If you’ve decided to hire a builder to be your general contractor, site supervisor, or even a consultant for the construction of your new house, there are a whole slew of questions that you’ll want to ask him (or her) before you commit to working with him.
There’s the basic list of questions that you’ve probably heard before. These are questions that most people ask when they're vetting, or investigating, a builder. I bet you can guess many of them:
-Are you licensed and insured?
-How many years have you been building?
-What kind of warranty do you offer?
-How do you handle change orders?
-How many homes do you typically have under construction at one time?
-How often should I expect updates from you?
-Have you ever owned a construction company under a different name?
You’ll want to ask this so you can pull up the better business bureau reports from all construction companies owned by that builder.
-And finally, you should also ask him to provide me with a list of references?
Remember to ask for the names of a few clients from the last couple of years and a few clients from 10-15 years ago. That way, you’ll not only get to talk to people about the builder’s current work habits, but you’ll also get some idea of how his work holds up over time.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of questions, but those are some of the more common questions that homeowners ask builders that they’re considering for their projects. Now, you should definitely start with those questions, but realize that even the most mediocre builder will have acceptable answers for those questions.
Since you’re listening to this podcast/reading this blog post, I’m pretty sure, you don’t want just a mediocre builder or a mediocre home. Most of us want to a build high quality home that’s comfortable, durable and energy efficient.
So, last week, when I came across a blog post called “10 questions to ask your prospective builder,” I wanted to share those questions with you. Those questions go beyond what the average homeowner typically asks. The list of questions comes from one of my favorite websites, energyvanguard.com. We’ll cover 9 of those 10 question today.
In order to build a high quality home, you’ll need someone on your team who knows at least the basics of building science and HVAC design. And even if your potential builder doesn't know the answers to all of the following questions, he should at least be willing to point you to someone who has the answers.
You want to assess not only the builder’s personal knowledge of high performance building, but also his personal opinion and philosophy about high performance building. Do they think designing and constructing a home using building science is a no-brainer, or do they think it’s nonsense?
Here are 9 questions you can ask prospective builders to find out how likely they are to construct a house that’s well-built, and not just pretty.
1. What is your view of airtight homes?
Builders can be very passionate about the term “airtight.” Some builders believe strongly in building a tight house, and some don’t. It’s probably best to stay away from builders who don’t believe in constructing airtight homes. Those who don’t believe in airtight houses are typically those who don’t really think that building science is very valuable.
In the blog post, author Allison Bailes says, “The builder's answer to this question can tell you a lot. If they tell you, "A house needs to breathe," you probably don't need to waste any more time with them. Save your time to find a builder who appreciates the importance of an airtight building enclosure.”
You’ll not only want a builder who believes in building an airtight house, you’ll also want him to agree that a blower door test. That blower door test measures the airtightness of a house and it should be performed by an independent home energy rater.
2. What is your preferred water resistant barrier (WRB)?
Most experts agree that controlling water is one of the biggest challenges in home building, and failure to control water can lead to long term structural damage.
Think twice about choosing a builder who says he uses only a perforated plastic house wrap. At a minimun, a spun-bonded polyolefin housewrap should be used, something like Dupont's Tyvek HomeWrap.
Ideally, you’ll want builder who uses a non-house wrap water resistant barrier, like liquid-applied membranes, or peel-and-stick membranes, or Huber’s Zip System. The Zip System is that green colored sheathing system that you may have seen on new construction in your area.
To learn more about the Huber’s Zip System, take a listen to episode 46, called
“Save Money, Energy and Time by building a Tight House Using the Zip System.”
3. How do you handle penetrations in the building enclosure after the water resistant barrier has been installed?
Ok, so, wires, channels, pipes and vents have to enter and exit the main structure of the house when they’re installed. And, as a result, the water resistant barrier that was applied to the house (whether that’s house wrap or the Zip system) has to be punctured and penetrated so that those pipes, channels and wires can be properly placed.
To keep water from entering through those penetration points, those penetration points need to be flashed properly. Flashing is simply a thin sheet of material that’s placed on or around openings to prevent water from coming through.
Good builders have an actual plan for flashing. They plan for flashing those penetrations ahead of time.
4. How do you ensure good installation quality of insulation?
After insulation has been installed in a new house, a home energy rater should judge how well the insulation has been installed by using a grading system. There are 3 grades— grades I, II, and III. Grade I is the best.
A Grade I insulation job means that the insulation is installed according to the manufacturer's instructions. It completely fills the cavity and it’s been installed around electrical boxes, wires and pipes and it should not be compressed.
Grade II is second best. A grade II insulation job will have some imperfections, such as gaps around wiring, electrical outlets, and plumbing and maybe some incomplete spots.
Grade III is the lowest grade. A grade III insulation job will have "substantial gaps and voids."
You’re looking for someone who strives for grade I quality insulation. According to energyvanguard.com, a good answer is:
“We insist on Grade I installation quality for all insulation.
We make sure all cavities are filled completely with as little compression as possible.
We hire a third party inspector to make sure it's done right.”
5. How are the heating and air conditioning systems designed?
What you don’t want to hear is that he goes by a rule of thumb of one ton of air conditioning for every 400-500 square feet of living space. That’s not the right answer!
Ideally, the builder will mention something about a Manual J calculation, which is the name of the calculation used to properly size the HVAC system for a home. You can learn about the Manual J calculation in episode 12 Called “Energy Efficiency— Designing, Inspecting and Testing for It, Part 2”
The builder doesn’t need to be an expert in HVAC design, but he should know an expert and be willing to defer to that expert’s opinion.
The very best answer would be for the builder to say he uses in independent HVAC designer, or a home energy rater to design the HVAC system according to Manual J.
6. Do you have a preference for duct location?
You should be listening for the words “ducts should go in a conditioned space.”
A conditioned space is a space that’s insulated and often heated and cooled, either directly or indirectly. Conditioning a space makes the temperature more comfortable. The livable areas of a house are conditioned. Spaces like the attic and crawl space are typically unconditioned.
It’s ok if a builder decides to place ducts in an attic or crawlspace as long as he conditions that space first. The bottom line is, wherever the ducts go, the space should be conditioned.
7. Do you normally install whole-house mechanical ventilation systems?
If his answer to question number 1 was that he believed in building an airtight house (which is the answer you want him to give), he should also believe in whole house mechanical ventilation. That’s the best way to get stale air out and fresh air into a tight house.
8. Have you used third party inspections or had your homes certified in voluntary programs like ENERGY STAR?
If your prospective builder has used third party inspectors, like home energy raters, or if he's built houses for programs like Energy Star, LEED or Passive House, he is likely more experienced with and more open to utilizing building science in the design and construction of his homes. It's not a guarantee that he will build a quality home, but energy vanguard.com says “at least they'll have some familiarity with checklists and good installation practices."
9. Would you be willing to have a design review with the critical trades?
You’re looking for a builder who is willing to have at least one preconstruction meeting with the architect or designer and all the major subcontractors before you break ground. Getting the architect, the builder, the HVAC contractor, the plumber, the electrician, and the insulation contractor together to go over the plans before you start building will help the entire construction process go more smoothly.
The team will be able to identify and solve many problems on paper instead of in the field. That will often save time and money, and decrease stress. During that design review meeting you or the builder can also ask the subs if they can suggest any changes to the house design that will will save money or time without sacrificing quality.
Your potential builder doesn’t necessarily need to know the exact answers to all those questions, but he should be willing to consult with the experts who do know the answers. If you’re gonna act as you own builder, you’ll probably want to pose these questions to the insulation and HVAC subcontractors and have a home energy rating company confirm that your insulation and HVAC systems have been properly installed.
Energyvanguard.com suggests that “What you're looking for is a builder you can work with, someone who is at least open to the idea of putting extra time and attention into the building enclosure and mechanical systems. The questions above should give you a good picture of which ones might be able to do a good job in building your dream home.”
Well, that’s it for this week. I hope you learned as much as I did.
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Thanks for joining me. Come on back next week for another episode of Build Your House Yourself University--BYHYU.
Please remember that the purpose of this podcast is simply to educate and inform. It is not a substitute for professional advice. The information that you hear is based the only on the opinions, research and experiences of my guests and myself. That information might be incomplete, it’s subject to change and it may not apply to your project. In addition, building codes and requirements vary from region to region, so always consult a professional about specific recommendations for your home.