House building advice sought
August 18, 2004 8:15 AM   Subscribe

Has anyone here ever rebuilt their home or built a new one? Lots of advice needed. More inside.

We own a not-so-great house in a great neighborhood on a GREAT chunk of property in a suburb of Boston. It's a 1930s bungalow converted into a Cape with un unfinished upstairs. In adding the upstairs, they added a couple feet onto the downstairs, raising some ceilings and not raising others. We need to duck down to look out the windows. Most of the rooms are dark but to replace the windows would require some structural changes. We want larger rooms. We want a front porch. We want an upstairs. We want to take advantage of the lake view. We want light. We want a playroom for The Critter. We want a kitchen that would give Alton Brown a stiffy. We want a workshop. We want an attached garage. Adding all this on to the old house would probably cost as much as building a new house.

Given the (lack of) structure in the house (2x4s where there should be 2x8s in the basement, main joists cut in half to make way for plumbing, 2 inch thick rusted lally columns, wiring by MC Escher, etc) and the general layout of the house, we're thinking it might be cheaper to tear the whole thing down and build a new one.

Lotta questions:

Assuming the permitting process is done and things go somewhat smoothly, how long does it take to build a new, average size home?

What's the best option for finding living space in the meantime? Renting a home? Buying one and hoping we can resell?

Anyone have any experience with green homes? We'd like to reduce our energy costs and cut down our environmental impact. Still, I'm torn between being a good little hippie and wanting room for the home theater and retro video game room. Is it possible to do both?

Where the hell do we start? Find a builder first? An architect? We're not opposed to finding a stock home plan but we're picky and may want to go with a custom designed home.

Where do we find an architect? How do we find one we'll like? Ask around, I suppose, but there must be a Big Book -O- Architects somewhere.

Any book recommendations for this process? Most of the books I've seen have to do with building the house with your own two hands or else they're books of "1000 Home Plans You'll Love!!!"

There must exists some new-house blogs.

We're not interested in building it with our own hands. Well, I am, but it's just not possible for a number of reasons.

I have a ton of other questions, none of which I can think of right now. Basically we're thinking of tearing down our home and building a nicer one. We need all the advice and/or help we can get. Thanks.
posted by bondcliff to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'd probably get an architect (of course, I am an architect, so expect some bias) or knowledgeable builder, and have him/her guide you through the process. It might be possible (though noisy) to live in part of the house while they're renovating the rest. Do you want to build in the exact same spot as the old one (assuming the property is large enough to accomodate two houses)?
I'd come down and help you out, but I'm a few thousand Km away.
A new house around here (Chile) takes about 9 months, but I assume that way up north, what with the higher labor costs, they take less time.
posted by signal at 8:59 AM on August 18, 2004

As regards green homes, think:

- Lots of insulation (including the roof, as that second story will get really hot in summer)
- Double windows (the kind with a near vacuum between the two panes of glass)
- Good solar orientation (bedrooms to the south / southeast, living room same, kitchen and bathrooms can be more east facing). Avoid northern and western exposure, the first is freezing in winter, the latter boiling hot summer afternoons.
- Some deciduous trees to the south and west (to block the heat in summer, and let through the warmth in winter)
- A decent roof overhang to the south,
- Good natural crossing ventilation (what you want is windows opening up in as many different directions as possible, into both lit and shaded areas, create temperature/pressure differentials).
- If it's hot in summer, you want as much mass as possible in the walls. Not so much if winters are very cold.

These are just off the top of my head and won't put you out much. There are of course much more aggressive methods, special kinds of walls, roofs, etc.
posted by signal at 9:56 AM on August 18, 2004 [1 favorite]

Assuming the permitting process is done and things go somewhat smoothly, how long does it take to build a new, average size home?

My dad used to build houses, and he said if everything went ok, it took on average 72 work days to build a ~3,500 sq. ft. house.
posted by jeb at 10:17 AM on August 18, 2004

Check your local AIA chapter for info on design/build firms, esp. one that's done LEED work, as they'll be at least marginally familiar with green/sustainable design issues. Being green doesn't have to cost extra, and doesn't mean you'll be living in a hut. (rather than design/bid/build) may accelerate your schedule somewhat, and should give you better quality control.

Also, if you haven't already, you should look into the "Not So Big House" books. They can be useful for bits of design & craftsmanship inspiration, even if you're building a relatively large house.

And always install radiant barriers in your attic, between the roof joists.
posted by aramaic at 10:19 AM on August 18, 2004

OK, so I am an apprentice architect, and here are my thoughts. It will take about a 6 months to a year for total construction for a full rehabilitation/new construction and about that long before for design depending on the total scope and complexity of what you want to do. Expect your lives to be interrupted during the course of construction. If you have a family, it will be one of the most difficult times that the family has to go through. Your home is being ripped up and replaced (at least partially). I can't tell you how many times a married couple has come into the office wanting to build a house, when they really need to rebuild their relationship. But, this is the one time you will have a large control of your space you will ever have.

Phasing the project has it’s advantages and disadvantages. You could live there, but it would be a construction site. You wouldn’t have to put all the money up in a short amount of time, but the project could drag on if not phased properly. Doing it in one fell swoop has certain economies of scale to it, but you would probably have to put everything into a storage center, and then live somewhere else. An architect can help you make those decisions better than a contractor.

The best thing to do is to be prepared. Make a list of what you like about the house, what you need to change, what you would like to change, and what in your dreams you would like to change. At the same time, go through architecture magazines (Dwell, Metropolis, Old Yankee Workshop, etc) and photocopy/rip out what you like. Then think why you like it. This way you have a general idea of what you want, and why. The why is the most important part - don't marry yourselves to the idea - things change, and be open the process of design. This also helps the architect and contractor get a feel for the level of finish and type of space. Distill all of your ideas into a single page for use.

I am also biased, but get an architect. They are your #1 advocate, and will guide you through what options you have, the permitting phase, selecting a contractor, and completion. An architect is your advocate during the process. Our best skills (besides design) are coordination all the different trades together in order to facilitate the completion of the project. Again, they work for you, not the contractor who, while is a bulding professional, is not wholly concerned with the client. They build, architects help the client describe to the contractor what to build (and how to do it). Expect to pay between 6-10% of the total building budget for an architect. If this seems high, remember that Realtors take 5-8% and they do almost nothing. Call the local American Institute of Architects [or click the link] and start collecting a list of architects in the area. The best advice is ask around your work, church, sporting club, etc for references and architects. You will end up calling lots and lots of architects in the process - but this is your home right? You can afford to take time. Bring your single page of ideas you completed earlier to your meetings with architects. Be open about the fact that you are shopping around, expect about 30 minutes of their time as a max, and visit the office. She what they have done. Narrow down to a top three and then ask for references - call them. Google them.

I used to work in Boston, there are/were firms I heard of that would supervise major construction and then let the owners finish out the project (interior paint, funiture, etc). Sustainable design solutions will cost more upfront, but will save money in the long run - not to mention make the house more enjoyable. Signal's thoughts above are right on. Think of trade offs - thicker walls and double paned glazing can save enough money to offset an entertainment room. The cost of skylights/solariums/etc will offset heating costs. New England has a good history of sustainability (in the Old Yankee fashion), search these people out.

Again, the key is to go slow, and become as well prepared as you can. Ask a lot of questions, and always, always take notes. You can email (on user page) if you have any more questions.
posted by plemeljr at 10:21 AM on August 18, 2004

I'd second the suggestion that you get an architect to look at it and even if you don't end up working with them they could ballpark on cost/benefit of teardown-build vs. rehab. I'd also get the bookThe Not So Big House to help you sort out the kind of home you want. You bought this in an established neigborhood for a reason, and you won't get something you'll love if you build new unless you work at it. The website for the NSBH has links to architects that rehab great old houses, build dreamhouses from scratch, and even some who specialize in green. I can't recommend it strongly enough as a resource at this stage of the game, for a person who, like me, isn't in architecture/construction and really wants to love where they live.
posted by putzface_dickman at 10:32 AM on August 18, 2004

One of my brother's friends has built two homes for himself over the last several years. I spoke with him about what he's learned, and his main piece of advice would be to make sure you do involve a contractor. The main reason is that they can get raw materials/supplies for far, far less than you can, the result being that if you try to go totally solo, you will probably end up paying somewhere in the neighborhood of what you'd pay if you hired one.

He did say there's probably a sweet spot, though: hire the contractors to do a certain amount of work, but negotiate doing a fair bit of it yourself.

The reason he's built two homes is that using this method is that the first time he did it, they wound up with a home worth a significant amount more than they owed on it. They sold it at a pretty good profit.
posted by weston at 10:39 AM on August 18, 2004

For the ultimate DIY, there's the Yestermorrow school. I've long wanted to take one of their classes and then go build me a house. There's a possibility, albeit slim, that I'll be doing so before long.
posted by adamrice at 11:42 AM on August 18, 2004

There was a thread in the blue recently on straw bale construction.

This is the blog of Glen Hunter and family---they're building/have built a very nice modernist, high-efficientcy house in Peterbourough, Ontario (near Toronto). Their house would be quite suitable for a Boston climate.

The best thing I think you can do for yourself is to take a night course in being a General Contractor. It takes about 3-4 months at your local community college (term will be just starting now, in fact). This will enable you to speak meaningfully about code requirements, permits, inspections and what's reasonable for trade costs. All the details that can make or break a house project. I know three couples who renovate as a primary or secondary income and they all recommend the GC course. An architect is a great idea also, but the GC course gives you a more complete understanding of the process and what needs to be done at each step.
posted by bonehead at 11:47 AM on August 18, 2004

I've built a house from scratch, and remodeled a Tim Taylor special. Of the two, I wish I had torn down the TT house and rebuilt on that lot.

An architect is a really good idea. There's also the idea of hiring an established home builder to build on your lot, rather than in one of the tract developments where those houses usually go. It doesn't give quite as much freedom as an architect and a general contractor, but it may be a lot less expensive and much more likely to get done in under a decade. ;)

As a design aside, let me tell you the things I wouldn't do again if I were building a new house:

Hardwoods through the entire bottom floor. They are much more of a nightmare to maintain than you'd think... if you have big dogs and small children anywhere near them.

Islands in the kitchen...huge efficiency mistake unless the island has either the sink or the stove. Mine stands between the kitchen and the stove...which is just a pain in the ass to work around. It makes a great pastry counter and pan storage area, but other than that, it's just in the damn way. Also, hardwoods in the kitchen...stupid mistake. Don't do that. That's just nuts. Trust me. Also, dark counters...mine are dark green...are a lot more work to maintain than light counters...every speck of dust shows. And stainless steel sinks are anything but stainless. Given my druthers, I think I'd choose a porcelain sink that matched the counters.

22' ceilings. They look amazing, and the wall of southern glass gives astounding light...but after 3 years, I still haven't figured out an easy way to clean the ceiling fans or change the recessed lighting that doesn't involve ladders, long sticks and a spotter. Don't even get me started about trying to clean the windows.

Things I thank the gods I did when building:

Go through the blueprints, where there are empty areas just being drywalled, you can often add recessed shelves and lighting. Fantastic for knickknacks and other baubles.

CATV and stereo sound wiring before drywall. (Wireless may solve some people's house network issues...but we built before there was an agreed upon standard.) A sound engineer for speaker placement may be worth the investment to you...depending on how weird you get about sound quality. ;)

Full spectrum long-life bulbs in the recessed lighting. 4 years and we haven't had to replace a single one.

Double ovens with a convection oven as one of them. Best thing ever for anyone who entertains regularly or has to cook for large numbers of people more than once a year. Also, I swear convection ovens make the best bread.

When picking appliances, make sure you take a "baker's half-sheet" with you. All appliances should be deep enough to allow you to put the sheet in long-ways and close the door. If they're not...they're too small. (microwave excepted...nobody needs a microwave that big. ;) Kitchen storage cabinets should be at least as deep as a half-sheet, preferably deeper.

Review your planned closet space. Then double it. (And if you have any girl children...double it again. ;)

Good luck and happy building. :)
posted by dejah420 at 12:13 PM on August 18, 2004 [1 favorite]

Out of interest dejah, what kind of hardwood are your floors? I own a place with maple floors as does every other member of my family (about half a dozen houses). We uniformly love them, even the people with small kids and dogs. We've put a lot of labour into pulling up old wall-to-wall and refinishing the floors. Finishes seem to last a decade or more with a little bit of care.
posted by bonehead at 12:39 PM on August 18, 2004

we rebuild my mother's kitchen (which would make all those teevee chefs weak in the knees) every couple of years (taking down walls, moving appliances, lighting, cabinetry). i highly recommend the suggestion of dual ovens (one convection) and would go further to suggest that you install two cooktops: one with a grill, one with burners.

i also love drawers for pan storage (instead of cupboards)and building in space your microwave. if you go with an island (as was already mentioned), be certain it is your cooktop and has sufficient counterspace surrounding it. if you use an island, open the cabinets from both sides.

consider your kitchen work triangle very very carefully. make sure your kitchen counters have rounded corners. and don't underestimate the number of outlets or lights you'll need in the kitchen.

we always incorporate a pull-out cabinet to house the trash can (it has a lock to keep the pets out of the trash). we're less happy this time around with the tile countertops. they're lovely, but you try cleaning spilled coffee grounds out of the grout.
posted by crush-onastick at 3:03 PM on August 18, 2004

[We're finalizing the purchase of a new home! Wow!]

I remain fascinated by the strawbale construction technique. I strongly recommend you investigate. There has been a lot of research this past decade, and there are some great advantages: load-bearing capability 4x or more in excess of stickbuilt; potential for R60 insulating capability; soundproofing like mad; easier creation of curved spaces; dirt cheap if you do the labour yourself, otherwise comparable to stickbuilt.

Check Meta Efficient for information that will help you select low-toxicity finishing, high-efficiency appliances and such, and general information on going green.

There are wonderful things being done as regards water recycling: CMHC sponsored a design contest in which one of the winning homes is completely OFF the city of Toronto water/sewer system. It uses filtered rainwater for potable water and an amazing biocleaning system to reuse black and greywater for all other purposes. That rocks so magnificently that I'm beyond words to describe my awe.

I did some investigating into composting toilets and found that there are fantastic opportunities there as well. A month's volume of teh po0p of a family comes out to less than four litres after composting and drying, and is wholly changed to wonderful rich loam. Growing a garden in it would still weird me out, but I think I'd get over it. Again, doubleplus awesome.

There is lots of information on using the sun to heat the home; most of it to do with proper orientation and super-insulation (ie. strawbale).

The Meta-Efficient site has good stuff on glues, carpets, etc that have low or no outgassing. The outgassing of materials in a new home is extremely toxic, and it's little wonder we've such an increase in many of our biology-gone-wrong illnesses like cancer and allergies.

I'm going to quit ranting now. I get very excited at the prospect of building green homes.

Did I mention we're finalizing the purchase of a dream home? I'm also very excited about that.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:15 PM on August 18, 2004

« Older Javascript/CSS/IE   |   New York alternative radio Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.