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Building Science

Questions to Ask Your Prospective Builder

Getting the answers could help you avoid picking the wrong builder

When having a new home built, you can use these questions to help find a home builder who knows what they're doing.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard

You’re having your dream house built. You’re into the design phase, working with an architect or looking through collections of house plans. You’re doing your homework, trying to find out how to ensure you get a top quality house. And that’s when you run into all this stuff about building science, high performance homes, HVAC design, blower door testing, and the like. Now you’re hooked.

The problem you run into next is figuring out how to get that knowledge applied to your dream home. If you’re building the house yourself (as I did back in 2001), it’s on your shoulders. But most people aren’t owner-builders, instead hiring a professional home builder to bring their dreams to reality. If that’s you, keep reading. Hiring a builder is arguably your most important decision, so here are some questions you can ask prospective builders to find out how likely they are to do things the right way.

1. What is your view of airtight homes?

The builder’s answer to this question can tell you a lot. If they tell you, “A house needs to breathe,” you probably don’t need to waste any more time with them. Save your time to find a builder who appreciates the importance of an airtight building enclosure. You may not find a builder who gives you the ideal answer, but you want one who recognizes that greater airtightness is a good thing. If you can find one who’s had blower door tests even when they weren’t required, that’s a plus. And of course you want them to agree to have your house tested.

You can ask the builder about their previous airtightness test results. Here in Georgia, all new homes have to come in below 7…

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  1. User avater
    Armando Cobo | | #1

    First thing is first...
    Nothing happens without a good set of plans and specifications. First, I would select the right Designer or Architect. Ask if the Designer or Architect has experience in high-performing houses. Any certifications? Referrals? Are you paying for a full set of detailed plans and specifications?
    A few times a year, folks come to us with sets of plans designed by a hack, incompetent Designer or Architect, who charged them $1/sf and provided squat, or a $1,200 set bought from the internet, and then, they all want us to “green it”. Amaizing!!!
    Just last week, one of my client Builders and I were looking for potential tear-down lots in Dallas, and we came across a well know Architect doing a project, and during our conversation she asked me to explain what thermal bridging and rainscreens are. REALLY???
    Second, you probably should ask your prospective builders the same questions. Does the Builder has experience in high-performing houses? Certifications? Referrals?
    No sense to ask a lot of questions if you don't have the right people in the first place.

  2. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #2

    A minor nit to pick...
    "We make sure all cavities are filled completely with as little compression as possible."

    Compression of batts is fine (resulting in a higher R/inch due to the higher density) as long as the cavity is completely filled. This comes up WAY more often than it should when discussing installing shredded batt against backer rod in window installations, where some installers take pains to not compress the fiberglass too much. In that application t's damned near impossible to compress the fiberglass "too much", without using a hammer!

    Compress it as much as you like, as long as the compression doesn't result in voids, and it's still a complete cavity fill.

    Concern by installers about " little compression as possible..." too often yields hard to inspect voids where the exterior sheathing meets the framing. In order to eliminate those voids batts NEED to be tucked in firmly at corners and along the framing, then tugged out gently until it's just proud of the stud edges, for a compression fit when the wallboard goes up.

  3. Todd Eidson | | #3

    Second thing
    After Armando's point about an at least half-way decent plan, you could boil it down to just one simple question:

    Are you thoroughly aware of what the 2015 IECC requires of you when building my dream home in this climate zone?

    If you get a blank stare, no need to go through 1-10.

  4. User avater GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #4

    Response to Armando Cobo
    All good points, Armando. A knowledgeable and skilled architect and a solid design are definitely the place to start.

  5. User avater GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #5

    Response to Dana Dorsett
    Yes, you're absolutely right, Dana. I rarely see cases where compression doesn't go with voids, though. Most of the homes I see use spray foam around windows, not backer rod and fiberglass. In wall cavities, the only time I see this is with the 1/2" of compression you get with R-19 batts in a 2x6 wall.

  6. User avater GBA Editor
    Allison A. Bailes III, PhD | | #6

    Response to Todd Eidson
    That's a good question, Todd, but unscrupulous builders will just bluff their way through it. Also, it wouldn't apply as stated in all locations because not everyone is on the 2015 IECC. Here in Georgia, for example, we're just now going through the process of updated from 2009 IECC to 2015, and it won't go into effect until next year. Plus, we're weakening it by not going all the way to 3 ACH50 and still allowing R-13 walls.

    The questions I posed above are mostly open-ended and require the builder to reveal his or her philosophy about building as well as how much they know about the principles behind good building.

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