A Checklist for Building a House
An owner-builder looks for a checklist or spreadsheet to guide construction
John Hess built a small house 20 years ago, and he may have the chance to build again in the coming year. But he realizes a lot has changed in residential construction since 1990.
He'd like to incorporate more green-building features this time around while making fewer mistakes than he did with his first house.
“Can anyone recommend a downloadable checklist or spreadsheet which covers the many and varied aspects of building a house?” he asks in this Q&A post.
Given the massive amount of information available in print and online, as well as the long list of building materials that have been developed in the last two decades, Hess’s request seems entirely reasonable: an appeal for greater simplicity in an age of data overload.
No doubt many builders and owner-builders face this same dilemma. Isn’t there some way of boiling down what we’ve learned?
Sorry, but the answer is no
“You’ve got to be kidding,” writes Robert Riversong. “Building a house is, for a human being, like building a Universe must have been for God. What we demand from human shelter today is so extraordinarily complex, it is like building a space station with intricately interacting life-support systems. It IS rocket science.”
Riversong is a believer in simplicity over unnecessary complexity (his own home is a 300 sq. ft. converted hunting camp with no running water in the kitchen and a two-burner Coleman for a kitchen range). And while he once encouraged people to build their own homes, in the tradition of Charlie Wing's seminal book From the Ground Up, he no longer thinks that's possible.
And Allan Edwards would have to agree. Building is too complex these days for a simple checklist, he says.
Edwards started his construction company more than 35 years ago and says, “The amount of knowledge I’ve learned over those years is invaluable to me and I can’t imagine imparting that in a 'checklist.’ If I could it would be as long as 'War and Peace’ and probably as boring, except for those of us who enjoy construction.”
But there are places to start
If there is no one-size-fits-all checklist for prospective builders, there are still places that help organize information.
GBA senior editor Martin Holladay suggested that Hess visit GBA’s Strategies & Details page.
J Chesnut noted the benefits of the many green-building certification programs that are used to determine whether a house meets certain green criteria. “I'm a bit of a critic to this approach and the checklist should not be used as a design tool,” he says. “However, it can be informative to look through these rather extensive checklists to gain some familiarity with all the aspects involved in building a durable, energy-efficient building that considers its greater impact on the environment.”
Chesnut recommends the green certifying program in Minnesota. National programs include the LEED program from the U.S. Green Building Council and the National Green Building Standard from the National Association of Home Builders.
Riversong also points to Code Check, a series of guides on current building codes published by The Taunton Press. Code Check covers electrical, plumbing, mechanical systems, and foundations, among other things.
There is the extensive library of information at GreenBuildingAdvisor, the Journal of Light Construction, and Fine Homebuilding magazine.
What about 'generic’ house plans?
It’s not just a checklist that Hess is after. He’d also like to get construction plans without the expense of hiring an architect.
“What I would really like is to purchase a full set of blueprints for my house, incorporating a shallow frost-protected foundation, double walls, etc.” Hess writes. “But I've not found any such generic blueprints... It may be that I will just use a conventional house design as a template, and then try and modify it to make it greener.”
Lucas Durand, who will be building his own house in the spring, suggests researching aspects of construction that seem especially relevant. Frost-protected shallow foundations, for example, are covered at a publication by the NAHB Research Center.
Mike Maines says plans for one small net-zero energyProducing as much energy on an annual basis as one consumes on site, usually with renewable energy sources such as photovoltaics or small-scale wind turbines. home are available through the website of Kaplan Thompson Architects, a firm in Portland, Maine. The building is called BrightBuilt Barn.
But look how expensive it is
Hess likes the look of the BrightBuilt project, but adds this: “I was dismayed that a ready-built 640 sq. ft. house cost upwards of $250/sq. ft., sans foundation, plumbing fixtures, garage, etc. I hope to build for far less, using my own labor as much as possible.”
You should be able to do it for much less, Riversong says, providing you build a “simple shelter” rather than a “lifestyle container” that so many U.S. home buyers seem to want.
“The last superinsulated passive solar Energy StarLabeling system sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Energy for labeling the most energy-efficient products on the market; applies to a wide range of products, from computers and office equipment to refrigerators and air conditioners. 5+ house I built for a client in Vermont 2 years ago cost only $105/SF,” Riversong writes, “including contracting out the excavation & site work, slab, plumbing, heating and electrical.” The house is featured elsewhere at GBA.
Also keep in mind, says Jesse Thompson, that price per square foot is a “terrible way to evaluate the cost of small houses. Even the smallest house has a kitchen and bathroom (the most expensive rooms in a house), you've merely reduced the size of the inexpensive rooms of the house so the $/SF skyrockets,” he writes. “The inverse is true of McMansions, huge bedrooms and living rooms are practically 'free’ to a builder, so if land is cheap like in most US exurbs, there is no economic reason not to build a 5,000 empty box if people buy houses based on $/SF.”
Well said, adds Maines. “Very good point about square foot pricing,” he says. “Kind of like buying cars by the pound. I bet my F150 costs less per pound than a Yaris but that doesn't mean it's better.”
Our expert's opinion
GBA Technical Director Peter Yost had this to say:
There is quite a bit of irony here: the best checklist I ever used, which could be customized based on quite a few user inputs, was the original CD-ROM driven software called Green Building Advisor. The GBA CD-ROM is not really available anymore, although there are still copies kicking around that will boot up on some PCs. This original GBA was developed by BuildingGreen about 12 years ago. And in name and to some degree in content and function, it led to GreenBuildingAdvisor.com, particularly the Green Building Strategy Generator. So while the original Green Building Advisor is no longer available, it lives on as GreenBuildingAdvisor.com.
And while I am on a bit of a self-serving bent, the GBA strategy generator of 289 strategies is supported by about 1000 construction details.
I agree that while not the best and highest use, it can be a great START to use comprehensive green building program checklists, such as the LEED for HomesLeadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED for Homes is the residential green building program from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). While this program is primarily designed for and applicable to new home projects, major gut rehabs can qualify. checklist. There are two GBA case studies where this was the case, including this one and this one.
So I think some of the best checklist resources are right here on GBA. And although NOT checklist-driven, it’s also worth checking out Alex Wilson’s Your Green Home.
- David Pill
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