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New Home Construction, Slow Bids, Confused Builders

Shane | Posted in General Questions on

I’m at the southern edge of Climate Zone 5A and want to build a better than code house, what some might call a “pretty good” house, one that includes the most cost effective of the concepts described in Martin Holladay’s “Musings of an Energy Nerd” book. One builder I spoke with discouraged having a continuous layer of insulation on the outside of the walls, or on the basement floor stating that such improvements weren’t needed and were too expensive to be worthwhile. He was a fan of energy trusses because having extra room near the edges of the roof mean i could get by with less insulation overall and meet the same effective R value. Another builder who seemed a lot more willing to build what I am looking for is finding that the subcontractors who would be doing portions of the work have been very slow to respond, and that slow response is due to the options that I’m requesting. Both of those builders seemed to be mostly familiar with spray foam and fiberglass batt insulation, whereas rock wool and Spider fiberglass were less familiar to them. Yet another builder strongly discouraged options that they had on display, such as metal roofing and LP Smart Siding and instead encouraged vinyl siding and asphalt roofing. They were a builder that stressed energy efficiency more than the others touting their HERS Index of 49 which they are somehow able to achieve with 2×4 construction, closed cell spray foam and blower door tests and special attention to air sealing on every build. Of course, it’s been at least a month since I talked to them and they have yet to provide a bid on the project. So, is it unusual that builders with an excellent reputation locally seem confused by a customer requesting better than code options? Should it take weeks or a month or more to get bids on homes that, in terms of the framing and floor plan match spec or model homes that they’ve already built? If I want these sorts of things, would I be better off working with an architect to spec out some of the items I’m looking for, despite wanting a fairly conventional house?

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Replies

  1. Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia | | #1

    If builders are busy, they are less likely to take on projects outside their comfort zone, You may have to cast a wider net to find a firm that does high performance construction.

  2. Shane | | #2

    Thanks for the suggestion Steve, that may well be the case. It doesn't really matter if I see things like external continuous insulation, air sealing, and roofing and siding/roofing materials with (potentially) increased longevity as reasonably conventional, what matters is that the builders see it as something they aren't as comfortable building. I'm not really trying to criticize builders or their subcontractors who build what they build. However, I have a significant issue with those who promise a timely response and then fail to respond instead an upfront straightforward "No" because they don't really want a certain type of project.

  3. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Illinois,
    Unfortunately, the problem you describe is common.

    There seem to be a few regions of the country -- the area around Portland, Maine, for example, or the area around Burlington, Vermont -- where enough builders "get it" to form a nucleus around which permanent cultural change occurs. Other regions of the country seem stuck in the 1950s.

    My only advice is, "Keep looking." Good luck.

  4. Trevor Lambert | | #4

    The general phenomenon you describe is common, and it's not just in the building trade. It never ceases to amaze me how few people are interested in doing anything different from what they do every day. There are electricians who do nothing but run conduit for 30 years, and they get mad if someone asks them to install a light switch. You find this type of person everywhere, and they are the overwhelming majority, it seems. You would think people would appreciate a change or a chance to think, but no. In addition to not wanting to do anything different for the sake of it, a compounding problem is that because they've been doing something a certain way for so long, they strongly resist the idea that their way might not actually be the best way.I think it hurts their sense of self esteem. You just have to keep looking, and resign yourself to the fact it might not be easy.

  5. Charlie Sullivan | | #5

    It may be a good idea to work with an architect. A good architect will not only spec out exactly what need to be done, but will also know what builder to consider hiring and will supervise the builder to make sure it gets done right, saving you multiple headaches doing that yourself. On the other hand, finding an architect who gets it may be even harder than finding a builder who gets it.

    In any case, it's really worth it to keep looking until you find someone who not only understands what you want but is enthusiastic about it. I made the mistake of being delighted to find a builder who sort of got it (after talking to others who didn't at all) because I was impatient to get started. A little more patience in finding the right builder would have resulted in finishing the project much sooner--the delay involved in that was nothing compared to the delays when, for example, flashing was done wrong and leaked and windows had to be removed and reinstalled.

  6. John Clark | | #6

    Fear of the unknown along with unforeseen issues which could result in callbacks and a loss of $$.

    I can understand why builders like ccSPF because it's easy to apply and adds another layer of protection with regards to air sealing (assuming the installer is competent). Oh and another thing, asphalt shingles can mask some imperfections with the roof plane unlike metal roofs.

    Perhaps these builders are keening aware of the skillset of his/her framing crew and consequently doesn't want to push them too far outside the comfort zone.

  7. Expert Member
    Rick Evans | | #7

    Does your design call for exterior rigid foam? If so, this may be the cause for the delays.

    Its a great way to build but its application seems to fall in a grey area of the building trades. Most insulation contractors seem to dislike it (as they prefer batts and spray/blown in insulation). And framers don't touch anything that they can't nail with a nail gun. I ran into the same issue when trying to design my house.

    We ultimately settled on a double stud wall. Our framers had no trouble with it whatsoever. They stood the exterior walls. And then stood another wall. done.

  8. Shane | | #8

    Thanks all for the suggestions! Yes, I was requesting either exterior foam with an r value sufficiently thick for this climate or (preferably) a layer of rock wool.

  9. T Carlson | | #9

    As far as slow bids and not really caring about new techniques, like someone else said its everywhere.

    As a builder, why would I want to waste 1/2 day of my time to give you an estimate that I can guarantee won't be the lowest and I know your shopping your plan?

    Personally I don't invest the time anymore to that person, ill email a proposed budget based on the plan, try to get you to listen why Im worth more and if you say let's get a hard cost, you're going to pay for your estimate with a preconstruction contract. That clear out certain traits I don't want to work with and gets you to clients who understand the value and trust you and lead to successful projects.

    But not understanding exterior foam, that's kind of ridiculous.

    The other side is wage dillution, I suspect we are working harder for less, so to get what we need we work longer, this in turn make us tired and when we are tired we don't care or don't have time to learn.

  10. Bob Irving | | #10

    Any conventional builder can nail foam to the exterior, although many don't want to. But building a PGH invoves a whole lot more than adding stuff in unfamiliar places; it involves an understanding of both the end goal and of the detailed steps needed to get there, as well as a clear understanding of the downsides of getting it wrong. I'd strongly suggest that you look for a builder who has built these homes and work with them. One place to find them is on the PHIUS website, where everyone trained and certifed in Passive House techniques is listed.

  11. Charlie Sullivan | | #11

    I think the main value in building passive houses is that the builders and subs who work on them have to develop such good understanding and skills that they can knock out a pretty good house without hardly even trying. So Bob's advice to look for someone with that background is excellent.

  12. Shane | | #12

    I only found 1 builder anywhere near me on the PHIUS website, but I only need one builder, and I only need one house. So, my next step will be to contact them. I also found a “Certified Green Professional” builder locally so they might be another option. Without this website or the comments here, I’d never have thought to try to locate a builder based on a certification. So I have some options I’d not considered, Thanks All!

  13. Andy CD Zone 5 - NW Ohio | | #13

    Another credential route is LEED AP, with the Homes specification. Not sure where in Illinois you are, but here's a link to their directory with IL as a search term:

    [oops, the link triggered GBA's spamblocker. Go to usgbc's website, find the directory, and search for people with keyword "Illinois LEED AP homes"]

    On the residential single-family side, you won't find a whole lot in the LEED world, but it's a place to start; anyone who went through the trouble of getting the LEED AP - HOMES credential is going to at least know what you're talking about, and would be able to refer you to more local architects and builders they've worked with.

  14. Shane | | #14

    T Carlson - It sounds like you are clear about what you are looking for from your customers. I think that's a great trait for a builder. After all, you have a business to run, wasting your own time isn't productive or profitable, and the process you describe sounds quite reasonable. Unfortunately, it seems as if there are some builders who aren't as straightforward, and communicate their unwillingness to take on a project or a customer in a strange roundabout way by initially seeming interested, promising a bid "next week" and then "the next week" and ultimately never.

  15. David McNeely | | #15

    It's also true that we are in a building boom right now. I am having difficulty getting subs to show up—even some who have committed already. In your case, why would they want a job that requires extra exertion?

    As to the communication issue, this seems to be endemic across all trades, and in all regions. The most common complaint is that the builder or trade contractor does not even return calls, and often just does not show up. I have often chosen the most expensive subcontractor because he or she is reliably responsive. Not worth it to me to get competing bids because a cheaper job that is never completed is not very cheap.

  16. Doug McEvers | | #16

    I have worked with a number of homeowners over the past years with a quest just like yours, to build an energy efficient new home. Almost always the owner was deeply involved in writing the building specifications and auditioning tradespeople to perform the work. You will get out of your new build project what you personally put in, no more no less.

    I would say with some certainty there are tradespeople in your area you can work with. They will be independent contractors who have insurance and the proper license to perform the work, but you need that anyway. Acting as a general contractor is no big deal if you have a detailed and well thought out plan before you start.

    As to the wall detail I will not wade into that discussion other than to say you have many proven options. Use the building details that most closely dovetail with the availability of skilled labor and building materials. Harold Orr described Superinsulation at the 2007 Passive House conference as Heating Degree Days for your location divided by 120 for ceiling R-values and 180 for walls. Not sure how this would compare with your local energy code but it is a place to start.

  17. Bruce Davis | | #17

    I am going with a builder who has a sterling rep but also prefers to do things he knows and isn't necessarily familiar with all the latest & greatest. While he has some openness to new things, that's not where the problem lies. Because of the local building boom, subs won't deal with anything out of the ordinary. It's hard getting subs to show up as it is. If you throw something new at them, they don't know how to bid it or do it. They'll just skip you and move onto the next job. If it was a recession, you could get the subs to do whatever you want at a reasonable price. But, I'm not waiting till that time comes and compromises will have to override dreams.

  18. Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia | | #18

    I am finally in a position to begin planning my next house and have many of the same concerns about trying to follow the "pretty good" process while keeping things practical. This will be my third custom build. I was able to hit pretty good levels of performance on my second house when building at the tail end of the downturn, but I won't have the same market forces working in my favor this time around. (Plus, handholding a builder and his subs through a high-performance build is exhausting.)

    I am considering using some factory-build modules to simplify the process. One company produces flat-pack modules that are essentially Zip-R panels attached to 2X6 framing. They also preinstall triple-pane windows into the modules as part of the construction process. Going in this direction would be fairly expensive, but all construction in my area is that way at the moment. It is also not a complete system, since the builder/owner is still responsible for the roof, systems, and interior work.

  19. Michael | | #19

    Illinois Prairie, I had a similar problem getting any builders to do exterior foam. All I spoke to said they've never done it and it looks very labor intensive and wouldn't consider it. You might want to check out insofast, they sent me a link to an exterior wall detailing document (I'd put it here but I don't believe we are allowed to post links) that I shared with a builder and architect, and they both agreed it looked simple enough and are willing to do it. In a nutshell, rather than multiple layers (foam/strapping/rainscreen) it's a foamboard that contains plastic studs embedded to attach the siding to directly and channels for the rainscreen; so an all in one product essentially. If you email them I'm sure they will send you a link to the document. My builder wasn't sure about how to attach the Windows with the exterior foam, for that we will use Thermalbuck. Hope this helps!

  20. Expert Member
    Malcolm Taylor | | #20

    I think it will take a few years for this problem to get resolved. Right now insulation contractors are geared to working from the inside. They can generally send a crew out in a pickup truck piled high with bags of bats. Once the drywall is on, another crew blows the attic. Framing crews similarly like to be done once their primary task is completed. The crew most likely to have the necessary staging on site, the siding or trim crew, want nothing to do with exterior foam. If it becomes common enough, as it has in the East, then specialized crews will become valuable, but right now, certainly here in the West anyway, there isn't enough demand.

  21. David McNeely | | #21

    You might also consider EIFS as an efficient and cost-effective way of installing continuous foam on the exterior. These are the advantages:

    1. Liquid-applied membrane provides air barrier as well as moisture barrier. If your installer is cooperative, he will send out a team to apply this around your door and window frames (giving you an integrated sill) and then pull off, allowing you time to install windows and doors. This membrane can extend up into the energy heel trusses, and lap over the rim joist and bottom plate onto the concrete foundation.

    2. Continuous foam as thick as you want to pay for, again installed over rim joists and lapped over sole plate. Foam is applied with a rain screen built-in as part of the system.

    3. A finish of your choice that will last decades with no maintenance.

    4. In this area, the installed cost including foam was equal to the material cost of Hardplank options without foam.

    5. All of this done by one sub.

    I chose 2" over 2x6 studs for an R-26 wall. 4" foam over 2x4 studs would have been about the same R-value and cost, but the 2x6 studs give me a deeper return on the interior—an aesthetic decision. About a 1/2" eased edge on all outside edges—including around all windows and doors—is a dynamite look. You can make the style Prairie, Craftsman, Modern, Tuscan, Spanish, neo-Classical, or mid-Century depending on your architectural design and details.

  22. Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia | | #22

    With EIFS, proper installation is critical. You also should research if using the system will negatively affect your home value.

    I installed EIFS on my first home. A few years after moving in, reports began to surface about severe moisture issues in homes built with the system. These problems were definitely related to sloppy and sometimes improper installation. Not surprisingly they revealed how an install could go south if moisture was allowed to accumulate inside a wood-framed wall. In my case, the EIFS was well installed and the home had no moisture-related issues.

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