I’m not going to repeat myself. Get creative (ok just this once).

If you’re looking to be within a certain school district, go talk to people at the school. Everyone. Talk to the teachers, janitors, principal, bus drivers, everyone. Tell them what you’re looking for and ask for their help. You can do the same thing at churches, your new place of work, where you shop and eat. Ask everyone you know and everyone you don’t know. Be specific and be open minded. If you’re looking for a lot and someone tells you about an old house that needs to be turn down, go look at it. You never know how it might turn out.

Use the Internet. Spend some time on Google Maps and Google Earth to search the area you’re interested in. One of our clients found a lot this way. Then, you’re going to need to spend some time behind a windshield looking at property and houses. Yes, it’s easier to look at places on the weekend with less traffic, but before you slap down your hard-earned money, you need to make that same drive during the week. What would it be like for you to take the kids to school, then to work, and back? What’s the traffic really like? You might change your mind.

What could result from all this searching around? First, you might stumble upon FSBO’s – For Sale By Owner. Although a rare breed, FSBO’s are still out there. Second, you might find an interesting empty lot. Write down the address. Third, keep an eye out for For-Sale signs on telephone poles, which are usually located on the property lines. (If there’s an address on the sign, use the GPS on your phone to track it down.)

Now here’s what you do with that address when you get back home. Find the web site for the county appraisal district and do a property search by address. This will give you the owner’s name and address. It’s public record. Write them a letter and see if they’re interested in selling. Maybe you’ll get lucky and find a distant relative who inherited the property and is tired of paying the taxes on it. Be prepared to write lots of these letters and get very few responses, but all you need is one bite. Also, keep in mind a creative Realtor is likely doing the same thing to find lots, so make a fair offer.

As a motorcyclist, I always like to hear about the “barn find.” A barn find is that old motorcycle locked away in a shed somewhere under an old tarp with low mileage, little rust, starts only after ten tries, and the new owner found about it from the postal carrier. What, the postal carrier? Yep. I’ve heard about prospective house hunters spending time early in the mornings at the post office talking to the postal carriers to find out about empty houses, people moving, available lots, and so forth. Now that is getting creative.

My final piece of advice. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Put your builder/designer/finance team together early in the process.

Before you ever make an offer on a piece of property -- whether it’s a lot, a house, or a tear-down -- have your builder look at it first. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is clients who fell in love with the view on a property with no regard to the cost of building on it. Before you fall in love, call a builder. He can do quick research on the Internet and take a look at the property on Google Earth before he ever has to make a trip out to see it. If you don’t have a builder who’s willing look at a lot before you buy it, call me. I will.

Wishing you good luck!

-- Wayne

(See part 2 -- Working with the Environment)

5 Ways to Make Your Home Construction Project a Success

Light-filled living roomPlanning a custom home or remodel? Here are some things to consider. 1.  Put together a reputable team at the beginning.

You might be asking, “Well, which comes first – the builder or the designer?” The answer is Yes.

You need both, from the beginning. And here’s why: One of the saddest things we’ve encountered is homeowners who have spent months, years even, designing every little aspect of their dream home. They’ve fallen in love with their plans and can’t imagine wanting anything else. Then they bring the plans to a builder and are shocked – dismayed -- to discover the cost to build their home is way beyond their expectation.

How can this happen? Well, the homeowners asked the designer how much it should cost to build their home, and he gave them his estimate. Or, the homeowners failed to heed the designer when she warned them about adding cost each time they increased the size of the house and added more features. Don’t get us wrong – we love working with house designers, but they might not be the best source of information about the cost of construction.

An experienced, reputable builder is a curious sort, in a good way. He’s curious about your lot and the ease or difficulty of building on it. He’s curious about the soil conditions, the trees and brush that will need to be cleared, where the road cut will go for the driveway, how to navigate city and county permitting authorities, the best way to get utilities to your house, where the septic field will go, the materials and finishes to be used, your energy-efficiency goals for the home, and more. These factors and more affect the cost of construction, and they’re important elements of planning your home.

Your best bet:  Hire a design/build firm. They typically have years of experience working together as a team. Or, put together your own team:  Find your building designer, find your builder, and put them together. Put together an amenable, collaborative team who will work with you from the get-go to plan the best home possible for your budget. Or,

2.  Know how much you can spend.

You’d be surprised how many times we talk to people who are ready to build a new, custom home but have no idea what they want or how much they can spend. Hold your horses!

Before you begin the design/build process, stop and figure out what you can afford. If you need financing assistance, talk to an experienced professional mortgage lender who can help determine what you can comfortably afford. This process will take into account your income, expenses, credit, assets, interest rate, taxes, insurance, maintenance, and utilities. Lenders are often eager to lend you more than you need; make sure you identify a spending level you can comfortably afford.

Set a budget. Then you can design and plan a home to fit.

3.  Be clear about the difference between what you need and what you want.

Sounds easy, but what might seem like a need to you could be a want to another family member.

Here’s an exercise to help:  You and your spouse or partner – independently – each write down your dreams, wants, and needs, in no particular order. Then rank them in order of importance. Now compare your lists and create one combined, master list ranking your needs and wants in order.  It will save time, energy, and money when you meet with your design/build team to plan your project. The list helps determine which items you can afford for your budget.

4.  Seek advice from local experts.

Designing and building a home or major renovation is a local affair.  Climate, code requirements, construction material and labor costs, utility providers, traffic – you name it, these are local conditions. You’ll need the help of folks with feet on the ground who know the territory and how to get things done.

Your wise Uncle Fred in Nova Scotia might be a good source of sage advice, but don’t be asking him how to build a house in central Texas or how much it should cost.

Make sure you get good advice from a competent builder.

5.  Don’t sign a contract with a builder you don’t like, trust, or respect.

When you choose a builder, you’re signing up for a long-term relationship. Think about it: The planning stage can take months or years. Actual construction can take six months or more, depending on the size and scope of your home. After that, you’re still involved with the builder during a two-year limited warranty time period. And after that, you’ll be dependent on the builder for years to come regarding warranty information, vendor and subcontractor contacts, and the like.

It’s a long-term relationship, so make darn sure you find a builder you like, trust, and respect.

When you interview the builder, ask yourself:  Are you a good personality fit? Is the builder easy to talk to? Does the builder listen well? Does the builder explain the construction process in a way that makes sense to you?

Always check references. In any construction project, challenges arise. So when you talk to homeowners of projects the builder has built, find out:  How does the builder handle problems? When you ask a question, will you get an honest, straightforward answer? Can you expect the builder to make good judgment calls on your behalf? Is the builder organized, and does the company follow good business practices? How do they manage the on-site process? Who's the on-site project supervisor? Is the builder up-to-date on the latest high-tech tools for communicating with you about your project?

Here’s hoping all your future construction projects go smoothly!

Ways to Save Energy, Cut Your Bills

Electric meterLast week, we met with representatives from Green Mountain Energy, who asked to tour the net-zero energy home we built in Round Rock a few years back. Their company is the electrical provider for the home. They’re interested in helping their customers find ways to live more sustainably and reduce their energy costs at home, so they asked lots of questions about what motivated the homeowners to invest in energy-efficient features, in the geothermal heating/cooling system, and in solar photovoltaics. (Read about the Round Rock home.) We talked about the green building pyramid. We also talked about ways owners of older homes can reduce their energy bills and make their homes last longer. That’s what inspired this blog post – a short list of ways you can make your older home more energy-efficient and cut your bills.

 

Simple things you can do today

  • smart-power-stripPlug electronics into a power strip, then turn the strip off when not in use.
  • Set your computer to sleep or hibernate mode instead of using a screen saver so it uses less electricity during periods of inactivity.
  • Unplug battery chargers when the batteries are fully charged or the chargers aren’t in use. Many chargers draw power continuously, even when the device isn’t plugged into the charger/

Plug the leaks

  • weatherstrippingCheck the web site at a big-box home retailer for tips on plugging leaks in your house. For example:
  • Leak-proof your electrical outlets with foam outlet insulator.
  • Caulk your windows inside and outside to stop leaks.
  • Add or replace old weather stripping around exterior doors. Add a metal door sweeps at the bottom, and rubber weather stripping around the top and sides.
  • Is there leakage around your attic pull-down stairs? Add weather stripping. Get a kit to add insulation on top of the attic door.

Lighting

  • Replace your five most-used light fixtures and/or bulbs with LED fixtures or bulbs. Check the labels: LED bulbs are more expensive, but they’re super-efficient and long-lasting, and many come with a warranty.
  • Replace old recessed can lights with the new LED fixtures.
  • Select light-colored or opaque lamp shades. Place lamps in corners so they reflect light from two walls.
  • Wash the windows to let in more light.

Cooling and heating

  • thermostatChange your AC’s air filter on a regular basis to keep the system running at peak performance.
  • Give your AC system an annual tune-up.
  • Check your HVAC ducts for leaks and seal them.
  • Install a programmable thermostat.
  • Install attic insulation and seal any attic leaks.
  • In winter, set your thermostat to 68-70 degrees during the day, and 65-68 degrees at night.
  • In summer, set your thermostat at 78 degrees.
  • Install more ceiling fans. It cools you through a wind-chill effect against your skin. Be sure to turn the fan off when you leave the room. If you’re not there to feel the air movement, you’re just wasting energy running the fan.
  • Open interior doors so cooled air flows freely throughout your home.
  • Run vent fans in bath and kitchen to exhaust warm, damp air outside.
  • Don’t block air vents with drapes and furniture.

Appliances

  • Replace old appliances with newer, more efficient models, especially refrigerators, cooking appliances, laundry, and water heater.  Select replacements with the highest performance rating you can afford.
  • Set the timer on your dishwasher and run it during hours when electricity rates are lowest.
  • Run washer and dryer loads during off-peak hours, too.
  • Dust or vacuum the coils on your refrigerator on a regular basis.
  • Clean the dryer lint filter before every load to keep your dryer running efficiently.
  • Cook outside more during the hot summer months to avoid heating up the kitchen.
  • Pull the plug on that second refrigerator or freezer in the hot garage or utility room.

 Windows

  • Install drapes or blinds on unshaded windows.
  • Install solar window screens.
  • Plant trees to shade windows.
  • Install exterior awnings to shade the windows.
  • If it makes sense to replace your windows, choose high-performance windows designed for our hot humid climate.

 Roof

  • When it’s time to replace your roof, choose a reflective “cool roof.” This can keep your house cooler than traditional materials during peak summer months.

Check out local rebates and incentives

Austin Energy PowerSaver Program offers rebates and incentives to help offset the cost of making energy-efficiency improvements to your home.

Pedernales Electric Cooperative offers rebate incentives for installing energy-efficient systems.

Texas Gas Service offers rebates on residential heating and gas water heaters.

Why you need this book

book coverThinking about building a new home?  Thinking about building a green, energy-efficient home? Just dreaming about it but don’t know what to dream? Let me tell you why I like the new book Green Home Building: Money Savings Strategies for an Affordable, Healthy, High-Performance Home, and why you need it on your bookshelf.

I mentioned this book in a recent newsletter, but let's drill down.

How do you know what you need to know?

Let me frame this for you:

In my first career, I was a technical and business communicator in high-tech product development. Over three decades, I designed and wrote tons of information. My job was to get a grasp on what we were selling, who was going to use it, and what they needed to know. Then I had to figure out how to deliver the right information to the right customers at the right time. Research and writing involved strapping on hip boots and wading into a sea of subject matter experts (engineers, software architects, and product managers), using Vulcan mind-meld methods to extract information from their brains, and kneading it into tasty, digestible morsels I could feed my customers.

It’s all about the transfer of knowledge -- from those who have it, to those who need it. Those who need it often don’t know what they’re missing until you lay out a mental map in front of them. Ooh, look, a roadmap. Ah, now I see where I’m going. I’ll follow these steps to get there.

You can probably guess that I have a keen appreciation for useful information that's done well, which brings me to Miki Cook and Doug Garrett’s hot-off-the-press Green Home Building book.

Chances are you’re pretty good at what you do, but have you built a house before? Have you planned an energy-efficient, green home before? There are lots of moving parts and layers of considerations. And golly, you might not even know the first questions to ask. Sure, you know there are plenty of subject matter experts out there – experienced green builders and architects, knowledgeable building science guys, and purveyors of products -- who are all chockablock with facts, figures, techniques, and suggestions. Hey, if you have the time, go wade into that sea of subject matter experts and do your own research.

Or, start with this book.

About the authors

These authors have creds. Miki Cook and Doug Garrett are both green building consultants with years of residential construction and building science background.

Miki spent her career in residential construction, working in construction materials supply, interior design, design/build, estimating and purchasing, and actively involved in green building homes since 1997. She has certified homes for Energy Star, U.S. Green Building Council's LEED for Homes, ICC-700 National Green Building Standard, and currently Austin Energy Green Building, the oldest green building program in the U.S. Since 2006, Miki has dedicated her career to helping the building industry transition to more sustainable practices. She spends much of her time teaching and hosting eduction programs on green building techniques for building professionals and home owners.

Doug is a Certified Energy Manager and has studied building science, indoor air quality, moisture management, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning best practices throughout this career. He founded Austin Energy's residential and multifamily energy conservation programs before setting out in 1996 to establish the first building science consulting business in Texas. He has taught hundreds of seminars and served on numerous advisory councils and task forces for high-performance industry standards, energy codes, health concerns, and housing affordability. He currently provides consulting services to builders across the US.

The crux of the book

There’s no single path to a green, energy-efficient home. You have to consider your goals, the locale, your budget, and dozens of other factors. It’s not just about materials.

The book has several goals. One is to be a road map to achieving a truly green home within any budget. Another is to bring affordable green methods mainstream. Overall, the book “is about making informed, educated decisions in order to achieve your long-term goals, and about understanding the synergy of how each decision affects everything else.”

Here, let me get out of the way and quote directly from the introduction:

A key concept employed throughout this book comes from a relatively new field of housing research called building science. Building science studies and views the house and all of its components as parts of an interactive, integrated, holistic system. The mantra of building science is: “the house is a system” Building science recognizes that changing one aspect of how a home is built changes the entire system, and often other aspects of the home must be changed in response. The big value added is that this can be done while improving your comfort, reducing maintenance headaches and costs and at the same time putting a lot of monthly utility dollars back into your pocket. It also recognizes that the right way to build is what is right for your particular climate zone, not some one-size-fits-all approach.

 

What the book does well

The authors do four things really well.

They don’t just rush to the facts. They take the time to walk through a thoughtful discussion about lifestyle, personal, and community considerations that influence the overall goals for your home.

They bring news, findings, and recommendations from building science without drowning the reader in gory details. Ah, knowledge transfer! You get enough context and terminology so that you can better understand why your builder and designer make certain recommendations. You're better equipped to ask credible questions and have knowledgeable discussions with your own green building and design team.

Each time the book introduces a new topic, they circle back as necessary to explain how the different layers and aspects of your home affect each other. For example, how proper design affects everything. How the roof both provides shelter and contributes to the building’s thermal performance. How the products and materials you choose affect indoor air quality. How to reduce construction waste and save money.

They talk about money and cost. Really! They suggest trade-offs and show how you can save money in one area of construction and then use those savings to improve another area, at little or no net cost. They explain strategies that can save you money either in initial construction, lifetime operations, or both.  Certain topics are marked with icons that point out “no cost green” strategies and “key” strategies that help you achieve major savings in your construction budget.

How the book is organized

Part One offers ten steps to an affordable, healthy, high-performance home. They discuss in detail:  location, size, design, building products and materials, construction waste, equipment and systems, health and environment, outdoor living, green bling, and maintenance. You will emerge from these chapters as a much more informed home owner.

Part Two tackles how to get to net zero – net-zero energy, water, waste, and carbon footprint. (What is net zero? A net zero energy home is one that operates efficiently enough that, over the course of a calendar year, it produce as much energy as it uses.) These discussions include details and models of building design, materials, and construction specifications, addressing how to achieve these net zero goals affordably.

Dollars and sense

While the authors have written this book to help home owners understand the total cost of home ownership and how to use specific strategies to achieve a high-performance green home for no additional life cycle cost, they do point out that “. . . it is difficult to put actual dollar values on each of those recommendations, as cost can vary depending on market conditions and local availability of materials and skilled trades.”

Nevertheless, in the final chapter of Part Two, the book dives into dollars and cents. The authors do this by creating a model that compares the total cost of a traditionally built house to a theoretical home based on strategies recommended throughout the book.

I won’t try to walk through the model. You’ll have to read it, whip out your calculator, crunch the numbers yourself, and reassess your own goals.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but this final chapter pulls all the pieces together and will certainly give you something meaty to chew on while you plan your new green home.

Conclusion

At Solluna Builders, we like this book so much we’ve decided to give a copy to new clients who want to plan and build a new home with us. But happy surprise: one new home owner showed up last week with the book already in hand.

Go here to order your own copy.

Are We There Yet?

photo of Oldsmobile Vista CruisterAs I prepare for my much needed vacation, I’m reminded of the times our family would load up the Vista Cruiser station wagon and take off on a road trip. With three boys in the back seat, it quickly became a chorus of “Are we there yet?” So I would like to ask the same question about sustainable home building. “Are we there yet?” The answer is quite simple, “Yes, no, maybe.” Let me throw out a few tidbits to gnaw on while you think about that answer.

The other day, I was being interviewed for an article about green building for a new Austin magazine. I said, “When I set out in my business fifteen years ago, I was trying to bring extreme to the mainstream.” Has that happened? In many ways, yes. For example:

  • Fifteen years ago, it was a struggle to find energy-efficient building materials and to find products, such as paint, without toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The good news is that manufacturers have stepped up. Now we have amazing materials and products from which to choose – windows, wall systems, engineered lumber, insulation, water-efficient plumbing, lighting, water heaters, air conditioning and heating systems, paint, adhesives, and much more. I’m thrilled about the prospects for future new products and techniques. Consumer demand for these products will drive down prices.
  • Building science is now an established discipline. Our hat’s off to the dedicated engineers and building scientists who are working on research and educational projects to expand understanding and knowledge about ways to improve the way we build homes and buildings.
  • Energy-efficient building practices promoted by green building programs such as the Austin Energy Green Building Program are now finding their way into the standard building code. For example, the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) is a building code created by the International Code Council in 2000. It’s a model code adopted by many states and municipal governments in the United States for the establishment of minimum design and construction requires for energy efficiency. The bar was significantly raised in the 2012 IECC, which was adopted by the City of Austin. Every new home in Austin must meet stringent guidelines for insulation, windows, and air conditioning systems.
  • A 2012 study in California showed that certified energy efficient homes sold for 9 percent more than comparable non-certified homes. An energy efficient home is simply more valuable.
  • You can now find financing that takes into consideration an energy efficient home’s lower cost of ownership and higher appraised value. The Appraisal Institute now has a Residential Green and Energy Efficient Addendum that assists appraisers in analyzing green features and properties. Finally! Qualified, trained appraisers can give you a proper appraisal on your energy efficient home.
  • Pecan Street Inc. is a smart grid and consumer energy research organization headquartered at the University of Texas at Austin. The research group is running the most extensive energy-tracking study in U. S. history at Mueller, the planned green community. The research tracks when and why Mueller’s residents consumer power and how fast-growing new technologies – like solar panels, connected appliances and electric cars – are affecting the grid. (See Time Magazine: Is this America’s smartest city?)

These are all signs of progress, don’t you think?

And yet, I’m an impatient guy. I’m eager for top-of-the-pyramid features to find their way into common use. (See The Green Building Pyramid.)

Take solar photovoltaic, for example. Fifteen years ago, solar photovoltaic panels were a very unusual sight on a home. Today they’re much more common, but have they reached mainstream? Not yet. I’m dreaming about the day when developers design subdivisions where each lot and home is designed to take advantage of the sun. You can read about a few developments where solar PV is featured (as at Mueller), but for the most part, it's still left up mostly to custom home builders to provide the solar PV solutions that customers are seeking.

And then there’s rainwater. Of all places, Texas is the place where collecting rainwater makes a hell of a lot of sense. It’s hot. Sure, we have our droughts, but when the rain comes, it comes in floods – all the more reason for rainwater collection at the household level. But there’s still a long uphill battle to educate folks.

Just yesterday I was talking to a prospective client who was thinking about putting in a well. I had to ask, “Why drill a well?” After his shock wore off, he asked “What else can I do?” So I explained about collecting rainwater.

During the Cool House Tour in June, a visitor wanted to talk about rain water collection. He also wanted to drill a well -- for backup. Again I asked, “Why?”

I told both of these fellows that you can’t put water in a well if it goes dry, but you can buy water to put in your tank to tide you over ‘til the next good rain. After some discussion, both men were convinced they wouldn’t need a well after all.

Here are my impatient, toe-tapping thoughts about water:

  • The drought conditions in Central Texas have made many people more aware of the need for rain water collection, and that’s good.
  • Everybody is talking about the drought, but nobody is making it rain. In this area we do end our droughts with flash floods – just mark my words if we get the El Nino this fall.
  • Why aren’t we each collecting as much rainwater as we can for our own use, even if it’s just for irrigating the landscape?
  • When will we start seeing lower roof pitches for better rain water collection?
  • When will we start seeing neighborhoods designed with slightly bigger lots to accommodate rain tanks?

And so . . . back to that road trip. “Are we there yet?” Maybe the question needs to change to, “How can we get there?”

As I think about changing the route of my upcoming motorcycle road trip, I’m remembering there’s no real there or destination. It’s about the journey. Likewise, we need to all be working towards a goal of more sustainable homes and pick a route that leads in that direction. I’m grouchy and impatient about the lack of national and state-wide initiatives that move us toward energy efficiencies. Sure, you can still get federal tax credits for a few things like solar panels. And some cities, such as Austin, have raised the building codes and are working toward reducing waste. But politics will undoubtedly continue to slow or forestall any major initiatives at the state or federal level. What we need is a groundswell of demand from homeowners and tax payers.

So what are we going to do? Vote with your pocketbook. Look at it this way: Most people would someday like to retire and be financially secure. Maybe we need to think about energy and water security, too. What are some steps along that path? More efficient homes, home-based solar PV systems, micro grids, and rainwater collection systems.

I’m not a Pollyanna. But I am a Boy Scout, and our motto is “Be Prepared.” And even though our business will be busy framing new homes this fall, I’m still praying for El Nino and some good rain.

-- Wayne Jeansonne

P.S. Want to read about water issues in Texas? See the terrific article Who Stole the Water by Paul Solotaroff in the June 2014 issue of Men's Journal.

FAQs from the 2014 Cool House Tour

Cool House Tour logo 150x101A sizeable, enthusiastic crowd of curious tour-goers visited our Blissful Oaks custom home during the 18th annual Austin Cool House Tour on Sunday, June 8.  This home earned 5 stars from the Austin Energy Green Building Program, and it won the 2014 Max Award for Best Green Home.  As always, we had a blast meeting folks on the tour, answering questions, and showing them around. Here are just a few of the questions we answered most often.

 

How big is the rain tank?  It's 30,000 gallons.

Is the rain tank the only source of water for this home?  Yes.

That's a lot of water. How long did it take to fill up?  We started collecting water in April 2013, and the tank was full by June that year. (See related story.)  It's stayed pretty much full ever since then.

I don't understand. How is that possible?  One inch of rain on 1000 square feet of roof gives you about 600 gallons of water.  This house has a lot of roof surface, so every time it rains one inch, they get 3,773.4 gallons of water.

Well, what happens if they ever do run out of water?  You can buy bulk water -- say 2,000 gallons for about a hundred bucks  -- to tide you over.  You can put water in a tank. You can't put water in a well that's gone dry.

What kind of windows are these?   Anderson 100 Series windows. They're a fiberglass composite, energy-efficient window designed specifically for our hot climate.

Wow, I love the light in this room. Are those skylights at the ceiling?  Don't those leak?  Old-fashioned skylights have a reputation for leaking and for heating up a room. These are tubular daylighting devices, also called light tubes or light tunnels.  They don't leak.  And unlike traditional skylights, they bring in light while screening infrared rays that can overheat interiors as well as ultraviolet rays that can fade furniture and fabrics.  These tubes also have LED lights for use at night.

The stained concrete floor looks nice. Can you do different colors?  Sure.  You can pick a color, or have a color matched.

How do you take care of a concrete floor?  It's sealed with a penetrating sealer. You just sweep or vacuum, and then mop with a low-pH cleaner. Easy to care for.

I see a crack  in the concrete. Is there a problem?  No. All of our concrete slab foundations are built to the specifications of a structural engineer, just as the framing is built to engineered specifications.  What you see is just a hairline crack, which is common and almost inevitable whenever you pour concrete in a warm climate  like Texas. Most houses in central Texas have hairline cracks, but you don't see them because they're covered with carpet or some other flooring material.  Home owners who choose to use the polished slab foundation as their floor know to expect hairline cracks, and they don't worry about it.

How big is the solar photovolatic system?  It's a 6.24 kilowatt system, tied to the electric grid.

How big is this house?  It's 3,532 of air conditioned space.

And how much air conditioning does it have?  It has two 2-ton systems.  That's 883 square feet per ton.

How long did it take you to build this home?  We built it in five months.  But we spent nearly a year planning and designing it. By the time we were ready to build, all the decisions had been made, so it went quickly and smoothly.

Were there any surprises?  Well, yes.  When the septic installer started digging, we discovered he was digging through dolomite, not limestone. Very unusual. Dolomite is extremely hard, and it took him much longer than expected.

 

 

 

Solluna Builders celebrates 2014 MAX Award and Cool House Tour

MAX_Awards_2014_logo1We're celebrating! Our custom home project at Blissful Oaks has won the 2014 MAX Award for Best Green Home, presented by the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin.

This home has also been selected for the 18th Annual Austin Cool House Tour. Mark your calendar for Sunday, June 8.  Come meet our team, tour this lovely home, and say congratulations to our design colleague Debra Blessman of Select Home Design. See the Cool House Tour web site for tickets and time.

CHT Logo no dateTo make things even better, Solluna's project manager Chris Tomhave also has a home selected for the 2014 Cool House Tour. It's his personal home in east Austin, which he rebuilt from the ground up. Congratulations to Chris!

 

10 Things Home Builders Aren't Telling You

Wayne JeansonneAs a home builder, I’m a general contractor.  A GC is responsible for the overall coordination of a project. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of “10 things” lists -- they’re all over the web, newspapers, and magazine.  Here’s my own list of 10 things general contractors aren’t telling you about home building.  Enjoy.

 

1. We don't do the work ourselves.

A general contractor might be a jack of all trades, but often we are masters of none.  Instead, our expertise is knowing how to hire the best experts, get you the best pricing (I didn’t say lowest), supervise the project, and bring it to completion on time and within budget.

So it’s really important that you understand the GC’s history and experience. How long has the GC been in business?  What kind of relationship does the GC have with his trade contractors? How long have they been working together? At Solluna Builders, we treasure the long-term relationships we have with our long-term trade contractors, and we value their quality work.  (Make damn sure your GC is not just picking up guys in front of a big-box store to turn loose in your house.)  Does the GC carry proper general liability and builder’s risk insurance and warrant his work?  Do the trade contractors carry general liability insurance, too?

 

2. We’re not going to be at your project every day.

phoneWhile the GC might not be at your job site every day, that doesn’t mean we’re not managing your project. If we’re not physically on your job site every day, our trade contractors certainly are, so there’s even more reason for you to understand the relationship between the GC and his trade contractors.

As many as forty or more trade contractors and vendors are involved in the construction of a home. Much of the GC’s work happens at the office – making phone calls, lining up the next trade contractor, and getting materials selected, ordered, and delivered.  In a well-orchestrated project, work is carefully scheduled so that materials arrive at the job site in a timely manner and the work of the various trade contractors flows smoothly without interruption. If your project is a renovation, you’ll want to make sure your GC has a work schedule plan, and that there’s a plan for parking, restroom (we might to place a portable toilet), and where and how materials will be delivered and staged.  Please know that we go to work early in the morning. We really don’t want to see you in your pj’s any more than you want to answer the door that way with your first cup of coffee in hand.  And, yes, breakfast tacos or donuts are always welcome.

 

3. You are watching way too much TV.

Ok, let me enlighten you right now:  All home improvement problems cannot Solluna Builders on Greenovate TVbe solved in 22.5 minutes.  I know -- I’ve been there, done that.  Just check out my Greenovate tv show from years back.

Building or renovating a home takes time and careful planning.  It’s nasty, dusty, noisy, physical work.  Please ask questions and make sure you understand what’s going to happen.  The outcome will be beautiful.  But during construction, you’ll need patience and the ability to tolerate us being in your life.  Sure, I’ll have another donut with that cup of coffee.

 

4. You really can't afford to do what you want.

Welcome to construction in Austin, folks. The building boom in this area has caused labor and material costs to rise.  Right now, the good contractors and trades are really busy, and they are not negotiating prices.  With plenty of work to go around, they really don’t need to offer discounts.  And the guys that are available -- you might not want them doing your work.  In this business, it’s a true fact that you really do get what you pay for.  Just remind yourself that good quality workmanship with sustainable materials will last, thereby saving you money in the long run.

 

5. In Texas, your hair stylist has more licensing than we do.

We have rule in Texas that you need only three things to be a general contractor:  laddera pickup truck, a ladder, and a dog.  It’s possible I’m overqualified, since I own two dogs and several ladders.  Now, there was a time when Texas builders were required to register with the Texas Residential Construction Commission.  My number was 2497.  However, the TRCC was abolished by the Texas legislature in 2010.  Frankly, I would welcome the licensing of builders.

Meanwhile, our booming economy has brought a raft of new builders into the area eager to ride the building wave. You’re wise to check the credentials, background, and references of any builder you’re considering.  Know who you’re hiring.

 

6. Texas doesn’t require that employers E-Verify or carry workers compensation insurance.

E-Verify is an Internet-based program run by the U. S. government that enables employers to verify a person’s eligibility for employment.  You should know that in Texas, E-Verify is voluntary; the Texas State Legislature has not enacted laws requiring employers to E-Verify.

Texas, unlike other states, does not require an employer to have workers’ compensation coverage.

More good reasons to make sure you know who you’re hiring. And make sure your GC knows the proper paperwork he must have in place to establish an independent relationship between the GC and the trade contractor.

 

7. If the money flow stops, so does the job.

toolThere is nothing that will slow a job down quicker than the lack of funds.  Mary, our business manager, will tell you, “Money is the tool I need to run this business and get your job done.” In order to get the best service from our trade contractors, we pay them upon completion of their work, which gives us a huge leg up over other companies that take weeks to pay.

So please, before you dive into a construction project, make sure you've worked out your money situation from the beginning to way past the end of the job.  Also, keep some money in reserve because it’s likely you’re going to make changes along the way and spend more money than was set forth in the budget.  Why?  Human nature.  You like what you see and you want more good things while you’re at it.

 

8. Actually, we can do better than the Internet or big box stores on pricing.

A good GC has spent years developing relationships with the best vendors in the area.  Price is never the best or only way to judge the value of a product.  What about the extra service, such as jobsite delivery, in-house design teams, special orders, warehousing, and so forth?

Finding a “steal” on the Internet might not the bargain you hoped for. You will quickly learn the true cost of that light fixture you ordered on the web – you know, the one that arrived late and broken, and now you have to return it and wait and meanwhile the electrician will have to charge more money because you held up the job and he has to make extra trips. Think about it -- wouldn’t you really rather just come on the jobsite and watch the progress while you enjoy your coffee?  Oh, and bring me another donut will you.  What do you mean you couldn’t find Round Rock Donuts?

 

9. You should learn to do some things yourself.

paintbrushOk, so this is where watching a little TV might come in handy.  Or maybe a how-to video on YouTube.  Seriously, there are some things you just need to know how to do yourself.  Everyone should have a basic tool kit and know how to do some home maintenance.  Come on, go for it.  The folks at those big box stores will help you out.  Look it up.  If you take care of some things yourself, it will save you money in the long run.  Sure, a GC will be happy to take your money to make fixes and improvements, but why defer maintenance just to pay more for it later?

 

10. We want to make you happy. We just might not be able to figure out how.

Over the years I’ve gotten really good at following my gut.  I remember going to the first meeting with a prospect and he keep pointing to things and asking me how much it would cost to change it.  I kept asking, “Change it to what?”  He couldn’t tell me what he wanted but was frustrated because I couldn’t tell him how much it would cost.  After a dozen iterations of this back-and-forth, he said he didn’t like my attitude.  I said I didn’t think we could work together, thanked him for his time, and left.

My point is you need to know what you want.  And please be realistic.  We can do just about anything, but I will always ask, “How much do you want to spend?”  Sometimes things just don’t make economic sense, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t point this out.  Please let your GC make you happy – start by letting him figure out what you want.

'Til next time,

Wayne

 


 

donutxEditor’s note:  Please don't feed the builder donuts, no matter how much he begs.

Universal design

crutches200x266What would happen if you broke a leg and had to hobble around on crutches? Stop and imagine: What level of independence can you expect? Can you navigate in your own home? Worse, what if you needed a wheelchair for a while? Can you get from the driveway into your home? Can you fit through the door into your bathroom? How will you use the toilet? Take a shower? Scramble an egg?

I had an up-close and personal encounter with such obstacles when my own sweet mother quickly lost strength and mobility in the last year of her life. First, she needed a cane. Then a walker. Finally a wheelchair. We struggled together to cope with the obstacles in her way. I quickly learned that my own home was inadequate to the challenge. We were frustrated and dismayed.

That experience was incentive for me to complete coursework and earn my Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) designation from the National Association of Home Builders. I learned a lot.

What is “aging-in-place” exactly? If you are like the majority of Americans, you want to continue living at home in a familiar environment throughout your maturing years. Aging-in-place means living in your home safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age or ability level. It addresses the need to remodel existing homes, and to design new homes, so people can age in place and not have to move to assisted living facilities as they age. Since the vast majority of homes we live in are not well designed for this, a new movement in residential construction has sprung up to meet this new consumer demand.

When homeowners consider the cost of moving to an assisted living facility, they often decide it’s far more economical to retrofit their existing homes. They might widen the bathroom door, install safety bars and a roll-in shower, for example. There are remodelers who specialize in this kind of retrofit, and our hat’s off to them.

Doing these specialized retrofits is not a core business for Solluna Builders. Instead, we focus on building new homes. Now few new homeowners come to us needing an accessible home, at least not today. But we all know circumstances change, right? That’s why we advocate for universal design when planning and designing a new home. What is universal design? Let’s back up and talk about the four categories of design for accessibility so this will make sense.

Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. A key component here is the market appeal of the home and the integration of universal features into the overall home scheme. Done well, universal design becomes a virtually invisible element of a home. Of course, few homes or home features will always meet everyone’s needs. To meet the requirements of a particular household member (whether at first occupancy or due to accident, illness, or aging), there will always be a need for customized, accessibility features or assistive technology to bridge the gap. Meanwhile, let’s not go out of our way to design homes that create unnecessary obstacles from the get-go. For example, let’s make sure doors to bathrooms are wide enough. Everyone benefits when we build walk-in showers, choose lever door handles instead of knobs, add handrails at steps and porches, and install adequate lighting at entrances.

Adaptable is a design concept that addresses problems of individual differences and changes in capability over time. Examples of some simple things: Add wall blocking between the studs for future grab bars, install conduit for future special wiring, and place light switches low on the wall.

Accessible design accommodates the needs of individuals with specific disabilities, especially at kitchen, bathrooms, and thresholds. These needs get technical and specific -- doorway clearances, knee space, and the like -- and there’s plenty of detailed resources available that provide guidelines for designers, builders, and homeowners.

Visitable refers to a minimum level of accessibility that will allow a person using a wheelchair basic access to the ground floor of a home.

Ours is an aging population. Even if you don't have special needs for your home today, it doesn't hurt to think ahead.

Want to learn more? Here are some links.

What Is Universal Design? Wikipedia: Universal design The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University

Home TV shows -- really?

TVDo you get a kick out of watching the home and garden reality TV shows? I sure do. So many clever ideas. It's fun to watch a home transformed from dowdy and sad to fresh and new.

But I've gotta tell ya:  As much as I love tuning in to see what's next, often I find myself cocking my head sideways with a dubious eye. I'm thinking to myself, "Geez, they made that look so easy.”  Or, “How the heck did they do all that on that budget?" Or, "Well, that's a wonderful idea, but  I wonder if that would work here in our Central Texas hot, humid climate."

Worried about my ambivalence – pleasurable TV habit on the one hand, a snarky attitude on the other-- I checked in with Debra Blessman, Certified Professional Building Designer of Select Home Design to get her input.

Mary:    So, Debra, you’re a professional building designer. Do you watch these home reality shows too?

Debra:   I do watch them! In fact, if I’m not careful, I can spend the tv_wbetter part of a Saturday wrapped up in these home and garden TV shows. There’s a show for most any kind of project. I honestly do enjoy seeing what they’re going to do.

And the backyard shows?  How could you not love those!?  Of course, it’s a whole different story for us, living where we do in central Texas, what with our drought and our hot summers.

Mary:    What do you like best about the TV shows?

Debra:   The shows help home owners get good design ideas. Plus, watching the before-to-after transformation helps people gain at least some understanding about the construction process.

Mary:  But building and renovating homes is complicated business. Lots of problems to solve, and hundreds of ways to tackle them.  Do the TV shows do a good job of educating people about how it all works?  And how to make choices?

Debra: Not really. And I say that with no intention of stepping on any toes.

I believe the purpose of these shows is to entertain. They show a few ideas. They show how a few things work. They show what a finished project looks like; almost instant gratification for a viewer.

I don’t believe the purpose of the shows is to educate the public in great detail about how the entire design and construction process really works. I mean, how could they? Truth is, much of the process involved in planning, design, and construction is complex, detailed, tedious, and not glamorous. Who would want to watch those bits in a TV show? Nobody.

Instead, the TV shows use creative license required to keep the story dramaentertaining. They have to keep it within the allotted time frame for the show. And they add a splash of drama to keep viewers hooked. Most folks know so little about construction and building that they don’t know how far from reality the shows really are.

Mary:  So kind of like Cliff’s Notes for construction, huh? What would be some of the real process they’re leaving out?

Debra:  Well, two things leap to mind:  Time and permitting.

A construction project doesn’t happen in just a day. But it can sure seem like it sometimes on those TV shows.

Let’s take permitting, for example. There’s so much involved in getting a project through a municipality’s permitting department. Loads of documentation, checklists, engineering, and detailed drawings. There’s the requirements and limitations in national code. In local code. Subdivision restrictions and requirements. The plans have to take all these into consideration.

A perfect example of a city code issue that must be addressed is impervious coverage. In simple terms, impervious coverage is any material that blocks water from soaking into the ground – house foundation, concrete driveway, sidewalks, patios, stepping stones, and so forth. It’s a big issue for us here in central Texas.

Mary:  Last week it rained 12 inches overnight in my neighborhood -- waterone of our notorious central Texas rain bombs. There was a lot of water! The creeks flooded. I felt so bad for the people whose homes flooded.

Debra:  That’s part of why there are very strict ordinances regarding impervious materials and the percentages that are allowed on each lot.

I really do love the backyard/landscaping shows. But so many of those beautiful projects would never be approved here because of our impervious coverage restrictions.

Then there’s the time it takes to shepherd a project through the permitting process. Building permits, tree permits, potential variances, historical review, waste management restrictions -- anything that might be required for your property must go through a review and permitting process before it’s approved to be built. And typically a fee accompanies each step. This process can add months to your project before construction can even start.

Do the TV shows depict this part of the process? Nope, usually not. At least, I’ve never heard it mentioned. They seem to leap from great idea straight to implementation, zip-zip. I’ve worked in the construction industry almost 33 years and I confess that the skewed sense of time on the TV shows is almost an insult to me. I think they do an injustice to the public by not better educating them on how it really works in the construction industry.

On the other hand, I understand the magic of a TV show.  And I do like to watch them. So there you have it -- the conflict between entertainment and reality.

Mary:  You’ve given us a great example of how the TV shows gloss over the details and the hard parts. What kind of effect does this have? Does it ever affect the expectations of your clients?

Debra:  Definitely yes. Often people have a skewed belief about how their project should go.

Mary:  So they’re surprised by the reality. Does it ever stop a project from moving forward when they learn how the process really goes?

Debra:  Not yet. But more than a few folks through the years were quite upset their projects weren’t going to be done within that TV-show timeframe.

Mary:  Let’s switch gears. Is it just me, or do many of these shows seem to be set in the northeast, or in California? Gosh, I’m like you – I love the lush landscapes in some of those shows. But where we live, we have water problems, and it’s hot as hell in the summer.

Debra:   The shows do seem to be a little heavy on northeast locations or California.

You raise a good point, Mary – climate differences. The way you design, orient, build, and insulate a house in, say, New England is vastly different from the way you do it in a hot, humid climate. At least, it should be different! Now, I understand that each show is specific to a locale, and so it would be ludicrous to expect they would cover the differences in construction between a cold climate and a hot one.

But what I do want is for viewers to be a little dubious and remember while they’re watching a show, that methods and materials that work in the locale of that show might be wholly inappropriate for where they live.

Mary:   What about the cost of stuff?  Sometimes I’m shocked at how little home owners and contractors on the shows are spending to make these amazing improvements.

Debra:  Ooh, I cringe when they give prices on the TV shows. It would be great if goods and services cost the same everywhere, but they don’t. For example, here in central Texas, construction is booming. As a result, prices for everything – materials, labor – have gone up and continue to go up.  The price to do the same project in an area of the country where construction isn’t booming would be considerably less expensive than here.  Shoot, it wasn’t that long ago when prices here were considerably less because folks were hungry for work.

Plus, I often wonder if there aren’t some pretty nifty price breaks on those projects since the contractors and suppliers will be on a TV show for some free advertising.

My advice?  Don’t take those numbers seriously, or you might end up with a false sense of economy about the cost of things.

Mary:  You know, Wayne was in one of those TV shows some years back. We’ll have to ask him about his experience with that.

What kind of effect do you see these shows having on the direction of design with your clients?  Does anyone ever bring into the discussion, “I saw them do this on a TV show and I really want to do this too”?

Debra:  Interesting question. Once in a while, I’ll be in the middle of a design phase with a client, and they’ll mention that their idea came from a TV show. Maybe I’ve even told them they can’t do something, or they shouldn’t do something, or that it will add too much cost to their budget. It’s at that moment I’ll hear, “But they did it on such and such a show, so why can’t I?”

Mary:  Like what?

Debra:  Windows, for example. A common item would be the desire to add windows in a space specifically to bring light into the house. It looked great on the TV show, that new room facing west with minimal overhang; only you may not know it faced west if they didn’t say so in the show.  Well, they added those windows, and boom, a dramatic increase in natural light, for at least the afternoon hours when the sun is in the west. But your new room faces, say, east, and you have a 10-foot covered patio shading your room. The level of light you would get in your room by adding windows in this type a situation might not be that dramatic at all. Seems obvious, right?  People tend to believe that what they see on TV will work for them too, whether they get all the details or not.  That’s why I spend as much time as needed to walk my clients through the details.  Not to mention, in our climate, I wouldn’t advise you to add a bunch of windows without some substantial shading in a west wall anyway!  There’s no need to purposely turn your house into an oven from the sun.

Mary: Right. All in all, I’d say I’m feeling better about my secret habit of watching the home and garden reality TV shows. Great ideas, but take the process and pricing with a grain of salt.

Debra:  Perfect.  And I guess both of us are busted on our secret habit now!

Mary: Thanks, Debra. Next time, I’ll ask Wayne to weigh in about his experience some years back in being a part of a green building reality TV show. There was something funny about his beard . . .

Meanwhile, I’d love it if readers would chime in and let us know what shows you like to watch. We might be missing something good. Leave us a comment.

‘Til next time.

Custom cabinets -- apples to apples

The folks at LWi Custom Cabinets liked last month's blog post by Debra Blessman CPBD. (See Should you get competitive bids?) In fact, it spurred Joshua Cade to sit down and write a post for LWi's own blog about choosing a custom cabinetmaker. He agreed to let me re-publish it here for our Solluna Builders readers. Here's what Joshua has to say:


We love the bookcase LWi Custom Cabinets made for our new office.

Always compare apples to apples. It’s an old saying, and one that still holds true.

In today’s faster and cheaper world, a lot of the most important decisions are based solely on price and how fast we can get it. Sometimes faster and cheaper is just that. When you’re comparing remote controls, you might stand there for 20 minutes looking at all the options before you decide. You pride yourself on finding the most bang for your buck, and move on. Maybe later you realize that you should have taken a little more time, and bought that one that was $5 more. We all do it, and usually end up buying twice.

Value and lowest price aren’t the same thing.

Whether you’re building a new home or remodeling your existing home, if you’re like most people, you have done your homework. You’ve looked at all the latest websites, schemed and dreamed, and come armed with a big book of ideas and plans. Taking all of those pictures and convenience hardware options and integrating them into your exact space isn’t easy. The cabinets in your home add beauty and function, and they get a lot of daily use, so it pays to take your time and make good choices.

Factors to consider when choosing a custom cabinet maker

Here are four factors to consider when choosing a custom cabinet maker:

Customer Service

Customer service is probably one of the most important considerations. If you’re waiting two weeks for a bid from one company, and another has already met you, provided samples and designs, and accurate pricing, then you shouldn’t keep waiting. The same way you’re waiting for a bid from that other cabinetmaker is likely how you’ll be waiting 6 weeks late on your cabinets, and then waiting again for them to come and do their punch work. There is a "serve" in customer service.

Find a cabinetmaker who wants your business and takes care of your needs and questions quickly and efficiently. Never overlook how you are treated just for the potential “savings."

Quality

What your cabinets are made out of and how they’re put together are important.

Do you want to save, say, $1,000 bucks but live with puttied nail holes that don’t match scattered across the face of your $15,000 dream kitchen?

Did you consider asking how the face frames will be attached? Get the cabinetmaker to explain it to you.

Are you painting your cabinets? Check your quote. Are you being quoted “paint grade” by one company and “paint grade maple” by another? Most people don’t know that what’s specified as “paint grade” is usually a combination of wood species and man-made pressed board that could never take paint evenly. “Paint grade maple” is just that -- solid white maple. The nebulous combination of “paint grade” might save you a little money up front, but what are you going to have to live with?

You’ve put so much time and thought into your dream kitchen, don't pinch pennies when it comes to quality.

Finish

The most beautiful cabinets in the world can still be ruined by a poor finish, and the ugliest can be made beautiful by a good finish. The finish is really what you see when you look at cabinets.

Another choice you must make is whether to have the cabinets finished by the cabinetmaker, or finished on the job site.  Are you really comparing the same things when you look at pre-finished and job-finished? The guys that painted your walls might charge less to put some stain or paint on your cabinets, but consider what that's going to look like in your home that you’ve worked so hard for. Wouldn’t you rather your project be finished in a dust-free controlled environment by experienced professionals using state of the art processes? You might save $500 having those painters “stain and finish” your cabinets, but who’s going to pay them to put the cabinets all back together when they’re through? How many options and samples do you think the wall painters will have for your unique finish? What is the finished product going to look like when you’re through, and isn’t it worth, say, an extra $500 to be happy with the finish?

Installation

Getting your new dream kitchen installed properly is probably the most crucial step. You’ve approved your designs and finishes and can’t wait to see what it all is going to REALLY look like.

Will the same craftsmen who designed and built your cabinets also install them? Some cabinet companies “sub out” their installs to other individuals whom you’ve never met and it's likely they've never seen your cabinets before the morning they arrive at your home.

Ask a lot of questions. Are you comparing a sub-out install to an employee install? Will your project manager be there to oversee the crew? Will the installers even speak your language? It might be a wash price-wise, but you can bet that if your cabinet price has installation as a separate line item, your cabinet install is being subbed-out to the lowest bidder.

Having the people who know your cabinets inside and out also install them not only saves you time, it also produces a better end result.

Conclusion

A better result is what you're looking for.  So please take your time. Ask lots of questions. Ask the cabinetmaker to educate you and explain about his materials and techniques. Make good choices and you'll enjoy your beautiful cabinets for many years to come.

Should you get multiple bids?

photo of Debra Blessmanby Debra Blessman, Certified Professional Building Designer When planning a new custom home, most folks come to me with their builder already in tow. In fact, I'm surprised when a new client doesn't already have a builder as part of their team. The builder is often the single, most important person who will have the longest, closest contact with homeowners throughout the construction process, possibly even years after construction is done.

That's why it puzzles me when homeowners expect builders to jump up and give them a quick bid to build their dream homes, as if they're looking up the best price for the latest technology gadget on Amazon.

Getting a bidIn a world where -- in just a few minutes --you can go online, price an item, and order it for next-day delivery, the custom residential construction industry might seem like a dinosaur. In construction, there are no hard, fast rules for how any one part is priced. There's no drop-down menu of options that lets you select, say, the “technology package" where you get the built-in GPS navigation system, Bluetooth connection, satellite radio, and 6-CD changer for an extra $3,000. Golly, if there were such a system for getting bids to build your home -- where you could be sure the end product was nearly identical no matter who built it -- then I'd be able to advise you to get as many bids as you want.

But the residential construction industry doesn't work like that. So take a minute and sit back. Let me take you on a little journey and tell you how things really work.

Is this you? A typical scenario

Maybe this is you: You spent two years hunting and negotiating for the perfect piece of property with the perfect view, the perfect orientation, the perfect trees, the perfect amount of slope, the perfect distance from town, the perfect distance from neighbors. The perfect spot for the rainwater collection tanks, the perfect clear spot so your solar panels aren’t shaded . . . Whatever your perfect happens to be. Plus, lest I forget, the perfect price, or as perfect as possible!

Next, you spent four months working with your design professional, and now have the home of your dreams. And it's right there. On paper. Right in front of you. You’re so excited you can hardly stand it! All those numerous conversations and emails regarding every detail of how you live. The things you hate/love about where you currently live. The things you can and can’t live without. Every tiny detail of what you must have in your new home. Which rooms simply must have tons of sunlight and which one you want to be the cave. The fact you can’t stand those old perfectly square sheet rock edges and if you see anything but a bull nose sheetrock corner in your house you’ll go postal! fanYou’ve shared your ideas and pics from Houzz and Pinterest; even that three-ring binder full of ideas you’ve been collecting since high school. And you don’t care that the ceiling fan you want to use in every room of the house is $350 per fan . . . that’s the fan you want in ten rooms of your home.

On to the next step: Often, one of the first questions I'm asked by clients seeking a builder is, "Debra, how many bids should I get for my project?" Or they simply tell me, "I plan to get a few bids before I select a builder."

Conventional wisdom says you should get a bid from at least three builders and then pick one. Why three? WeIl, because you've been told that’s the only way you will get the best price to build your home. You know -- it’s called comparative shopping. Besides, that’s how it’s always been done. This multiple-bid thinking seems to be the norm. Indeed, early in my career, I told my clients, "You'll want to get three bids." It's what I'd been taught, and it seemed like a good idea way back then.

Suppose you've got three builders in mind. You think, "I'll just talk to them each, real quick, and ask for a ballpark price to build my 4,000 square-foot house, five bedrooms, four baths. How hard could it be? They've been doing this for years and surely they know how much stuff costs."

Okay, let's stop right here! If this were a basketball game, I'd be throwing up my hands and blowing the whistle.

Times have changed. Many builders have changed their business practices. The methods they use to arrive at bids have drastically changed. Asking for multiple, competitive bids will probably work against you. In fact, many builders won't even participate in competitive bidding.

Let's walk through this.

Let's define custom

I'm using "custom home" in the true sense:  a one-of-a-kind, unique home that's designed and built to your specifications. Not to be confused with the way some production builders have co-opted the word "custom" to mean pick one of their four floor plans and they'll "customize" it with your picks for tile, carpet, and paint.

This isn't the drive-thru lane

Drivethru signWhy would you have spent, say, nearly two-and-a-half years painstakingly hunting for the perfect piece of property and overseeing every detail in the design of your new custom home only to throw the construction out to bid as if you’re ordering lunch from the drive-thru menu board?

What about detailed specifications?

Unless you and your designer have worked out elaborate, detailed specifications about construction materials and finishes, then asking builders for a competitive bid is likely to create a massive headache for yourself. How will you know you're comparing apples to apples?

Do these builders know exactly every detail of every item to be built in your custom home? Do they know about the bullnose sheet rock corners? How about that $350 ceiling fan you want when his ballpark-price fan may be only $150 per fan and there's only two of those in the allowance, not the ten you want for your home? Or how about the garage? Does his ballpark price include that extra feet at the rear of the garage you want for your workshop?  Does his ballpark price include the additional 3,000 square foot of covered porch?  What kind of insulation does his ballpark price include? What kind of air conditioning system? What about the price for the solar photovoltatic system?  Or the rainwater collection system? Or what about the terraced stone planters you want with the built in stone steps down to the lower level with the pool?

Heck, even the fast food restaurants want to know if you want to super size or not.

Speed vs. accuracy -- what's your tolerance level?

By now, you're saying, "Okay, I get your point, Debra. There’s a lot of information I need to give to each builder. But can’t they still give me a quick price?"

Maybe. But is that what you really want?

How accurate a price do you want from the builder you’re considering hiring to build your dream home? Wouldn’t you like them to give you a price that's as close as possible to what you will pay? Or are you okay with signing change orders that might cost you thousands of additional dollars because things weren't included in the original bid? Or maybe, as an example, you’re okay with the possibility of paying for termite treatment every few years because, in order to get the ceiling fans you wanted, the builder decided to cut the Termimesh permanent termite barrier out of the construction budget and failed to tell you until it was too late to add it.

To give you that value accurate price, as Wayne Jeansonne of Solluna Builders would say, takes time. What he and every builder out there needs from you is a complete list of things you want in your home. Every item you select has a cost associated with it -- both material and labor.

How it works

The builder takes all the detailed information you give him, plus house and engineering plans, and puts together an estimate.

Much of the builder's effort requires him to pass most of this same information to his subcontractors for their bids. This means that every subcontractor and vendor who will build your home or order materials for it uses the same detailed information. Each subcontractor figures his material and labor costs and gives the builder a price to do his portion of the work. The builder must wait for all of these different entities to send in their estimates. Sometimes it takes a while, because they're busy out there.

For each step to build your home -- from clearing the lot to final cleanup -- the builder inputs detailed costs into his own spreadsheets or into the builder software he uses. Each builder has his own methods, of course; but in the end, all the information is tallied to arrive at a final estimate for you. You hope nothing has been left out and that everything is as “value accurate” as possible.

"That’s an awful lot of work just for an estimate!"

Yes, it is a lot of work. But that's what you're asking for when you want to know the cost to build your home.

Some builders tell me they might spend 40 hours or more putting together an estimate, with varying degrees or accuracy. And that doesn’t count the time their subcontractors put into their portion of the bid process.

That’s a lot of time for a builder to invest if he doesn't get the job. And, you might truthfully say, it's just one of those “cost of doing business” items.

Builders who don't do competitive bids

More and more builders tell me they don't do competitive bids.

Why not?

  • Because of the time it takes. No one likes to spend that much time and not get reimbursed for it.
  • Because they think homeowners don't get a fair shake if there aren't clear, detailed specifications. Without them, you're at the mercy of each builder's interpretation and building methods. How can you make a fair comparison that way?
  • Because they have another business model. Some builders prefer to operate as a design/build firm -- they work with you and your building designer early on to plan the site prep, determine the construction methods and materials, help you with detailed selections, and write detailed specifications for your home.

Increasingly, I'm hearing from builders who use a "pre-construction agreement." Basically, it's a contract between you and the builder for work they will perform for you to help plan your home and put together a detailed estimate. There's a fee associated with the time and the process, money you pay even if you don't choose them to build your home.

What to do?

Well, one path you can take is to interview builders early on in the design process. See their work. Interview their clients. Ask a thousand questions. If you find a builder you like and trust, stick with them.

Still not sure?

Think you still want to get multiple bids, just to make sure you're getting the best price? Okay, I get that. If you truly must get multiple bids or you won’t sleep at night, then do it. Just make sure you’re prepared.

Here are some things to consider when faced with the decision of selecting your builder and ultimately getting the best price:

1.  Don’t be surprised if a builder tells you he doesn’t do competitive bids. That should serve to tell you a few things about the builder and how he works. Things like: He's got confidence in his own abilities and talents. He's thorough. He's going to work hard throughout the entire construction process including giving you a value accurate estimate. He respects his subcontractors because they give him fair prices and do great work. He won’t chintz on something just to keep the price low. His full attention will be on you and building your home.

2.  Don’t freak out when a builder tells you it might be a couple of weeks before he can get something to you.  Remember -- it takes time to pull all the necessary information together and formulate the estimate.  Besides, you’ve been at this whole process for how long? Is it honestly going to ruin the whole thing if you have to wait an extra week or two?

3.  Make sure you’ve done your part by giving builders all the necessary information they need from you.  And make sure each one gets the same exact information. Here’s where I’m talking about all your selections for everything you want in your home:  Specific appliances. Specific light fixtures and light bulbs. Cabinet styles. Countertops. Tile and tile patterns.  Cabinet hardware. Faucets. Shower fixtures. Flooring. Security system. Landscape lighting. Interior doors. Front door. Skylights. I could go on and on, but do you get my drift?  There’s a lot that must be selected, and every single thing has an associated price! If you don't have all this information yet, you're not ready. If you don't have all this information, you'll make builders guess, make assumptions, and make liberal use of allowances that might not fit your needs.

4.  Building on raw land? You will face an abundance of extra costs to prep that land so your house can be built. Things like electricity, water, septic/waste, cable and internet services, clearing and prepping the land for construction, and so forth. Often, there are requirements involving acquiring easements for the utilities to be taken to your property, plus fees for new service customers. A builder who gives you an off-the-cuff estimate might not include these costs; his price might seem cheaper, but trust me, you'll pay these extra costs if you want your home.

5.  The most important thing?  Be patient. The process takes time. The closer a builder can get to value accurate pricing at this stage, the faster the actual construction will go.  How could it not, when most of your decisions will have been made before construction even starts!

Final thoughts

I've worked with hundreds of builders during my 30+ year career.  Here are a few more thoughts for you:

  • If you like a builder and have already formed a good, trusting relationship . . . why go elsewhere?
  • If you're totally comfortable telling the builder anything at all, and he understands you . . . why go elsewhere?
  • If you already know a builder’s reputation and you know he builds a good home . . . why go elsewhere?
  • Don't expect a builder to do your shopping for you. Only you know what you want. Be explicit.
  • Builders can almost always get better prices on materials than you can. Let them do that for you.
  • Don't be afraid to tell the builder your budget. Let them work with you to meet your budget.

Remember -- this is supposed to be a fun thing. You’ve already spent a lot of time and money going over every detail to get exactly what you want in your dream home. Why take a chance at this point in the process by choosing the cheapest bid? Isn’t the actual construction the most important part of the process?

Pick the builder you like and trust. Allow him the time he needs to give you the value accurate price for your home. And before you know it, you’ll be actually living in your dream home!

If you have questions or comments, post a comment below, or shoot me an email. I'll be happy to talk with you.

--Debra


Editor's note:  Here are some related topics from our blog archive:

10 Ways to Be a Better Customer

Information Your Builder and Designer Must Have

Budget-Driven Design

Getting bids for your home construction project

Choosing a Lot for a New Home

Does It Cost More to Build Green?

The Green Building Pyramid

10 Ways to Improve Your Remodel

Fill up the rainwater tank

In late March, as we neared completion of construction on their new home, the sisters --Candy and Sue (see related story) -- began to fret just a bit. “There’s been no rain. Should we go ahead and buy some water for the tank?” Wayne shook his head. “Wait,” he told them. “Let’s see what happens. April showers, right?”

We broke ground in October. It took just a little over six months to build their home. The 30,000 gallon rainwater tank was one of the first things to be installed, and we had a truck deliver about 2,000 gallons of water for use during construction. The metal roof went on in December. (If you’re collecting rainwater, you want a metal roof.) Gutters and pipes were installed in January, and they were connected and ready for rain in February. And then it didn’t rain. And it didn’t rain. Remember?

raintank bobberAnd then came April, woohoo. A couple of good storms the first two weeks of April dumped up to four inches of rain in the area. Now, we didn’t have a rain gauge to the measure the specific rainfall at Candy and Sue’s house. But take a look at the photo and see what happened. I snapped this photo in mid-April. The red bobber indicates the tank’s water level. Almost half full, right? How is that possible, with just 4” or so of rain?

Well, get out a pencil, and let’s do the math.

The sisters’ house has 3,532 square feet of air conditioned space. Add the garage, front porch, the lovely screened porch at the back of the house, and two-foot eaves on all sides, and you’ve got 5,661 square feet of total house coverage. The roof surface is a whopping 6,289 square feet.

Got all that? Now here’s the magic: One inch of rain on 1,000 square feet yields about 600 gallons of water. Every time it rains one inch, the sisters harvest 3,773.4 gallons of water, or about 12% of the tank’s capacity. Those 4 inches of rain during the first two weeks of April produced about 15,093 gallons of water. The tank is half full.

If you’ve lived long enough in central Texas, you’ve figured out by now that our rain often comes in big bucketfuls all at once. Yes, we’ve got water problems in Texas, but the answer falls from the sky. We’re all drinking rainwater; it’s just that some people choose to catch and store it locally instead of waiting for it to flow into rivers, lakes, and aquifers, where it’s stored and later pumped miles and miles (at great cost) to reach homes and businesses.

The sisters decided to invest in a 30,000 gallon tank rather than a 20,000 gallon tank in order to have extra storage capacity to capture as much rainfall as possible during the “rainy” periods of the year. Chris Maxwell-Gaines of Innovative Water Solutions, who designed and installed the system, calculates that a “20,000-gallon tank would be sufficient to supply a 4-person household. Their system should allow them ample water supply even during drought years.”

Of course, the way the home operates and the behavior of its inhabitants have a lot to do with water use. Naturally, the sisters’ home was designed, built, and furnished to conserve water -- the way the plumbing runs were laid out, the water heating system, the water-saving plumbing fixtures. A moderately conservative person might use around 50 gallons of water indoors. Outdoors, the sisters plan to leave the landscape in a natural state, so they won’t be using much water outdoors. However, they have installed a pool/spa that holds 1,500 gallons of water. Once it’s filled, it will need to be replenished occasionally. And the sisters do anticipate occasional long-term house guests. Installing the bigger 30,000-gallon tank has given them peace of mind.

You might be asking about now, “But is it really feasible to supply an entire household with its potable water from a rainwater harvesting system?” Yes. Here's what Chris Maxwell-Gaines of Innovative Water Solutions had to say in a report to the lender's underwriter:

For more evidence of the ability of rainwater harvesting systems to supply an entire household with its water, my company conducted a survey of about 70 of our potable water system owners in 2012. We asked them to look back over 2011 which was one of the worst year of drought since the 1950s. In 2011, our region only received about 16” of rainfall. We found that only 30% of the homeowners had to get water delivered during the year and a majority of this 30% only had to get one water delivery. It is our best guess and experience that due to the conservation technology of the rainwater systems, property owners use a much smaller quantity of water since they can directly see the entire supply of water for their household. Contrast this with a home that is supplied by a well: The homeowners can’t determine how much water is left in their well as they can with a rainwater harvesting system. If the water level in their rainwater cistern is getting low, they can proactively change their water usage patterns in order to extend their water supply. The costs to top-off their systems, which is a rarity, should not average more than a few hundred dollars per year according to cost data received from local water delivery companies in our region.

Question: "You mean, I can buy water for my rain tank?" Sure, you can buy a little water if you need it, say a couple thousand gallons to tide you over 'til the next big rain. You can buy water and store it in a rain tank. You can't buy and store water in a well that's gone dry.

Overall, rainwater as the sole water source for a home is more sustainable, more durable, more secure, and less costly over time than a well. Plus, you know where your water comes from and . . . you know what? It sure does taste good.

Question: "What about financing?" It is possible to get financing for a rainwater harvesting system as the sole source of water for a residence, but it requires a lender who knows how to get it done. The financing for the sisters' project was arranged by Green Energy Money, whose appraisal process quantifies the homeowner's return on investment for energy efficiencies -- and for rainwater harvesting. Security National Mortgage Company provided the permanent financing. Plus, the sisters' home is in Hays County, which offers a property tax exemption for water conservation initiatives, including rainwater harvesting.

Want to know more? Drop us a line, or leave a comment, and I'll ask Chris Maxwell-Gaines to weigh in and help answer any questions.

-- Mary

See our Resources page for links to more information about rainwater harvesting.

Something Rotten

Psst, come here. Wanna talk about something really nasty? Almost everyone has it. Yet no one wants to talk about it. What is it? Dry rot. Yuck.

Rot is nifty when it happens in your compost pile. But not in your house.

Look around. It's kind of like the common cold. You’ll spot dry rot in structural lumber, eaves, garage doors, exterior door trim, window casings, and other wood used in construction. Surprising fact: Nearly 10 percent of U. S. annual wood production goes to replacement materials needed to repair damaged caused by wood rot. If your home has escaped damage, count yourself lucky, but don’t get too cocky. Dry rot could be lurking undetected.

Except it’s not dry. It’s wet.

What rots the wood? Mold. Mold spores are everywhere. They can remain inert for decades. All they need is a source of moisture and they can start to grow. Most wood-decay mold grows only on wood with a high moisture content, usually 20 percent or more.

So, ultimately, moisture is the culprit.

And not just dry rot. There's a wide array of different kinds of mold eager to attach your house, including toxic black mold. You do not want this stuff in your house.

If you spend a little time around Wayne talking about construction, sooner or later, he’s going to tell you, “I grew up in Louisiana where it rains all the time. I know what causes mold: It’s moisture. Don’t let moisture get into the house in the first place, and then we don’t have to worry about getting it out.”

Why this topic, now? Well, one of the basic tenets of green building is durability. Our ancestors built for the ages. Their buildings were durable enough to last for centuries. We can do the same. Durability means selecting materials that wear well and that are appropriate for the climate and the application. Durability means using old-fashioned common sense plus building science when designing and constructing a home. Durability means slowing down, paying attention to the tiniest details, and caring enough to do things right the first time so homeowners don't face unnecessary damage and repairs decades in the future.

What got me started on this topic?  Three recent experiences brought durability into sharp focus for me:

First. Last summer we visited Louisiana for a family gathering. We were smack dab in the middle of the swamp, and I was agog. I’m a Texas girl, and I had never experienced swamp. It was lovely. It was wet. Homes of all kinds were strung along a narrow strip of land between the river and swamp. During big storms and hurricanes, it floods. Water rises out of the swamp and drains to the river. Many homes along that narrow strip of land have been repeatedly inundated. On our walks along the river, I was stunned when I saw mold growing on the outside of some homes. (Some of the homes looked like they'd never been introduced to the concept of paint.) I could only imagine what was growing inside the walls.

Second. Recently Wayne has been talking with a home owner concerned about the balcony attached to her home. Structural wood has rotted due to faulty construction practices that were used to build the home just twelve years ago. Now the balcony is structurally unsound. It’s unsafe and must be replaced or removed, a disappointing and costly expense either way.

Third. The corbels. I was out at a job site one day recently. The framing crew was preparing to install decorative corbels at the roof peak. (In architecture, a corbel is a load-bearing piece of masonry or wooden bracket jutting out of a wall to carry structural weight. These days, you see corbels added as a decorative touch on a home. Looks nice.)

Wayne asked the framing crew to hold off. He wanted the painter to stain them on all sides before they get installed. The stain provides a protective coating for the wood. If the corbels had been installed first and stained afterwards, the surface attached to the house would be unprotected and more vulnerable to water intrusion and rot. A stitch in time saves nine.

How to keep moisture out of the house? When it comes to managing moisture in a house, there are four major lines of defense: • Protective exterior coatings and proper exterior trim • Thoughtful design and construction techniques and the use of the right materials • Positive drainage away from the house • Careful moisture management inside the home

Some pretty beefy topics. Let’s talk a wee bit about protective exterior coating and exterior trim. We’ll save the other topics for another day.

Good painting and careful caulking We recently had our own home painted.

Good quality paint or stain does a good job of protecting wood against moisture. But equally important is good prep. Paint won't adhere if the surface is dirty or moldy, or where old paint is peeling. You've got to fix any old problems first. Wayne power-washed the house to remove about a decade of grime. We replaced some fascia boards showing signs of rot. (They'd been there 41 years, so we weren't surprised.)

And then there's good caulking. Water will find a way to seep into any little ol' hole you leave for it. (And you've experienced sideways rain during our notorious central Texas storms, right?) Our painter spent days prepping and caulking. He scraped old paint that had peeled. He caulked every little nail hole and every seam where one piece of wood meets another, and where wood meets masonry. He removed the gutters. Finally, he applied the new paint. Sure looks nice now. Thanks, Jim.

Exterior trim Now here's a perfect example of how attention to common-sense details leads to more durable construction. Window and door trim take a lot of wear and tear and can show signs of aging first. You can get more mileage, of course, if you keep things caulked and painted.

But it helps if the trim is installed correctly. There's a right way and a wrong way to trim a window.

The wrong way to trim a window:  Install the bottom trim all the way across. Then run the side pieces to it. This gives water an opportunity over time to collect in the bottom, setting up an opportunity for mold to grow and rot the wood. Too bad.

The right way to trim a window: Install the side trim all the way to the bottom. Water runs off instead of collecting. The wood trim on this window will last much longer. Simple and thoughtful, and it takes no more effort to do it right.

In conclusion

It was simple dry rot that got me focused on durability these last few months.

You want your home to last.  So do we.

Durability is about quality. Attention to details. A commonsense way of getting things done. Getting in front of problems before they happen. It's not about politics or national infrastructure  or rating systems or measurements.  It's about doing even the simplest things in a thoughtful, responsible way. Doing it right the first time.  Thanks for listening.

--Mary

Building on Conservancy Land

“Can you see it now?" “Nope.” I’m standing on the road with Candy and Sue. They’re siblings, both retired. We’re going to build their home here on this beautiful piece of land. Wayne is back there somewhere, holding a long string tied to a red helium balloon. He’s bushwhacking his way through tall brush, weaving between the trees, and talking into his cell phone. “How about now? Can you see it now?”

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What a Long Strange Trip It's Been

My apologies to Jerry Garcia and the boys, but at this time of year I’m always thinking about the words from an old  Grateful Dead song.  During the holidays and at the end of the year, we take the time to look back and see where we’ve been to help decide where we’re going. It’s especially interesting because this month we celebrate 10 years of Solluna Builders.  And what a wild ride it’s been. We’ve weathered ups and downs in the economy and changes in the building industry, and we’re still having fun. While looking back, I have to ask myself a few questions:

Are we accomplishing our goals? Yes. Construction is underway on some lovely energy-efficient homes, and more worthwhile projects are in the planning and design queue. We value the wonderful, savvy clients who are eager to roll up their sleeves and work with us to plan and build or renovate their homes.

Would we change anything we’ve done? Yes. I’d be a damn fool to say I haven't made mistakes.  The great thing about what I do for a living is I’m constantly learning. While earning my Graduate Master Builder and my Certified Green Professional designations through the National Association of Home Builders, I gained new insights into the industry. By staying in touch with homeowners after I've built or remodeled their homes, I gain insight into the efficiency and durability of the systems, products, materials and techniques we've used so we can constantly improve as we go.

Would I do it all over again? Absolutely. I’m very fortunate to be in a part of the industry that’s leading and changing the way we build houses. As I tell potential clients, just because folks have been building a certain way for hundred years doesn’t make it right anymore. We can make our homes more energy- and resource-efficient. I’m very proud to be out front helping to make those changes and educating customers about the possibilities.

Where do we go from here? “To infinity . . . and beyond.” Ok, I stole that line from the movie Toy Story. But the possibilities are truly limitless. In the 15 years I’ve been in the building business, I’ve seen a lot of changes. New materials, products, vendors and techniques are entering the market every day. As in the past, some will stay and some will go. We love trying new ideas, but we must take care to vet them carefully because we want to make sure they will work and perform as promised.

Mary and I really enjoy writing these newsletters and blogs. We appreciate our contributors.  And we appreciate the feedback we get from you all. Now here is where we need your help. As the year winds down, we’ll be putting our feet up to think and plan for next year’s newsletters. What would you like to read about? What interest you? What do you want to know more about? Please send us ideas, suggestions, or if you're interested in writing, let us know. Remember -- keep those cards and letters coming.  Ok, emails will do.

Now let me take a moment to appreciate how I got here. A big thank you to thank all the clients, potential customers, vendors, suppliers, trade contractors, fellow builders, educators, and everyone else who has been a part of our success. I appreciate the obstacles and difficulties that have presented themselves -- without them I wouldn’t have grown stronger from lessons learned. Also, a very special thank you to my business and life partner, Mary Simon.  Without her contributions -- the website, the newsletter, managing the business, client relations, keeping me sane, and all the other stuff I don’t have time to do -- we wouldn’t be enjoying the success we have.

During this holiday season, I hope you get to spend time with family and the special people in your life. Try to bring new people into your life and add joy to theirs. In the coming year, take the time to have more fun, listen to more music, create more art, and enjoy life. I’m going to make more music and do more motorcycling. So for now, I’m in the wind.

The Green Building Pyramid

Mary SimonBack in my former career in high-tech product development, I sat in long technical meetings. To stay focused (and to entertain myself), I’d listen, collect jargon, and see how many buzzwords, acronyms, and worn-out metaphors I could write down. Jargon’s really pretty useful as shorthand for team communications. And even certain worn-out metaphors are useful. For example, a favorite metaphor of mine is “pick the low-hanging fruit,” meaning, first go after the things that are easy, cost the least, and are most productive. Another thing I was quick to grab onto was any good conceptual model or diagram that explained how all the pieces fit together. It was my job to explain complicated stuff to people, and so if I couldn’t find a good conceptual model, I’d get busy drawing one on the white board.

Let me show you a conceptual model Wayne and I use to talk with our clients: the green building pyramid. We didn’t create this model. Look around and you can find several different versions. We made our own simplified version. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good, and it’s useful for explaining how all the pieces fit together. And listen, if the term “green building” makes you cringe because it’s so overused, then call it the high-performance, healthy, durable home pyramid.

The pyramid answers the question: Where do I put my money and effort to get the best payback? You start at the bottom – there’s your low-hanging fruit – and first do the things that are easiest, cost the least, and are most productive. If you’re building a new home, you can take advantage of all the elements in the pyramid, within your budget. If you’re remodeling, you do the ones you can.

Our simple version of the green building pyramid

First things first. In general, the things at the bottom give you the biggest bang for your buck. The higher you go on the pyramid for even more energy savings and benefits, the greater the cost and complexity.

Want to remodel and lower your energy bills? The pyramid shows how to spend wisely. Why replace the windows if the rest of the house leaks? Start by plugging up the leaky house. Seal the air conditioning ducts. Invest in efficient lighting and appliances. Install better insulation. Then, if your budget allows, it makes sense to upgrade the air conditioner, buy a better water heater, and replace the windows.

Building a new home? Lucky you. You have the opportunity to do everything right. You can design for green upfront, beginning with site layout, the way you orient the house on the property, and proper passive solar design. Some people are tempted to start with the sexy stuff – the solar panels, the geothermal system. Sure, those are great if your aim is a net-zero energy home. But you still have to start with the un-sexy stuff at the bottom and work your way up -- because it’s not just one thing, it’s everything that makes a green, energy-efficient home work. Make sure the foundational pieces are in place so that you get the best payback for your investment.

Hope this helps to stir your thinking. Every box in this conceptual model is rich with information and worthy of long discussion. We’ve covered a few in past blog posts. We’ll cover more in future posts. Let us know if you have any questions or suggestions.

-- Mary


Want to see other versions of the pyramid? Google “green building pyramid” or “energy efficiency pyramid.” See especially the Green Building Pyramid published by Green Builder Magazine. I also like Minnesota Power’s Pyramid of Conservation.