Thursday, July 2, 2015


A custom home may depend on solar, geothermal or wood stoves for its heat, but the building code, loans and future resale values require that the house be equipped with an adequate conventional heating system. There are many deciding factors in what type of system to chose. The type of heating system chosen is determined by the budget, personal preference, location and resources available.

The required energy may be supplied by natural gas, propane or electricity. All types of systems actually require some low level of electricity to power fans, pumps and controls. The actual utility chosen to heat the home may be determined by location. All sites should have electricity, but whether your site has natural gas or must be supplied with propane should be determined.

These days, electricity is seldom the first choice. Electric heat usually results in a higher utility bill. Electric heat can result in a lower upfront or capital cost, Electric heat can be the least expensive way to install heat in a home, but seldom will be the least expensive to operate. Note that an electric outlet cannot be placed above an electric baseboard heater. Electric heat might still be chosen if most required heat is to be supplied by wood or solar.

Propane is often chosen on rural sites. It is a gas when it enters the home. It is delivered by truck to a tank near the home. The tank can be leased or purchased. The tank can be buried (this requires the tank be purchased) or placed on grade and even hidden with landscaping. The energy delivered by propane is slightly less than the energy delivered by natural gas. A professional may need to adjust the orifice sizes on old appliances. Propane does allow for gas cook tops, clothes dryers and fireplaces. Propane cannot be used in a basement mechanical room without complicated detectors. A propane fueled mechanical room must be in a true walkout or upper floor. It cannot be in a basement or even a garden level. Propane is heavier than air. It settles and pools if there is a leak. Leaking propane would be vented by opening doors.

Natural gas is usually chosen if it is available. If a site is supplied with natural gas or it's nearby, gas will be run into the house. Natural gas will result in a lower utility bill than propane, with electricity being higher still. Natural gas and electricity will result in monthly bills. Propane is billed upon delivery, resulting in irregular and large bills. Natural gas is lighter than air. Leaking natural gas could be vented through open doors and windows. Again, natural gas allows for gas cook tops, clothes dryers and fireplaces.

Another decision to be made is whether to heat with hot water or forced air. Both choices have advantages and disadvantages, and both can be run off natural gas, propane or electricity. Budget, personal preferences and practical considerations affect the choice. This should be discussed with the architect.

A hot water heating system can be "In Floor Radiant Heat", "Underfloor Radiant Heat" or baseboard hot water heat. Hot water heat comes off a boiler. Any type of hot water heat usually costs more than forced air. Any type of hot water heat can be broken into multiple zones, each zone with its own thermostat. Adding air conditioning is awkward as there is no duct system.

"In Floor Radiant Heat" runs heating tubes through a 1 1/2" thick, light weight concrete floor. This adds weight to the structure, but is easily dealt with. The cost of concrete and supporting it can make this the most expensive commonly used heating system in residential projects. The height added by the concrete must be considered in the framing. Wood flooring requires  2x4 furring. "In Floor Radiant Heat" gives a warm floor, no moving air and spaces clear of heating registers or baseboards.

"Underfloor Radiant Heat" tubes are stapled under the sub-floor with insulation below that. It eliminates the concrete floor. Construction details must be considered. The nails from installing a wood floor will pierce the sub-floor, but cannot pierce the heating tubes. The final results are very similar to those in a home using "In Floor Radiant Heat".

Hot water baseboard heat is an older, less expensive way to heat with water. There can still be multiple heating zones. Baseboards run along outside walls and anywhere heat is needed. Nowadays, the baseboard radiator sits where the base trim would be. A typical baseboard radiator is about 2" deep and 8" high.

All hot water heating systems result in a quiet home with no moving air. However, any kind of hot water heat means that air conditioning must be a separate system with its own ducts and delivery system. Adding air conditioning to a house using hot water heat again increases the budget.

A forced air heating system requires a furnace, supply ducts and a return air system. A forced air heating system is more difficult to break into zones. It does easily lend itself to adding air conditioning. A humidifier can also be easily added. Forced air heat will usually be less expensive than hot water heat. It has a quicker response time making it a better choice in vacation and second homes. If you arrive at a vacation home late in the day, the house will be cool from having a lower thermostat setting while the house was unoccupied. Forced air heat will respond more quickly than hot water heat.

Choosing which method for heating a home is a major choice. It can affect the structure of the home and its basic layout. Running ducts from a mechanical room requires some planning. Hot water heating tubes can usually be run anywhere. Propane can affect the basic layout of the house. A tight budget, being a vacation home or the desire for air conditioning can make a forced air heating system an appropriate choice. A home with a quiet heating system, no registers and a warm floor attracts  many home owners. Discuss these options with your architect and consider all possibilities.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


The decision of who will build a house is an important one. Price, references and compatibility all need to be considered. When embarking on one of the most expensive purchases of your life, often taking nearly a year to complete, working with a contractor you like, can deal with easily and trust is a major aspect of deciding who you will choose. A contractor may be preselected, chosen by bidding or negotiated. In residential work, most, but not all contractors are men.

In some cases, a contractor is preselected. A contractor may have been chosen even before a design is begun. He may have been known prior to the project or worked with the client before. He may come so highly recommended that no one else is even considered for the job. Sometimes, a contractor is involved even before an architect is selected or a design begun.

A contractor can be selected through a competitive bidding process. Contractors are invited to bid (usually 3, less and no one knows who is correct when a difference arises, more and it seems just like price shopping. Good builders may simply drop out. There is a lot of gossip amongst sub's and suppliers.) Those chosen to bid have already been reviewed to some degree, but clients still check references and visit each contractor's earlier projects. A face to face meeting is important to determine if the contractor and client are compatible. The client decides on some combination of price, references and compatibility. The job is not always awarded based just on price. A client may be willing to spend more on one contractor based on previous history and experience. Each bidder is given multiple sets of plans, a CD of the drawings and about 1 month to bid.

In a negotiated bid, a contractor (or several) price the house and negotiate with the client on the terms. Fees, scheduling, methods and any other factor may be up for negotiation. Negotiation may be combined with the other methods of selecting a contractor.

One area that needs to be considered, is under what terms the home will be built. Some form of contract will be agreed upon. A contract may or may not be reviewed by a lawyer. If there is to be a construction loan, the lender has some say in how the contract is written and in who builds the house. It is common to build homes using cost plus, fixed fee and combinations of these types of contracts. Many clients ask that specific sub-contractors or suppliers be used, inserting them into the contract.

Allowances may be used in a contract. The architect may set allowances. No one knows exactly what carpet or tile or light fixture will be chosen, so a price is inserted into the contract as an allowance, knowing it is likely to change. This allowance should be reasonable and realistic. The contractor will base some of his fee on the allowances. If an allowance is too low, the contractor is not fairly rewarded. If too high, the client is overcharged.

In any type of contract, there will be many smaller bids on labor and materials making up the larger, overall bid. Some comparisons should be made between bids or other similar custom homes as a way to find errors and discrepancies. It is best to spell out how a home will be built, but without attempting to account for every nail. When a home is built to the satisfaction of both the contractor and the client, everyone will be happy.

Thursday, June 11, 2015


The first step in the design of a custom home is the writing of a program. An architectural program is a written description of the proposed house. In residential construction, general concepts, the look and style of the house, the views desired, the materials wanted; all go into the program. A list of spaces with their requirements is made. Sizes and square footage are estimated and a rough cost estimate is made using a current dollars per square foot cost figure.

A general description of the proposed house might include comments on the site. How many acres is the property? Are there views? Are there rocks, trees and shrubs? How is access gained? Utilities and services should be considered. What is the look or style desired? What materials are favored? Is the house to be energy conserving or solar?

When describing a space, all details are included. In a kitchen, all the appliances that are wanted are listed, the general look, the lighting, cabinet types, what kind of counter tops are desired, an island versus a peninsula and the kitchen's relationship to other spaces are all noted. In a great room, is there to be a fireplace? A TV? What kind of furniture? If a fireplace is desired, where is the house located? Some locations require a gas fireplace instead of wood (to reduce pollution). What does the client want? Are there enough trees on the property to provide a wood source?

Next, the architect notes all spaces with their rough sizes and square footages. Sizes are estimated off what is desired, what is required, the budget, comments from the clients and the architect's experience. Listing a bedroom as 8'x6', just to make the total square footage and final budget look good is very poor planning and programming.

Now the square footage of all proposed spaces is added up. I factor in a % for circulation and wall thickness (20% to 25% typically). A total of the proposed finished square footage is arrived at. From here, what's done next varies amongst practitioners. Basically, the finished square footage is multiplied times a dollar per square foot cost estimate. But, walkout space costs less than main floor or upper floor space and simple plans cost less than complex ones.

My method assumes a garage in proportion to the size of the house. A small house is assumed to have a 2 car garage and no square footage is added to reflect this garage. If a small house client desires a 3 car garage, the dollars per square feet must be higher or some sum of money must be added to cover the cost of the larger garage. Walkout space (basements), costs less, so I use a lower dollars per square foot cost (often 50% of the main floor cost). Then the main floor and upper floor area is multiplied times the full dollar per square foot cost. Finally, all these costs, plus the costs of any special, extra features (an elevator is a good example) are added, giving a rough estimate of the expected construction cost.

A good program then goes through a series of revisions. If the proposed budget is too high, the overall size is reduced or some spaces eliminated or rearranged. If something needs to be added, it is (a wet bar or a 1/2 bath is typical). These revisions are continued until a final program is agreed upon. This written program is then used as the basis for designing the home.