GBA Logo horizontal Facebook LinkedIn Email Pinterest Twitter X Instagram YouTube Icon Navigation Search Icon Main Search Icon Video Play Icon Plus Icon Minus Icon Picture icon Hamburger Icon Close Icon Sorted

Community and Q&A

How to get a Pretty Good House built?

Andrew_C | Posted in Project Management on

Designing a Pretty Good House (PGH) is easy. Just spend a year or two reading at GBA, pay for a GBA Prime/Pro membership to get access to detail drawings, and bam, you’re done. Kinda, not really, but go with it for a minute. So now that you’ve designed it, how do you get it built? This is the one article that I don’t remember being specifically addressed.

This GBA website is an absolute treasure trove of information for builders, designers, and anyone else who is curious or concerned with building high quality, durable, comfortable, and efficient residential housing. (Insert as many positive descriptors as you wish.) I cannot overstate how much I appreciate the effort and thought that goes into creating this resource. The “How to Do Everything” article (a living document) should be enshrined somewhere.

There is one topic that I do not remember being specifically addressed. While the many articles on how to design or build are useful to builders, and designers, and people who are intent on DIY building or retrofitting, they do not address something that seems to be of paramount importance to most readers, and that is how to actually get a PGH built.

Most of us do not have the time, expertise, or contacts to do our own building or general contracting. Mostly, we have some ideas about features that we want incorporated into our new PGH. But the devil is in the clearly communicated details. How many people who start building the new home of their dreams are brought to tears when there are disagreements and misunderstandings during the building process? How often do people end up disappointed with the result? How many people end up at odds with their builder after going through the usually grinding process of getting a new (especially custom) home made? And how many builders and contractors want nothing to do with certain customers?

I’m not certain what such an article would look like. I suspect that it would have links to checklists of topics that should be discussed between builder and customer. I suspect that it would emphasis the importance of having a much more complete set of drawings than normally used, with a lot of detail drawings. There would be few things left open to interpretation, or to “usual and customary”.

I guess the primary thing that I would really be interested in is a sample building contract of some sort. What needs to be included in a contract to clarify design intent and to protect both the builder and customer from misunderstandings? Are there example contracts (with fake or redacted information) that are complete enough to be useful?

I guess this is meant to be a conversation starter. Perhaps this information already exists on GBA, or elsewhere on the web, and I just need a pointer to it.

Thanks for any thoughts,

GBA Prime

Join the leading community of building science experts

Become a GBA Prime member and get instant access to the latest developments in green building, research, and reports from the field.


  1. user-659915 | | #1

    An obsessively detailed set of drawings and a nit-picky contract may seem like your best protection but nothing could be further from the truth. Over-large drawing packages make it harder for the artisan to find the details they actually need, and the inevitable loopholes in lawyerly contracts devised by the homeowner are the dishonest contractor's best friend. Your best path is to find an experienced well-recommended contractor with a solid track record in the kind of house you want to build. Do not, whatever you do, put it out to bid. Negotiate both the details and the contract terms with a contractor you have found good reason to trust.

  2. Expert Member

    James has offered you good advice. Take a look at the standard construction contracts you can find online, like that used by the AIA or construction associations. In general they side with whichever group provides them.
    I see a good set of drawings and specifications a bit more favourably than James does, in that they can avoid misunderstandings between the parties, but they are no substitute for a good relationship with an experienced contractor you can trust.

  3. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    My April 2013 article, Green Building for Beginners, contains two sections that might be helpful: "Questions for your designer and architect" and "Questions for your builder."

    I suggest that you call up local energy raters certified by RESNET or the Building Performance Institute. (You can do a search on the RESNET and BPI web sites to find raters near you.) Ask these raters to share the names of local builders who seem to understand house-as-a-system concepts. To put it another way, ask if the raters know the names of any local builders who regularly use a blower door.

    If you live in New England, attend the NESEA conference in Boston -- it usually happens in March -- to network with smart builders and designers. If you live elsewhere, try to figure out the name of a local conference that is similar to NESEA. (Any suggestions, GBA readers?)

    Finally, you can visit GBA's Green Homes section and sort the homes there by geographical region. That's one way to read about homes in your region that were built by smart builders. Call up some of the builders mentioned in those GBA case studies.

  4. charlie_sullivan | | #4

    I think Andrew is onto something. It's important to find good designers and good builders and Martin has good suggestions for both. But even though I'm a fan of the pretty good house concept, I think that Andrew exposes a weakness in the concept that might be a reason to instead build to a specific standard.

    Part of the pretty good house concept is that there's no magic number in BTU/sq ft or whatever, and that instead, you should make reasonable smart choices, doing what you can for a reasonable price without overspending for the elusive last few % improvement, and at the same time, doing all the easy cheap things even if they wouldn't earn you points in a rating system.

    The flexibility inherent in the pretty good concept can allow people to make smart choices. But it also means leaves room for disagreement and confusion. If you are building to a particular standard, whether that's a HERS rating, Energy Star, Passive House or even LEED, you can point to the standard and say that X is needed or Y isn't allowed. On the other hand, if you are building to pretty good, somebody has to decide what are the right tradeoffs. Whoever that is needs to have a pretty good understanding of building science and building practice. But more importantly, if that person is not the builder--i.e., if it is the client or the architect, there's the potential for the builder to feel like there are a bunch of arbitrary and annoying details that are coming from that person. It can be helpful if they come from an outside source. It becomes "I can't believe Energy Star is making us do that" rather than "I can't believe Andrew is making us do that."

    A high level of mutual trust and respect is important for any construction project, but I think more is needed for a pretty good house than for a house built to an external standard.

    One other comment is that if you think about your handprint as well as your footprint, it can be a good thing to work with builders and architects who are not quite as expert as you'd like them to be. If they develop more expertise during your project, and apply that to their future work, the reduction in environmental impact that results can be significantly larger than the reduction in your own building's footprint. (Of course, if they come out of the project thinking that it was a painful unprofitable venture, they get steered in the opposite direction.)

  5. dankolbert | | #5

    I have come increasingly to believe that having your builder on board during the design phase is critical, to a "green" project or any other kind. Of course, as a builder myself, I have something of a vested interest. But I also think it's in the client's and designer's interests as well.

  6. laguna949 | | #6

    "the devil is in the clearly communicated details".... AMEN.
    I am a homeowner and dreading going through the bid process and the possibility of getting a contractor or subcontractor that doesn't care.

  7. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    This is an old thread -- it was started in 2015. Since then, I've posted another relevant article that you might want to read: "I Can’t Find a Contractor to Do That."

  8. jberks | | #8

    Hire an architect that specs these concepts. Then Hire the contractors that the architect recommends.

    In the resi world, I currently believe that there is a major distinction of contractors that are used to working with architects, and ones who aren't. The former are contractors with a proven track record of agreeably following drawings, details, calling when issues come up, and dare I say, understanding the major intent of the build.

    Another point is that contractors despise "the homeowner" No one will listen to, or want to do your ideas regardless of how sound your concepts are if you are the "homeowner".

    Also, one thing I do now is keep a $50 printer on site. When it comes time for a specific task, I print the detail out, give it to the team or tape it to the wall and go over it on the white board with the team in a meeting and make any changes to issues that come up.

Log in or create an account to post an answer.


Recent Questions and Replies

  • |
  • |
  • |
  • |