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Community and Q&A

Mid-construction improvements to a typical builder grade home

chicagofarbs | Posted in Green Building Techniques on

Hi all –

My name is Scott. I’m an architect (by training) but work in the sustainability consulting world now. Most my knowledge is big picture stuff so where it comes to detailing homes, I’m at a loss.

My wife and I are looking for a new home in the Chicago area and we have come across a home by builder that is still under construction (drywall not in yet), which seems like a good opportunity since we’d have some influence on appliances/fixtures/finishes. What I didn’t anticipate was to see “how the sausage is made”.  Like I said, I’m not an expert at residential details, but there were some obvious things done incorrectly/cheap from a best practice perspective that has me a little concerned, though not surprised for this price point  

I have a few questions/ideas for improvements that I’m hoping to get feedback on. The main goal would be tangible improvement at a reasonable cost unless I had some leverage to force the builder to fix it (I.E. code compliance)

1.  Envelope tightness. As with many Chicago homes, gypsum sheathing is used to get the required fire rated assembly with a tyvek wrap. The tyvek is definitely not installed consistently, as you can see light coming through the exterior while touring the inside. They also did not sequence the window flashing correctly (wrapped tyvek in and under at the head then taped over it). Additionally, they reused they existing foundation and portions of the first floor framing, while adding an addition to the back and new second floor and roof…so lots of old members meeting new members. IL’s state energy code is IECC 2018 and they amended envelope leakage to 4 ACH. Is this enforceable?  If they don’t hit 4ACH with a blower door test could I request improvements?  Or could I get ahead of this and ask them to pay or split the cost of AeroBarrier?

2.  If building tightness is improved, at what point is mechanical ventilation a good idea?  The home is the typical Chicago 25×125 lot, 20×70 floor plate, basement with 2 levels above it. There is a furnace in the basement serving basement and 1st floor and a furnace on the second floor serving the second floor. Other combustible equipment include the kitchen range and hot water heater. All these items are rouged in so at this point it would be a hard sell to switch to all electric. AeroBarrier can get the home down to 3 or even 1 ACH pretty easily. If I went that direction I had 2 ideas to supply outdoor air:
-Use something like the Broan make up air damper kit feeding into the return side of the furnace(s) that is interlocked to when the furnace is hearing/cooling. Hopefully it can be separated from when just the fan is on so that recirc mode could happen without bringing in unconditioned outdoor air.
-Try to get a small ERV installed somewhere (maybe attic though it’s outside the thermal boundary) with minimal impact to the existing conditions. The bathroom exhausts are already ducted/finished but it could be possible to reroute the mater bath exhaust fan (140 cfm) to the ERV and then have the ERV exhaust go out the originally planned penetration for the master bath exhaust fan. I’m guessing we would need to provide a penetration for the supply in to the ERV and then find the most convenient area that didn’t result in too much ducting to dump the supply air to (stairwell?). In a perfect world I would supply somewhere on the main level so supply is coming in low and exhaust is going out high. 

3. Better venting the gable roof. The attic is outside the thermal boundary and plans be vented at the soffit and ridge. When walking the site, I noticed that soffit baffles were only provided every 4/5 rafter bays. I had thought that this should be at minimum every other bay, but best practice being every bay. Ive also noted to confirm a continuous ridge vent and I know that specific products have been mentioned on this forum before. Is this worth pushing on?

I know this was lengthy. Thank you for reading and thank you in advance for any feedback you can provide !

-Scott 

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Replies

  1. jberks | | #1

    Hi Scott,

    I won't get too deep in the weeds on your questions here, but I think you should go on the code compliance route here. The philosophical question here is: If the builder builds a house that's not code compliant, is house worth buying?

    Maybe, Ultimately it depends on the price.

    So for instance, envelope tightness, I'm going to guess inspectors don't request blower door test results there (they don't where I am in Toronto). So your builder probably doesn't think anything of it.

    But from a negotiation standpoint, you can show him some example codes that you've noticed some probable non compliance to, and tell him that you want the house code compliant or no deal. Or, to get more complicated, you want to put a condition on the price based on code compliance, which includes performing a blower door test, where the sale price is offset by the cost of the remediation.

    Obviously, no builder is going to want to see something like this, but maybe at some point, effectively communicating that you just want a tight home with an erv, and thats a dealmaker/dealbreaker for you might open up the communication channels a little better.

    Just my thoughts,

    Jamie

  2. Expert Member
    MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #2

    Scott,

    Have you spoken to the builder about having input into the build at this point? Contractually you are in a pretty fuzzy area and need to pin down everyone's expectations before committing. The sales price of a house where the owner wants changes to what was a spec (not custom) build will vary by what specifications you are adding, and what level if control you want going forward.

    As a builder I have been in the situation where a buyer wanted changes before completion, and it was a fairly involved process to come up with a contract that converted the project to include them. I ended up requiring a non-refundable downpayment to cover their cost in case the owner didn't end up closing the sale, and I ended up with changes I didn't want if it went back on the market.

    1. chicagofarbs | | #3

      Jamie, Malcom -

      Thanks for the response.

      We are in negotiations now. I have raised a few construction concerns, mainly related to the bad building wrap, incorrect order of flashing at the windows, and vented roof. We have talked about our input but really only in relation to upgrades (appliances, finishes, etc. ).

      I have not brought up code required air tightness, blower door testing, or ERVs yet.

      I would definitely not expect them to pay for an ERV however I would expect them to hit the code required ACH. Code officials will not require this test to give certificate of occupancy so this isn’t really a “norm” from what I’ve heard. There isn’t much accountability in Chicago unfortunately.

      I guess, bottom line is I do want something that is done at least half right. I know that code doesn’t always align with best practice. I’m willing to pay for actual upgrades that go beyond what code would require. We’ve looked at a number of houses at this point in construction and it’s really all the same. This is the first we’ve wanted to move forward on though.

  3. Andrew_C | | #4

    Even if all-electric couldn't easily be done at this point, you can/should certainly have electrical installed to allow an electric (preferably induction) range. The other gas appliances (furnace and hot water heater) have external supply and exhaust, but the gas range is a health hazard, regardless of the performance of your hood and exhaust fan system.
    This is minor compared to the other issues you may face with this builder if you go forward, but it's easily fixed.

    1. chicagofarbs | | #7

      I know induction is the best route for indoor air quality, but I’m having trouble making the argument for it. The kitchen is already roughed in and set up for gas with a hood. It seems like a much bigger change functionally and aesthetically but maybe I’m just picking and choosing where to be green/sustainable.

  4. Chuck_Wagon | | #5

    Seems fairly easy to buy this unit 'subject to'. Subject to the repairs needed to make it code compliant. Seems like the installation issues are an internal problem to the builder's processes. Builder should address those separately from the product you are entitled to. From what's mentioned redoing the house-wrap - is a relatively low-cost do-over. The AeroBarrier might be another negotiating linchpin you can request to confirm the ACH you should be receiving. Of course most builders and their bank want comfort of having home under contract. Other variables may exist but it seems you are in more of a position of comfort than you've mentioned in my skimming through.

    1. chicagofarbs | | #6

      Thanks Chuck -

      This was our general thinking as well. We could include these “subject to” additions in our new construction contract rider. We would be under contract at that point.

      Aerobarrier does seem like a good negotiating linchpin, especially after identifying their air barrier deficiencies.

      The quote to aerobarrier this home isn’t extraordinary, and a small 100cfm ERV (Broan) ducted in the simplest manner shouldn’t break the bank either. Even cheaper would be the make up air damper kit to the furnaces. In my mind, even if I had to pay for it all out of pocket it would probably be a worthwhile investment. I just don’t want to step on any toes and I do want the builder to cooperate.

  5. ERIC WHETZEL | | #8

    Hi Scott,

    You're in a tough spot since you understand more than the average home buyer the importance of air sealing, proper flashing details, and maintaining a high level of indoor air quality. Unfortunately, there aren't that many single-family homebuilders in the Chicagoland area executing or even thinking about these elements of a well-built home.

    In our case, we initially tried the 'expert' route, using a well-known design/build firm with Passive House experience, but we ended up bitterly disappointed even before construction began:

    https://kimchiandkraut.net/2016/05/05/when-building-a-passive-house-goes-horribly-wrong/

    When we moved on and tried to use a pair of GC's with more conventional experience, they, too, proved to be overwhelmed by the process (proper estimates, accurate budgeting, understanding and executing the construction drawings), requiring us to fire them before rough framing was even complete.

    Unless you're incredibly lucky, my guess is the builder you're currently dealing with will prove to be a disappointment. The details you noticed simply walking around the job site, in my opinion, should be screaming red flags to move on to someone else. If they're messing up these details, executing them with lackluster or even incompetent results, it's likely you'll be unhappy with other elements of the home like finishes or even HVAC performance.

    Of course, acting as your own GC might be an option, but it is incredibly time consuming.

    If you still have some time, you could contact these Chicago area builders before signing paperwork with your current builder:

    https://www.mybrightleafhome.com/

    https://scottsimpsondesignbuild.com/

    https://www.greenlinehomes.com/

    I'm aware of them mainly through social media. They have excellent online reviews (for what it's worth), and they all appear to have demonstrated some competence when it comes to green building techniques. Nevertheless, I would insist on visiting an active job site while also making sure to contact directly several of their recent and past clients to hear what they have to say about their experience. If some of these clients are willing to let you visit their home to look around and ask questions, then even better.

    Even if these builders can't help you out, for whatever reason, they might still be able to point you in the direction of someone who can.

    Feel free to contact me through my blog if you have any questions. I'd be glad to help if I can.

    1. chicagofarbs | | #9

      Hey Eric -

      I really appreciate the thoughtful reply and all the resources/contacts!

      In a perfect world I would commission and design our own home (I’m licensed and a certified passive house consultant). But the reality is we don’t want to be sitting around in our apartment for another 10-12 months, especially now given what’s going on. We’d really love to have our own space, outdoor included.

      I thought finding a builder that finances their own (speculative) projects and then looks for buyers would be a great in for us, since we could get our foot in the door 2-3 months out and have some influence over the final details. The only problem is I’m putting my architect/performance hat on and having a hard time identifying where to draw the line. Even you stated with knowledgeable builders you couldn’t get what you wanted. That’s why I thought aerobarrier could be the silver bullet ! Maybe not the best mindset. Even if we found a nice (brick) home that needed a remodel, we’d really only be attacking from the inside out, so a gut rehab, aerobarrier, etc. not too different from what I’m currently considering.

  6. walta100 | | #10

    To me the real questions are.

    1 How long will you be in this house? For me I do not see paying for new if you are not going to stay.

    2 Will you be happy spending all this money and not getting everything on your list? (Not your ideal neighborhood, lot size, angle for solar panels, floor plan, every finish in the house is budgeted for the low end builders grade option)

    3 Is the upstairs furnace and ductwork in the attic? That would be a deal killer for me.

    4 You could see shoddy workmanship are you OK with that? Your relationship with your builder is a lot like a marriage. You don’t want to commit to first one you meet. You need to trust this person with a lot of money and to do the right things for you in the right way.

    Do not feel obligated to post your answers but at least get them clear in your heads.

    In my mind the EVR question is about how people per square foot and how leaky is the house.

    As for the venting I think you want 1 sq in on the ridge and 2 sq inches on the soffit for every 600 sq ft of roof.

    Walta

  7. ssnellings | | #11

    From what you've described, it does not seem like the work the builder is performing matches your expectations. It is easier to work with a builder who understands your goals than one who does not. If a builder understands your goals the process will be easier, the result will be better, the relationship will be positive, and overall price you pay (in both monetary terms as well as emotional terms) will be lower.

    If some of your first thoughts are how you are going to 'enforce' a particular outcome, you've already dedicated yourself to a combative process. I suggest you work with a different builder. My advice regarding this particular project, if you must continue, is that you negotiate to purchase the property in it's current condition and then move forward with your own contractor through repairs and final finish.

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