Affordable and Sustainable Building

What is affordable building? Is it just a cheap home or apartment that is better than a tent, or is it a place for someone to survive in for a short time? Or is it something built to code, which is the worst home you can legally build? If you don’t include operating costs, indoor air quality, durability, and material considerations, are you wasting your money? If you build a sustainable home, like a Passive House or, a step down, a Zero Energy home, you are going to have something that will get you through weather related events much easier and be much healthier to live in. The short version of the difference between a Zero Energy home and a Passive House is the number of solar panels needed to power the home.  According to the EPA, a Zero Energy home can be as low as R-30 in the walls, but in our climate, we need about R-60 to get to Passive House standards. These standards change for different climates for Passive House and Passive House has decreased levels of insulation if you add more solar panels, or on sight energy, which we don’t agree with.

The EPA has a rating system for energy efficient homes, called the Home Energy Rating System (HERS). The HERS score goes from 1-100 generally but if you have an old home with little insulation, it may be a 160, which it would use 160% of the Energy of a code-built home. The lower the number the less energy it needs to power the home. For a Zero Energy home under the EPA, there are numerous checklists to go through, but the home has to be roughly HERS 50.  By adding renewable energy, you can get to Zero Energy. For a Passive House it has to be around HERS 10, which means it only uses about 10% or the energy of a code-built home. To get to Zero Energy from there means a lot less renewable energy. Renewable energy means solar panels or wind generation or something similar which means more stuff to break down. There are many other considerations that go these home designations, like water heating, length of water lines and sizing, other things also.

The bottom line here is THE cheapest heating and cooling is lots of insulation, sealed up correctly, with the right windows and doors, a very efficient ventilation system and efficient heating and cooling after the other steps are done. In the long run that, extra money spent on the envelope of the home will save tremendous amounts of money over a 30-year mortgage.

Passive House level of building is like a 270-mpg car. With the energy you save over a 30-year mortgage, that home will be free with the energy you saved. You can lock the door and go wherever even in the winter and even in our climate, it won’t get below 50 degrees in that home without any heat added. A Passive House design also is built using sustainable, long-lasting materials. It is the toughest building code in the world. So, it may cost a little more to build, in the long run with everything figured in it is the most affordable, durable home with the best indoor air quality available.

So, is this the most affordable, sustainable building for you?

Decisions by Owner

Typical decisions owners have to make.

1.   Provide a project program: This is where everything starts. What do you want the project to be/accomplish? This can change depending on suggestions from Architect or Builder.

2.   Choose an Architect: It will be very difficult to accomplish your program without including a design professional with a license for any project beyond a simple one. An Architect helps you make informed decisions about your project and represents you through your building process. An Architect has education and professional standards that home designers don’t have. If you don’t have an Architect, all decisions are the responsibility of the owners.

3.   Decide Energy Performance: The Owner must have a goal prior to design starting. Performance affects building placement and everything that goes into the project. An Architect can help you make decisions for short term and long-term budgets. How much do you want to pay for heating/cooling? Zero Energy? A code-built home is the worst home you can legally build. This decision has the largest long-term effect on indoor air quality, durability of the structure, livability due to climate conditions and operating cost. You have 1 best chance to do this right.

4.   Determine a Budget: There must be a number for designing and construction of your project. This affects the design project parameters before anything is started. This number may have to be adjusted during the design process.

5.   Determine time constraints: When the project begins and must be done is decided by the owner. This can be modified later as information comes from the Architect and builder.

6.   Approve the design: The architect does this in stages, from general design to much more detailed drawings when working toward construction drawings. The home can also be modeled at this time to determine energy costs accurately. There are several programs, some more accurate than others.

7.   Choose a contractor: This can happen at any stage during design or even before if you have a clear goal for the performance of your project. Owner should be aware that home testing can be done at various times through the construction process. Find out what the builder knows about building science. This has become more important with new products coming out and knowing how to install them. Consider a contractor that takes classes beyond the minimum required for a license.

8.   The Contract: This is the agreement between the Owner and others related to the project. You should have an agreement between the architect and owner and another agreement between Owner and builder. There may be agreements between sub-contractors and vendors also. The Architect typically advises the owner in this regard.

9.   Providing information: Survey, legal description, utility locations or other information may be required to complete the project.

10.   Fees: Unless required by the Construction Documents and the contracts, the Owner is responsible for all fees, which include easements, approvals from various entities and charges for construction.

11.   The Owner needs to be aware of contractors, subcontractors and installers involved with the project.

SPECIFICATION DECISIONS: Have the most detailed plan possible if you want an accurate cost.

1.   Choose a site: This decision affects the whole project. The site affects the budget and the design and the location on the property. The Owner is responsible for all contracts, fees and assessments related to the site.

2.   Arranging for utilities: Temporary power, as well as final utilities, must be arranged with necessary entities by the Owner. The Architect or builder can advise but the Owner is responsible for all fees.

3.   Salvage: The Owner has first salvage rights to anything on the property which means they have to decide what to keep or dispose of.

4.   Site Clearing. The Owner must decide what may be cleared with consideration given to construction room for equipment and other site considerations.

4A.   Architect can help with all decisions. Don’t be afraid to ask.

5.   Masonry or not: Colors, textures.

6.   Concrete: Decorative, colored or stamped.

7.   Decorative metals

8.   Wood trim and veneer: Inside and outside, profile, species and finish.

9.   Insulation: Relates to performance. Remember, code is minimum. Do you want the least house you can legally build? Consider R-value, aged R-value, type of insulation and where. There should always be home testing done before final closure of walls and ceiling. The cheapest heating and cooling is insulation correctly installed, air sealing and the right windows/doors in the right places. What happens when the power goes out? Doesn’t matter nearly so much with the right amounts of insulation.

10.   Windows and doors: Type, brand, performance, color, profile. Consult Architect and/or builder. Windows and doors are holes in your insulation, putting in poor ones affects your immediate costs and long-term costs. There are many high-performance products available, and the cost may surprise you. The best money you can spend should be spent on the shell of the building. Multi-point locking?

11.   Shingles or other roofing material: Owner selects color, type, durability of material. Consult Architect or builder.

12.   Siding: Colors, texture, type, longevity of product, rain screen, trim around openings.

13.   Soffit and Fascia: Color, type.

14.   Hardware: Type, brand, finish.

15. Painting, Texturing, Coating: Have a plan for each room as to how you want it. It affects cost.

16.   Fixtures: Tubs, showers, toilets, sinks, faucets. Washer and dryer.

17.   Kitchen: Cabinet decisions, appliances, colors, counter tops. Have a good plan keeping in mind costs. Maybe you can afford more insulation by not getting granite right away. With the money you save on counter tops, you will get it back in energy savings and you can get granite later. Electric or gas? Recent studies show gas appliances leak even when turned off. They also add gasses into the air when burning. Range hood?

18.   Casework: Profile, color, finish. Bookcases or storage in certain rooms. Closet organizers?

19.   Mechanical systems: Critical for performance of home. With money spent on the shell of the home, heating/cooling systems can be smaller. Electric or gas? You can make electricity; you can’t make gas. Indoor air quality has become a big concern. Ventilation systems have come a long way. There are systems now that are 90+% efficient in exchanging heat. There are systems now that combine heating/cooling, filtered air, air monitoring and dehumidification in one “magic” box. Ducted or ductless ventilation system. Does your HVAC installer know about these systems? Are they trained in them?

20.   Safety: Carbon monoxide detectors if needed? Fire detectors? These are code issues, but code is minimum. Sprinkler system? Handicapped access if needed in the future? Security system? The Owner is responsible for contracts with a security company. The level of security should be considered.

21.   Electrical: Outlets and lighting are addressed by code but outlets for specific purposes can be installed anywhere. The same with lighting. Are solar panels going to be added at a later date? Provisions for more room by the main panel and a conduit to the outside are a consideration. What about an electric vehicle or a battery backup system for power outages? Do you need a disconnect box for a generator?

22.   Lighting: What kind of fixtures? Dimmer switches and motion detectors? Switches and locations to be spelled out. Do you want a solar light tube in a room for natural lighting?

23.   Landscaping: Landscaping materials, bushes, trees, pavers, special lighting.

24.   Specialty equipment: Hot tub, fireplaces, stoves, outdoor showers.