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Helping You Breathe Easier

How professional builders create a healthy indoor environment.

If you have questions about how healthy your new home will be, you’re not alone. A March 2016 paper by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University detailed a nationwide study that asked 2200 people whether they had concerns about their indoor environment. Nearly half expressed some worry, and the issue cited most often was indoor air quality, or IAQ.

Those results are what we would have expected. Energy codes are mandating nearly draft-free homes at the same time that manufacturers are introducing more synthetic materials and chemical-based finishes. When you add high-profile media coverage to the mix—like dozens of news stories in 2009 about drywall imported from China emitting hydrogen sulfide gas, and a 2015 CBS 60 Minutes segment about formaldehyde emissions from imported laminate flooring—people naturally want assurances.

The good news is that today’s professional builders take their responsibility for good IAQ very seriously. They spend time educating themselves on the issue. They carefully choose materials. And they make sure the home’s mechanical system is engineered to deliver the needed fresh air.

Knowledge and Experience

When it comes to materials choice, experienced builders have a big advantage because they have taken the time to test manufacturers’ claims. A 2010 review of residential building product information put out by Lawrence Berkeley Lab found “no consensus” in how manufacturers certify chemical emissions, and the situation hasn’t improved since then. Pros know enough to go beyond the labels by keeping careful records about customer satisfaction and analyzing that data to confirm which products don’t cause health complaints.

As for the building shell, a tightly built, energy-efficient home may have better air quality than an old, drafty one because it gives the mechanical system more control over the indoor environment. The pro will ensure that your home maintains good air quality by specifying that mechanical ventilation replaces stale interior air with fresh outside air at a predictable rate.

Hidden Health Factors

While material choice and ventilation play obvious roles in IAQ, there are two other factors most homeowners don’t think much about: the size of the mechanical equipment and the ductwork. Heating and cooling equipment that’s properly sized, with carefully installed ductwork, will use less energy and deliver better air quality. For instance, while an oversized air conditioner will keep the home cool on a muggy summer day, it won’t remove enough humidity. And ducts with leaky transitions that run through an unconditioned basement, attic or garage can draw mold, insulation fibers or chemical fumes into the living space.

The professional builder avoids such problems by hiring a top-notch HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) subcontractor. The HVAC pro uses the latest software to match the mechanical system to the home’s heating and cooling needs and makes sure the system is correctly sized with properly sealed ducts.

The bottom line is that a new custom home is an opportunity to create a healthy indoor environment. The smart homeowner will choose a professional builder with a track record of making sure this happens.

How Much Will it Cost?

Home pricing is a complex subject. Here’s how we answer the most common question.

A question we get from a lot of potential clients is “What’s the per-square-foot cost of your homes?” Some clients arrive armed with numbers gleaned from Internet articles. Others quote realtors who appraise and advertise houses by the square foot.

It’s an understandable attempt to simplify a complex subject—but when it comes to custom homes, this approach is too simple.

Production builders do often price homes by the square foot. What the potential client may not have considered, though, is that these companies are simply product manufacturers. They build the same plans over and over. Like car manufacturers, they offer relatively few models and limit the number of options available for each. This allows them to calculate the cost of each model and option to the dollar, leaving little to the imagination.

Custom building is different. While professional custom builders rely on proven, scientific management systems to finish a home on time and budget, creating an accurate budget is as much craft as science. No responsible builder will quote a per-square-foot price without more information, because doing so would risk misleading the client.

That’s because a custom home is not a product; instead, it’s the physical realization of a particular client’s dream on a specific site. Because each client’s dream is unique, the only way to estimate the cost of its realization is to ask some follow-up questions.

These questions start with checking assumptions about what the client means by square footage. Do their assumptions include the garage, or the unfinished basement or attic space? Also, do they understand that prices for excavation, utilities, permits, and engineering vary greatly, depending on the site and the jurisdiction in which they want to build?

Once the assumptions and variable costs have been clarified, we ask for a general overview of the home they’re envisioning. Is the floor plan complex or simple? Is it a traditional two-story Colonial with a couple of dormers and intricate interior moldings or a modern structure with a flat roof, lots of glass, and minimal trim?

Finally, we need to define the level of interior finishes they want. Some people give a nondescript answer like “medium.” While that’s too general, it is a good place to kick off a more detailed conversation about expectations. A professional builder can help refine those expectations by starting with some easy questions, like the client’s preferences between two levels of plumbing fixtures, flooring, windows, or siding. The answers will tell us what to ask next.

After sorting through the topics above, we may be able to show them plans and photos for similar homes we have built in the past. And we can often provide a ballpark estimate of what it would cost to build that home with their finish specifications on their site.

The key word in the above paragraph is “show.” We can’t do this over the phone. The clients need to spend some time with us before we can offer a realistic idea of what they can get for their budget. Regardless of whether they ultimately decide to build with us, this is time wisely invested.

Why Home Tech Is a Wise Investment

Simple, affordable and easy-to-install wireless is making the long-predicted smart home a must-have.

PC Magazine has called 2016 The Year of the Home—the start of a flowering of wireless devices that will make home life easier, healthier and more fun. Research certainly bolsters that view: a Coldwell Banker survey found that nearly half of homeowners either already own or are planning to buy smart home devices, and technology forecaster Gartner, Inc. foresees 500 connected devices in the average home by 2022.

This growth is thanks mostly to affordable wireless technology. Home tech devices now cost a fraction of what they did a decade ago, and most offer a simple smart phone or tablet control interface.

Today’s devices also offer tangible lifestyle benefits. For instance, whole-house automation systems like those from HomeControl will manage lighting, security, temperature and energy consumption—all from a single app. Low-cost, entry-level alarm systems like those from SimpliSafe start with basic security and are easily expanded as budgets permit. Automation systems like these are designed to be consumer-friendly, but your builder can work with a technology integrator to install and configure them so everything is ready to use on move-in day.

Rather than a system, some people prefer to choose from the growing array of standalone wireless devices. Most start with home security, such as a wireless shade that automatically closes at night, a camera they can check from a phone, or an expandable security kit that costs just a few hundred dollars.

The fastest-growing security device category is probably the electronic lock, and there are many to choose from. Examples include the Schlage Sense Smart Deadbolt, which allows a homeowner to remotely set temporary entry codes—for instance, so the cleaner can only get in the house at a certain hour—and the popular Ring™ Video Doorbell, which lets you use your phone to see who is at the door. The Ring can even be connected to a motion detector that alerts you of suspicious activity on the property. If you’re someone who worries about the garage door, apps like LiftMaster’s will remotely confirm that you closed it and also will tell you if someone opens it while you’re gone.

Environmental alarms like Delta’s Leak Detector will alert you if there’s a leaky faucet or water main, while the Halo smoke detector knows the difference between fire and smoke and will call your phone (rather than chirping) when it needs a new battery. More complex systems will automatically turn the water off if there’s a leak, or kill the HVAC fan to slow the spread of a detected fire. (These systems require an integrator but still cost just a fraction of what they did ten years ago.)

Smart HVAC controls are also proliferating. For instance, the Nest thermostat learns and automatically meets your temperature preferences and will even talk to your phone’s location services to sense when you’re coming home so it can turn up the heat. And Febreze makes an air freshener that works with Nest’s Home/Away Assist to evenly disperse a scent through the HVAC system.

Let’s not forget entertainment and convenience. An example of the cutting edge here is Amazon’s wireless Echo speaker, which recognizes voice commands and will stream whatever audio you request from a variety of Internet sources. Can’t remember if you need milk? With the Smarter Fridge Cam™, you can use your phone from the grocery store to take a look.

Although a lot of people worry about getting all these devices to work together, an electronics integrator can configure a tablet to control the TV, the heating and cooling, the lighting and everything else. Your builder can coordinate the integration.

This is just a small taste of what home technology can do now, let alone what it will be able to do in the near future. An Internet search will turn up many more possibilities. And if the benefits of smart home technology don’t capture your imagination, consider resale value. If the people at Gartner are correct—and the exploding number of smart home devices indicates that they are—then it won’t be long before buyers discount the lack of smart devices the same way they now discount the lack of a cable TV connection. In other words, a small investment today could really pay off tomorrow.

Maintaining Your New Home

A smart maintenance schedule will help keep a new home healthy and good looking for years to come.

If low maintenance is a priority, then having a new home built is a great choice. In a 2014 study by the National Association of Homebuilders, 73 percent of new homeowners reported average monthly maintenance expenses just one-fourth (25 percent) of those reported by owners of older homes. But while it’s relatively affordable to keep a new home in good working condition, proper maintenance is critical.

A new custom home will have a tightly sealed building shell. This reduces heating and cooling bills and helps the furnace and air conditioner maintain more even temperatures all year. With fewer unwanted drafts, it’s also easier for the mechanical systems to maintain ideal relative humidity (RH) levels in the home—30 to 45 percent in winter and 45 to 50 percent in summer. Of course, the mechanicals will do a much better job of delivering these benefits if they’re well-tuned. A good ventilation system will keep the home’s air healthy, but its filters need to be kept clean, as do those in the heating and air conditioning units. It’s also a good idea to periodically clean the ductwork. (The National Duct Cleaners Association recommends a cleaning every five years, but frequency depends on factors that include homeowners’ sensitivities, the number of pets, and the surrounding environment.)

But even people who obsessively change their car’s oil on schedule may neglect these tasks. For instance, it’s not uncommon for a furnace to develop problems if the air filter hasn’t been changed for a long time. The service company shows up only to find that the motor overheated because the filter is clogged and the system can’t breathe. Fortunately, such problems are entirely avoidable: keeping your new mechanicals in good condition is a simple matter of working with your builder to develop a cost effective maintenance schedule, and then setting reminders in your schedule to get the needed tasks done.

An added benefit from properly functioning mechanicals is that they will keep the home looking good for many years. That strip flooring is beautiful when first installed, but it could eventually swell if the indoor air is damp, while other wood products shrink if the air stays too dry for too long. (According to a leading website for finish carpenters, relative humidity in older homes can range from 25 to 65 percent in some parts of the country, a swing that can make a 12-inch maple board expand and contract by up to 1/4 inch.) In short, regular maintenance of your home’s mechanical systems will help ensure a healthier, more comfortable space and a lower long-term cost of upkeep. Many product warranties also require regular maintenance. This is true for any home, old or new, but it’s especially important for today’s high-performance custom homes.

The specifics of the maintenance program will vary with the type of mechanical equipment as well as with the climate where the home is located. Maintenance needs are usually covered in the final orientation, but homeowners who have additional questions about how to maintain a particular product or piece of equipment should ask their professional builder.

It’s Always Sunny in TV Land

Home shows don’t reflect the reality of building a new home.

Who doesn’t love a good drama, especially one they can imagine themselves a part of? With that in mind, it’s no surprise that home and garden shows enjoy loyal viewership, and that HGTV has earned a spot as one of the top ten cable networks. It’s great fun to curl up on the couch and follow the excitement of a home being built or renovated, of obstacles being overcome, and of a happy couple swelling with pride at the project’s completion.

The only problem is that some people let their homebuilding expectations be influenced by what is, in reality, a scripted drama driven by product advertisers. And while no one would admit to falling under this spell, the influence can be both subtle and pervasive.

Take the example of schedules. In TV land, problems with building permits always get solved by airtime, and you rarely see major delays from bad weather or from special orders that were botched by the distributor. In fact, the timetable for a typical TV project can be as different from that of a real home build as the prep time for a microwave dinner is from that of a gourmet meal. (Outcomes will likely differ, too.) Intellectually this is a no-brainer, but if someone watches enough projects being finished in a weekend, they could be emotionally set up to think instant gratification is possible.

Even with guaranteed sunshine and 100 skilled tradespeople working 24/7 to rush the project to completion, what kind of quality do you think you are going to get? Contrast that to the professional builder, who creates a detailed construction timetable that gives all the trades sufficient time to do top-quality work without tripping over one another.

The difference in timetables is really a difference in priorities and mindset. The show producer has to meet a shoot schedule; the builder has to take the time needed to create a home that will satisfy the clients for many years to come.

Then there’s the budget. From what we have seen, the costs on a TV project seldom reflect the actual labor, overhead, and product costs builders have to grapple with. Given these shows’ large audience, some manufacturers pay to get their products on screen. Others may discount the price or loan a product during filming then take it back later. These deals are seldom disclosed.

Not only that, the experience of watching enough $5000 professional-style ranges being installed can make a homeowner feel cheated if they’re denied one—even if the budget will only support one half that price.

The bottom line is that the producers of these shows are under pressure to create dramatic tension and to keep advertisers and product sponsors happy. They’re not looking at your budget and they are not thinking about your ultimate satisfaction. A professional builder—someone who has real skin in your game—is focused on both.

None of this is meant to slam the producers of these shows, who no doubt try to serve viewers by showing what’s possible in an entertaining way. So watch and enjoy—you may even pick up some useful decorating tips. Just remember that it’s entertainment.