Q&A - Keeping the balance with building materials

The benefits of using eco-friendly building materials in a project are numerous and include reduced maintenance costs, conserving energy, and greater flexibility when it comes to designing your home.

For this project, I have taken a systemic approach to implementing an eco-friendly design, but it all started with selecting quality building materials at the very outset of my project. For example, when we cleared a portion of our 2.2-acre parcel to build the structure, I decided to use the forest topsoil for my lawn once the home is complete rather than have landscapers truck in new dirt to my property. That decision shaved down my carbon footprint somewhat and inspired me to select recycled, locally available materials whenever it makes sense.

Some people will build their project around decisions like this and select salvaged, refurbished or reusable materials whenever possible, but for this project I've done my best to have my cake and eat it too. A comfortable indoor living space is absolutely necessary for my wife and I, and so is sustainability. Therefore, when I select building materials I have to keep these two criteria at the forefront of every decision I make.

Where do you draw the line when selecting building materials for your project? What do you think of my approach? Join the conversation and let us know!

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Special edition - roundtable discussion

I’ve found through my years of homebuilding experiences that the professionals I work with on a project frequently operate in “silos”, or autonomously from one another. While I may have a lot of one on one interaction with each specialist, it’s generally uncommon for the people I work with to get a chance to interact with each other during the course of a project.

As progress continues on the construction of this eco-friendly home that may very well become our retirement home, I’ve put my decades of homebuilding experience to work. I envisioned this project being one where the professionals I work with see a lot of interaction with one another. Accomplishing this is not always an easy task - foundation contractors, architects, and engineers are usually very busy people and most don’t really have the opportunity to do much more than build off of the work the previous professionals did on a project.

I’ve learned that the more interaction the professionals I work with have with each other, the more these experts whose help I enlist begin to look like a team. It also helps that I am not a novice when it comes to building homes, so I have a great deal to talk with them about. I definitely think that this level of communication will yield a superior product in the end, the home my wife and I will move into at the conclusion of the project.

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Q&A - Pouring the perfect foundation

I know it might sound cliché, but I believe that the foundation of a new home is the cornerstone to a project's success. The reasons for this are fairly straightforward - I've seen projects where a foundation is poured incorrectly and cracks form in the cement over time, which opens up places where air can escape and enter. Since I intend to make my building envelope as tight as possible to control the conditions inside of my home, it’s important that the foundation is solid and well-poured.

One other misconception about foundations that many people don’t think about is the porous nature of foundation concrete. It’s easy to be misled into thinking that because concrete is as solid as rock that it will keep the outside air out of your basement, but actually the opposite is true. Concrete is one of the most porous materials there is when it comes to air and water infiltration.

That’s why after my foundation was poured, I immediately set to work insulating it with two inches of rigid insulation on the inside, and two inches of XPS rigid insulation on the outside along with waterproofing and cement board. If I want to build a home with a low R value I know that insulating the basement walls is key to creating the energy efficient, comfortable space that my family and I can enjoy.

Like other elements of my project, I like to know what I'm getting into and develop a plan even before the shovels hit the ground. If you’ve built a home or poured a foundation before, what considerations matter to you when it comes to this critical project element? Join the conversation and let us know.

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Consulting engineers - a critical project resource

There are a myriad of advantages to using the skills of an engineer for some of all of the portions of your homebuilding project. Sometimes your town may require a particular system in your new home to be an “engineered system” — for example, I am considering installing a sprinkler system in my new home, for which I’d have to have an engineer design it and provide plans and diagrams to the town.

Other times, engineers are useful to consult with when you want to verify that a system will work correctly, or you want expertise on an area of your project that you may not have as much experience with. Some engineers are employed directly by industrial companies, state agencies, or construction firms. Other engineers are more like “free agents” and consult on projects as needed by third party individuals or companies.

Through my experiences in home construction, I’ve learned to always know where I stand when it comes to knowing what I can do myself and what areas of a project that I should consult with professionals for. Whether it’s to meet building codes or out of some other necessity, engineers in consulting engineering companies provide a vital service through the independent expertise they offer.

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Q&A - Picking the best wall construction techniques and materials

As you probably know by now, the type of wall construction I'll be using for my new home is a pillar of my project. While some builders focus on mechanical systems or other more visible parts of a home's construction to try and save energy and reduce the home's carbon footprint, I know that a tight building envelope is the direction I want to go with my project.

A few weeks ago, I posted a detailed diagram of the wall construction techniques I plan to use for my home. From the architectural roof shingles right down to the foundation, this diagram provides a soup-to-nuts illustration of how I plan to drive the HERS score of my home all the way down to a 5, while providing a comfortable indoor environment for my family at the same time.

Even though I've worked with an architect firm and consulting engineers on the development and application of the wall construction techniques illustrated in this diagram, I am always looking for feedback on the design and selection of materials. If you've developed a proprietary wall construction technique for your homebuilding project, I'd love to know what you did and what your thoughts are of my design. Join the conversation and let us know!

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The "ins and outs" of Windows and Doors

When I visited my industry colleague and fellow eco-friendly homebuilder Bill Zdon a few months ago at a seaside cottage he’s renovating, he said something something to me that has stuck with me ever since. “Always remember Dave, at the end of the day a window is really just a giant hole in the side of your home,” Bill told me.

Bill is right, and as we move forward in putting together the skeleton of our new home, I have to consider how we are going to fill those giant homes in the side of my new home. Since a tight building envelope is a priority for me when it comes to this project, I want to make sure that we pick the right windows and doors for this project.

There are a lot of different window constructs and styles that I can choose from, and I am going into the selection process armed with a little bit of information from research I did myself beforehand:

     - I will need custom windows for this project, because my home isn’t being built from a stock plan. Custom home plan, custom windows.

     - I don’t have as much flexibility when it comes to the size of the doors - egresses have meet building codes and be able to function correctly during an emergency, and a door that’s too small or too large may not be up to code or may prevent a life-saving escape in an emergency. However, I have some latitude when it comes to the materials I pick for the doors. From pre-finished solid wood to metal or fiberglass, there’s no doubt that my choice of material will have a significant impact on the home’s final R value.

     - There are quite a few styles of windows to choose from - single or double-hung, center bar or true arch, casement or sliders. Obviously aesthetics is a big factor for my wife and I, but if I can get a window style I like and boost the energy efficiency and comfort of our new home then that will help me meet our project goals.

To learn the “ins and outs” of windows and doors (no pun intended), I am working with David Lee of Rings End Lumber in Niantic, Connecticut. David is a veteran salesman of interior and exterior windows, doors and accessories and as such knows his products inside out. I am very optimistic that my meetings with him will be productive and contribute towards the success of my project.

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Dave's Tips - The ground up starts with the top down

In my experience, planning a homebuilding project almost never progresses in a linear fashion. While the execution of the project may proceed from a "point a to point b" way - beginning with the planning process, consultations with an architect firm, selecting materials and building the home - the order in which you plan the details of each stage of your project may not.

When I began thinking about what kind of home I wanted to build, I started by picturing what it would be like to walk through the door of my finished home. I imagined what kind of energy-saving features I would like to be greeted by when I walk through the front door, where I wanted the kitchen and dining room to be positioned, and other things like that.

Having a generally clear idea in my head of what I wanted the final product to look and feel like has helped me develop better plans for the earlier stages of my project. Working backwards to me means understanding what my goal is, and then breaking it down into units that can be planned independently.

A home-building project is a lot like a complicated dessert recipe - the selection and timing of the application of ingredients is very important. I know that as the "executive chef", the right methodology behind my planning can make a project smooth sailing.

What's your process for getting a major project like this underway to completion? Join the conversation and let us know!

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Q&A - Choosing the best insulation

The insulation construction techniques I am using in my homebuilding project are one of the highlights of this project. I know that once our new home is completed, a tight building envelope will keep us cool during the summer and warm during the winter at minimal cost to the environment and my wallet.

Coming up with the right system of insulation for our new home required quite a bit of forethought - I plan on using a continuous layer of insulation from the foundation to the roof deck, and back down to the foundation. I designed the majority of this system myself based on experiences I've had building other homes as well as research into the climate of Connecticut, the area where my new home is being built, and my goal of living in a comfortable, sustainable home.

In order to show you what I have planned for insulation and wall construction, I have created a detailed diagram of each layer. Click the "read more" button to see it.

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A visit to the Energize CT Center

We are just about to get going on what I consider to be the “meat” of the project - for me, that’s the framing and wall construction process. The construction of my new home’s outer shell will be a primary determinant of how much we are able to lower our carbon footprint and how much energy we will save.

I can’t let my excitement about building the skeleton of our new home and installing the associated insulation panels and layers overshadow other elements that are just as important. Once the framing/wall construction process is complete, we’ll pretty much immediately move to the next stage of the process - installing solar panels, electrical systems and mechanical systems. Since that won’t happen for at least a few months, I have a good opportunity to make some decisions now so that I am prepared when the time comes.

Before I make any decisions about things like lighting, mechanical systems, kitchen appliances and roofing materials, I want to be as educated as I can about the various options that are available to me and make the best choices possible. Since building eco-friendly and maintaining indoor comfort are equally important to me, I know that every assessment of each option is important.

Since we live in Connecticut, I have the great fortune of having an excellent resource to turn to for education about these matters. The Energize CT Center in North Haven offers a complete educational tour with interactive exhibits about many of the items I need to make decisions about for my project.

I am lucky enough to have Jennifer Parsons there to show me around - she came out to our 2.2 acre parcel a few months ago to talk about energy efficiency programs and other incentives. I am excited to learn what she has to teach and go over some of my updated blueprints and energy efficiency plans.

Do you have any tips on things to pay special attention as I begin planning for the next stage of our homebuilding process? Join the conversation and let us know!

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Q&A - Saving money without compromising comfort

It's a given that any home building project is going to cost money. If you're building a home from a custom plan like I am, the importance of keeping track of your costs and expenses increases tenfold. That's why from the beginning of my project until the end, I keep careful records of every expense that I've incurred and potential future expenses, in order to be square with my budget and make sure that my expenses correspond with the progress I make on my project.

I once heard an old navy quote that resonated with me. I can't remember who I heard it from but a long time ago, somebody said to me "Dave, plan your dive and dive your plan." I believe this quote comes from SCUBA divers who are getting ready to go on a deep-sea dive. From the beginning of a dive until the end when you get pulled back up onto the boat, being mindful of the situation and every stage of the dive is critically important - a failure to do so could result in serious injury or death.

Building a new eco-friendly home isn't quite as nerve-wracking as SCUBA diving, but to me it's just as much fun. "Plan your dive and dive your plan" has some relevance when it comes to planning out a budget and saving money. I decided early on in my project that I would try to save money where possible, but not unnecessarily so - I don't want my project to cost a fortune, but I don't want penny pinching to be so pervasive in my project that I end up with an unsatisfactory final product.

So let me put this out there - what do you think is the easiest way to save money on a project like this without sacrificing comfort and the home's "shade of green"? Your replies could help me shave a few dollars off my bills and maintain the quality of my project.

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