Q&A - Building codes then and now

One of the lessons I've learned from over 30 years of building my own homes is that there is one constant in the world of home building. That constant is change, and it affects just about every facet of the process of building a home.

The change I am talking about specifically is the evolution of building codes. The town in which I am building my home has codes that provide standards for the structure, placement of features within the structure, how large the structure can be, and what it can be used for, among other things. Building codes can be useful for regulating parking, protecting structures from the danger of fire, and helping to determine who is qualified to do certain jobs.

Many of the items that are included in today's building codes were born out of a way of doing things that was passed down through the generations. It took a long time for building science to evolve, and people made many mistakes along the way.

There aren't very many downsides to building codes, but one of them is that building codes have the potential to detract from the aesthetic appeal of buildings, especially when people build to the minimum code requirements. Also, homes don't have the same look and feel that they used to - think of homes built in the late 19th century versus now. Many of the construction techniques and materials used are either no longer available, lost to time, or against the law.

I'd be interested to hear what your thoughts are - do you think the benefits of building codes outweigh the nostalgia of building projects past? Join the conversation and let us know!

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Building a balanced system

A balancing act

Sometimes, I liken being a home builder to being a chef. It’s not too much of a stretch if you can get past the part about delicious food and delve into the processes that bring success to both types of people - doing well at either of these high-intensity professions depends on one’s ability to manage a lot of details simultaneously and time everything perfectly. I build homes more for my own personal enjoyment, but I find that these principles still apply.

Right now, I have a lot of different parts of the project happening simultaneously. I’m at the rough-in stage for my electrical and plumbing systems. I’ve installed outlet boxes and rudimentary wiring, and for plumbing the PEX tubing and drains are in. I’m also working on installing the ventilation ductwork as well as a commercial-grade sprinkler system throughout the home. I’m hoping to wrap up all of these items around the same time.

Working on four or five different parts of a big project like this has its ups and downs. On one hand, it is definitely a balancing act. I can’t get too far into one portion of this stage of the project without working on other items at a similar pace - not doing so will ultimately slow down the entire project. On the flip side, if my materials for one part of this project are late I can simply migrate over to something else.

Ductwork system

I began installing the duct work for my home several weeks ago. at this point, the supply pipes are mainly in and I’ve moved on to working on the return ductwork.

I decided to place my ventilation system in the attic, for a couple of reasons. My living room has cathedral ceilings, so the air towards the top of the ceiling will get hot and stale unless it gets recirculated. I’ve also learned that placing vents in the floor can obstruct furniture placement and creates the potential for inconveniently dropping things into the vents. Again, it’s all about comfort.

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Dave's Quips - What's behind the drywall?

By now, I’ve written a few entries on this blog about wall construction and the methods I’m using to construct the building envelope. I can’t stress enough how important choosing a solid wall construction method is to the overall energy efficiency of your home. 

Say you move into a brand new house. It may look nice on the outside, with a fresh green lawn and ornate door fixtures that greet you each time you pull into the driveway. Open the front door, and the first thing you see is a stone tile floor illuminated by an ornate lighting fixture. Maybe you sunk some money into things like marble countertops in the bathroom, modern plumbing fixtures, a large kitchen island. Cosmetically, this hypothetical house looks fantastic.

But the real question is, does the hypothetical home of your dreams feel as nice as it looks? Do the marble countertops seem to make you shiver when you’re in the kitchen? Do you need to wear a sweater when you go upstairs? Is the basement a little bit too warm? You can engineer these problems away when building a new home.

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Q&A - Doing a solid for the Earth

One of my biggest goals with this project has been to reduce, whenever possible, my impact on the environment during all of the stages of my project. If you remember back to the very first episode, I walked through the woods on my property and made a promise to myself to keep sustainability in mind for the project.

I'd like to say that I've done a fairly good job at this so far. When I cleared a portion of my 2.2 acre parcel to begin building, I tried to minimize the need to remove trees and other vegetation from the property. When it came time to start building, I used a lot of recycled commercial grade insulation for the building envelope.

The real savings and benefits for planet Earth will come when the home is completed, and I can minimize my use of fossil fuel powered electricity by utilizing PV solar panels for a lot of our electricity. I may not be living "off the grid", but maybe "off the electrical grid" or a variation thereof would be a more appropriate term.

I'm still curious about using recycled materials for a project, though. I wonder how many other people do the same thing, and what kind of an impact it has on protecting our environment. A lot of my contractor friends prefer to buy new, but I know that there are a lot of materials out there that can be reused.

So, that's why I'd like to hear from you - when it comes to using recycled materials for a project, what are some best practices that have helped you? Join the conversation and let us know!

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Fire prevention - protecting your life and your investment

I have a friend who worked in the news media for a while, who covered all types of disasters, among other things. From floods to blizzards to tornadoes, this friend of mine told me about the times he witnessed the carnage that mother nature inflicted on building structures, and in turn on people’s lives.

The one type of disaster my news reporter friend covered the most, however, was fire. Apartment fires, house fires, and commercial structure fires. They happen every day, all the time for all kinds of different reasons. A faulty electrical system, improperly placed insulation, a child playing with matches. I could fill the entire page with a list of hypothetical scenarios.

The ever present danger of fire has me thinking about the best ways I can protect my investment - our eco-friendly home is in a precarious stage of construction in which the inner wooden skeleton of the structure is exposed and permanent fire prevention systems have not yet been installed. Fire prevention is something I take seriously - once my home is finished, you’ll see a menagerie of fire prevention features including a commercial grade sprinkler system, and an array of heat, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors as well as fire extinguishers.

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What happens underground...

A septic system is something many people really think about, or choose not to for obvious reasons. Whether or not you have a septic tank probably depends on whether or not you live in an urban area with town sewers. If you live off the beaten path like I do, every time you peel a vegetable in the sink or rinse off in the shower after a hot day in the sun, wastewater goes down the drain into your septic tank.

I know what you’re thinking, that wastewater should be out of sight, out of mind. While the “out of sight” part might be true, I think that everyone with a septic tank should understand how they work. That’s why as I install my system at my new home, I took the time to have a conversation with the man who dug the hole and installed it. I’ve been working with foundation contractor Mike Evangelisti for many years on a variety of projects, and he has advanced knowledge of just about everything that happens underground.

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Q&A - Protecting your investment

It’s hard to put a price on the time and effort that I’ve put into building my new home so far. Some people have told me that when it comes to a project like this, there is no greater investment you can make than the time you spend on the project itself. Indeed, from all of the man hours I’ve spent consulting with licensed professionals to the hours I spend each week at the job site, a project like this definitely requires a significant time commitment.

Just like any other home builder, I worry about unforeseen circumstances affecting my project. These circumstances can range from a colder than usual winter, theft of materials, and unscrupulous contractors to fires, floods and other natural disasters. It’s completely necessary to my wits about me and an eye to the sky.

I want my new home to last a long time, so I’m curious to see if any of you homeowners or homebuilders out there have any recommendations for any one of these scenarios. I think sharing information like this is one of the most powerful things anyone can do to protect their investment, as well as the time and effort you put into a project.

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Drilling the perfect well

Right now, I have a lot of different parts of my homebuilding project happening simultaneously. I’ve begun taking a look at some options for home automation, and I’m continuing to work with a local electrician to install the wiring in my new home.

Now that the framing of my home is basically done and most of the construction has moved inside, I can finally get a drilling rig into the back yard and drill the hole that will become our well.

I have a few things to consider here for this portion of my project. The first, of course, is price. Prices for drilling are usually quoted by the foot, and the costs vary depending on whether you’re drilling through sand, clay, or solid rock. The well I’m drilling will probably be more expensive because we’ll be drilling through granite in order to reach the aquifer.

Another consideration is hiring somebody you trust to drill your well - this is kind of a one-and-done deal, you don’t want to have to go back and drill another hole because somebody made a mistake. So, I’ve hired Larry Sima of Sima Drilling to take care of this for me - I’ve worked with Larry before on previous projects, and the Sima family has been drilling wells in the Connecticut area since the 1950s. Sima’s well drilling experience spans over 20,000 wells, so I trust them to get the job done right.

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Q&A - Kids in the house

Usually when people think of "designing a home with kids in mind", images of brightly colored rooms with lots of toys come to mind, maybe building a bathroom where there's an extra step built in so your little ones can reach the sink a bit easier.

Even though my children are grown and out of the house, I know there are lots of parents out there who are interested in projects like mine who have kids living at home or are designing a home and have children to take into consideration.

So, how do you design a kid-friendly/eco-friendly home? I've discovered that there aren't as many resources for this particular question as I thought, but the resources that are out there are fairly good. Calgary's Child has a good article that addresses many common questions parents might have about eco-friendly building design as it pertains to children.

According to Calgary's Child, one of the biggest items parents should keep in mind when designing a new home is what kind of chemicals are used in the manufacture the furniture and interiors of your new home. Did you know that particleboard furniture is often manufactured with formaldehyde and can emit toxic gasses over time? Did you know that laminate countertops can potentially contain toxic materials?

When I was growing up, most parents did not really take these details into consideration. But nowadays it seems like more parents are educated about the toxicity of the materials that surround us every day and want to make the best decisions for their children.

I'd like to hear what you think - aside from chemicals, what else is important to keep in mind when designing a sustainable home where your children will grow up? Join the conversation and let us know!

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Comfort at the push of a button

Everybody remembers the stereotypical “home of tomorrow” reels from the 1950s. We’ve all seen them at one point or another. The ones that showcase how all of your home conveniences will one day be a push of a button away, all in stunning grainy black and white photography. Or technicolor.

Over the years, many of the home conveniences that people envisioned 50 years ago have come true, perhaps not exactly in the way that people at the time envisioned. I don’t think anyone could have pictured the rise of the internet and a world of connected devices, but here it is. Want to control the temperature in your home at the push of a button? You can do that. The button may not be made of steel on a control board the size of a refrigerator chest, but that’s okay.

As far as today’s home automation industry goes, it can be a mind-boggling experience to try and wade through all the different options that are available. Before I make any final decisions about what to automate, I have to ask myself a few important questions. What do I want to automate? What makes the most sense? Is home automation worth spending money on?

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