Before You Buy: How to Spot Quality Construction

It’s a buyers market. No doubt about it. Real estate professionals and home builders have been yelling form the rooftops that “now is the time to buy!” A glut of new and existing homes are listed across the country and anyone looking to buy has plenty of choices.

With so many bargains out there buyers need to be especially vigilant about the quality of the homes they consider.

Crooked walls, broken fixtures and crummy materials aren’t very hard to spot—even for the first time home buyer with no experience to draw from. But often, the most important things to look for aren’t so obvious.

So we asked Gord Cooke, one of North America’s leading construction and energy efficiency experts, toshare tips on what to look for (and what to look out for) when considering a homes construction quality. While it is easy to spot a poor siding job from the curb or a single pane window, the bigger problems often are more difficult to spot. According to Cooke, “It can be difficult to focus on things that are not in plain sight, yet it is important to look for some tell tale signs of hidden problems.”


Since moisture is the number one thing that destroys building materials, it should be the focus of attention. According to Cooke, “professional home inspectors look for the following signs of moisture issues: cracked, peeling, stained, discolored or bubbled paint - often on window sills, under windows, in corners of rooms or closets or in basements. Another great symptom would be musty or earthy odors in basements and closets, indicating mold or water damaged materials. Even signs of recent painting can be a clue that homeowners have been trying to cover up moisture problems.”

If there are no obvious signs of moisture problems then at least a general understanding of watermanagement can be helpful. Cooke considers it wise to look at the general condition of “roof shingles, gutters and downspouts. Make sure the ground around the house is sloping away from the building. On the exterior, again look for signs of water stains, peeling of paint, damaged materials etc.”

Heating & Cooling

Regarding energy performance, we can look at the government sticker on the mechanical equipment and it will tell us how efficient the unit is supposed to be when newly installed. But what about the quality of the installation? What should we look for with heating and cooling systems in the home to know whether it is a well built system?

“Most important in furnaces is to ensure safety. If a homebuyer has any concerns about the condition of an older furnace they should insist on an inspection by an independent HVAC contractor. Older furnaces vent into chimneys. Signs of poor venting would include water staining, scorching, peeling or burn marks around the base of the chimney New high efficient furnaces are much safer. They vent through a sealed plastic pipe that goes through the side wall. Frankly, if buying a home with anything but a high efficiency furnace (over 90%), homeowners should make it a condition of sale that allowance is made to exchange the furnace.

Finally, good installation of duct work will have no obvious gaps in joints, better yet joints would be taped or sealed. Homebuyers may want to look at the condition of furnace grilles as an indication of good maintenance. Even lifting off one or two grilles from the floor and looking for excessive dust or debris in the ducts can be a good indicator. Certainly look for signs of rusting or water stains on or in the ducts.”

Indoor Air Quality

Nearly one in four children now have asthma or other respiratory issues. And since we spend 90% of our time indoors, home buyers certainly should consider the quality of the indoor environment. One of the best signs of air quality according to Cooke is odor. “The human nose is a powerful tool. Check out the odor of a home upon first entry. Don’t be fooled by air fresheners or other intentional odors such as scented candles or cooking smells. These are often used to mask musty or earthy smells that are signs of mold problems. Ask sellers to remove all scented products a few hours before a second visit to a promising home.

Check out the operation of bath fans and range hoods. First do they run, are they reasonably quiet and do they move any air. Use the old facial tissue trick - hold up a sheet to a bath fan and make sure the fan is drawing air.”


We asked Gord how can a home buyer can tell the quality of windows and if they are properly installed or even geographically appropriate (yes, windows should be appropriate for your local geographic and climatic conditions) .

According to Cooke, “the best signs are similar to those we use when considering moisture problems, look for water stains on sills, seals or frames. Open and close the window to make sure seals and latches work properly. A failed sealed in a double glazed window is usually indicated by fogging or cloudiness between the panes. An energy audit will be the best way to have windows assessed for overall performance. It is important to note that there have been tremendous improvements in windows over the last 10 years or so. Houses with windows older than 10-15 years present an excellent opportunity for replacement with much better performers.”

Energy Audit

Cooke believes energy audits are the best way to test the performance of windows but he also recommends this service be performed if someone has their list narrowed to one home. “I certainly recommend an energy audit. In many places there are state or utility run ‘weatherization’ programs that include independent audits. Otherwise folks can check out the website of the Residential Energy Services Network (www.natresnet.org). RESNET offers a directory of qualified, independent energy raters in each state.”

Typically, a homeowner can expect to pay a few hundred dollars for a professional energy audit. Don’t be afraid to ask to see the owners utility bills as well. It will give you a better idea of what to expect. When you consider the size of the investment your home is, this seems like an easy decision to make—whomever writes the check.

Final Thoughts

Before signing the check or making any decisions, always have the home inspected by an experienced, professional home inspector. Your uncle the handyman can offer helpful advice as well, but it is wise to seek counsel from someone who has climbed into hundreds of attics before making a final decision.

About Gord Cooke

As a certified Energy and Environmental Building Association (EEBA) trainer, author and industry consultant, Gord has been an effective and passionate educator and advocate for better building practices, improved indoor air quality and energy efficiency during the past two decades across North America.

Gord brings to his training, his technical and mechanical background, the logic and integrity of a professional engineer and the passion of one committed to helping the residential construction industry build and sell better homes. Based on his homebuyer market research, Gord has pioneered a new training program designed to assist builders in marketing and selling their high performing, energy efficient homes by communicating their value to their customers.

Gord’s building science training curricula covers the gamut from creating and delivering basic and advanced building science principles through managing indoor air quality and HVAC system design, to an intensive technical sales and marketing workshop.


Frequently Asked Questions About Green Remodeling

What is green remodeling?

A home can be considered green when energy efficiency, water and resource conservation, sustainable or recycled products, and indoor air quality considerations are incorporated into the process of home building. The increased availability of education for builders, growing consumer awareness and the exploding market for sustainable, environmentally friendly and recycled building products has accelerated green building’s acceptance rate and move into the mainstream. According to a recent survey, more than half of the members of the National Association of Home Builders, who build 85 percent of the homes in this country, were incorporating green practices into the development, design and construction of new homes by the end of 2007.

What are the benefits of green remodeling?

Green homeowners enjoy knowing they are doing something good for the environment, their family and the future by saving energy and precious resources. Counties can make consumers aware of rebates and credits to encourage them to build green. Many lenders now offer energy efficient mortgages . Visit: http://www.dsireusa.org/.

It’s good for the community, too. Local jurisdictions can make consumers aware of rebates and credits to encourage them to build green. By using fewer materials and generating less waste, green remodeling can help counties lower waste management fees, achieve recycling goals and delay the need for new power sources.

Who does green remodeling?

A new professional designation program from the National Association of Home Builders will soon provide home buyers with additional assurance that the remodeler they’ve chosen is authentically “green.”

The Certified Green Professional™ designation was unveiled during Green Day at the International Builders’ Show in 2008.

“We know green is the future of building. With the Certified Green Professional designation, we’re helping our qualified members demonstrate to their clients that the future is here,” said NAHB Past President Sandy Dunn, a West Virginia home builder.

Builders, remodelers, and other industry professionals must have at least two years of building industry experience to apply for the Certified Green Professional designation.

They must also complete the “Green Building for Building Professionals” course, a two-day training and education session that more than 1,200 industry leaders have already completed since the course was piloted two years ago. Candidates must also complete a University of Housing management course, agree to continuing education requirements and sign a code of ethics. The business management and Green Building for Building Professionals classes are also offered at other NAHB conferences and by local home building associations throughout the country.

Search for a Certified Green Professional in your area at www.nahbgreen.org.

How are NAHB Remodelers involved in green remodeling?

NAHB is helping its members move the practice of green building into the mainstream. Energy efficiency, water and resource conservation, sustainable or recycled products, and indoor air quality are increasingly incorporated into the everyday process of home building.

When a green home doesn’t look or feel significantly different from one built using more traditional construction methods, when builders have the tools and resources to build them without sizeable materials or labor cost increases, and when consumers readily accept the finished product, then ‘green’ has arrived.

The exploding market for sustainable, environmentally friendly and recycled building products, along with the greater availability of educational opportunities for builders, has accelerated green building’s acceptance rate .

The association prepares members with programs addressing education (such as the Certified Green Professional designation), award recognition, and market awareness.

NAHB also recently launched the NAHB National Green Building Program, a comprehensive resource on green building and remodeling at www.nahbgreen.org. NAHB is also launching a national green building and
remodeling standard.

What is the significance of NAHB’s national green building and remodeling standard?

Communities can choose from a number of nationally recognized voluntary green building programs, but right now there is no recognized standard for green building. For that reason, NAHB worked with the International Code Council to develop the first-ever residential green building standard just completed in early 2009 . The standard is based on the NAHB Model Green Home Building Guidelines . The American National Standards Institute certified the development process, ensuring a consensus-based document and adequate public comment. The standard requires third-party certification, above-code baselines for energy efficiency and guidelines for “right sizing” heating and air-conditioning equipment, but it does not mandate specific practices to achieve the required number of points, allowing home buyers to make choices for an affordable, flexible, regionally appropriate and “truly green” result.

There are more than 60 state and local green building programs in the United States, and you can find one by consulting this list or by contacting the state or local homebuilders association in your community.

Successful voluntary green building programs help to systematize the green design and construction process, instill consumer awareness and offer training to help the builder incorporate more green features into homes. They take advantage of tax credit programs and rebates . They often include educational initiatives for other members of the industry, including Realtors and product manufacturers. They emphasize the importance of homeowner education in maintaining the efficacy of a green-built home. Most importantly, they emphasize affordability and flexibility by allowing a menu of choices: homeowners can choose how much they want to spend and make sure that their choice is regionally and geographically appropriate.

Voluntary, market-driven programs — maintaining a choice for builders and consumers — help the dynamic process of green building to advance further.

What are some popular green remodeling options? Learn about these top 10 energy savers and wasters.

Source: Kelly Mack, National Association of Home Builders. For more information about this item, please contact Kelly at (800) 368-5242, ext. 8451 or via email .


A Breath of Fresh Air: Ventilation Matters

Breath of Fresh Air When creating an energy-efficient, airtight home through air sealing techniques , it’s very important to consider ventilation. Unless properly ventilated, an airtight home can seal in indoor air pollutants. Ventilation also helps control moisture —another important consideration for a healthy, energy-efficient home.

Purpose of Ventilation

Your home needs ventilation—the exchange of indoor air with outdoor air—to reduce indoor pollutants, moisture, and odors. Contaminants such as formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds, and radon can accumulate in poorly ventilated homes, causing health problems. Excess moisture in a home can generate high humidity levels. High humidity levels can lead to mold growth and structural damage to your home.

To ensure adequate ventilation, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) says that a home’s living area should be ventilated at a rate of 0.35 air changes per hour or 15 cubic feet per person per minute, whichever is greater.

There are three basic ventilation strategies:

1. Natural ventilation occurs when there is uncontrolled air movement or infiltration through cracks and small holes in a home—the same ones you want to seal to make your home more energy efficient. Opening windows and doors also provides natural ventilation. Because of central heating and cooling systems, however, most people don’t open windows and doors as often. Therefore, air infiltration has become the principal mode of natural ventilation in homes.

A home’s natural ventilation rate is unpredictable and uncontrollable—you can’t rely on it to ventilate a house uniformly. Natural ventilation depends on a home’s airtightness, outdoor temperatures, wind, and other factors. Therefore, during mild weather, some homes may lack sufficient natural ventilation for pollutant removal. Tightly sealed and/or built homes may have insufficient natural ventilation most of the time, while homes with high air infiltration rates may experience high energy costs.

2. Spot ventilation can be used to improve the effectiveness of natural ventilation. However, if both spot and natural ventilation together don’t meet your home’s ventilation needs, then you should consider a whole-house ventilation strategy. Spot ventilation improves the effectiveness of other ventilation strategies—natural and whole-house —by removing indoor air pollutants and/or moisture at their source.

Spot ventilation includes the use of localized exhaust fans, such as those used above kitchen ranges and in bathrooms. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends intermittent or continuous ventilation rates for bathrooms and kitchens instead of using windows (natural ventilation): 50 or 20 cubic feet per minute for bathrooms, and 100 or 25 cubic feet per minute for kitchens, respectively.

3. The decision to use Whole-House Ventilation is typically motivated by concerns that natural
won’t provide adequate air quality, even with source control by spot ventilation .

Whole-house ventilation systems provide controlled, uniform ventilation throughout a house. These systems use one or more fans and duct systems to exhaust stale air and/or supply fresh air to the house. There are four types of systems:

Exhaust ventilation systems : Force inside air out of a home.

Supply ventilation systems : Force outside air into the home.

Balanced ventilation systems : Force equal amounts quantities of air into and out of the home.

Energy recovery ventilation (ERV) systems : Transfer heat and cool from
incoming or outgoing air to minimize energy loss.

Moisture Control Matters

Properly controlling moisture in your home will improve the effectiveness of your air sealing and insulation efforts, and vice versa. Thus, moisture control contributes to a home’s overall energy efficiency.

The best strategy for controlling moisture in your home depends on your climate and how your home is constructed. Before deciding on a moisture control strategy for your home, you may first want to understand how moisture moves through a home .

Moisture control strategies typically include the following areas of a home:

In most U.S. climates, you can use vapor diffusion retarders in these areas of your home to control moisture.

Source: US Dept. of Energy Consumer’s Guide to Energy Efficiency

If this information doesn’t scare you into hiring an experienced professional, nothing will. Click here to find a professional in your area who can assist you in building a tight, energy efficient, and properly ventilated home.


10 Ways To Maintain Or Improve Your Home Value

We are always looking for ways to increase, or at the very minimum, maintain our home value. Well, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: It doesn’t always have to break the bank. Sometimes it just means taking a closer look at things when we go to do those normal fix ups around the house.

For the most part, every community has a high end and a low end. In the Real Estate Industry we call these "Comparables". Depending on the size, condition and location of the home- your home may be anywhere in between. For the sake of this article, let’s focus on getting you at the top.

10. Keep it Clean - Sounds simple right? Well, it pretty much is just that. If you are thinking about selling take a few days and do some ‘deep cleaning’ or call in a maid service. Clean out some of those closets that look jam-packed full of linens and boxes. It just needs to be tidy. Get rid of those dust streamers on the ceiling fans, dust and wash the baseboards/door casings. A clean and organized home leaves the impression of one that is well maintained.

9. Maintenance - Keep up with your property…all the time. If you wait until it is time to sell, the cost of repairs may be so much that you won’t want to do it. Set a schedule and paint the house every so often, change the roof in a timely manner, keep those fences looking good. This way, it won’t be overwhelming when you need it the most. Other items that would be on this list would be Hot Water Heaters, A/C and Heat equipments, etc. Buyers really DO look at these things. Wouldn’t you?

8. Update - Often times we confuse the term ‘Update’ with ‘Upgrade’. Updating the home just means to keep it cosmetically as though it is recent. Sometimes this just means changing out a couple of light fixtures, paint on the walls, color choices on the exterior and maybe even the flooring.

7. Flooring - Keep it clean or change it. If you don’t want to mess with it, put down a tile or Hardwood Floor (A little Hint: If the color of the grout in the tile is your only issue, you can have someone come in and stain it for a minimal amount of money). If you think you might be moving in 5 or so years, why don’t you change it now so that you can also enjoy it?

6. Kitchen - When your appliances are getting to look a little…used- Maybe you are getting tired of them? Change those also, and don’t forget to buy ENERGY STAR appliances! If you want to spice it up a little bit more, change the color of them. That would then be updating. Then maybe change the paint and the light over the breakfast table, faucet on the sink. You would have a whole new kitchen for less than $300. Update the pulls on the cabinet doors/drawers, countertops maybe?

5. Bathrooms - The same thing goes here as in the Kitchen. If money allows you can always update the shower and flooring. If not? Just changing out the light fixtures (ENERGY STAR of course) a little paint or American Clay Wall Plaster and you will be lookin’ good!

4. Exterior of the Home - Painting the exterior was mentioned above, but there is so much more to the exterior of the home. If you have gutters, clean them out regularly. Not just to look nice, but to reduce the maintenance of your home as they can cause severe wood rot. Speaking of wood rot, change out the wood that needs to go if there is any. Get the roof changed or washed (don’t forget the radiant barrier) - Should you change out the windows? Check with a local Real Estate Professional, but if this is something you want to do, you will likely get your money back on resale and THEN some.

3. Reduce Your Energy Bills - Now, this is something to do even if you don’t want to move. It could be as simple as sealing around your doors and windows and upgrading to Energy Efficient (ENERGY STAR) items as you go through the home. Make the home a little more affordable to actually LIVE in, and you will likely see the return when you go to sell. On top of that, put a little more money in your pocket every month before you decide to make the big move. First things first though, get an energy audit!

haisma skyvale 2. Upgrade - If you are changing out items in your home, and the Comparables allow you to do so, Upgrade what you put in. Remember, when you go to sell, the other homes around you will likely be your competition. What can you put in that maybe some other homes won’t have? Just don’t over improve your home! I recommend getting with a local real estate professional to find out how much you have to play with in your renovations if there is a chance you may move in the next 5 years.

1. Curb Appeal - This is number One! Your front yard is the first thing that people see, make sure that you make a good impression. Do a little bit of landscaping and maybe try to use Native plants to your Region. People are busy and don’t always like to have High Maintenance yards, but we LOVE to enjoy them. Try to Landscape somewhere in the middle. Let it Dazzle but be easy to keep that way.

Houston Skyline It really is easy as that! If you are having a hard time figuring out what to do to your home, contact a local Professional whether it be a Remodeler, Interior Designer, Landscape Company or Real Estate Professional.

My best advice would be to make a list. Write down what you want to see in your home over the next ‘X’ years or months and how much they will cost. From there it will probably be easier to figure out in what order you want to complete the tasks. Stephanie Edwards-Musa

Stephanie Edwards-Musa is a Realtor® and Certified EcoBroker® in Houston, Texas. She teaches a course on "Making Your Home More Energy Efficient" at Lone Star College and is the founder of TurningHoustonGreen.com .


How To Choose A Builder

‘The 7 Deadly Mistakes to Avoid when Choosing a Builder’

blueprint2.jpgBuilding your new home may be one of the biggest investments you make in a lifetime, so you are right in doing your research first so that you can do it right. But did you know, who you choose to build it can impact the outcome dramatically.

Now I am not talking about the horror building stories that we’ve all heard or read about: the home that never got finished, the builder that cut corners and more, the chainsaw massacre remodel job. They are out there and in some cases true. I am talking about how much your builder’s experience and expertise can affect the decisions you make while building your home. The difference can be the creation of the home of your dreams or just another home. So use these tips, and choose wisely.

Mistake #1 - Failure to do proper background investigation and research

Don’t be shy about asking. If they are a reputable builder, they will want you to know their credentials. The Home Builder’s Association (HBA) will be able to tell you if the builder has any complaints against him or if he has been involved in any contractor related legal actions. Ask for references and then talk to them. Ask questions like:

  • Did the builder stay on budget?
  • Was the builder helpful with materials, finishes, recommendations?
  • Did the builder stay within the projected completion time range?
  • Did the builder return calls quickly?
  • When problems arose, how quickly was the builder able to respond to them satisfactorily?
  • Are they registered with the local Home Builders Association (HBA)?
  • How long have they been working with the same trades?
  • Have they won any awards?
  • What do they feel they excel at?

Today the building process is very complicated. Code and industry changes are happening regularly. The number of choices in materials and construction techniques has risen exponentially in the last 10 years. There are too many options, and it is a difficult process. If they are registered with the HBA there are programs and training to keep them in touch with industry trends and changes.

They say a pick-up truck makes for a great office. If you’re not so sure, check to see that they have good management skills or a strong team behind them. This won’t guarantee a better job, but it usually means that the process will go more smoothly as the builder will not have to see to everything personally.

  • Check with the local HBA to see if there have been any complaints
  • Ask for references and then talk to them.
  • Ask for the names of some of their trades and ask them if they like working for the builder? How well does he resolve problems? Does he pay on time? Does he set high job site standards? Does he cut corners on the job site? *Please handle this sensitively. Trades can be very loyal to their builder so don’t risk your future relationship with them.

Mistake #2 – Failure to choose the right builder for your job

Not every custom house build project needs the same kind of a builder. Consider your needs. Are you looking for a one man artisan who pays attention to every detail in your home? Or is it important to you that your home be built on a tight schedule and problems and challenges are addressed quickly and efficiently?

Assess your needs by asking yourself these Questions:

  • How much time do I have to invest in the home building process?
  • How much research am I you able to do for the products and finishes?
  • How much time do I have to select the material finishes?
  • How much guidance are you prepared to offer your builder in how you want your home built?

For instance, some builders are expert craftsmen. Everything they do is on the custom level. If you are looking for a lot of detailed woodwork, you might be better suited to a builder who either, 1) does it himself and stakes his reputation on it, or 2) has his own skilled people doing the work, rather than subbing the work out to (possibly) the lowest bidder.

Some builders offer a much more streamlined approach to building your home, which will save you time and may save you money. Of course you may not have the full ‘custom’ approach to every detail in the house, but do you really want to be picking out every last little thing on your house?

Mistake #3 – Failure to choose a builder you like and trust

Signing with a builder is a big commitment. If you discover halfway through the construction of your new home that you don’t like your builder, or he is too busy to ever get back to you, it is a difficult mistake to undo. If everything else checks out with the builder, go with your instincts. Do you feel you can trust him? Do you think you will enjoy working with this builder/firm for the next 6 months or so?

If not, find someone else before it’s too late. Don’t cheat yourself of the fun and excitement that comes with building a home by making a poor choice of builder.

Mistake #4 – Failure to get it in writing

Get your estimate in writing. Have the builder specify what is included in the price. Sometimes items that you see in a model home, may not be included in his standard pricing. Ask the builder for his allowance amounts for things like lighting fixtures, flooring, cabinetry. Then pay a visit with his suppliers and see if those allowances are realistic. Just how much you can get for that price? Some builders will put in lower amounts for their allowances because it makes the bid price look lower. But what you don’t pay for up front, may cost you more down the line.

If you don’t think the allowances will cover what you want to put in the home, how will the excess amount be handled? Will you have to pay for it in cash? Can you include it in your mortgage?

Have your builder specify on the estimate a list of the standard materials used, including model numbers if appropriate. It is difficult to get a good job and durability from inferior quality materials. If price is your biggest concern, I recommend building a smaller home, before paying for inferior materials or poor quality workmanship. These will not only decrease your enjoyment of your home, but will affect your resale value as well. You know what they say, “You pay for it now, or you pay for it later. Either way you pay for it.” I have found that to be true.

Get a signed Contract in writing. Please read your contract, or better yet, have a lawyer review it. You don’t want to be stuck in a contract that only benefits and protects the builder. You might consider including performance goals, ie. job completion dates, guarantees on estimates, back-up should something happen to the builder personally.

Mistake #5 – Failure to confirm liability insurance

Just because a builder has a licence doesn’t mean that he is insured against injuries, job site accidents, storm damage or other unforeseen hazards. Ask your builder to see his certificate showing that he is up to date and fully covered with liability and damage insurance. Different areas use different names for their insurance – check with the local HBA for standard coverage requirements.

Mistake #6 – Failure to understand the Builder’s Warranties

Call the HBA and find out what the local industry standard is for a home warranty. If your builder doesn’t offer at least the average warranty, find a different builder.

Mistake #7 – Failure to ask for help

I have been in the building industry for years, and I don’t know it all. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you have to be the expert on everything. Ask for help. But do be careful where you get your advice from. Many people like giving it, but are they really qualified to give you valuable advice. I have heard much advice on the job site from well intentioned trades people. They told me about the mistakes I was making, and how ‘nobody’ does it that way, ‘everybody’ does it this way.

Today your choices are vast and your options many. You can’t know it all. So do ask for help from experienced sources.

Congratulations on your decision to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. Happy building!

Yours Truly,

Some additional thoughts:

While choosing a builder is a very important detail, do not overlook the value of good plans. See ‘How to Choose an Architect’ and ‘Tips on How to Design your Dream Home’ for more information.


How To Choose An Architect

blueprint.jpgOther than choosing a spouse, this may be one of the most important relationship decisions you make in your lifetime. Considering that the home you will be building is a legacy that will impact many users and generations to come (statistics show we live in a home for an average of about 7 years,) it is not a decision to be made lightly. And like a marriage, you will develop a relationship with your architect or architectural designer that can make the building process even more enjoyable or, well, one can only imagine.

As you begin your adventure in home building I recommend three very important aspects to consider when choosing your architect.

  1. Do your research.
  2. Be prepared.
  3. Communicate your needs and goals clearly.

Do Your Research

The Value of Good Blueprints: I cannot overestimate the value of a good architect and properly prepared plans. Today with the do-it-yourself CAD programs, it seems anyone can design a home. As builders, we have built homes that have been designed by many different architects. It doesn’t take long to know which architects are favourites. And it often doesn’t have anything to do with how much the architect charges. It’s funny how some architects designs are difficult to build. Or the blueprints of other architects have space or traffic flow that just doesn’t make sense. When you are working with an inexperienced designer, the mistakes can be disastrous. One architect whose plans we built regularly was known for not leaving enough headroom for the stair opening, and bathrooms that were too small. Once a builder knows that about an Architect, he can watch out for those details. But how can you? Check with your builder.

Get References, Referrals and Recommendations: First, if you have already selected a builder, talk to him about it. Chances are he will have some pretty good advice for you. You can also talk to friends who are happy with their homes, but many of them might not realize the problems that the builder encountered while building their home. Another good research tool is the Parade of Homes. There’s nothing like walking in a home and experiencing it to understand how a designer works.

Set Realistic Goals: Let’s face it. We all want more in a home than our budget or the square footage allows for. You know in your head that there is only so much that can fit in your desired size of home, but your heart wants to convince you otherwise. Also, size doesn’t always determine price. Many other factors like quality of finishing materials, structural and design elements, site preparation and accommodation will affect the final price. If you are realistic and specific up front with your architect, it will save you heartache later.

Check the Portfolio: Has the architect actually designed homes similar to what you have in mind? There is a big difference in designing a Lakefront home or a house on an infill lot than for a home on acreage or in a neighbourhood.

Trust Your Instincts: When you are finally interviewing your potential architect and everything else seems to be right, trust your instincts. Do you think you are going to enjoy working with the person, the firm? If not, keep looking. There’s too much at stake.

Be Prepared

Understand What you Want. I know this sounds obvious, but it is important. Collect magazine pictures, lots of them. And maybe features from other plans that are particularly appealing. This may most easily communicate to your architect the look and feel that you are after. You can tell your architect that you want a home that looks French Country, but what if his idea of that is different than your expectations?

Understand your budget. Your architect is not going to pay the bills from your builder. If you have a specific amount that you are able to invest, you need to know before you get to the cash register that you are over budget. Many architects are unaware of how much it will cost to build their blueprints. Aside from variables like your choice of finishing materials, how they structure a house can affect the cost to build it dramatically.
Check the architect’s portfolio to make sure that he designs homes for your budget. I have a favourite architect that I like to work with when there is a limited budget. When I say something like, “What do you think about putting a Cathedral ceiling in here?” and he responds with something like, ‘Well, did you want a 2 car garage instead of 3?’ I know where I stand. A good architect is going to have an understanding of how much things will cost.

Understand Your Lifestyle. Your architect is not going to live in your home. You are. Another obvious statement I know. But you may know that you usually have more than one person working in the kitchen, so the typical ‘work triangle’ may not be the best approach for you. Or that organizing your stuff is a top priority, so planning for the appropriate storage spaces, whether inside or outside your home, had better be too. Also, consider furniture layouts. A great big large room may look good on paper, but where has your architect put the room entrances for traffic flow? Will you be able to layout your furniture in a pleasing way? Make sure he is able to understand how you live, and then when he makes recommendations, take into consideration his professional expertise.


Make Sure You Tell All: Now that you know what you are looking for, and how much you want to invest, you need to tell your architect. There is no substitute for clearly conveying this to your architect. Don’t assume that he knows, because it seems obvious to you that something should be done a certain way. Remember, you are working with someone who is part Engineer, and part Artist. Enough said!

Get it in Writing: I have always had good experiences with the architects I have worked with but it is always a good idea to get it in writing. How much will the plans cost? How long will they take? How much will it cost to make changes? What if he does not have them completed when expected?

Questions to Answer: How willing is the architect to work with you? If you have a unique lot, would he be willing to walk the site with you? Does he prefer to do a typical ‘stock’ type home with front and back views, or can he think outside the box? How long does the design process typically take? How does the architect price his work? Has the architect done a broad range of designs? Does he have stock plans that you could modify to suit you? Is the architect familiar with the building codes in the area you are building your home?

Some architects will take a lot of information from you and then begin the process of the preliminary drawings. Others will sketch things out right in front of you to make sure that they are on the right track.

Review your preliminary plans with your builder. Does he think the house will come in on budget?

Remember, there is NO such thing as the perfect house. But by doing your homework, understanding your needs, goals and budget, and finding the right architect for your job you will have a rewarding home to be enjoyed for many years and hopefully have fun building it too.

Yours Truly,

Some additional thoughts:

While choosing an architect is a very important detail, do not overlook the value of a good builder or design. See ‘How to Choose a Builder ’ and ‘Tips on How to Design your Dream Home’ for more information.


Budget The Building So You Can Build The Budget

That statement seems quite simple to say and yet in over thirty years of home building experience I find “building a home that exceeds the budget” rated very high on customer’s fears; even though most people would choose the New Home that is sized and decorated to their liking.

When I ask what they have heard or experienced, it relates to two main areas; poor communication between the Builder and the Owner, and changing the scope of the project after it’s begun. A true Professional Builder should spend ADEQUATE time with you to explore all the expectations you have for size of home, how simple or complex of a design, it’s location on the site, how much detail in finishes, etc. along with your lifestyle and special features. Taking this information the Builder should be able to properly budget the project.

Setting up accurate budgets combined with clear, complete Plans, Specifications and Contract will start a project on the right foot. This alone is not the complete answer though. Regular communication updating costs and options desired during construction are a must. This will allow for adjustments before the Budget gets off track.

If you want to change or add something to your home during construction, a Change Order should be used before the change is made. This will keep an accurate account of where the budget stands.

Finally, using a professional Custom Builder, timely communication and good paperwork will position you to “Build the Budget” and hopefully have an enjoyable experience.

Dan Diephuis is the owner of Diephuis Builders , Inc. and winner of the HBAGGR 2006 Custom Builder of the Year award.