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One of my favorite blogs, ‘Cake Wrecks‘ covers a challenge that anyone building or remodeling a home needs to take into consideration. There is often a distinct, visible and potentially costly difference between what you think your new house will look like and how it actually turns out.
The reality, when it comes to residential design and construction is quite simple: It is irresponsible to build, remodel or add onto a home if you have no idea what it will look like, and have not carefully considered a full menu of choices in material and color options!
To a certain extent, there is no way anyone can guarantee what a home will look like after its built, since there are always variables and surprises that come up in any construction project. However, there are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk of a ‘Home Wreck.’
As you move forward with your construction plans, remember that this could be the single largest investment you will ever make, and it is your right to have a clear picture of what it is that you are investing in.
At the end of every day, I find myself closing dozens of browser windows and tabs with reference sites and great information I plan to eventually revisit, but never do. Sadly, I’m not very efficient with Bookmarks, so these sites often get lost in the shuffle.
So, I decided to pull all of the best online references related to high performance home construction into a single, easy to find location, and publish it as a blog post so readers can share their own valuable resource-finds to it over time.
Most are related to universal principles – especially in the U.S., but some are only relevant in Wisconsin or cold weather climates. This list is by no means exhaustive, and there are a lot more resources that could be added. I intend to continue adding to the list in this post over time, and encourage readers to share their own resources and links related to the topic of high performance, energy efficient, or otherwise ‘green’ single-family residential design and construction practices. I would like to keep this list focused on resources provided by non-profit organizations or government agencies, but if a site is clearly an outstanding and helpful resource for people considering a new build, I’ll post those as well. Enjoy!
ENERGY STAR – http://www.energystar.gov/ ENERGY STAR is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy helping us all save money and protect the environment through energy efficient products and practices. Wisconsin ENERGY STAR: http://www.focusonenergy.com/Residential/New-Home/For_Builders/Wisconsin-Homes/
NAHB National Green Building Program http://www.nahbgreen.org/ The National Green Building Program offers several resources and tools to help builders, remodelers, home building associations, and homeowners learn how to build green, and the benefits of doing so.
Focus on Energy http://www.focusonenergy.com/Residential/ Our Residential Programs show Wisconsin residents how to reduce their carbon footprints and lower their costs of living by being more energy efficient.
Building Science Foundation – homeowner resources http://www.buildingscience.com/resources/homeowner_resources Practical recommendations for building, renovating and maintaining healthy and affordable housing. This site provides objective, high-quality information about buildings. This resource combines building physics, systems design concepts, and an awareness of sustainability to promote the design and construction of buildings that are more durable, healthier, more sustainable and more economical than most buildings built today.
Green Home Guide http://www.greenhomeguide.org/ A green home incorporates smart design, technology, construction and maintenance elements to significantly lessen the negative impact of the home on the environment and improve the health of the people who live inside. No matter your location or living situation, the opportunities for living a greener life at home are limited only by your imagination. Be sure to check out * Green Homes 101 * Green Homes Checklist o Includes discussion of location, Size, Building Design, Green Building Materials, Insulation, Windows and Doors, Energy Efficiency, ENERGY STAR® , Renewable Energy, Water Efficiency, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Landscaping
The Healthy House Institute http://www.healthyhouseinstitute.com/ The resource for a better, safer, indoor environment
The Forest Stewardship Council http://www.fscus.org/ It’s purpose is to coordinate the development of forest management standards throughout the different biogeographic regions of the U.S., to provide public information about certification and FSC, and to work with certification organizations to promote FSC certification in the U.S.FSC-US has a national presence through the work of its Board of Directors, members, staff, and regional standards coordinators.
Green Building Talk http://greenbuildingtalk.com/ Provides information and Internet services to the construction marketplace about Green Building, including Insulating Concrete Forms (ICFs), Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs), Radiant Heating, Geothermal Heat Pumps, Solar and Wind Power, Windows, Doors, Interior Finish, Exterior Finish, Appliances, Lighting, Kitchen Fixtures, Bath Fixtures, and more
Green Built Home http://wi-ei.org/greenbuilt/ Green Built Home(GBH) is a national award winning green building initiative that reviews and certifies new homes and remodeling projects that meet sustainable building and energy standards.
LEED for Homes http://www.usgbc.org/displaypage.aspx?cmspageid=147 LEED for Homes is a rating system that promotes the design and construction of high-performance green homes. A green home uses less energy, water and natural resources; creates less waste; and is healthier and more comfortable for the occupants.
The Residential Energy Services Network RESNET http://www.natresnet.org/ http://www.resnet.us/about/resnet.htm “RESNET is a national standards making body for building energy efficiency rating systems
This is, by far, the most common concern related to new home and remodel construction. Unfortunately, determining the cost of construction is incredibly complex, with no clear standards or equations to guide you. Worse yet, the cost of materials and services is a moving target, fluctuating widely from year to year, and in many cases from one month to the next. Builder fees are also an unknown variable that vary from one builder to the next – also subject to change based on market demand. But the good news is, you can establish some realistic expectations at the start of your project by working with the right builder and design team. You can also establish some base-line figures by comparing your goals with recent market precedents and keep your project on track to avoid headaches and heartbreaks later in the design process. Here are a few tips and observations that may help get you started.
How much can you afford to build?
One common rule of thumb that applies to any home is that your mortgage payment should not exceed 25% to 27% of your monthly income – though that percentage can fluctuate, depending on your personal circumstances. The most realistic means of determining what you can afford would be to work closely with your financial institution to determine how much you will qualify for. Once you have arrived at a budget figure, we strongly recommend keeping your construction budget well below that number, so you have some room to breathe and can still stay within your budget if any unexpected expenses arise.
Being honest with yourself, and with your design team, about what you can afford to build might be the single most important step in any project. It is wise to look at what you can afford and stay well under that amount as a project budget. Unexpected costs will always come up as construction begins, and you will be glad to have some extra cushion in your budget when that time comes.
How much do other new homes cost in your area?
Unfortunately, there is no easy way of determining a standard or typical cost of construction. It varies widely, depending on the builder you’re working with and the quality of finishes and mechanical systems you specify. One way to roughly estimate construction costs would be to visit a real-estate website, and do a search for new construction of similar size and location as the home you are planning to build. List the cost, square footage and lot size of each home on a spreadsheet. Then, do another search for vacant land lots of about the size and location of the new homes you just listed and determine an average of how much per acre the price of land is in your area. Subtract that lot cost per acre from each of the 10 new construction listings. Then divide each of the 10 by their total finished square footage. That will give you a very approximate construction cost per square foot. I just ran some numbers for within 5 miles of Madison, January 2009 – and found construction cost to be about $110 per square foot for a 2,800-3,400 square foot home.
Why can I buy other new homes on the market for less than the cost of a custom designed home?
When comparing homes available on the market, it is important to ask yourself if the homes you are comparing to have the same quality you would like in your dream home? You have to take a close look at the design and construction of those homes, and ask yourself if that is truly indicative of the kind of home you want to live in. Were any of the home designs you’re comparing to ‘cookie-cutter’ plans chosen from a menu of home plans that have already been built many times before? Does it feature the same materials and level of detail – both inside and out – that you would be satisfied with in a new home? If the homes you are comparing to are in line with what you imagine as a dream home, then building a new home might not be the best fit for you. (photo by justj0000lie, via Creative Commons)
Indoor air quality
As you look at other new homes more carefully, consider the quality and standard of construction to see if it is a home that was built to last. Some (though not all!) newly built spec homes are referred to as ‘throw-away homes’ with good reason, as they are built with the cheapest and least durable materials available. Unfortunately, these same materials can sometimes be toxic and will need to be replaced just a few years after construction. That ‘new home’ smell is actually the bi-product of a process called ‘off-gassing’ which is the release of potentially hazardous chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOC) into the air that may cause long or short-term health effects on your health. If you want to build a home that will last, with acceptable indoor air quality, you will need to look at alternative materials and carefully consider your options. You will likely find that the lowest end materials will not be adequate by any standard, and will opt instead for less toxic and longer lasting alternatives. Obviously this will add some cost to the price of your new home, but it will also add significant value in both the near and long term.
Mechanical systems and other home elements
Finish materials aside, you will also need to look at every other system and product in these homes, and determine if they’re the right fit for you. They might have low-efficiency mechanical systems, poor quality windows, and sub-standard insulation. When you’re touring newly built homes, these ‘behind the scenes’ elements of a home might not be immediately apparent, but they will be when they need short-term repair or replacement, or leave you paying excessive energy bills to maintain it. With some research and attention paid to the importance of high efficiency mechanical systems and building elements, you might find yourself opting for a higher quality option than you will find in spec or otherwise newly built homes.
Paying attention the site, and the sun
Another thing to consider is how appropriate a home is for its site. Does it take advantage of the site’s features? Does it optimize window placement for solar efficiency? For example, consider 2 nearly identical homes built directly across the street from each other. The experience of living in one home would be dramatically different than the other based on several different factors. Perhaps one lot might feature beautiful views to the east the other site doesn’t have, but the home has no windows that face it. Or, perhaps the vast majority of windows face north – which brings in almost no direct sun whatsoever, and ends up becoming a drastic source of heat loss in winter, and a very dark place to live. This might not be apparent during a Sunday afternoon open house on a cloudy day, but will dramatically affect the way you will live in the home, and will have a direct impact on your energy bills. This is just one simple example, but the importance of site-specific design cannot be overstated.
What other features do you have in mind for your new home that are not included in the other new homes you are comparing? What about in-floor radiant heat? Will your lot require a well or septic system? Do you have any plans to incorporate renewable energy components, or high efficiency construction practices? There are a lot of additional features you will need to consider that will affect your construction budget that will not be apparent when comparing your costs to other newly built homes.
How much of the finish space is in the lower level? Finishing lower level space can be quite a bit less expensive than main floor or above-grade finished space, given the fact that the basement space already exists (especially in cold weather climates) as a means of getting the foundation footing below the frost depth. This saves the cost of building the entire shell of the space, and generally costs less per square foot to finish.
Revisiting comparable cost per square foot
With these observations in mind, lets take another look at that $110 per square foot average. Is it really in keeping with the quality, uniqueness, scope, efficiency and endurance you hope to achieve with your new home? Are you really comparing apples to apples? One way to make the comparison more useful is to rank the other homes on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of what you want your new home to be like. If its an 8, you might think of the $110 per square foot figure (just as an example) as being 80% of what you might spend, to reach a cost per square foot of $137.50. If you’re opting for a home with low material toxicity, high energy efficiency, and truly custom design, these homes might only be a 6 compared with what you hope to build, arriving at a guesstimated cost of $184 per square foot.
Building for the neighborhood context
Finally, just because you qualify for a construction loan doesn’t mean it is wise to spend that much – especially if you are adding on or remodeling an existing home. It is very important that you examine the regional context of your home, to be sure your renovated home will not exceed what people will be willing to pay for a home in your neighborhood. For example, if you live in a neighborhood of primarily 1950’s ranch homes that sell for an average of $180,000, building a $120,000 addition (no matter how great the home will look, or how great it will function, is probably not a smart move since a $300k home in the midst of $180k homes could be a resale nightmare. If, however, you love your neighborhood and have no plans to move in the next 10 to 15 years, the value of improving the home might outweigh the risk of resale loss.
Again, there is no easy way of determining how much a new home will cost, and the framework I’ve described here is a very crude way of determining those numbers. But by taking a close look at comparable homes and determining a base-line cost for low-end construction, you should be able to get a sense of what you can afford, and how much the home of your dreams might cost. The best way to ensure that your new design will be in line with your budget is to discuss it early with your design team or builder, and revisit the issue of cost often to be sure you are still on track. It is very easy, while immersed in the design process, to get carried away and let the home get larger, and more comprehensive that you can afford to build. By establishing an honest budget early, sticking to it, and working with a design and construction team throughout design development, you can be sure your new home will be on track with your goals, and your budget.
In part 1, I talked about some of the market conditions that are making it a great time to remodel or add onto an existing home. In this post, I will touch on two essential ingredients required to get a good start on your project in order to avoid headaches later in design development and construction.
The first thing you’re going to need is a carefully drafted set of ‘as-built’ drawings that show dimensions and square footage of the existing home. This is a service we provide as a prerequisite to our design service, but some builders and drafting services can generate these drawings as well. Be sure to require electronic CAD files of these drawings and verify their accuracy so you or your design team can use them to start generating layout options without having to re-draft or re-measure the home. Not all architects and designers use the same software, so there may still be time required to import those drawings into their software, so it is best to have the person doing the design generate the as-built drawings whenever possible. Even if you aren’t planning a remodel or addition project anytime soon, having a good set of as-builts add value to the home, and help you visualize the possibilities before hiring a designer.
Establishing a Photo Pool
It is also key to take as many photographs of your existing home as you can, from lots of angles and lots of distances, and post them to a photo site like flickr.com or picassa (there are lots of sites like this). You can keep the photo group private, so only people with the log-in and password can access the photos. If you provide everyone working on your home with that log-in and password, they can add their own photos over time, which are very useful for every trade working on the house. Instead of making everyone take their own photos, posting them to a central location and letting others add to it helps keep everyone on the same page, and lets people comment or refer to specific photos in e-mails or phone conversations so everyone knows exactly what part of the home is being referred to.
Sending a link to your photos and answers to our questionnaire will help us absorb as much information as we can in order to formulate a more accurate Proposal of Services.
The second thing you’ll need to do is start asking yourself (and answering!) a whole lot of questions. The more questions you ask, and the earlier you ask them, the better your project will be. We have learned that this is one of the most valuable parts of our service; not only asking questions, but asking the right questions. (hat tip to Madison-based Van Mell Associates’ ‘3 Good Questions‘ service, and their ‘Question Based Planning‘ for raising our awareness of asking good questions every time we start a new project!)
We find it is best to start with broad-stroke questions, then gradually refine your answers over time. For example, the very last thing you want to do is start by saying, ‘We need to add 10 feet to our kitchen.’ While it may seem obvious to you, asking a broader question might bring a more effective answer. Perhaps the problem statement that lead you to that conclusion was that people crowd into your kitchen every time you entertain, so you concluded that you must, therefore, need a bigger kitchen. But what if you started with a question instead?
For example, you might ask ‘Why do guests congregate and crowd into the kitchen when we entertain?’ It might shift your perspective to a root or behavioral cause, rather than a shallow, knee-jerk solution. Perhaps your kitchen is located near the entry, and has only 2 narrow openings into the living room space, with a white carpet in the living room. Guests might naturally tend to congregate in the tile kitchen space, because the living room psychologically feels like a different – or more formal space. The conclusion you might draw from that could save you from spending $12,000 building a larger kitchen, by instead simply opting to make your kitchen more open to the living room space, and adding an island with a path of tile with stools surrounding it. This could bridge the perceived gap between the kitchen and the living room, and solve your core dilemma for a fraction of the cost.
Another important benefit of asking the right questions is in distilling priorities as early as possible. This can become especially critical when collaborating with family members who might have different interests or priorities than your own. Discovering and agreeing upon priorities before you start the design process can save you a lot of headaches and money later in the design process. Competing or unresolved priorities between family members at the onset of a design project invariably leads to cost overuns and a lengthy (costly) design process trying to resolve your differences architecturally, rather than diplomatically at the start. Be prepared to make compromises, and reach a middle-road agreement about your priorities, and stick to them! Have everyone in the family write down and save the answers to the same questions, and refer to them often, or you’ll run the risk of pursuing a design process that unravels or exceeds your budget.
We had a blast at our booth at the Home Expo this weekend! The show had an unprecedented turnout, and we witnessed a persistent interest in new construction and remodeling projects. We also enjoyed the opportunity to visit the NBC 15 studio for a brief interview with Chris Papst during the morning show on Sunday!
If there was one consistent message we would take away from the expo, it would be that there seems to be a perfect storm brewing in the residential market. Low interest rates, a buyer’s market, plummeting material costs, a renewed focus on energy efficiency and other healthy home concepts have created increased demand for renovating, remodeling, refurbishing and adding onto existing homes. While there are still quite a few new home starts on the horizon, many homeowners have turned their attention to how they can re-invent their existing homes.
It can be incredibly difficult to visualize the possibilities while standing in the home you’ve lived in for many years. Every inch of the home is burned into your retinas, and it can be very difficult to imagine it any other way. It is equally difficult to visualize how some of the older homes on the market that need some serious TLC could become the home of your dreams. But with some careful consideration, you can transform those places into a place you will love to live in – and potentially make a sizable return on your investment.
There are lots of things you can do almost immediately to reduce your energy bills, improve the indoor air quality, and beyond. It can be as simple as using low/no VOC paints or swapping incandescent bulbs with florescents, or it can be more comprehensive – replacing windows, upgrading mechanicals, adding insulation and more. You can easily get a good start, even with a modest budget, but if you’re ready to take upgrades like these to the next level, you might consider consulting with experts like Healthy Homes right here in Dane County.
In addition to improving the existing shell of the home and the mechanical systems that support it, there is a lot you can do to improve your efficiency of space, and that’s where we come in. Some remodel ideas are obvious, but other potential options are less so, and require some creative thought-trials and brainstorming to discover some of the more clever ways to make the most of your home’s living space. Even design options we present to clients that seem absurd at first can eventually become the favorite option – so there is very real value in thinking outside the box.
In the next few posts, we will walk through the various steps involved in planning a remodel or addition, so stay tuned! If you would like blog updates e-mailed to you instead of subscribing to them, send an email to jbrouchoud (at) gmail (dot) com.
This client asked us to brainstorm the feasibility of building a home on this site, located on the shores of Green Bay. One of the biggest challenges was to accommodate the extremely steep slope from the road to the water, while taking advantage of the generous views to the water and keeping the design open and accessible enough to be used for frequent entertaining.
The design we developed featured a bridge that led to the main entry, which not only added visual interest, but also helped avoid bringing in a lot of fill, and provided the opportunity to float the living room element a full story above the ground. Upon crossing the bridge and entering the house, visitors would see sweeping views of the bay and have direct access to a large deck, accessed directly from the main living space.
The following questions are intended to help us better understand your goals for your new home, and help us get to know you. The information you provide here will help us achieve design solutions that are perfectly suited to your lifestyle, your site, and your budget! You can either copy these questions along with your answers into an email and send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write them down and bring it to your first consultation.
What is your name?
What is your current address?
What is your future address (or building site location)
What is your email address?
What is your phone number?
What is your desired budget for the project?
What are your hobbies? Do they require special spaces within your home?
Do you have any pets?
Will any children by living in the home? How many?
Do you entertain frequently? How many people do you typically entertain?
Have you ever built or remodeled a home in the past?
What is motivating you to build or remodel?
Do you have construction experience? Do you plan to build any part of the home yourself?
When do you hope to move into your completed home?
Are you currently working with a building contractor? Who?
What do you love about your site or existing home you plan to remodel?
What do you dislike about your site or existing home you plan to remodel?
Are there any features of the site you would like to be considered in the design process?
Do you have a specific design style in mind for your new home?
These are just a few questions to get us started. We will be asking many more questions in future meetings, to better understand your goals, but these are just a few questions to get us started. Please email your answers to us at email@example.com whenever you’re ready!
We try to keep this process as simple and flexible as possible, and let you determine how much or how little you would like us to be involved with your project.
First, we ask you to answer a brief series of questions to provide us with an initial understanding of your goals, your site and your budget. You can find those questions by clicking HERE. You can either e-mail your answers to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or bring them to your first free consultation (the first hour consultation is always free!).
After your free consultation, we provide you with a detailed Proposal of Services that describes each phase, as well as an estimated number of hours needed for each phase of your project. We work at an hourly rate, and you can hire us for as many, or as few, Phases as you wish. Below we’ve outlined some of the most common. An important aspect in every Phase is the control that the homeowner has over what we are working on, and the direction we are headed. We do not require a formal contract, so there is never any pressure or long-term commitment for the homeowner. You will only be billed for the work we’ve completed.
PHASE 1: SCHEMATIC DESIGN
To begin, we will define the existing parameters of the site in order to derive a solid starting point for developing design ideas. Then, we will identify and review your priorities and design wishes, and examine how they will fit into the new home, and how each room and space will function together as a whole. We will create sketches and visual aids to help describe our design ideas to you, and work with you to ensure the home is just the way you want it.
PHASE 2: DESIGN DEVELOPMENT
We will begin to dial in on the building materials and character of interior spaces, and take a closer look at any special features and details of the home.
PHASE 3: CONSTRUCTION DOCUMENTS
All of the information and design decisions are compiled and organized into a clear, concise set of drawings. Additional details are drawn and material selections are documented. We can draw as much or as little detail as your builder requires, or as much as you would like to include. The more detail we draw and discuss with you, and the more specifics you ‘pre-approve’, the more likely the home will turn out the way you expect.
PHASE 4: CONSTRUCTION OBSERVATION
You may wish to have us visit the construction site periodically to check on construction quality, progress, and field questions from the contractor. It can be helpful to have another set of eyes on the site defending your interests during the building process.