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Community and Q&A

Building a New House in Wildfire-Prone Region

EVAN W | Posted in General Questions on

We suddenly find ourselves needing to build a new home and don’t quite know where to begin. Our home burned to the ground in the September wildfires just outside Portland, Oregon. We’re planning to rebuild on the existing home site. I had never expected to build a new house, only to gradually improve the 60 year old home we had. That’s all changed now.

The information shared on Green Building Advisor  has been truly impressive in the ~5 years I’ve been reading this site. I’ve seen some great advice here from building professionals and I’m hoping to tap a bit of your expertise. I genuinely appreciate any guidance you can provide on the following questions:

1. Who should we talk to first: an architect? A design/build firm?

2. We know we want a high performance house. Passive House is great but I’m thinking maybe a Pretty Good House is adequate for our mild climate (climate zone 4C). Do you disagree?

3. Carl Seville’s articles on construction quality have me spooked. Since neither of us are building professionals, what do you recommend and the best way to identify a reliable builder who will take quality seriously?

4. If you were shopping for building professionals for your own house, what questions would you ask to identify the right firms for your project?

5. What questions do you wish your customers would ask you when they’re shopping for building professionals?

Sorry to ask such naive questions but this has thrown me completely beyond my comfort zone. I sincerely appreciate any advise you wish to offer.

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Replies

  1. Hammer 🔨 | | #1

    Hi Evan sorry to hear about your house burning down. I’m not a building scientist and I’m sure you will get great advice from people on this forum. I’m in process of doing an addition, certainly not anywhere near building a house but this book: Remodel without going bonkers or broke

    Explained and broke down differences between architect and design build firms and how to hire the right people. Hope that helps as some reading material along what everyone else will tell you.

    1. EVAN W | | #11

      Thanks, I've ordered a copy of the book and look forward to reading it.
      Evan

  2. William Hullsiek | | #2

    Take your time to “shop” for a builder. I have a good relationship with my builder who did 2 remodels already. Make sure you trust their judgement as they will be spending your money. You do not want to regret your decision. I walk through several of the houses and asked lots of questions. I saw quality work and received quality work at market prices. My builder sat down and reviewed costs and progress weekly.

    1. EVAN W | | #12

      William,
      Thanks, I certainly intend to shop very, very carefully for a builder. Seeing their work and hearing how they answer questions will be important parts of my evaluation.
      Evan

  3. DCContrarian | | #3

    Is an insurance company paying for this? That changes the calculus considerably.

    1. EVAN W | | #13

      The insurance company has already paid out. I'm not clear on how involved they will be in the rebuilding process -- if they're involved at all.
      Evan

  4. Expert Member
    Zephyr7 | | #4

    1- Design/build firms will typically be able to give you better/firmer cost estimates for your project since they have more control over the entire process. Architects will probably be a little more open minded in regards to any "unusual" stuff you want to do since the design/build people will want to stay within the framework they're used to (since they want their profits estimates to be reliable too :-)

    2- BE SURE you will really be happy in a passive house before going that route. Passive houses are quite a bit different from what most people consider a "house" if you really go all the way. Pretty Good Houses are something of a hybrid, incorporating some of the better elements of the Passive House movement while retaining more traditional home design concepts (especially in regards to windows).

    3- Don't use a production builder. That will solve a lot of the cheap/low-quality issues. Production buildings squeeze out every bit of cost they can. Custom builders will use higher end materials (if you want them too), and are also more willing to try "unusual" things you want -- but not always. Remember that many of the high-end detailing you'll read about on GBA is going to be "unusual" for most builders, even for the better builders. If you can find a builder specializing in energy efficient homes, that will be a builder more used to some of the special detailing.

    4- This is tricky since I'd use people I already know. Most in the trades would probably do the same. What you need is a reliable starting point. Once you've found a good builder (or any trade, really), ask that person to refer you to other trades that you need. The better builders and trades will usually know who the other "better" people are. The tricky part if you're just starting out is to find that first reliable contractor. Hopefully someone on here can provide a bit of guidance for your particular area.

    5- I'd want expierience and examples, not marketing fluff. I don't care how many fancy certifications someone has, I want to see how they actually handle real projects and the quality level of those projects. Most of my own buisness is word of mouth, and I like to tell customers that they could "ask any random one of my customers" for a review and I wouldn't have to worry that someone might say something negative. I think that's a pretty good standard to shoot for. Ask your potential builder if they have some customers you can talk to, maybe look at houses that builder has built. See if everyone is happy, see if you like the quality of construction. Don't just take the word of a representative of the company.

    It's WAY WAY better to ask ALL your questions NOW, than to deal with problems later. I tell my customers to work out everything in the design phase, which will save money and time later. I also tell my customers to "dream up" (I use that particular word) their ideal facility and let me figure out how to build it. Part of that is that sometimes a customer will really want something that they think is impossible, so they don't bother asking. Often times what they think is "impossible" is actually entirely doable, they just don't know how -- but I do. That's what you're paying for (in my case, I'm a consulting engineer in something of a niche industry). The builder/architect will probably have ideas that they think might help you too, so always listen to their suggestions, and always ask what the tradeoffs are -- there are almost always tradeoffs. Pick whatever mix of pros and cons gives you the best final outcome for whatever you want in your home, relying on your builder and architect to act as consultants, advising you what those pros and cons are and how they may impact the final product.

    Bill

    1. Mark B | | #8

      2- BE SURE you will really be happy in a passive house before going that route. Passive houses are quite a bit different from what most people consider a "house" if you really go all the way. Pretty Good Houses are something of a hybrid, incorporating some of the better elements of the Passive House movement while retaining more traditional home design concepts (especially in regards to windows).

      I think specifics as to why a passive house is not really “a house” would be helpful to Evan. My house is currently undergoing an enerphit gut renovation and I expect that it will be as “housey” as can be when completed.

      1. Expert Member
        Zephyr7 | | #9

        Many/most people don't like the usual boxy appearance with very few, very small windows that most full-on passive houses use. There are a lot of tradeoffs going that route if you go all the way.

        Pretty good houses tend to use better windows, better than code minimum insulation, and a lot of attention to detailing -- especially air sealing -- to get most of the benefit of a passive house without getting into the tradeoffs with the design.

        I didn't mean to imply a passive house wasn't a "house", but they're certainly not what most people are used to. Eeking out those last few percentage points of performance are where you get into the design tradeoffs and that's what I meant by "going all the way" with a "full-on passive house".

        Bill

        1. Mark B | | #10

          Sorry, Bill, that’s really not an accurate description of a lot of houses built to the passive house standards.

          While it is easier to meet the standard with a boxy house, a boxy design is not a necessity. Since our early 20th house is a boxy city house on a boxy city lot, I can’t offer it as a counter example, but they are certainly out there.

          Regarding windows, in the front we will have a typical configuration of a door and two windows on the main floor and three windows on the upper floor. The main floor windows are roughly (don’t have the plans in front of me) 3’x9’ and the upper floor windows are roughly 3’x8’. We have one good sized window in the rear on each floor. Considering the front facade is 20’ wide, I don’t think most people would consider those windows to be very few or very small. The size and shape of the rear windows was dictated first by the room layout.

          Methinks your impression of passive houses might be a little outdated. And you didn’t imply that passive houses are not houses, you stated quite clearly that they are not what most people would “consider a house”.

          You might consider not trying to turn somebody off from meeting a “green building” standard on a “green building” forum without offering specific objections.

          1. EVAN W | | #18

            I recognize some of the trade offs with passive houses, including fewer/small windows. I'm not dismissing passive house for our new home, we will consider it. But we have a view on one side of the house we want to take advantage of and we're prepared to make some compromises to do so. That's why I suspect we're more likely to end up with a Pretty Good House rather than a full Passive House.
            Evan

    2. EVAN W | | #14

      Bill,
      Wow, thanks for the great detailed advice! I hadn't appreciated the differences between production and custom home builders until I read your comment. It makes complete sense now that you say it.
      I like your recommendation of leveraging the recommendations of one good contractor to find others.
      We definitely plan to enter the process with our wish list but we're ready to listen to the builder/architect and incorporate their feedback into the design. Fortunately, I don't think our expectations are very exotic.
      Evan

  5. Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia | | #5

    Evan,

    Lots of good advice here. If you are in a rural area, you probably won't have a lot of options. If you want to fast-track the process and the budget allows, consider using a modular builder. There are quite a few in your area. Some offer turnkey construction. Others get the home dried in and then hand off the project to your general contractor. Either approach can work.

    1. EVAN W | | #15

      Steve,
      We're only 30 miles from downtown Portland, so I'm hoping most of the builders in the urban area are within range of our site. Can you direct me to any modular builders I can look at to get ideas? I'm not familiar with that industry.
      Evan

      1. Steve Knapp CZ 3A Georgia | | #19

        Evan,

        There are quite a few companies making a range of products. One of know something about is Method Homes (https://methodhomes.net/). Carl Seville has an overview here: https://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/article/modular-construction-is-on-the-move.

  6. GBA Editor
    Kiley Jacques | | #6

    Given you are re-building in the same location, keeping wildfires in mind during the design phase is critical. Fine Homebuilding did an excellent article on the topic: Building to Survive in Wildfire Country. And you should check out this GBA post too: Designing a High-Performance Wall in Wildfire Country.

    1. EVAN W | | #16

      Kiley,
      Yes, indeed. I'm expecting this new house will be our last. I never want to go through this again. Climate change will increase the risks over time.
      Evan

  7. Mark B | | #7

    Take a look at this directory published by the passive house institute. Builders listed more than likely will not be absolutely committed to passive house but will definitely be familiar with energy efficient building. Architect directory available as well.

    And passive house building and modeling is climate and site specific, so you might not want to so quickly discard passive house construction as a possibility.

    https://www.phius.org/find-a-professional/find-a-phius-certified-builder

    1. EVAN W | | #17

      Mark,
      Thanks, that's a great resource and looks like a good place to begin our search.
      Evan

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