Can owner-builders save money by acting as their own general contractor? According to one New Hampshire builder, Alan Rossetto, the answer is a resounding “Yes” — as long at the owners are willing to contribute sweat equity.
In recent years, six owner-builders have hired Rossetto as a consultant to shepherd them through the home-building process. “I provide them with information on suppliers that I know to be competent,” Rossetto explains. “I also estimate each project’s time frame and the approximate cost for each portion of the process.” Rossetto usually remains on the job site to supervise foundation work and the erection of the shell; he also provides pointers on installing heating and ventilation equipment.
Rossetto insists that any home he’s involved with have high standards for energy efficiency and indoor air quality. He advises clients:
• If possible, build a frost-protected shallow foundation with stemwalls built from insulated concrete forms (ICFs).
• Build above-grade walls with structural insulated panels (SIPs) or ICFs.
• Frame the floors with open-web floor trusses.
• Install a radiant-floor heating system with a Polaris water heater instead of a boiler.
• Install a mechanical ventilation system that includes an energy-recovery ventilator.
Meet Some of Al’s Army
Video: NH Customer Service Rep
Choose the right customers
Rossetto screens potential clients. “I’ve worked with musicians, airline pilots, teachers, customer service reps, and small business owners,” said Rossetto. “I like to work with people who can do their own research, who are organized, and who have the ability to run a $200,000 to $300,000 one-year business.”
Rossetto has been known to turn people away. “If I’m not satisfied they can do the job, I’ll say, ‘Nope, this isn’t going to work,’” said Rossetto.
For most of Rossetto’s clients, the first step is to hire a designer. “This is not a spur-of-the-moment construction idea; these people have been thinking about a house for a long time,” said Rossetto.“But I spend a lot of time with them during the design phase, to help make the building as simple as possible.”
Energy Star booster
Rossetto is a big fan of the Energy Star Home program. “You get a free engineer whose job it is to look at your building,” he explains. “This person comes to your house before it is sheetrocked to look for problems in the building envelope. Most importantly, when you are finished with the house, the auditor comes and does a blower-door test. Remember, this is all free.” These services help reassure first-time builders. “I cannot stress enough how positive it has been for the owner-builders,” said Rossetto. “The additional set of eyes looking over the plans and the on site, the thermal bypass inspection, and the blower-door test give them feedback on how their homes will keep them healthy and comfortable for years to come.”
Putting the owners to work
In most cases, Rossetto’s clients help erect ICFs and SIPs; many also help install radiant tubing and insulation. “The model I use is Habitat for Humanity,” says Rossetto. “My clients always have a hands-on role at the job site. My attitude is, if I am going to be there helping you, you darn well better be there working too.” Rossetto rarely wears a tool belt anymore. “As I get older, I’m doing less hands-on work,” says Rossetto. “I usually just go on site as a supervisor.” Rossetto advises clients to sub out most of the mechanical and finish work. “The cost of the shell is approximately 20% of the total cost of a home,” says Rossetto. “The other 80% is spent on things that are best left up to people who do their trades everyday.”
Al aims for affordability
Although most of the products and methods that Rossetto recommends — including frost-protected shallow foundations, Form-a-Drain footing forms, ICFs, SIPs, floor trusses, and ERVs — are more expensive than conventional products, Rossetto believes the money is well spent. “The products may not be cheaper, but the labor is,” says Rossetto. “I believe in simplified systems. If you can do it by yourself, with maybe your brother-in-law and one guy that makes a modest wage supervising you, the house will cost less, even if some of the material costs are higher. These people are building five-star energy-efficient homes for $100 or $125 a square foot.”
Satisfied clients are the bottom line
Rossetto’s confidence is infectious. “With the help of Mr. Rossetto’s contacts and experience, I followed a step-by-step program that made it possible for me to have the house of my dreams,” wrote Rouleen Williams of Salisbury, N.H., in a letter to Rossetto. “I did not know that was possible. But with the encouragement of Mr. Rossetto, it became a reality.”
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I've known Al for five or six years and he is a man of his word. Your home will perform as he suggests and what is there to say.
Its all true
Being one of the people who hired Al as a consultant I can honestly say everything he says is true. There is a lot of work involved both physically and managerially but the knowledge gained, the pride and sense of accomplishment is very rewarding and worth every ounce of effort. Not to mention the savings in fossil fuel usage and reduction of carbon footprint. We absolutely have no regrets whatsoever. Al is very helpful and a natural born teacher. If you are interested in doing something like this give Al a call and talk to him. He is a special person who likes to share his knowledge and help people achieve thier own dreams. In a world of too many "just leave it to me's" he is a refreshing rarity. Thanks to GBA.com for putting this out there and spreading the good word.
Big Al Rossetto
I learned alot from Al working on one of his projects here in Ct. it is I hope the way of the future in home building.
How to save the world, one building at a time
There are few people in this country who possess the knowledge and the passion that Mr. Rossetto brings to every project. He integrates energy efficiency, technical superiority and good ol' common sense into both commercial and residential structures. Frame "stick building", the norm in this country, is a centuries old bad habit that I am convinced, via the tutelage of Mr. Rossetto, should be immediately replaced by the techniques and materials he employs. The substantial environmental benefits and low operating cost of his energy star methodology pale, however, in comparison to the decreased exposure to molds and stale air that modern frame buildings often engender. If you are building from the ground up, this is the only way to go - both economically and morally. When I build anew in the not too distant future, I will gladly give him carte blanche in all system decisions and structural composition. He deserves a Nobel Prize in environmental health!
Does FPSF foundation cost more or less?
Mr. Rossetto is doing a great thing.
I thought FPSF costs less than Basement of crawl space due to saving on digging & backfilling. But this article seems to indicate it may actually cost more. Can someone help to clarify? Thank you.
Al keeps a close watch on the plumbers
I was just looking at this picture of Al supervising the plumbers "keeping them honest" and wondering if that is indeed the "King of Beers" in the foreground "keeping them company" as well?
Nobel? I don't think so.
There's no doubt that Al knows how to build a tight and efficient house, but he no more deserves a Nobel for environmental health than Obama deserved one for peace while waging five wars.
For instance, by connecting the inner and outer footing drains with the overly-expensive and unnecessary Form-a-Drain and daylighting the drains, he's effectively short-circuited the radon vent. The function of the passive radon stack (as he correctly points out) is to create negative pressure under the slab. But with the interior drain (radon vent) connected to the daylighted exterior drain, the radon stack will only draw outside air from the outlet pipe and not protect the occupants from carcinogenic soil gas.
I'm familiar with Al's Waitsfield VT Energy Star home, the one featured in Fine Homebuilding in the Feb/Mar 2004 issue. I wrote the following letter to FHB in response:
June 29, 2006
To the Editor,
At the conclusion of a week-long Sun-Tempered Super-Insulated Home class I taught at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren, Vermont, I took my students on a tour of the Mad River Valley, including visits to two super-insulated homes in the area.
One of them was featured in FHB March 2004 in an article by the builder, Al Rossetto, who moved out of Vermont because – as he told me on the phone – there is no market for his homes here. This is in spite of his having received the highest Energy Star rating at the time.
I am writing to Efficiency Vermont to propose that they downgrade this home and be careful in the future to consider a wider array of design elements in their ratings. This is why:
While a variety of clever efficiency features were utilized in its construction, including shallow frost-protected footings, ICF foundation (insulated concrete forms), SIP walls and roof (structural insulated panels), solar-assisted radiant floor heating, and heat-recovery ventilation – some of the most basic design elements were overlooked.
These include sufficient fenestration and natural ventilation, proper solar orientation, and summer shading for south-facing windows. The result of this, according to the current owner, is an uncomfortable house in the summer and the possibility of having to install air-conditioning. In north-central Vermont, air-conditioning is rarely needed and should never be required in a super-insulated home.
There is another reason why this home is problematic in spite of the highly efficient construction system – or rather, because of it. As Rossetto points out, the house is built like a picnic cooler with windows. It is basically a tightly-sealed foam plastic box with some holes punched in it and an electrically-powered system to supply fresh air and to rid the house of excess humidity (without it, it would be a rain forest, Rossetto wrote).
This is what I call the Hermetic Home – a box that is hermetically sealed so that it cannot breath without artificial respiration. And it is because of this that his house tested at the incredibly low air-exchange rate of 0.04 air changes per hour (ach) and received its 5+ rating. And, of course, artificial respiration works only when the power is not disrupted, which happens with some regularity in rural Vermont.
However, this also means that the house cannot breathe on its own. For a house to breath means not only that it exchanges sufficient air for healthy human habitation (typically 0.25 ach), but that it can cyclically absorb and release excess humidity to prevent the “rain forest” environment which will produce mold in the house and make it uncomfortable in the summer.
Because negligible infiltration and optimum insulation were the design principles for this house, there is a minimum of natural lighting and passive ventilation and insufficient overhangs to adequately shade windows in the summer. Since Rossetto’s house incorporated “high-efficiency” R-5 windows, most of the potential solar heat gain would be reflected. Never-the-less, the house is uncomfortably warm (and likely too humid) in the summer.
Additionally, though the builder believes he was being environmentally responsible by creating a house with very low heating requirements and consequently a low contribution to greenhouse gas production, he failed to consider the considerable embodied energy in the petrochemical materials that he used. The manufacturing process, transportation requirements, and ultimate disposal of the large mass of plastic foam that constitutes both the structure and insulation of the house has already contributed considerably to environmental degradation and global warming, leaving the as-built house with an ecological liability that will have to be “paid back” by years of reduced fuel consumption.
This is the ecological pay-back period that most builders and homeowners fail to consider. This more important pay-back must also consider the associated air and water quality degradation and other deleterious impacts on the Earth’s biosphere which have been traditionally considered externalities – the price that someone (or something) else is required to pay for our economic security and comfort.
There are better ways to build. Two of my homes, for instance, were built with native rough-sawn lumber, a modified Larsen Truss envelope system filled with 12” of dry-blown cellulose insulation (recycled newspaper with borate for fire, insect, and rodent resistance). One also had a shallow frost-protected foundation with radiant floor; the other used a rubble-trench foundation with flagstone thermal mass floor. Both incorporated passive solar design, which supplies approximately 50% of their very low heat requirement. To supplement the solar gain, each house consumes 4/5 of a cord of wood per year and remains comfortably cool all summer. A healthy indoor environment is maintained by kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans, the negative pressure created by the woodstove, and passive make-up air vents in bedrooms and living spaces.
One of these homes won a Citation for Excellence in a national energy & resource efficiency design competition; the other was a Massachusetts Energy-Crafted Home and incorporated the first state-approved site-built indoor composting toilet. They were both constructed for less than the cost of a conventional house, in part due to the use of the homeowners as crew members. These homes are not only more energy efficient than the SIP home described above, but also more comfortable year round and with a healthy indoor environment whether or not the electricity is on, in addition to having very small ecological footprints.
Response to Robert
I've had the great fortune to spend time in traditional buildings in Korea -- clay walls, wood fired hypocaust systems that heat stone floors covered with mud and oiled rice paper – really wonderful places. As a professional designer I aspire to perpetuate the beauty I experienced there which poses minimal stress on plant and animal life. Robert, I identify with most of your suggestions and arguments, however in a very cold climate (Minnesota, Vermont) wouldn’t you agree that an airtight house (~.6 ACH) with an ERV/HRV balanced ventilation system is preferred because it will reduce the total energy consumption by optimizing the amount and tempering the outside air coming into the building and, consequently, offsetting a greater amount of energy used for “artificial” heating? One of your main criticisms (hygroscopic and material issues aside) seems to be directed at a system because it uses energy (i.e. “the artificial respiration system”). But if this individual energy system can be used to reduce the total energy consuming by the overall building system by offsetting consumption of another energy system (i.e. the heating system) isn’t that a good thing?
Growing up in turn-of-the-century houses in Minneapolis I resisted the arguments (and codes) that say mechanical ventilation is required for new residential construction. It seemed ridiculous to add another energy consuming system. But all my research supports it is most responsible to create very tight houses with sophisticated ventilation systems (like the German ones) to try to radically reduce the energy we use to heat (even more than keeping the thermostat way down). Do you think mechanical ventilation systems preclude the proper hygroscopic dynamics of the interior environment for persons’ health and well being?
I think a good VT house must
I think a good VT house must do both. In winter we hibernate, stay home to keep our houses warm (or vise versa), at the first sign of spring we should calm all systems down and live with the sun. Every house should strive for simplicity, solar gain (with manual / veggie shading), guard against prevailing winds, and the ability to act/be physically smaller at times due to harsh weather conditions. McMansions must go; particularly because most are left uninhabited most of the year here anyway.
PS: I am looking for grants for Mad River Valley village rental housing energy and retrofits.
As a new home designer working for builders as well as individuals, I find, more often than not, that building methods touted as "highly efficient" are generally found to be cost prohibitve by most clients and are discarded for conventional methods. Most people find that the return on investment takes far too long if indeed it is recaptured at all. I find it amusing that many highly efficient homes are built by wealthy individuals and are enomously wasteful in terms of their use of and perceived need for space. The green building industry ultimately will need to succeed by true market forces and needs.
Any improvement is a step forward
In response to Al Rossetto's Vermont home. If its imperfect, so be it. Most idea's are a series of trials and errors, give and takes, and adhering to principles or compromise. I applaud Al's efforts, and in fact all efforts to improve home construction and look forward to seeing and hearing the efforts and effects of all who try.
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