Thinking on your feet

I’ve been building my own homes for over 30 years, and in the process I’ve learned a few things that only come with experiencing a string of homebuilding projects. Building homes has been a hobby of mine that has withstood the test of time, economic changes, and technological advances in the trades.

I consider myself a die-hard homebuilder, and I’ve kept up with trends and innovations so that each time I’ve built a new home, my next project always surpasses the one that came before it. Building an eco-friendly, safe and secure comfortable home means that in addition to giving my plans a great deal of forethought, I also have to be prepared to make decisions on the fly.

One thing I’ve learned is that if I encounter a complication in a portion of my project or an unforeseen externality to building my home a certain way, I don’t have to face it alone. Rick Staub and Greg Echtman of Point One Architects have helping me plan this project from the beginning.

One of my first big “decisions on the fly” involved the availability of the person I initially chose to build my home, Bill Zdon. As my project timeline moved along, Bill became hung up on an unrelated job and couldn’t begin work at the jobsite. Even though I have a good relationship with Bill, I needed to stick to my established timeframes. So, I hired a local framer to bring the project to a certain stage. Hopefully, Bill can wrap up on his current job and consult with me on some of the insulation details.

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Q&A - Eco-friendly plumbing

Installing a plumbing system into a new home means using a variety of different products made from a number of different materials, not all of which are sustainably sourced or manufactured. The good news is, if you’re building a new home you have a lot of control over what materials and products you decide to incorporate into your system.

Installing eco-friendly plumbing has a number of benefits including reducing waste, saving water and energy, and in some cases providing performance superior to that of conventional plumbing products.

There are several different features that I am considering adding to my home’s plumbing system including PEX tubing, energy-efficient toilets and other plumbing fixtures, and water-saving outdoor watering system. Since I’m at the beginning of this part of my homebuilding process, there’s still plenty of time to work out the details.

How would you make your plumbing system more eco-friendly? Join the conversation and let us know!

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Framing walkthrough - part II

In my last post about framing my new home, I wrote mostly about the insulation techniques that I am using and the layers of protection that I am adding to the wall construction to keep the indoor temperature consistent, along with techniques that I used in building the basement and first floor.

My framing design and insulation layout will be just as important on the second story and roof. However, there are a few extra items that I have to keep in mind as I proceed. I have to pay attention to the dead space between the rafters and the top of the second story frame when I insulate - the spots where the roof meets the walls of my home is a common area where heat tends to escape in many homes. In order to avoid that, I’m making sure the insulation makes a seamless transition from the rooftop down to the foundation.

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Q&A - Speed vs. quality

There have been times during my project that I have wanted to get it all done at once. One example of this I can think of off the top of my head is wanting to get the framing portion of my project done before the cold sets in. While this may seem like a simple goal, I know from experience that getting a stage of my project done in a timely manner depends on my ability to stick to a timeline and coordinate the efforts of the professionals I have enlisted to help build my home.

But, I’m not always able to get things done as quickly as I would like to. Sometimes personal events or work-related commitments require my attention, or the professionals I work with get called away to other jobs unexpectedly. Generally, I try not to allow my blood pressure to go up in these situations because I know to expect the unexpected during the course of any project.

I’ve also found that there is sometimes a balance between doing things fast and doing things right - where a project falls on that spectrum is usually subjective and dependent on a number of different factors related to the nature of a project.

Do you think it’s important to work faster, or do you think there is inherent value in sacrificing speed for quality? Join the conversation and let us know!

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Framing walkthrough - basement and first floor

After months of careful planning with my architect, the building inspector and other members of my team, we’re picking up the pace of the construction phase of my eco-friendly homebuilding project.

I’ve completed a large portion of the framing process and construction of my building envelope. There are a lot of details that I am paying attention to that are often missed in ordinary construction techniques - the foundation has been insulated with 2 inches of XPS rigid insulation on the exterior side, and 2 inches of rigid insulation on the inside. XPS insulation doesn’t absorb moisture and is a good choice for ground-level insulation. I also surrounded the entire concrete foundation with a layer of waterproofing to keep moisture out and maintain optimal control of the structure’s indoor temperature and comfort level.

Since I live in a colder part of the country, it’s super important for me to pay attention to these details. A 10-inch thick poured concrete foundation is considered “R-1” - that is, a 10-inch thick wall of concrete holds the same heat flow resistance as a single pane of glass. Many people think that just because concrete is thick and solid that it will keep their home warm and toasty during the wintertime. However, concrete is very porous and heat is easily able to escape. So in order to increase the R value of my foundation, I am placing layers of insulation inside and out.

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Field Knowledge - AHR Sitdown with Jay Egg

My career in the comfort industry has brought me the good fortune of being able to meet a number of professionals that specialize in renewable energy. I know that as I continue on in the construction process for my new home, I still have a number of decisions to make when it comes to what mechanical systems I will end up installing, and what renewable energy options are available to me.

During my trip to the AHR Expo in Orlando, Florida in January, I had the pleasure of talking to Jay Egg, one of the foremost experts in geothermal heating and cooling. Jay is a consultant and designer of geothermal HVAC systems and has been working in the field for over 25 years. Our conversation provided me with valuable information about how geothermal heating and cooling works, and the benefits of having a system installed.

I’ve found that trade shows like the AHR expo are a great place for people like Jay and I to meet and enjoy conversations together about topics that concern all of us across the comfort industry.

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HVAC Heats Up

I know know that when my new eco-friendly home is finished, the finished structure will have a HERS rating of 5 if everything goes according to plan. With 100 representing the least energy efficient home possible and the number zero representing the most energy efficient structures, my home will be very close to net zero.

As you know by now, my plan for a tight building envelope is a big part of what is going to make this possible. Since I plan to control the flow of air into and out of my new home with multiple layers of high R value insulation, installing the right HVAC mechanical components and systems is critical to maintaining indoor comfort.

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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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