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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

So, You Want to Build a House?

Part 1 of 2: How to Begin

Barb and Greg Whitchurch

Few enterprises in life are as exciting as designing your own home. By “exciting,” we also mean stressful. We’ve done it three times and concluded that, to our credit, we made different mistakes each time.

Kicking off your project on the right track makes all the difference. Your willingness to deal with a few issues up front is crucial. Simply put, make sure your builder or designer is certified to build a modern home. Then, make sure they agree to follow some simple engineering principles. That’s it!

Too many people limit their involvement to the appearance of the building, the floor plan, the finished surfaces, the fixtures. Pretty much anyone can give you a beautiful-looking home. But modern construction requires knowledge regarding the invisible “guts” of the house. Many people don’t start wondering about some of the less visible aspects of construction until they notice high energy and maintenance bills, some irritating cold or hot areas, or some cluster flies. (Issues like mold and rot would occur later on.)

So, what’s the difference between an expensive-to-run, somewhat uncomfortable house and a modern, efficient, cheap-to-run, maintenance-free house? Well, it’s NOT the cost. Both will usually cost about the same. There are a lot of things that houses used to need, like a furnace or a boiler, that aren’t needed anymore in a modern, high-efficiency home. So, for example, take away the boiler and replace it with a heat pump, and you’ve just offset the likely high cost of triple-pane windows.

Another example is the cost of fuel. If you increase the amount of insulation around and under the foundation and in the walls and roof, you’ll save a lot on fuel right away and, especially, over the long term. This will more than offset the cost of adding extra insulation.

A third example is air sealing. Serious air leaks are what happens when leaks around windows, doors, and electrical outlets, aren’t done properly. This is extremely common. The inadequate sealing creates a pathway for the heat inside to escape to the outside. And that costs you. You have to use more fuel to maintain a consistent indoor temperature. Or cool it more in the summer. So, the cost of having someone spend additional time and use the correct types of sealing tape is, again, both immediately and over the long term, going to be offset by your fuel savings.

(As you may know, over the past many decades insulation wall thickness has improved from 2×4 to 2×6 to 2×8. So has air sealing improved from stuffing fiberglass around single-pane windows to actual tape application. Ongoing, stepwise progress has reduced the size, cost and fuel consumption of the machines that must make up for the design shortcomings of yesteryear. Now building science has finally achieved an engineering standard that pinpoints just how modern materials and methods have eliminated the need for huge heaters and coolers in our homes. Small, cheap, safe heat pumps can easily and evenly control our indoor temperatures without any need for fossil fuels.)

Building science

Homes are no longer just an assembly of lumber, windows, doors, insulation and fixtures. Modern homes are engineering marvels, like cars, aircraft and bridges. There are well-understood rules and methods (building science) for designing homes, and these rules are governed by standards that ensure comfort, efficiency, health, and safety. The most common serious problems in homes today are invisible once they’re completed. The way to avoid these mistakes is to do energy modeling, verify the building process, test along the way, and have a rater certify it at the end. All of these processes and professional services are included when building with Passive House (PH) (www.VTPH.org) or Efficiency Vermont (bit.do/evt-hph-reb).

Simply having honest professionals is not enough. They can make honest mistakes and oversights. The building industry, like auto mechanics and the medical profession, offers continuing education in building science and new materials. Make sure your team is up-to-date by checking their certifications. If they’re PH-certified, then they’re qualified for all aspects of high-performance design and construction. You’d be surprised how many builders don’t bother with training at all, or who allow their certifications to lapse.

Chris Miksic, CPHC, CPHB, of Montpelier Construction, sets up a blower door air-sealing test on the Whitchurch Passive House during construction. (Greg Whitchurch)

Where to begin

First, contact responsible architects or builders (e.g., bit.do/een-evt or VTPH above) who use energy modeling tools and a spreadsheet to track and assess the design process. During the building process itself, make sure independent experts verify that the design plan is being followed. Finally, have the finished product certified. Many people choose the PH (bit.do/phius-cphc) or the Pretty Good House (www.prettygoodhouse.org/) route because all of these steps are included, even if the homeowner decides not to meet all the individual objectives in the end.

There are still old-school builders who claim that these safeguards are a waste of time and money. Fortunately, there are organizations, both governmental and private, that keep track of who’s up-to-date in their education (e.g., bit.do/bpi-05602).

For example, constructing any modern home requires moisture management techniques that are not part of every builder’s “toolbox.” Mold problems have been on the rise for many years now, often caused by builders trying to build to modern standards without proper training. Amazingly, many homes are candidates for weatherization upgrades as soon as they’re finished, simply because the owners didn’t bother to check on their builder’s accomplishments.

More than 600 complaints were filed with the Vermont Attorney General’s office against contractors in a recent four-year period; and that only suggests a starting point for estimating the personal and environmental damage done through sloppy work from that sector. Vermont does not even enforce the (inadequate) building code standards currently on the books!

For 15 years, the Vermont Association of Homebuilders (www.HomeBuildersVT.com/) and many legislators have been trying to register contractors (bit.do/vt-leg-contractor), but vested business interests have lobbied with the same tired, obfuscating arguments used in the past to resist regulations for seat belts, building codes, and air pollution in order to prevent its passage (www.tinyurl.com/hcv-contractor).

Cost considerations

Now, with the climate crisis hard upon us, state and federal governments are paying homeowners to build energy-efficient homes. So, for example, any extra cost of the verification process is covered by Efficiency Vermont’s incentives which encourage efficient construction (bit.do/evt-hph-reb and bit.do/evt-reb-res). Remember, at one time double-paned windows were considered a wasteful “extra cost.” In fact, many of the important comfort and energy features of your current home were once considered “extra cost.” Plus, the resale value of a certified, high-efficiency home, or as collateral for a home equity loan, more than compensates for any so-called extra cost.

We’re encouraging you to avoid building a home that will soon be considered to have “missed the boat.” Once built, these failings will be so buried within the construction that they cannot be corrected. Your comfort and pocketbook will suffer.

Here are some questions to ask your team: Have you built a house which is certified Passive House? A LEED-certified home? Or perhaps simply Energy Star certified? What’s your best Home Energy Rating System (HERS) rating? Your best air tightness measurement? Do you test for air tightness periodically during the building process? Qualified professionals will back up their yes answers with proof.

In Part 2 of this article (next issue) we will cover affordability, how to get the specific features you want for your home, as well as the needs of do-it-yourselfers. In the meantime, visit http://bit.do/mec-wnm.

Note: Although this article is Vermont-specific, all states have similar programs, incentives and agencies, as well as many qualified and certified professionals. See pages 14-15 in any issue of G.E.T. for more info.

The Whitchurches are owners of a net-zero Passive House in Middlesex, Vermont and are Board members of Vermont Passive House https://PassiveHouseAccelerator.com/.

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