Building New Abode Puts Me in Newbie Mode
June 24, 2021 1:50 AM   Subscribe

What important things do I need to do right so that I don't make major blunders in having a new custom house built?

I'm tearing down my house and building a new one. Location is Southern California. I am not building it myself - I will have an architect or designer and a general contractor, as well as a close relative who is a kitchen and bath designer and space planner.

By "major blunders" I mean major design or layout flaws, using materials that are sub-par or inappropriae, overpaying for materials and/or services that could be gotten more economically, etc.

Specific questions:

Is there some guidance I should follow concerning different quality materials for basic things like wood framing, nails, drywall, and plywood?

Should all wiring be UL rated material?

I want to go as electric as possible (appliances, etc.). Is a heat pump a viable and/or smart alternative to a furnace (considering our relatively mild climate)?

Is a "whole house fan" something worth considering having?

What rating of thermal insulation material should I use?

If I want good sound insulation between certain rooms, what's the best way to do that?

Would it make any sense to exceed rather than simply meet current state or local earthquake requirements?

Feel free to also provide any advice outside the scope of those specific questions.

Thank you.
posted by Dansaman to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
California has pretty robust building codes that will cover the majority of your questions, at least for minimum build quality, which will most likely be plenty good enough. If you're thinking you'd like to exceed those standards, the best people to ask are the designer(s) and contractor that you hire. I don't think you'll get much benefit from worrying about rough carpentry stuff like nails and lumber, and if you're hiring a contractor they'll likely be buying all the material so it's not like you'll be going to Home Depot and picking up a spool of electrical wire for them.

There are quite a few places in California that are mandating a) no natural gas, and b) net-zero energy usage for new construction, which will end up driving the bus on a lot of your questions about insulation and HVAC. Even if you're not in one of those jurisdictions, there are state-mandated minimums on what insulation rating you'll need to achieve. Generally, just those requirements will make your house structurally stronger than what it needs to be - you can't get the required amount of wall insulation in a 2x4 wall, so you'll have to use 2x6s. Exceeding those requirements or getting exotic with things like eliminating thermal bridging with wall studs is something to talk to your designer about.

Soundproofing is also something to ask your designer about - there are catalogs of tested and rated wall and floor assemblies for how much they transmit sound, and it'll really depend on how soundproof or isolated you want your rooms to be.

For the whole house fan, my mom lives in inland San Diego and has one, doesn't have AC, and it does the trick for her quite a bit of the time, excepting in late summer when temps get over 100. You may want to ask around for other people's experiences with them in your area - your designer might have a few references for people who have them installed.

Generally, all your questions come down to hiring quality professionals and telling them what you want. Since you're apparently quite interested in energy efficiency, you'll probably want to hire an architect that has some experience with that, and may want to look for someone familiar with Passive House guidelines. With the regulatory landscape, almost any residential architect will have some experience with net-zero construction by this point, but you'd probably want to look for a firm that's passionate about it.
posted by LionIndex at 3:58 AM on June 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Spend some time thinking and talking to your architect about orientation, glazing, shading, insulation, thermal mass and cross-ventilation, so that whatever you build has at least half-decent passive solar performance. The closer to excellent you get this, the less you'll spend on heating and cooling for the life of the building.
posted by flabdablet at 4:52 AM on June 24, 2021 [9 favorites]

If I want good sound insulation between certain rooms, what's the best way to do that?

Paying attention to the rooms where noise is likely to be generated is the best place to start. You want massive and floppy materials built into the walls and doors of those rooms to intercept vibration and turn it into heat (a sandwich of lead sheeting in resilient foam works well) and you also want really good air sealing between the noisy rooms and the rest of the interior; quite amazing amounts of noise will find its way through surprisingly tiny air gaps.
posted by flabdablet at 4:59 AM on June 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

What rating of thermal insulation material should I use?

"As high as you can afford" is generally the correct answer to this one, though it really depends on how good you can make the space's passive heating and cooling performance. Doubling the R value for your wall and ceiling thermal insulation will do you very little good if, for example, excessive and/or poorly oriented and/or seasonally inappropriately shaded glazing is where most of your heat ends up crossing the building envelope.
posted by flabdablet at 5:04 AM on June 24, 2021

"Location is Southern California" covers a lot of territory. I live near the coast in San Diego and this week the temperatures never topped the mid-70's. My friend in Valley Center, a few miles inland, has temps in the mid-90's. I don't need air conditioning, but my friend relies on it.

If I were building a home today, I'd make sure that it was easy to run and maintain cable throughout the house (cable > wifi). Likewise for telephone drops, if you use a landline.
posted by SPrintF at 6:31 AM on June 24, 2021

Didn't do a whole house build but did a near-gut renovation recently. Here are some things that came up for us:
  • Make sure your finishes are easy to clean! We got beautiful textured stone countertops that I now spend my entire life rinsing because soap residue is super visible on it.
  • When you do your HVAC, you can definitely use a heat pump, but you should make sure to get splits rather than ducted. You can conceal the air handlers from a split system in false ceilings and walls (and since you're doing new build you can figure out where these will be in advance) and it will vastly increase your system efficiency, especially for heating, at the cost of a bit more initial outlay.
  • Think hard about your lighting design. We luckily had a friend who's a professional lighting designer review ours with us but the initial ceiling plan from the architect was not great. Lighting is one of the things that a custom build lets you get right, so don't squander the opportunity! This means planning the layout of your house in some detail early on in the planning process so that you can position the lights well for e.g. your living room furniture and bed tables. (Definitely do built-in reading lights!) Make sure you know where you will want dimmers -- good LED dimmers can be pricey and putting incompatible bulbs on dimmer circuits will produce noticeable strobing, so the fewer dimmed circuits the easier of a time you'll have.
  • Conversely, there's no need to buy super fancy recessed lights. Architects will spec these like $400 recessed LEDs but you can get perfectly good ones for $60. We have some ultra slim ceiling mount LEDs that were $10. Unless you are someone who is very sensitive to light spectra, you'll never notice.
  • For sound insulation, get your architect to specify saddles under the relevant interior doors. We didn't put them in and it turns out to make a huge difference (they let you install a sweep under the door for instance), and the contractor likely won't install them unless they're specified.
  • Get good windows. Ideally you can find a vendor of tilt-and-turn windows in your area, but at all costs avoid double hung! (This may be less of an issue outside of the northeast!)
  • Tiles have a huge price range, from like $1 to $150 per square foot. Experiment with tiles from a variety of price ranges because it's possible you'll find some at the lower end that you'll like, and you can save a ton. Conversely, you might find a tile that you love that's super expensive and you can use it somewhere visible but small, like a backsplash or powder room. Don't buy them at Home Depot, but there are online retailers as well as showrooms that sell to the trade (your architect can buy on your behalf) that have very good pricing.
  • Don't get a built-in fridge. You can get a plug-in fridge for $3,500 that's the same price and quality as a $10,000 built-in and it will be easier to service, the only difference is that it won't look like a cabinet.

posted by goingonit at 6:50 AM on June 24, 2021

Oh and one more general comment. The housing industry is VERY tradition-based -- people do things the way they've always done it. If you ask your contractor (or sub), "how about doing things ?" and they say "that's a terrible idea", probably they've never actually done it that way and they don't want to learn. So if there are particular things that are priorities for you, especially around energy efficiency, try to make sure you hire a GC who's done them before, and if you do end up pushing for something your GC has never done before, you will have to get much more actively involved and may end up finding your own subs in order to make it happen.
posted by goingonit at 7:18 AM on June 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

Something you haven't mentioned, and that might not be possible, it to consider the situation of the house on the site. Every day when I walk the dog, I walk past a building site where they are plonking down the house without any consideration for the given conditions, like high ground water, shady trees (that they can't remove), neighbors looking in, solar orientation. It seems to me their architect/surveyor just decided where to put the house at random, from 1000 miles away. You can do a lot for both climate regulation and quality of life by thinking about how you organize your house in its context. Think about the plans and sections rather than the facades, to begin with.
posted by mumimor at 7:41 AM on June 24, 2021 [6 favorites]

Related to goingonit's second comment, my biggest piece of advice is to bring these things up when you are interviewing contractors and architects, and pay careful attention to their answers and reactions. The most important and painful lesson I have learned across many home projects of varying sizes is that going against the way the architect/contractor/designer normally does things is rarely a good idea. It's much better to find people who think similarly to you, and who like and are experienced with the kind of build you want, than to hire someone who claims they can do it but will be outside of their comfort zone. Especially when it comes down to the wire in terms of cost or schedule, people tend to revert to "the way they've always done it." It will be a constant battle and require ongoing vigilance (possibly micromanagement) to get things done the way you want if it's not that person's normal way of working.

Find someone whose way they always do it is already close to what you want. It might take some work to find them, but I guarantee it will pay off.
posted by primethyme at 7:57 AM on June 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

I could have sworn that California requires solar and a sprinkler system in new builds (is yours enough of a new build to require those?). In that case, I'd go with additional solar over a heat pump.

Things you can talk to your architect about:

2X4 vs 2X6 stud walls vs 2X4 with exterior insulation. Which is best is climate dependent and still up for study.

Accessible Design Principles, homes built for aging in

If you are in a hot climate that requires A/C, put as much of the AC ducting as possible in conditioned space (obviously depends on the size of the house). AC ducts are notorious for leaking AC into the attic, where most systems are installed. This is not up for debate - AC ducts in your attic is a poor design.

Design for air flow. If you are able to build without AC (or just want to minimize its use), just know that insulation holds heat better than cold in general, since houses have windows and stuff. Make sure the airflow in your house is good or it will be hot even when the cool breezes could theoretically cool it down.

Christoper Alexander says light from two sides for every room. If you try to follow this, it'll basically determine the exterior look of your house (for the better generally IMO). Your architect will not automatically design this way.

Plenty of wired internet drops.
A covered porch in the back or the front.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:57 AM on June 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

I also generally recommend reading the Pattern Language book by Christopher Alexander, even you if you disagree or don't follow most of the patterns. The weblink is basically the book online, so you don't even have to buy or borrow it.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:04 AM on June 24, 2021

Having done an astonishing number of home remodels, the above advice sounds good. I would add that easy to clean features is important. Textured finishes look great, but quickly become a complete and utter daily nuisance. I will never again have a textured countertop or floor if I can help it. Ditto for bathroom fixtures. Getting all the small fixtures to be the same easy-to-clean finish helps a lot with keeping cleaning simple.

Ikea kitchen cabinets are a good bargain, plus they're easy to fit with sliding out shelves. Sliding out shelves in the kitchen is a complete and total gamechanger.

Personally, I love cork flooring for the slight springiness, temperature regulation and ease of cleaning. It's seriously the easiest floor to mop that I've ever had. We've had it in 2 homes and loved it both places. Caveat: If you have big dogs and don't trim claws it can wear down easily. Small dogs don't seem to cause damage.

I also strongly dispute that A/C ducts in the attic is always a bad design, because the other major alternative is usually A/C ducts in the crawl space, and that's been a nightmare more than once. I mean that literally. Trying to fix a problem with the A/C in crawl space has given me claustrophobic panic attacks. I do agree that carefully situating the house in the actual landscape it's in and paying attention to the details of heat going in and out is key.
posted by Ahniya at 8:27 AM on June 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Trying to fix a problem with the A/C in crawl space has given me claustrophobic panic attacks

Attics are often just as tight. And in a crawlspace is not within the building conditioned envelope, so it's not as bad as the attic (since the attic is hotter due to rising heat and direct heat from the sun), but not optimal either.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:40 AM on June 24, 2021

If you use straw bale construction, you'll end up with these amazing 1.5' thick walls that are great for insulation. Plus then you can sit in the window wells. I lived next to the highway in a house with foot thick walls, and you couldn't hear a thing when you were indoors. Bonus, it requires less wood, and wood is expensive right now.
posted by aniola at 9:23 AM on June 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

General advice: don’t pay by the hour, pay by the job.

Hire tradespeople with specific skills for specific jobs. Generally someone who only tiles will do a better job tiling than a general construction worker.

When you are hiring look for people or companies with something to lose. Also learned this the hard way. A person we hired who did poor work said, “Go ahead and sue me. I went bankrupt 2 years ago and I have nothing.”

When writing contracts for work include end dates. They can be very generous, like if a job is estimated to take 2 weeks you can have and end date of 6 weeks but without an end date it’s impossible to take action.

Pick a color for your fixtures early on because it will make everything easier. Door hardware, cabinet hardware, sink faucets, light fixtures, window hardware can all be gotten in your color or finish choice.

+1 for thinking about dirt and cleaning. We went with gray grout for all the tile work and I don’t regret it.

When we were choosing a house layout I kind of walked through my daily activities when looking at the plan. Okay, I come in the door and I need to take off my shoes and coat. Is there a spot? I go into the kitchen to put groceries away. How far am I walking and through what areas? When I’m doing laundry what does it look like to take laundry to washer and then put it away. It’s Christmas. Where does the tree go? Etc.
posted by MadMadam at 9:50 AM on June 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

Echoing what flabdablet and mumimor said: site your house carefully, particularly in relation to the sun.

There's a straw bale house near me on a small lot but sited and designed perfectly to use the winter sun for warmth and to exclude summer sun for coolness. Its energy use is absurdly small, and it's SO comfy. As aniola said, straw bale houses are lovely to be in, and especially so when they're designed and sited right.
posted by anadem at 6:57 PM on June 24, 2021

The Honest Carpenter discusses the importance of contracts and good contractors and all about framing.

Matt Risinger discusses dumb building practices , avoiding pitfalls, sound dampening effects of insulation.

In your area, you might want to specifically consider fire resistance.
posted by oceano at 8:46 PM on June 24, 2021

Don't go overboard with bathrooms - who needs ANOTHER bathroom to keep clean!

Personally, I think ensuite bathrooms are horrible - I understand why it has to be the case in a hotel or small apartment - but why would you want a bathroom in your bedroom? By preference, my bathrooms are two doors away from the kitchen and living room.

Two double power points at a minimum on every wall in every room - yes 8 to a room, so if you put in storage/cabinet and block access to one there are plenty of others

An outdoor accessible shower near the laundry - you feel rank but you can wash off the muck of the day before you enter the sanctuary of your home.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 12:46 AM on June 25, 2021

Consider going with a design build firm, over an architect and contractor. This allows more flexibility and fewer change orders.

There is no reason that your house shouldn’t be net-zero, the additional cost is perhaps 5-10 percent which you will recoup in energy savings.

That said, full passive-house is also probably not entirely critical either, since solar is so cheap, you can balance the most expensive parts of passive house (like the extremely expensive windows) with a few more panels and a slightly larger heat pump. Check out pretty good house for more ideas.
posted by rockindata at 5:03 AM on June 25, 2021

If you're doing the site as well as the house, think about the expected changes in climate and water availability. Xeriscaping is your friend.

What's the latest on fireproofing construction?

Think about getting a dc charger wired in to any garage/parking space you have; adoption of electric vehicles is likely to be strongest in SoCal, and DC makes a huge difference in speed of adoption.
posted by lalochezia at 9:51 AM on June 25, 2021

This is way down the list for you, but consider drawers. You can eliminate getting down onto your hands and knees to dig in the back of a cabinet. We put ALL DRAWERS into our kitchen and LOVE them, each and every one. Will do the same for the bathroom when I finally get around to it.
posted by SLC Mom at 3:16 PM on June 25, 2021

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