Raising the Bar for the Quality of Home Construction

Our country could be building better quality homes, but we aren’t.  Why not?  The number of new homes built has risen steadily in the past 5 years, and continues to do so.   Unfortunately, most of these homes will be built to meet the current building code, and not much better.  Perhaps the worst news is that many of the people buying these homes don’t know that they COULD have a house that cost less to heat and cool, is more comfortable, is more durable, and provides a healthier environment for their families, at less total cost than a similar code minimum house.   We know how to design and build houses like these, and in fact we have for quite a while now.  So why don’t we?  According to Kevin Ireton of Fine Homebuilding Magazine, there are three core reasons.

Cost is not one of those reasons.  Money is part of the story, but the problem has much more to do with the way homes are financed than it has to do with actual dollars spent by the homeowner.  In fact, according to a U.S. Department of Energy comparison from October of 2015, a homeowner in our climate zone would save $43/month if they built a new home to the Zero Energy Ready Home standard than if they built a similar home using the current Ohio Residential Code energy standards 1.   But money can still be a problem because of the way appraisals are done.

Most banks and real estate appraisers place NO value on extra insulation or photovoltaic panels on the roof.  Zero.  None.   Appraisals are important because they are how banks decide whether a buyer will be able to make the payments on a mortgage.  Unfortunately, the factors currently used in making that evaluation do not take energy costs into account.  They consider principle, interest, taxes, and insurance, but not utilities.  Since energy costs are more expensive than either taxes or insurance, this is omitting a key part of the real-world accounting that affects the ability to make that monthly mortgage payment.  In addition,

the basic education required for an appraiser’s license does not cover high performance home features or renewable energy.  Combine these two items with the fact that in most areas it is difficult to find houses with “comparable” energy efficiency features, and it becomes very difficult to get a mortgage that recognizes the added value of a high-performance home.

This is a shame, because when it comes time to re-sell that home, the buyers will recognize this value.  According to a McGraw Hill Smart Market Report 2, 73% of single family home builders say consumers will pay more for green homes.

The unique nature of the home building industry is another reason home quality hasn’t advanced faster. Building science based solutions for homes are not “one size fits all”. While a computer can be designed so it works just as well in Phoenix as in Boston, homes need to take climate into account.  A wall assembly that makes perfect sense in a hot, dry region is not at all appropriate in northeast Ohio.  Even if the best strategies were the same for the whole country, there are roughly 60,000 home builders in the U.S. and there is no single organization, tradeshow, or conference that reaches all of them with the latest information.

According the NAHB Research Center, it takes up to 25 years for the housing industry to adopt new technologies.3 The details matter in high performance homes, but there is very little incentive for builders to learn these new methods.  Only eight states have continuing education requirements for contractor licenses.  In Ohio, general contractors for home construction are not required to be licensed by the state at all, and the cities that do require licensing are more interested in making sure the business will be around to complete the project than finding out if they know anything about construction.   Many contractors do in fact know a great deal about construction, and there is a lot to know.  They need to schedule work, order materials, find skilled labor, pay for insurance, market the company, and more.  Adding to their challenge is the fact that many prospective homeowners are focused on getting a low cost-per-square foot, focused completely on the initial construction cost because of the lending system.  As a result, contractors are apt to stay close to the “tried and true” construction methods they know, so they can focus on these other challenges.

So, there is no system in place for getting the latest information on building science into the hands of builders, and little incentive for them to adopt new practices that add yet more complexity to what is already a very complicated and competitive business.   Which brings us to the final reason we aren’t building better houses.

“Because consumers haven’t asked us to.”  This is according to C. R. Herro, the VP of environmental affairs for Meritage Homes, one of the country’s largest home builders.  People don’t buy homes very often, and when they do they typically have a lot of other things going on in their lives.  They don’t have time to do a lot of research, and so they rely heavily on the advice of bankers, home builders, and people who own houses that were built many years ago.  We’ve just covered the reasons bankers and builders are not apt to champion the cause of high performance homes.  With competition so high, it is important that we as consumers learn to ask the right questions, expect the high performance that is completely attainable, and make energy efficiency one of the things contractors need to compete on.

So let’s start asking!   Ask builders for high performance homes, and insist that lenders take the costs of energy use for a house into account when they figure mortgage amounts.  For starters, every house should have a blower door test done during construction to check for air leaks.  Next, ask for the HERS score for your new home.  You would buy a car without knowing how many miles per gallon it gets, why would you buy a home without knowing how it performs compared to a code minimum house?  Likewise, you expect to see drawings showing what the house will look like when it is built, and perhaps even a CAD model so you can see it in three dimensions.  It is perfectly reasonable to expect computer modeling of how much energy the house will use.  Energy modeling can be used to help make cost effective choices about insulation levels and heating and cooling systems.

Even if you aren’t interested in getting your home certified to a sustainable construction standard like LEED, the National Green Building Standard, or Passivhouse, you can these standards as guideposts for learning about high performance home construction.  The U.S. Department of Energy has its own program, Zero Energy Ready Home certification.  Their website includes the “Tour of Zero”, where you can see dozens of high performance homes and their construction details.  I’ve included a link to this site below.  The Zero Energy Ready Home is specifically geared towards investing in a home’s thermal envelope to the point where it will be able to generate as much energy as it uses with the addition of solar photovoltaic panels.  The solar panels don’t need to be added at the time of construction.   These are easy to add on later, while changes to the building enclosure are much more difficult.  Quite a few of these Zero Energy Ready certified houses have already been built in northeast Ohio.

Let’s raise the bar and expect the construction of our new homes to give us better comfort, energy efficiency, and air quality.  We know how to do it.  It will save us money.  Let’s move forward together and make it happen!

This post draws heavily from Kevin Ireton’s article, “Why Don’t We Build Better Houses” in the spring/summer 2017 Houses issue of Fine Homebuilding magazine.  If you’d like a copy of the original article, send me an email and I can send you the pdf.  Or if you like audio you can find the Why Don’t We Build Better podcast here.

Click here for more information on the U.S.Department of Energy’s Zero Energy Ready Home program.

To tour some homes already built using the Zero Energy Ready standard, see this page: DOE Tour of Zero.

Another good source for information about high performance home building is Green Building Advisor.


1)      Department of Energy Zero Energy Ready Home Savings & Cost Estimate Summary

2)      McGraw Hill Construction Smart Market Report

3)      Sam Rashkin, Residential Architect, November 15, 2012

A Good Fit for New Leaf

At New Leaf, I’ve been working with several people on new home designs, in addition to my usual renovation projects. So I thought I’d share my thoughts about new home design, and what makes a new home project a good fit for New Leaf.

When I tell people about what I do, they often seem a little surprised that most of my projects are addition and renovation designs rather than new homes. Many people think that only big, elaborate projects warrant having an architect. It’s true that most architectural firms focus more on commercial and large residential work, but the projects I’ve done for more than 20 years provide plenty of evidence that smaller projects go more smoothly and turn out better with an architect’s help. So why does New Leaf choose to do more addition and renovation projects than new homes? What makes a new home project a good fit for New Leaf? Is working with an architect on a new house an all or nothing decision? Actually, understanding why I work on so many existing homes can help you understand the kinds of new home projects I enjoy the most. Here are the three basic considerations:

The charm of old houses

First and foremost, I love older homes. I like their craftsmanship, their detailing, and their neighborhoods. I’ve lived in a little 1925 Italian Renaissance house, a big 1930 Colonial Revival, and now my 1959 ranch. I like to find ways to keep these older homes working for us by giving them better Kitchens, more closet space, and more open floor plans. I also enjoy taking the language established by the rest of the house and continuing it so that the new areas look like they belong with the original parts of the house. For houses that don’t have a lot of character to start with, a renovation is an opportunity to create some special features: an archway, a window seat, or perhaps a beautifully crafted front porch for example.

In the original drawings for many older houses, you can see that the designers took the time to create drawings showing what the interior detailing should look like: built in book cases, wainscoting under the stairs, fireplace mantles. For new homes, I enjoy creating details that give this kind of character. This is true for any style of house, from Craftsman to Modern. The important thing is to take the time to think about what the finished space is going to look like, understand how the rooms are going to relate to each other, and design the details that will give each space a unique character.

Every renovation project is unique

The second reason I do so many additions and renovations is that each renovation project is totally unique. There are lots of stock plans out there for new homes, and since you are sharing the design cost for that plan with hundreds, or even thousands of other home buyers, these plans are bound to be more economical than a custom design. This isn’t an option for a renovation. You can’t buy a stock plan for a breakfast room addition, or to add a Master Suite over your garage, so you need an architect or designer to come up with a solution that works for your particular house.
For many people building a new home, stock plans are a good economical option. You can even make a few changes to the plan so it fits your needs better. If they are simple changes, a draftsman may be your best choice. Many stock plan companies offer modification services, or you can find someone locally to work with. You will need to purchase the drawings from the plan company in order to have copyright permission to use the design for your project, but once you have purchased the copyright release you are free to make whatever changes you want.

However, even if you are purchasing a stock plan, a few hours of advice from an architect can get you a better house. I recently had a client come to me with a stock plan that he wanted to adjust. Wali and I met and looked over the design he had been considering, and I asked whether they really wanted to have both a Breakfast area and a formal Dining Room. Since construction costs were a concern, it didn’t make sense to build space that they didn’t need. As a result, he looked over some more plans online and found a similar plan without a separate Dining Room. Like the first plan, this one included an attached Garage, so it still needed some modifications. I put together a sketch showing how the plan would work without the Garage. This process was more efficient and economical than creating a completely custom design from scratch, but I was able to provide some personalized advice and design in a way that couldn’t be duplicated over the Internet.

Quality over Quantity

The third reason I haven’t done more new houses is that until recently, many of the people who approached architects for new home designs have been interested in big houses of 4000 square feet or more, and I’m just not that interested in designing those. In the last few years though, there is increasing appreciation for new homes that are smaller while still feeling spacious and fitting their owners’ lifestyles, and are more energy efficient. It’s much more difficult to find stock plans that do these things well, and these are challenges I really enjoy solving!

Most stock plans aren’t yet detailed to provide the amount of insulation and air sealing needed for real energy efficiency for our climate. As a native Ohioan, I didn’t always realize that most of the country is warmer than northeast Ohio. That means that a house designed for the “average” climate in the U.S. isn’t a good fit for our region. And if you want walls that can accommodate above average amounts of insulation, the wall thicknesses and details in a typical stock plan just won’t work.

Also, a home intended to make the most of every square foot needs to consider the site where it will be built. If you can create a beautiful view for the Dining area by placing it on the right side of the house, you will never miss having a two story Foyer. Finding a stock plan that is sensitive to all of the site features, from lot size to views, can be nearly impossible. And of course, sustainable design means that you need to consider where the sun is coming from so you can design for passive heating, natural lighting, and possible solar panel systems. This kind of careful design customized for your family and the site where you will be building will take more time, and therefore a little more of your construction budget will need to be allocated towards design services. But good design can mean that you build only the space you need, you get more accurate estimates from contractors, construction goes more smoothly, and you save on energy bills every year that you live in your new home. Plus, you get a design that is comfortable, beautiful and enjoyable to live in.
Just as I create a new design for each of my projects, I also customize the services I provide to fit each of my clients’ needs. So if you are thinking about building a new home, give me a call and I’ll help you decide what level of architectural services are the best fit for you and your family.

Getting To Know You: Introduction Meetings and Consultation

It’s always nice to know what to expect when you do something new. And for most people, working with an architect is something new. So what happens after you decide to work with an architect and find one to call. During this first phone call, the architect will ask you some questions about your project: what you plan to do, where your home or building site is located, how soon you hope to start construction. You’ll probably have some questions you’ll want to ask too. For instance, how much experience she has with this type of project, how she charges for work, and whether she will provide 3-dimensional images of the design. If it seems like this architect is a good fit for your project, you’ll want to go ahead and schedule either an Introduction Meeting or a Consultation.
The Introduction Meeting has two main goals. First, it’s a chance to see if you and the architect have good “chemistry”. Is this someone you can communicate easily with? Do they seem to share your vision? Are they good listeners? And second, it’s an opportunity for you to describe your project in more detail. For addition and renovation projects, I like to meet at the house that we will be working on. That way we can walk through the house and see the areas to be transformed as we talk. This discussion is primarily about listening to what your needs are, so that the architect can get an idea of how much time will be involved in designing your project.
A Consultation meeting has different goals than an Introduction meeting. In this case, the purpose is to give you immediate information to help with decisions about your project. For instance, sometimes people shopping for a new house will want to know if there is a practical way to get a more open plan, or add on more space. Having an architectural Consultation before making an offer on a house can help you see its potential, or limitations, more clearly. If you have a very small project, like a kitchen renovation within existing square footage, a consultation can help you to think through the possibilities and suggest new ideas. Then you can take those ideas, and perhaps some sketches to your contractor or cabinetry supplier. If you’d like this kind of information exchange, you’ll want to discuss the consultation rate when you schedule your meeting. For most projects, however, the first meeting will be an Introduction that will help you and your architect prepare to work together over several weeks or months. Part of this preparation is answering the question “how much will the design and drawings cost”? Call me so we can talk about!

The Slow Home Movement

Some of you may have heard of the “Slow Food” movement: an approach to food based on the idea that food should taste delicious, be grown in a way that does not harm the environment or our health, and provide fair working conditions for the people who produce it.   Well, now there is a “Slow Home” movement that draws on this same kind of values-based approach.  As it turns out, the New Leaf approach to design has a lot in common with the Slow Home.

According to architect John Brown of the Slow Home Studio, a Slow Home follows three guiding principles:

1. Construct the home in such a way that environmental impact is minimized, and that the materials used are sustainable and friendly to the environment.

2. Ensure the house is well designed for the people who will live in the home.

3. Organize the space and choose furniture to fit how the homeowners will live in the home.   

This all has a lot in common with Sarah Susanka’s “Not So Big House” philosophy, as well as the whole Green movement.  But I think “Slow Home” does an especially good job of emphasizing the relationship between our built environment and how we live.   The choices we make about our homes affect us for as long as we live in them.  Whether it’s how far we have to go to get to schools and shopping, or having a good place for the kids to put their backpacks when they get home from school, the design of our homes determines whether they support us in how we want to live, or become daily obstacles to overcome.

If you’d like to learn more about the Slow Home approach, the Slow Home Studio website has a number of “Design Minute” videos on everything from site design to bathroom storage to spray foam insulation.  Their address is http://slowhomestudio.com

originally published February 2011

Shaker Design Competition

In January of this year I had the honor of participating in a design competition hosted by the City of Shaker Heights.  Twelve teams submitted conceptual drawings for infill lots in the Moreland Heights neighborhood.  The city was looking for proposals that emphasize energy efficiency with net zero ready or passive design, that fit into traditional neighborhoods, and incorporate intergenerational accessibility.  I partnered with Bliss & Company developers and builders to create a design based on the historic Cleveland Double.  We provided an accessible home on the first floor for use by those wanting to age in place, and a larger two story unit above it.  This design also works well for home based businesses and artists’ studios.    Both units have open floor plans, with neighborhood-building front porches and plenty of natural light from the south facing windows.  We are looking forward to the opportunity to build this home or similar ones as Northeast Ohio takes advantage of the opportunity to high performance homes with modern amenities on the open lots in our established neighborhoods.  You can see the floor plans and full description of the project here:Hallie and Bliss and Shaker Design Competition

Spring. What a beautiful word!

As I write this I am sitting in a sunlit courtyard with early spring flowers in bloom, listening to the birds singing. Besides these natural sources of beauty, the surrounding building walls create a separation from the world outside, encouraging reflection. There are three benches available, to make it a comfortable place to sit. There is a tree in the center of the courtyard, surrounded by a ring of  stones, and a stone path gently curving around the ring. These elements create a sense of intention for the space, despite
the numerous weeds that are also enjoying the warmer weather. Without them, the space would look cluttered and unkempt, rather than beautiful.

The architecture of this space creates delight. In fact, the ancient Greeks said all buildings should provide three things: strength, usefulness, and delight. It’s not an accident that I am enjoying sitting here so much. The designers of this space took the time to think about what the space would be like and what they could add (or leave out) to make it better. The good news is that you can add to your delight in your own home too. All it takes is some planning, a little creativity, and perhaps some professional advice. Do you have a beautiful view that you could see better with a well placed window? Do you have a collection stuffed in a corner that you could celebrate with a place of its own? A back patio that would feel more comfortable with a trellis or low wall to make it feel sheltered, rather than just some pavement in the grass? Often, you can use elements that you need for “functional” purposes to provide delight too. The garden shed you need for the lawn mower can provide part of the enclosure for the back patio. The window you need for an emergency exit in the bedroom can be placed so you are walking towards light when you enter the room. So when you make changes to your home, remember that every functional improvement is also an opportunity to add Delight.

Honour Tradition in a Tour of this Colonial-Style Home

One of the most popular residential building styles in the United States, a Colonial style home is a favourite among American families. With the characteristic rectangular shape, two-storey structure, wood facade, and shuttered windows, the brand-new home that you’ll tour in this ideabook is an excellent example of familiar style. Designed by Hallie Bowie, the architect and founder of New Leaf Home Design, this practical, pleasing, and highly functional family home is located in Shaker Heights, a suburb very close to Cleveland, Ohio. All said, it’s about as all-American as it gets: this home’s setting in America’s heartland provides the perfect stage for the traditional Colonial elements found throughout the design of the house.


Gaining inspiration from classic Georgian Colonial architecture, this home greets the eye in soft blues, greys, and white. A strikingly simple facade displays a strong symmetry in its features – a typical trait of Colonial style buildings. Especially reminiscent of Georgian style is the bay of windows located directly above the central front door – and a singular, hanging lantern is the icing on the cake! The decorative mouldings often seen in white on Colonial buildings (think brick school house or heritage courthouse) are interpreted here with a simplified modern version that adorns the tops of window frames, front porch, and bay of windows. The windows are also designed to mimic the multi-pane windows characteristic of Colonial architecture. The result is a familiar and welcoming vision, with a structure that establishes an approachable and honest relationship with the neighbourhood.

​High quality interior

The architect’s philosophy revolves around quality design and quality materials, believing these elements of home building to be ultimately more important than sheer square footage, in terms of being able to enjoy your home. In this interior, the emphasis on quality is clear: hardwood floors are topped with luxurious woven rugs, and a fireplace with a high quality brick and wood construction occupies the focal point of the room. Special attention has also been given to the transition between rooms; while the home maintains the classic divided room layout typical of Colonial architecture, they’ve been given a dose of contemporary convenience with the addition of sturdy wooden sliding doors.

​Moderation is key

In a vision as familiar as the friendly white porch, this dining room maintains a traditional layout defined by logic and symmetry. A moderate approach has been taken in all rooms of the home, but in this laid-back room it becomes especially evident, as the furniture and decor makes a modest, less-is-more statement that prizes familiar traditions, great food, and healthy relationships over the presence of elaborate and decorative “stuff”.

​Serious about cooking

This home is clearly designed with a busy family lifestyle at the forefront. This spacious kitchen provides a well-equipped and accessible space for cooking up a storm, and the open floor plan makes supervising the kids during meal prep an easier task. The room still draws inspiration from history (note the farm sink, white wooden cabinets, and moulding on the ceiling), but modernity makes an intervention for the sake of convenience (open floor plan, stainless steel appliances). Overall, the space takes on an energizing and optimistic appearance with its yellow walls, making the atmosphere all the more hospitable.

Article written by Sarah Tolle for homify

The Checklist Manifesto

Reading this book had been on my list for a while, partly because it got a good deal of attention from USA Today, NPR and many other places, and partly because I went to high school with the author, Atul Gawande. It deals specifically with how checklists can improve the quality of medical care, but it applies to any complex process. You would think that once something becomes too complex, a checklist might become too inflexible and limited to be useful. Atul shows that it’s precisely these complex services, which are increasingly difficult to deliver consistently and correctly using human memory alone, that can get the most benefit from a good checklist. In fact, the practice of making life-saving checklists got its start because the B-17 aircraft “was too complicated to be left to the memory of any one person, however expert”.

But there are good checklists and there are not-really-useful-at-all checklists.

Good checklists:

  • Are precise

  • Make priorities clearer

  • Prompt people to function better as a team

  • Turn people’s brains on, rather than trying to think for them

  • Are easy to use even in the most difficult situations

The process of designing and building a new home or home renovation is very complex and goes best when the homeowner, architect, contractor, and all of the trades work together as a team- a great situation for a good checklist. So 2014 is the year New Leaf gets intentional about creating and using good checklists!

Do you have any resolutions for your house this year? Whether you are interested in a small renovation or a whole new house, I’ll be glad to help you create a good checklist (and some great drawings and 3D CAD images) to turn your dreams into reality!   Give me a call at (330)329-6901, or email me at  Hallie@NewLeafHomeDesign.com 

Checking for Icicles

iciclesjpg-a19cf9caded36de6-1This is a great time of year to see whether you could lower your heating bills by adding insulation. If you can see the pattern of your roof rafters in the snow on your roof, or if you have a lot of icicles, chances are you would benefit from having more insulation in your attic. Both are signs that heat escaping through your roof is melting the snow. Current code calls for at least 12” of cellulose or fiberglass insulation. If you add more insulation, remember to check for air leaks first!

Getting to Beautiful

unnamed-1Someone thought those ceiling beams were beautiful. It would not have been me.” Debra Silber wrote this recently in an article for “Fine Homebuilding” magazine on what makes a house beautiful. And while I agreed with most of the article, I disagreed with her comment about the ugly ceiling beams. I am confident that no one ever really looked at them and said “these are beautiful”. So why were they there?

I think the home owner who added those ceiling beams liked the idea of them. They had seen real timber frame beams they loved, and wanted to re-create that look in their own home. So their contractor dutifully went out and found some economical “beams” he could add to the existingunnamed ceiling. They had the same dimensions as a real wood beam, were painted a similar brown color, and even had a similar texture. But they weren’t beautiful. Their color and texture didn’t have the complexity of real wood; they weren’t installed with the craftsmanship of timber frame joinery; they weren’t part of a visible skeleton expressing the mathematics of the structural system supporting the house and its occupants. They weren’t reminders of the forests that had been on the site before the house was built. They just looked like they were trying to be something they weren’t.

Building a house is like cooking. Some basic ingredients can provide sustenance, but it may not be very appetizing. A cook using a good recipe can take those same ingredients and turn them into something you would be happy to eat. But to come up with the recipe, or better yet to actually prepare a gourmet meal, you need a chef: someone who is fascinated by flavors and the foods that create them; someone who has spent years studying cooking; someone who knows the difference between a shallot and an onion.

That’s what an architect provides when you are building or remodeling your home: someone who is analyzing the elements that create the “flavors” of a house nearly every time she walks into, or even drives past one. An architect would have been able to tell the family considering those ceiling beams they probably weren’t going to be happy with them. She could have helped them to understand the difference between the beautiful beams they had admired and the faux beams they were considering. And she could have helped them find a way to accomplish their real goal- getting a more beautiful space- in a way that was appropriate to their house and their tastes and that fit their budget. A contractor can build an addition or new house, or renovate an existing one, but he isn’t going to spend much time stopping to look at the design and ask “Is this the best way to do this, or is there a better or more beautiful solution?” A contractor’s passion is in building, not designing.

Once you are living in your new or remodeled home, you will notice if there is enough natural light. You’ll notice if the snow builds up in front of the front door. You’ll notice if you have to walk past the dirty laundry every time you come in from the garage. You’ll notice if you have ice dams every winter. And you’ll notice whether or not you find your home beautiful. But you may not notice these things when you look at drawings of the house. You may not even know to ask about them. That’s okay. Most of us aren’t gourmet chefs either. When you pick out a cookbook, or choose someone to cater an important event, you rely on people who are passionate about food. So when you design your home, work with someone who is passionate about beautiful homes. Work with someone who walks into a room and notices where the light is coming from, the use of materials and texture, the use of symmetry or asymmetry, how the circulation works, the scale of the space. Work with an architect and you won’t end up with not-so-beautiful beams no one ever really looked at or thought about until after they were installed. In their place you will have thoughtfully designed elements that add to your enjoyment of your home.

Darling-Wright House by Greene & Greene