For those considering building or remodeling high quality, and high performance homes, this information will be helpful in your decision making along the way, especially your choice of the right builder. You will gain some insights in recognizing craftsmanship, learn the difference between “completed” and “well resolved”, and get some suggestions about what to notice and what to ask in order to evaluate potential contractors and their work. The intent is to help you get more value from your investment of effort and money as you build or remodel with quality in mind.
This series is based on four Quality Construction Continuums for high performance homes, as illustrated in the graphic below. The left end of each continuum reflects the minimum requirements to be considered “quality” construction essentially, the absence of obvious defects. Getting onto the quality continuum at all is a pass/fail measure. As you move to the right on each continuum you gain additional benefits that provide identifiable value similar to school grades from D to C to B to A. The right end of each continuum is tipped with an arrow to reflect ongoing improvements to building practices, products, and systems.
In Part 1 of the series (June 21, 2017) we focused on the continuum “Code Compliant to High Performance”. Code compliance is based on a number of specific requirements (smoke detectors for example) and/or measurable factors (performance specifications for windows) and is enforced by local building departments where the homes are constructed. Additional performance factors such as energy efficiency, comfort, and indoor air quality are also measurable as you move to the right on the continuum toward high performance homes.
In this post (Part 2) we will address two more of the continuums, “Workmanship to Craftsmanship” and “Completed to Resolved”. Workmanship and Completed both represent minimum acceptable quality standards (pass/fail again). Craftsmanship and Resolved represent additional attention to details that result in improved function, aesthetics, responsible choices, and, ultimately, value.
Workmanship and Craftsmanship: Key to High Performance Homes
Both workmanship and craftsmanship relate to the quality level and attention to details of the actual work done in building a home. How professionally do the carpenters, electricians, plumbers, masons, and other workers accomplish their respective responsibilities throughout the construction process? Workmanship is a relatively generic term that describes how well something is done. It often used with a positive (excellent) or negative (shoddy) modifier. Craftsmanship, on the other hand, implies a higher level of knowledge, skill, and attention to detail. A craftsman knows what to do, how to do it, and is committed to doing it well. You want your home built by men and/or women to whom the term “craftsman” applies.
The job site supervisor also plays an important role in maintaining the level of professionalism on the job site. He or she needs the knowledge, skill, and commitment in order to evaluate and ensure that every employee and sub-contractor is delivering on the promise of craftsmanship.
Completed versus Resolved
Something is completed when it functions according to its intended use. Doors and windows open, close, and lock as appropriate, roofs don’t leak, the heating system provides a level of temperature control throughout the home, the light switches and dimmers work, faucets deliver hot and cold water, and on and on.
Resolved is a higher level of function, fit, and finish. A well resolved solution exhibits careful planning, increased attention to aesthetics, and responsible choices throughout the building process. It begins with initial preparation and continues in addressing opportunities and issues as they come up during construction.
Many of the differences between completed and resolved are easy to identify, but many others are inside the walls, beneath the floors, or otherwise not visible in the finished product. All, however, are needed for high performance homes.
Assessing Craftsmanship and Resolution
In order to evaluate a contractor’s capability and commitment to deliver craftsmanship and well-resolved solutions, you have to see their work. Insist on touring some of the contractor’s previous projects (recently completed and older), as well as projects in process.
- Observe the level of craftsmanship on completed homes and the work environment on current projects
- Look for and ask about examples of careful planning, attention to aesthetic details, and responsible choices
- Ask questions of the contractor, and if possible, the job site supervisors while in the homes or on the construction site… questions are fine in the office too.
What to Look For and Ask: Evaluating High Performance Homes
From here on we will be suggesting things to look for and questions to ask of the contractor or job site supervisor. Obviously, this is only a partial list, but hopefully it can give you some specific things to look for as well as a broad idea of how to evaluate what you observe and learn as you visit a prospective contractor’s projects, both completed and underway.
We use a consistent format to suggest observations and questions regarding different rooms, construction elements (tile work, transitions, trim, etc.), and systems (heating, hot water, mechanical ventilation, etc.).
In order to keep the length of this blog reasonable we have only included the two broadest of the detailed suggestions for “What to Look for or Observe” along with the related “Explanation, Comments, Considerations.” Below you will find the segment on Consistency and Symmetry and the segment on The House as a System. You will also find overviews for the segments: Kitchen, Bathrooms, Ceilings, Challenging Elements, and “Quality” on the Exterior.
Our recommendation is that you read through the two segments below, then read the overviews of the other segments, and request the full detail of the segments which interest you. You can request them in a comment on the blog or if you would like to contact me directly for the additional segments, or with questions you can email me at (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will be happy to send the segments, discuss things further, answer your questions, and/or provide additional details.
Consistency and Symmetry: Each reflects attention to detail in planning… and in execution
Even before you notice details, you may simply sense the underlying quality as you come into a home or go from room to room. If care has been taken to resolve and specify the details, and those specifications are understood and followed judiciously, each room will feel balanced and harmonious. It is not unlike hearing a chord on a guitar or piano. The different notes, played together, are congruous and pleasing. We experience the whole rather than the parts. The reverse is also true. You can sense a lack of balance and harmony without being aware of specific reasons. Below you will find some ideas to evaluate consistency and symmetry when you take the time to observe and ask.
|Look for or Observe||Explanation, Comments, Considerations|
|Consistency and attention to detail||• Baseboards – The trim at the bottom of the walls is one of the last things accomplished and sometimes shows a let down in planning or execution. Is it consistent throughout the home? Are any differences logical based on flooring or room utilization? Can you tell that the same care went into this detail that went into the rest of the carpentry?
• Trim around windows and doors – Similar to baseboards, trimming out windows, doors, and skylights requires detailed plans and careful attention to detail to achieve consistent appearance and quality.
• Power outlets and light switches – More of a planning issue. Are the light switches consistently in the same position relative to doors and at the same height? Do they control the right lighting options when you enter and leave the room? Are the power outlets consistently at the same height and distance from corners or wall features like battens?
|Logic of lighting plan||• Daylighting – Natural light is important. Does the positioning of the windows and skylights (also opacity for skylights) seem to provide an appropriate level of light throughout the day and across the seasons when the Sun is higher or lower in the sky? Can you identify a logical approach to eaves, shading, and/or tinting in order to bring in natural light while avoiding harsh direct sunlight or glare regardless of the season?
• Ambient lighting of rooms – Ambient lighting should supplement daylighting and provide needed light for the room’s activities in the evening. Are the room’s lights sufficient to provide enough light? Are the fixtures in the right places? Is the layout symmetrical? Should any of the lights be directionally adjustable? Are there dimmers where needed? Are there well-located power outlets for lamps?
• Accent and/or task lighting – Does the room or its use call for special lighting solutions such as sconces, indirect light from above soffits, or fixtures to highlight art? If so, is it done well? If the room has a special use as an office, sewing room, library, or something else, does the task lighting support the use?
|Symmetry and consistency||• Positioning of windows and doors – The location of windows and doors should make sense functionally and aesthetically. Does the layout seem logical for the use of the room? Do windows take advantage of any views? Are the windows aesthetically pleasing (from outside and inside) and do they operate appropriately for allowing fresh air, if desired, when the weather permits? Are doors in the right places? Are pocket doors used when space is an issue, and do they work smoothly?
• Spacing around special elements – Inclusion of things like fireplaces or entertainment centers require careful planning and execution in order for them to seem like part of the overall space and function as expected.
• Supply registers and returns for forced air heating – Forced air heating became an option for residential buildings in the 1930s and is still used in a significant percentage of new homes. Because it feels (actually is) cold around single pane windows, it became a standard design to place the supply registers in the floor beneath the exterior windows. It was also standard to over size furnaces and fans in order to overpower the loss of heat through leaky and poorly insulated buildings. For several decades we have had access to double and triple pane windows and much more effective insulation (both required throughout California), but many homes are still designed and constructed using the old, unnecessary placement of heating registers.
If a contractor shows you a home with the old design for a forced air heating system (registers under windows) we suggest you ask them to explain the intelligence behind the design and sizing of the system. “That is how we always have done it” is not an explanation… but is an indication that the contractor is not really up to speed on what is possible, more efficient, and more comfortable based on what we have learned from building science.
|Questions for the Contractor or Subcontractor||• I suggest that you just ask about things you notice that seem unresolved, out of position, or inconsistent based on your observations regarding the above information.|
|What to listen for||• When you ask about your observations, do the answers give you confidence that the project was carefully planned, that things have been well resolved, that the contractor is knowledgeable and was in control throughout, and that the work itself has been thoughtfully and conscientiously completed.|
The House as a System: A home can be more than the sum of its parts only if the parts work together
Many different components come together in finished high performance homes. Those components must be integrated and compliment one another in order to create a comfortable and functional home. In a quality automobile the engine, transmission, drive train, brakes, and even fuel tank are carefully matched to work well together and function as a system. The same is true for a home. Because it is difficult to evaluate this functional integration through observation, in this segment we have suggested topics and included questions for the contractor in order for you to evaluate their understanding and approach to the house as a system.
|Topics to Ask About||Explanations, Comments, and Suggested Questions|
|Right sizing of forced air heating and/or air conditioning||• In the 1950’s we thought that electricity would always be plentiful and cheap, and we were not aware of the environmental damage from fossil fuels. It was a standard practice to oversize forced air heating and air conditioning systems. Houses were very leaky and the strategy was to simply overpower the effects of the air leakage and outside temperature with larger more powerful systems. Remnants of that strategy still have influence today with some architects, contractors, and building departments.
However, today’s codes require homes to be more airtight, have better insulation, and higher performing windows and doors. Heating and AC systems today should be “right sized” at about half the size or smaller than those used a few years ago. When the thermostat is set to a desired temperature, an oversized system will cycle on and off much more frequently, fail to heat the home evenly, waste more electricity/gas, require more maintenance, and wear out sooner. It is like racing between stoplights rather than cruising at an appropriate speed.
• Ask the contractor to describe the logic regarding the size, location, duct system, registers, and returns, that were employed in the design of the forced air and air conditioning systems in houses he/she has built.
Note: Radiant heating systems (although generally more expensive) are less likely to be oversized and are more efficient in creating and maintaining desired warmth, especially with a more airtight home.
|Continuous fresh, filtered air||• Houses do not need to “breathe” but they do require a continuous supply of fresh air. California codes now require “mechanical ventilation” in order to ensure that today’s tighter homes have continuous fresh air from the outside. The simplest way to comply with code is by installing bathroom fans that run at a low speed 24X7 and depressurize a home so that air is pulled in through whatever air leaks remain in the home. (The fans also have the option of higher speeds to quickly expel moist air, after a shower for example)
The problem with this simple method is that much of the “fresh” air is pulled in from the attic, crawlspace, or along the foundation, and as a result is not filtered. A better solution is to employ heat recovery ventilators (HRVs) or energy recovery ventilators (ERVs). Both HRVs and ERVs balance the air exchange by expelling stale or moist indoor air, and at the same time, bring in truly fresh air and filter that air in the process. With an extremely airtight home this can almost eliminate any need for dusting, but more importantly will provide much healthier indoor air.
• Ask the contractor to explain what they normally do for mechanical ventilation, whether or not they have installed HRVs or ERVs, and what they recommend. You may also want to ask them about how they achieve the code requirement for airtightness at 3 air changes per hour (ACPH) or below, and if they do go for a lower ACPH, what they target.
If they are not able to answer these questions to your satisfaction, discount the importance of continuous fresh air, or suggest that it would be much more expensive to use ERVs or HRVs, I would consider it an indication that they are not knowledgeable about current quality building practices.
|Toxins||• While on the topic of healthy air, it is appropriate to bring up toxins. Many building materials (adhesives, glues, laminates, etc.), home products, furniture, fabrics, and finishes contain toxins that are released into the air as VOCs (volatile organic compounds) when they are new and/or over time when exposed to heat, sunlight, moisture, or abrasion. As buildings have become more airtight, the level of these VOCs and other airborne pollutants and allergens in indoor air may increase. Health issues vary depending on a person’s tolerance or sensitivity to these contaminants.
• It is becoming more important to consider and manage these toxins in the construction and furnishing of homes, particularly if there will be children or elderly occupants.
• The topic is too complex for discussion here but I suggest that you ask the contractor for their thoughts and practices regarding the minimization of toxins in building products, building practices, paint and other finishes.
Indoor air quality is a front and center health issue in building and in buildings. I would want my contractor to be knowledgeable and have some experience in managing this growing health concern.
|Water strategies||• Water conservation, capture, and heating are elements of the house as a system… and should be considered for a high quality and high performance home.
• On demand hot water – The challenge is providing hot water to showers and faucets when you want it, but doing so with minimal waste of water or energy. Running the water until the hot water makes it through the pipes wastes precious water. Installation of a hot water loop and recirculation pump will deliver hot water close to the fixtures and reduce the amount of wasted water, but it takes electricity to pump that water, and continuous heating to supply the hot water that circulates through the loop. Adding a timer to the recirculation pump enables some control but still allows significant waste. The most advanced solution requires careful planning, use of flexible tubing, and a combination of occupancy sensors and control switches. Ask the contractor to explain the most advanced systems and what they would recommend for you. Their answers, or lack thereof, will allow you to evaluate their knowledge and experience.
• Grey water capture and use – The water you use to shower, bathe, wash hands, and do laundry can be captured as “grey water” and then used again to flush toilets and/or provide water to your landscaping. A typical greywater system will capture and enable reuse of about 25 gallons a day per person, so a family of four will reduce their water usage by around 3,000 gallons/month. Note: Codes generally require that greywater be used within 24 hours of capture so your plan must enable this continuous usage. Ask your contractor to describe their experience with greywater systems and what they recommend for you. A contractor’s answers will give you some insight into their experience and their commitment to staying current with water conservation strategies.
• Rainwater catchment and use – Capturing and using rainwater for irrigation of gardens and landscaping (rainwater can be stored but can only be used outside) is another excellent strategy for water conservation and lowering water bills. Depending on the location of your home, there may be some additional benefits for the impact of reducing runoff from your property. Some key factors to consider when designing a system are: Roof surface for capture, sizing the storage system, getting captured water to your storage system, getting the stored water to the landscaping, and rationing your last full storage across the months without rain. There are several cost/benefit tradeoffs to be evaluated. Again, asking the contractor for their experience and recommendations will give you insights into rainwater capture and the contractor’s knowledge and expertise.
• Heating water – Heating water is usually the 3rd largest impact on a home’s energy usage. There are some very recent advances in water heating systems that can reduce that energy requirement by up to 75%. Heat pump technology applied to water heating (heat pump water heaters) transfers heat rather than producing heat. The electrical energy required to get hot water using this transfer process is about a quarter of the energy required by and electric or gas water heater to heat a comparable volume of water. Since a heat pump is electric, if you have a renewable energy system (solar or wind) it can be designed to include production to support your demand for hot water.
There are emerging systems that capture the heat from greywater (showers, etc.) and transfer that heat into hot water storage, using a fraction of the energy required to add the same amount of heat using traditional water heating.
If you are interested in using these advanced strategies – Ask the contractor about his or her experience with heat pump water heating systems… and evaluate their level of interest, understanding, and experience with what is possible today.
|Lighting strategies||Note: You can also find this information under “Logic of the lighting plan” from the earlier section on “Consistency and Symmetry.”
• Daylighting – Natural light is important. Does the positioning of the windows and skylights (also opacity for skylights) seem to provide an appropriate level of light throughout the day and across the seasons? Can you identify a logical approach to eaves, shading, and/or tinting in order to bring in natural light while avoiding harsh direct sunlight or glare?
• Ambient lighting of rooms – Ambient lighting should be able supplement daylighting and provide needed light for the room’s activities in the evening. Are the room’s lights sufficient to provide enough light? Are the fixtures in the right places? Is the layout symmetrical? Should any of the lights be directionally adjustable? Are there dimmers where needed? Are there well-located power outlets for lamps?
• Accent and/or task lighting – Does the room or its use call for special lighting solutions such as sconces, indirect light from above soffits, or fixtures to highlight art? If so, is it done well? If the room has a special use as an office, sewing room, library, or something else… does the task lighting support the use?
• The above bullets provide guidance on what to look for when you are shown completed homes or homes under construction. In this section on the House as a System the goal is to evaluate potential contractor’s knowledge and get their perspective on lighting strategy. We suggest that you ask contractors about the factors that they employ when developing and recommending a lighting strategy for a new or remodeled home.
Their answers will allow you to evaluate their familiarity with current products and their application to balance function with efficiency.
|Renewable energy and energy storage||• Solar PV to produce energy – It is likely that you are considering producing enough renewable energy to offset all of your expected annual energy usage. (Note: In 2020 this will be required by code in California.) You may want to include the possibilities of charging electric vehicles and/or heat pump technologies for heating, cooling, and hot water. The logical first step of planning is to make choices that achieve your priorities with minimum energy usage. Then you can more easily plan for a solar array that meets or exceeds your requirements.
• Storage of electrical energy – Most residential renewable energy solutions are specified around the expected annual usage. Essentially, you produce significantly more electricity than you need during the days and rely on energy from the grid at night or during seasons or weather when sunshine is reduced. Today the use of onsite energy storage is becoming more common as a part of the overall energy strategy. This allows you to store the excess energy produced during the hours of sunshine and then draw on that stored energy through the nights. This is an important strategy for the future as more and more renewable energy comes online during the peak sunshine hours. Utilities are already encouraging this strategy by converting to time of use billing. In addition, including electrical energy storage in your energy plan increases the resilience of your home should utility power be interrupted for any reason.
• Storage of thermal energy – In the same way that a thermos keeps hot beverages hot and cold beverages cold, a relatively airtight home with increased insulation will store thermal energy, acting as a thermal battery. The more slowly your home loses heat in winter or allows heat intrusion during the summer, the less energy you will need to maintain the desired temperature year round. Your “thermos like” home will reduce your need for energy and amplify the positive effect of any onsite battery storage. Continuous fresh, filtered air will be provided as described earlier in this section.
• Having a well thought out energy strategy that includes renewables like solar power, battery storage, and the thermal energy storage is an important factor in building a home that will provide maximum comfort and economy, as well as retain its value. Ask the contractor to explain how they think through the renewable energy and energy storage (electric and thermal) systems when building a new home. Ideally the contractor will be able to provide a well-informed answer to this question and all of the detailed questions that follow.
From this point on we provide the introductory overviews for the other available sections. The detail of what to observe and questions to ask for each or all are available on request. Simply request the sections you want in a comment to this blog, or contact Jay Gentry directly. (Jay@concomt.com)
Kitchen: In design and function, a kitchen provides many opportunities to excel… or to fall short
Hub of activity and gathering place, a kitchen needs to support storage, preparation, serving, and clean up of meals, as well as the tools of the chef and, at the same time, accommodate observation and conversation. Integrating cabinets, countertops, tile, sinks, fixtures, appliances, lighting, and other elements so that they work functionally and visually requires both thoughtful design and craftsmanship. Well designed kitchens are a critical factor in high performance homes.
Bathrooms: A lot going on in limited space… challenges and choices
Bathrooms have several functions, a variety of materials, fixtures, and finishes – all integrated into a limited space. Due to this complexity, they offer many opportunities to illustrate the differences between completed and resolved in design and execution. Individual components generally work (toilets flush, showers don’t leak, etc.) but in combination can limit options and cause aesthetic challenges. When evaluating quality it is also important to consider possible issues that are hidden under the sinks or built into the walls.
Ceilings: Don’t just look around… look up
Observing the ceilings and the elements that are built into or attached to them can give you important clues regarding the attention to detail as they were planned, built, and finished. The more complex the ceiling design (beams, vaulting, moldings, etc.), the more opportunities for a builder and their team to deliver top quality… or not. Asking the contractor or supervisor about what you see and the process of building it will also help you evaluate their capabilities and commitment.
Challenging Elements: Pay special attention to transitions and integration of components
Transitions from room to room, floor to stairs, or one material to another will reflect the level of planning and craftsmanship. This is especially true for remodels because you want the transitions between existing and new to disappear. Also, look closely at the detail on stairs, fireplaces, heating registers and returns, and the installation of cabinets and shelves.
“Quality” on the Exterior: Consider fit, finish, water management, and sunlight
Knowledge and commitment to doing the right things, and doing those things right, are critical. The elements (rain, temperature, sun, and wind) are the enemy of durability. Water and moisture management are particularly big deals. This section will suggest what to look for on the outside of high quality and high performance homes.
One More Thing: It is a red flag if the contractor warns you of additional difficulty or expense
When contractors are unfamiliar with the current and ongoing advances in building science, products, systems, and practices they may believe that planning and building high performance homes using these products, systems, and practices will be difficult and prohibitively expensive. This is simply not true and is analogous to your grandparent’s refusal to embrace smartphones and social media.
If you are already planning on building or remodeling with quality in mind, the incremental expense of including “high performance” as an element of that quality will be very small. A home today, built to the most aggressive performance standards, will typically only require a 5% to 7% additional investment. The return on that investment in efficiency, comfort, healthy indoor air, and cost of ownership changes the question from “Why would you do this?” to “Why would you not?”. You will however want to choose a contractor who has the capability and commitment to lead you through the process.
Written by Jay Gentry
Picture courtesy of Carmel Building and Design