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Q&A Spotlight

A Checklist for Building a House

An owner-builder looks for a checklist or spreadsheet to guide construction

It's a new world. Much has changed in the world of residential building in the last 20 years, prompting one prospective owner-builder to look for a simplified checklist of what to do..
Image Credit: David Pill

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 energy 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 Star 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, particularly the Green Building Strategy Generator. So while the original Green Building Advisor is no longer available, it lives on as

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 Homes 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.


  1. User avater
    Michael Chandler | | #1

    Carl Seville has a checklist too
    A while back I bought Carl's checklist from his curmudgeon website (he made me pay full price too, but was nice about it)

    I haven't really brought it into my daily business but shared it with my team as a way to show how another builder approached the whole systematization of not forgetting the important details.

  2. Aaron | | #2

    Strategies are not checklists
    The GBA Strategy guide is not a checklist. For one thing, it begins with "Use a certified irrigation professional". I am pretty sure that is not the first item in building a home. And the Tauton Code Checks would not be a great help either. I think he is looking for a list that will tell him in which sequence the events will occur.

    I too would like to find a checklist. One that I could modify and add/reorganize construction details as necessary but not starting from scratch, having to build a list from strategies, certifying programs, and assorted building code lists. It would be too easy to make a mistake and miss something.

  3. Don Otto | | #3

    simplified checklist
    In my Zone 5 climate I've boiled it down to building the walls with SIPs, spraying at least 12" of open-celled urethane foam directly on the roof deck down to the tops of walls, and at least 2" closed-cell foam inside the furred walls in the basement. Under the basement floor is 2" rigid XPS, with appropriate moisture breaks at floor-wall joints. I also start the whole process centered around an ERV. Fine tuning is before the drywall with depressurization.

    Houses turn out to have very good air quality, durability and low utility bills. Energy Star estimates last house I completed this summer should heat and cool for under $150/year (with geothermal HVAC) and reduce carbon emissions by over half.

    One might doubt using open-cell foam in the attic, but I've collected data on moisture content and it accumulates up to about 30% for a few hours on nights that get well below zero.

    I'd love to hear comments.

  4. S. Fields | | #4

    Checklists for building a house
    In the spirit of "How hard could it be?" I spent 30 years in product development and project management in the communications and semiconductor industries where every project required checklists and de vision trees. In my naïveté I have to believe that a sophisticated decision tree starting with "Single family house" and ending with paint color in the powder room that points to construction details foundation, wall and roof decision sub branches, etc. Could be developed and sold profitably to the professional or owner/builder

  5. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #5

    Checklists are a good thing for other industries...
    If very specific or consistent results are what is desired checklists are an indispensible tool.
    It's what pilots have used forever to ensure they don't forget to lower the landing gear before they touch down.
    It's what astronauts use to make sure they didn't leave a hatch open before re-entry.
    In Canada there has even been talk of requiring surgeons :-O to run over a checklist before closing up a patient.
    Makes sense to me.

  6. bob | | #6

    Maybe the point would be to spend the money up font for professional help so you spend less money overall?

  7. Brad Buser | | #7

    The Perfect Checklist
    Item One - Hire architect with green credentials
    Item Two - Hire contractor with green credentials

    Both these people do the more detailed "checklists" for a living, assuring much better results than any layman with a published checklist. Every single project is different and in many cases don't follow a set flow of decision processes. The reality is that experience is so valuable it is worth paying for.

  8. cam | | #8

    the checklist
    There is no doubt a checklist would be beneficial to many, especially those who are not familiar with the entire house building process. enjoyed the info

  9. Michael Alwan | | #9

    Quality and experience ...
    I have to agree with the last two posts on this one ... your money will go much further if you have the knowledge of a qualified builder and architect on your side. We build 5 star + green homes in Austin, TX and have done nothing but 5 star projects for the past few years; you wouldn't believe how quickly things change! We are able to guide our clients on where they will get the most bang for their buck, as well as pushing for the highest quality of construction; an incredibly important part of green building is that it is sustainable construction that stands the test of time; e.g. a Kohler faucet may cost more than something you purchase at the Home Depot, but when it's all metal construction outlasts the plastic fittings in other products, the Kohler faucet pays for itself.

    If nothing else, find a builder or architect that would be willing to do some green building consultation services for your construction project.

  10. Lucas Durand | | #10

    Profeesionals too.
    Professionals can benefit from checklists too - including architects and builders.
    As I said before, checklists are a fact of life in some professions where it is critical to uphold a high standard of performance.
    Details are important in "green building" and there is no better way to make sure details are taken care of than running through a checklist before moving from one phase to another.

  11. User avater
    Daniel Morrison | | #11

    The Cheecklist Manifesto
    Just finished reading this book. Well, I listened to it on my ipod. I highly recommend READING it -- the narrator was terrible, but the subject matter was excellent.

    When I was a remodeler I had a checklist for many, many things. For me, it was a way to overcome my pre-old age memory loss, but it wound up saving me money on every job.

    Aaron, The strategy library has a 'stage of construction' filter (left column), so that you can go from digging a hole to painting the walls.

    Another handy checklist is Energy Star's Thermal Bypass Checklist, for which, GBA has a set of construction details.

  12. gene batema | | #12

    building checklist
    Go to my blog in the Q and A on this subject and download. This is a good start. Can be altered to fit needs and costs can be inserted. Can also be used as a starting point for scheduling the project.

    gene, Licensed Michigan GC.

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