Straight Talk on House Design

Mast and Co Missoula, energy efficient building,Photo Courtesy Mast and Co. Builders. Damian and Chris are consummate, intelligent craftsmen and their work is the embodiment of style, performance, and integrity.

A few days ago, I was talking to a colleague and friend- she is working on a cabin design for her family. Knowing my background, she asked for some advice and questions to ask to get what she wanted. Energy efficiency and “not doing stupid shit” were top priorities. Our conversation boiled down to my top tips for the design of new custom homes. I was lucky to work with a handful of people in Missoula that taught me a lot*.

Off the top of my head, and not listed in order of priority or importance:

1)      Pick a budget and get your architect and contractor to agree. As the owner, do not let yourself push over that budget with last minute additions. Ultimately, the architect’s job is illustrate the dream you’ve described to them, the contractors job is to put a price on that dream. The rude awakening can derail the best of intentions.

2)      Optimize your window package. Most likely, you will only buy windows once in the time that you own the house. Some rules for getting the best window package for your dollar: no single windows larger than 25s.f., no SDLs (simulated divided lights), no double hung or single hung, and minimize the number of operable windows. Do this carefully and cut 30% of the cost out of your window package. In almost every climate zone, triple pane windows will increase the comfort of your home more than almost any other thing (see item #10).

3)      Site work is expensive. Single story footprints are generally more expensive than double story footprints for the same area of floorplan. Simple footprints are easier to construct and inherently energy efficient.

4)      I don’t like basements or crawlspaces, even though they are convenient for utilities. If you can afford it, build slab on grade or on stilts.

5)      Savvy HVAC salesmen (and everyone else) will ask you “how energy efficient” do you want to be? I used to be one of those folks, and I hated asking that question. It’s like picking a car: is this house like a Camry (25 MPG) or a Prius (50 MPG)? Getting a Prius is not all that hard, but doing much better probably is.

6)      Durability is a hard quality to estimate. Almost every component you pick for a home contributes to the overall durability (and related maintenance costs), and the durability aspect is frequently overlooked. Siding, interior trim, windows, doors, and flooring are all common materials that wear out faster than many owners appreciate.

7)      There is a fallacy that “radiant floor” heating systems are more efficient than forced air furnaces. A well designed high efficiency furnace + HRV system is the simplest, most efficient, lowest cost way to comfortably heat a house. Radiant systems can end up with cold spots, are slow to heat up (like when you come back from a weekend away) and you have no option for cooling or proper home ventilation (which is essential if you want good indoor air quality and good energy efficiency).

8)      Don’t put in a fireplace, wood stove, or even gas insert fireplace. Wood burning fireplaces release all kinda of toxic stuff in your house, actually suck warm air from your furnace out the chimney, and don’t really emit that much heat to a space. Gas insert fireplaces are somewhat better, and contractors tend to charge an arm and a leg for them.  Put in some nice landscaping around a cool outdoor fireplace. Costs half as much, is twice as safe, and gets people out of the house.

9)      Especial in maritime climates, use a liquid applied WRB and a rainscreen siding detail. Ask your general contractor questions about building science, and their experience with different types of construction (have they ever done a house with ICFs, strawbale, double stud walls?) The best ones have often tried a lot of stuff, and they can tell you what they learned. From the get-go, pick the architect and contractor that you are most willing to have hard conversations with because you will have them.

10)   Air sealing is as much about framing as it is about insulation. Poorly applied spray foam in a poorly framed house is more expensive, less efficient, and harder to fix than cellulose insulation in a properly framed house. Furthermore, air-sealing has the single biggest impact on comfort in your home, and has one of the biggest impacts on energy efficiency (especially if you are use more traditional, code minimum insulation package on the house). Insist on getting a blower door test for your home, whether or not your local code requires it.

11) Don’t be in a rush. Take the time to make a real plan that you are happy with. Especially for owners on their first custom home- it will take more discipline than is comfortable to work the plan.

12) I don’t like automotive garages directly attached to living space- too many nasty things associated with cars to have them directly connected to the house. 

13) Install a heat recovery ventilator. They will actually increase your home energy use, but they will also keep humidity reasonable, improve your air quality, and allow you to make other energy efficiency improvements as you go.

I’m sure many people will disagree or have additions. I hope to add links as citations to this piece as I am able. Feel free to post to comments, where I will feel free to moderate them.

*if you’re new here, I spent 3 years as a project manager for a residential specialty construction firm. You can read more of my pieces here (if the blog is still up)

Copyright Skander Spies, 2016

3 thoughts on “Straight Talk on House Design

  1. Michael Moore

    Great information, Skander. Jakki and are just starting to plan a weekend getaway on our new property in Potomac, and this is super helpful. I will also refer Kate and Jesse to this post as they plan their dream home on the adjacent parcel.

    Cheers,

    Michael

    Reply
  2. Jeanne R

    If you live any where near Missoula, have Mast & Co Builders build or remodel your home. You won’t be disappointed…. On so many levels.

    Reply
  3. Tobias Armstrong

    I’d heard a lot about insulation when it comes to making a house energy efficient, but I hadn’t heard a lot about air sealing. It makes sense that the less air escaping, the less of an efficiency problem you’re going to have, I just hadn’t thought about it before. My dad always tried to make our houses energy efficient, so I’ll have to ask him what he did for air sealing. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

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