Get Ready for Winter

Now that it’s almost November, you’ve probably spent some time getting your yard ready for winter by raking leaves, putting the gardens to bed, and maybe putting away some outdoor furniture. But before you get too comfy with that cup of hot chocolate, you’ll want to make sure your house is ready for winter. And fall is the best time to start planning that renovation or addition you are thinking about for next spring. I’ll give you a few tips on things you can do to winterize your home.

Home Winterization Checklist

Here are a few things you can do so your house is ready for the cold, and keeps you nice and cozy in the next few months. If you’d like to look at a more comprehensive list, check

 Easy Home Winterizing Checklist

  • Schedule a Home Energy audit. This is tops on my list for a reason. An audit is a great way to find out the best ways you can make your particular home more efficient. An auditor can help you determine which improvements have the best return on investment, helping you save on your heating bills this winter, and on air conditioning next summer. Instead of guessing what to do, an auditor will use special equipment like a blower door and infra-red camera to see where your house is losing energy. And now is a great time to get an audit. Dominion East Ohio is offering audits for $50 through their Home Performance with Energy Star Program. Find out more at:

Dominion East Ohio

Or you can look for a certified auditor through the Building Performance Institute at

Building Performance Institute

  • Storm Windows: put them in or close them up. Storm windows do a good job of making older windows more energy efficient, but they only work if they are closed! Take some time and go around your house to make sure they are in place.

  • Put in a clean furnace filter. Your furnace will run more efficiently with a clean filter.

  • Turn off your exterior faucets. Most outside hose bibs need to be turned off at the shut off valve inside the house to protect the pipes from getting damaged by freezing. Even if you have “frost free” hose bibs, you still need to make sure you have disconnected your hoses. And if you have a rain barrel, be sure to drain it and disconnect it from your downspouts!

  • Clean your gutters.  Wet leaves add a lot of weight to your gutters and add to the risk of damage from ice.  Overflowing gutters also mean you have more water against your basement walls, which can lead to a damp or wet basement.

  • Check your fireplace damper. Your damper needs to be open while a fire is burning, but after that it should be closed to keep the heated air in your home from going up the chimney. You may even want to consider a “chimney balloon” to create a tighter seal in the flue.

 

Choosing a Contractor

Who do you call? Where do you start? Your choice of contractor is an important one, and you have a lot of companies to choose from. How do you narrow down the choices and finally make a selection? There are no magic answers, but over the years I’ve come up with some guidelines to share with my clients.

Who can I call?

unnamed4You’ll probably start by searching the internet, but you may find the web isn’t as useful for finding a contractor as it is for finding a restaurant.  There are a number of reasons for this.  Location will be less important in choosing a contractor, since most are willing to travel up to about an hour for a project they want to do.  You can find listings and reviews for contractors on sites like Home Advisor and Houzz, but this isn’t too much better than an old fashioned phone book.  Reviews are nice, but until you know which contractors have the right kind of experience for your project they aren’t that helpful.  A search will typically list companies that do only small projects like bathroom renovations right next to ones who do large additions and whole house renovations.  The nature of the business also means that some of the best craftsmen are very small operations, without staff dedicated to optimizing search engine rankings, or even a website.  Contractors who  are good enough to get lots of referrals they may not need to have a strong web presence.  

So recommendations are a good selection tool. See who your friends and neighbors have used in the past, and ask your architect for suggestions. Professional association membership lists can be helpful too. Contractors who belong to the local Home Builders Association (HBA) or the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) are more likely to be stable companies with experience. These organizations offer certification programs that provide additional evidence of professional expertise. You can find lists of membership for the Summit and Portage County Home Builders Association at Akron HBA Remodel With Confidence, and for NARI at www.nari.org/consumers/.

Next you’ll want to find out what you can about the contractors you have recommendations for.  Websites may be helpful here, but go ahead and pick up the phone for the companies who don’t have good websites.  You’ll want to know how long the company has been in business, whether they have done other projects similar to yours, whether they have a commitment to sustainability similar to your own, and what their Better Business Bureau rating is. You can check a company’s BBB history at Akron BBB.

Check their References! Talking to past clients is an excellent and important way to find out what it will be like working with a company. This is worth doing even if the references are provided by the contractor. If the best references they can provide are lukewarm in their enthusiasm, they may not have any big fans. And it will help you to learn about their strengths and weaknesses, and whether they are likely to be as good a fit for you as they were for them. Was the project similar in scope to what you are planning? Were they happy with the quality of the work? Was the project finished on time and within budget? Did the process go smoothly?  If you can speak directly with the references you will learn more than you could from an email exchange.

Now I have an appointment, what should I ask?

Meeting with a contractor in person is an important part of the selection process, and you will want to meet with at least three.  Talking with several people will help you build confidence in your choice, which will help the construction process go more smoothly.  For smaller projects, you may be able to select a contractor based on just one meeting with them. For a more major renovation or new home, a first meeting is primarily about getting to know who the contractor is, what kind of work they have experience in, how they run their projects, and whether they would be interested in working on your project. Knowing when you hope to start construction is important here, because other project commitments could affect whether they can include your project in their schedule.

Having design drawings for this meeting can be an advantage too. You can learn a lot from talking through a project with a contractor- both about them and about some of the issues you may face during construction. If you rely on verbal, or even written, descriptions of what you hope to do it will be more difficult to know if different contractors understand the project in the same way. Even rough schematic design drawings can help to improve communication.

Bids versus Estimates, and should I get three bids?

Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, but Webster’s sees them as different. A bid is a commitment on the part ofestimate clip art a contractor to complete a project for a specific amount of payment, provided the scope of work doesn’t change and unexpected conditions aren’t discovered during construction. An estimate is a rough idea of what a project will cost, without a specific commitment to complete work for that price. Before you start work, you will likely want to have a firm number for the cost of the work. But should you get several bids and compare them before selecting a contractor?

Just after I finished college I worked at a firm that did municipal work that required three bids. The Construction Documents for those projects were very descriptive of what was expected. Besides extensive drawings with lots of details, they included 2” thick written specifications describing most every item that would need to be purchased, installed, or applied for the project. Often public entities were required to take the lowest bid. This process did not always result in a smooth construction experience, or even necessarily provide the lowest end cost. Low bidders would often be more likely to find reasons for change orders to add to the cost of their original bid.

For smaller projects where the scope of work is easy to define, it may make sense to get competitive bids. But for larger residential work, it’s difficult to get an “apples to apples” price even if you have extensive detailed specifications.  The experience a contractor brings to a project, their level of craftsmanship, how quickly they can complete construction, and their willingness to stand behind their work after they are done all affect the value. These things are all very difficult to specify when you ask for bids.

That said, being comfortable with your contractor is very important, so if getting multiple bids makes you the most comfortable, then you should go ahead and get them. You and the contractor will be happiest in the long run when you start the process with confidence in the company you have chosen to work with. Just don’t assume that you will want to choose the lowest bidder. Three bids are often suggested as a good number because they give you an idea of what an “average” price is. If all the bids are similar, that’s a good sign. If one is really high or really low compared to the other two, you may not want to choose that company. And remember to pay attention to their qualifications too.

Getting more than three bids can be counterproductive. For a large project a detailed bid takes a LOT of work on the contractor’s part. If they don’t think they have a reasonable chance of getting the work, they are apt to bid high enough to cover their bases without sharpening their pencil. Worse yet, if a contractor really needs the work they may bid low enough so they feel sure of getting the project, but then may not be able to finish!
The Team Approach

You may want to start a partnership with your contractor even before you start design. Many sustainable certification systems, such as LEED, require that the owner, architect, and contractor are all involved from the very beginning. In order to get a Net Zero, PassiveHaus, or other super-high performance home, it is essential to have a contractor who has the training and commitment to meet rigorous air sealing and other sustainability goals. For these projects, you will want to choose a contractor as soon as possible to meet your budget, sustainability, and architectural goals.  But no matter the size or scope of your project, you want a contractor who will be your partner in the construction process.

Beginning the Design Process: Programming 

If you are just starting to think about a project things can seem a little overwhelming.  Where do you even begin? Fortunately, your architect has been here before.  We even have a name for this phase, where you may not have a clear idea of what the project should look like.  It’s called Programming.  At New Leaf Home Design, the programming process starts at our very first meeting, when you begin describing the big picture of what you want to accomplish.  Then we typically have a second meeting where I ask for more specifics.  As we are talking, you may feel like you are giving me a lot to absorb, but that’s okay!  We will probably also jump around from topic to topic, and that’s also okay.  I’ll get it organized as I am typing it up for the written program, which you’ll have a chance to review before I start working on drawings.   So what can you do to prepare for these first meetings?   You don’t really need anything besides the ideas already in your head, but here are a couple of tips.

 *Focus on what YOU want

One of the obstacles in planning a home improvement project or new home is the paralysis of possibilities.  There is plenty of design advice available these days, from HGTV,  Houzz and other websites, and stacks of magazines.  In some ways, all this information can make it harder to get started.  “Should I use a recycled glass countertop or stick with laminate?  Trade Grandma’s table for a breakfast bar around a giant kitchen island?”  You want to make your house a more functional and beautiful place for your family to live, not live up to some magazine’s image of what a house should be like.  Don’t worry too much about the mythical “resale family” either.  If you are renovating or adding on to your home, you probably plan to be there for several more years, so do what you want.  It is hard to predict what the resale family will be like.  For instance, if you put in a bathtub because you assume that it is better for resale even though you wanted a shower, you won’t be as happy, and you may find the next family would have preferred a shower too.  

*Focus on Activities and Imagine Living in your New Spaces

The next step is to think about the activities you’d like to do in your renovated or new home.  You could start with a problem like “the dining room is too cramped and isolated from the Kitchen”, and then move on to a description of what you’d like it to be like to sit in the renovated dining room:  “We’d like to be able to have 5 people sit at the table on a daily basis, and up to 10 for special occasions.   We’d like to be able to talk with whoever is in the Kitchen, and also be able to see the birdfeeder in the backyard.  And we want to be able to display our collection of Fiesta dishes.”    If you enjoy looking through home magazines or browsing Houzz, saving photos you like can be helpful.  They can help to communicate a vision of what you like, even if you aren’t sure how those pictures could apply to your house.  Your architect may be able to see connections between the pictures,  like the fact that all of the rooms you like in magazines have natural light from at least two directions, or that you prefer painted trim to natural woodwork.  

Talk it Through with your Architect

Writing down  information yourself is a great start, but talking with your architect can help you to identify more  problems and assets, and think through the spaces even better than you could on your own.  She can ask questions about issues you might not have thought of:  “Do you want wall space over the desk for shelving, or would you rather have a view through here to the living room?”  “Where do you keep your compost now?  Would it be helpful to get it off of the kitchen counter so you have more work area?”   In fact, asking good questions is one of the most important things an architect does.  

When you are choosing your archtiect, be sure you are comfortable talking with her and feel that she is listening to what you want.  When you work with a professional who is a good listener, you have more control over your project than if you tried to do everything yourself.  She will assemble your ideas so you can see how all the pieces fit together.  And that makes the completed project look and work even better!

The Value of Design and Drawings

Not long ago I met with an older woman who had purchased a New Leaf consultation at an auction for a non-profit group.  Unfortunately, she had already had the addition to her home built, and had multiple complaints.  As a result, she wasn’t using the new spaces at all.  At this point there wasn’t a lot that I could do to correct the situation without substantial construction expense.  I’m confident she told the contractor what she wanted, but he apparently didn’t hear and the construction was done before she realized how things were being built.   She had only the contract written by the contractor to describe what work they had agreed to.  

If she had called me first, we could have come up with a written Program for the project, making sure we considered all of the issues that were important to her, such as being able to see her grandchildren playing in the back yard, and being able to turn on lights easily while using her cane.   Then we would have designed the addition and she would have been able to see three dimensional views of the new spaces, as well as floor plans.  She could have told me about anything she didn’t like long before construction started, and we could have changed the design accordingly.  By investing a little bit in the planning phase of the project, she would have had drawings to use in talking with contractors about estimated costs, which could also have been used as a part of the construction contract, describing what she intended to have built.   In the end she would have had a space that she was eager to move into, instead of a room she couldn’t use. 

The first step to a successful project is to brainstorm with your architect about your project, whether you plan to start construction this year or three years from now.  It is never too early to call an architect, but it can be too late.

Green Certification and You

So, you may ask, just what is  Green certification and how does it help in building a Green home, or renovating my existing home?

Simply put, Green certification is a way for you to know that a new home or renovation really incorporates design and features that make it more sustainable than a home “built to code”; that the word “Green” isn’t just being used as a marketing tool.  Several  regional and national organizations have developed programs to create Green benchmarks, with the goal of encouraging more high quality, sustainable home building around the country. Two of the most widely recognized of these programs are the LEED for Homes system* and the National Green Building Standard (NGBS)** .   The things that make a home sustainable are not always easy to see, so certification through these programs provides a way to easily recognize Green homes.   This is especially helpful for people who are interested in setting an example for others to follow, and for builders who use Green construction practices and need to communicate the added value of their Green homes to potential buyers.  But  you can benefit from working with a professional who is familiar with these systems, even if you aren’t planning to seek certification for your house.

Perhaps you are familiar with the idea of using benchmarks for helping to evaluate performance- in business, education, or even athletics.  The Green building certification systems provide a carefully researched set of benchmarks that we can reference in any home construction project.  Even if we don’t fill out the paperwork or have the third party verifications done, referencing the certification systems as we design your project can improve the sustainability of your home renovation.  The systems also make use of a number of checklists, which we can use to make sure that every aspect of the project considers sustainability, from site orientation, to water efficiency, to materials selection for indoor air quality.  And of course, energy efficiency!

One of the things I enjoyed the most about working on the Habitat project was the opportunity to become more familiar with the LEED for Homes standards.  I know that certification is not appropriate for every project, but I know that I will be using the guidelines and checklists from these programs to help make all of New Leaf’s projects a little Greener!


*developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)
** developed by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)

What an architect really does all day…

When most people picture an architect, they probably think of her drawing “blueprints”.  I do spend some time drawing, but if you look in my office window, you are at least as likely to see me exchanging emails or talking on the phone. That’s because an architect doesn’t just “do drawings”.

What I really do is manage the process of achieving your goals for your home.

I listen to you to learn what you want to accomplish. Then I determine what other information is needed and I track it down. Some of that information comes from you, some comes from other people. Is there a survey available? What is the budget? What are the zoning requirements? What is the layout of the existing house? What is its architectural style? What is the time frame? How does the sun hit the site? Where are the best views? How much privacy is there in which directions? At some point, I evaluate whether we need to get other experts involved, such as structural engineers. I give recommendations on what to look for in a contractor, and provide advice on the process of choosing one. 

A lot of people are involved in building or renovating a house: you, your spouse, contractor, zoning inspector, building inspector, architectural review board, engineer, energy performance consultant, and interior designer to name just a few.  I’ll help you make the most of the talents of all these team members.  

Of course it’s your house, so you are the most important ones in the process.  And while construction documents are great tools for the contractor and building department, they aren’t the bestway to show you how your decisions translate in three dimensions.   That’s where the CAD model comes in.  I’ll create  jpeg “photos” of this computer model so you can see what the house will look like as you drive down the street, what the view is like between the Kitchen and the Family Room, and compare design options based on three dimensional views, not just floor plans and elevations. This way you can be sure you understand and are comfortable with the design before construction starts.
 
I’ve been through the process before and will help guide you through it. I’ll keep the lines of communication flowing and keep everyone moving forward together- even both partners in a marriage. And as an added bonus, I’ll provide you with drawings!  

Getting To Beautiful

Someone thought those ceiling beams were beautiful. It would notpicture   have been me.” Debra Silber wrote this a while back 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 existing 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 a life enhancing experience. But to come up with the recipe or 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.

picture1That’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 while staying within 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 features like those not-so-beautiful beams no one ever really thought about until after they were installed. In their place you will have thoughtfully designed elements that add to your enjoyment of your home. 

picture2

The Value of Good Planning

Whatever your project, it’s important to have plenty of time to find the right professionals for your team, consider your design options, and make decisions. Now is a good time to start planning for the projects you would like to have built next spring. It’s okay if you don’t have the details sorted out yet- evaluating possibilities and deciding on priorities is part of the planning process you can work through with your architect.

Window Condensation Problems

I had a past client call the other day with a question about their windows. This summer they had some more work done on their home in Bath,

including new siding and more new windows.  Recently, as the temperatures outside got lower, they had been getting condensation inside the new windows. They’d never had condensation on either the original windows or the larger triple pane ones they had installed as part of our project together, so they wondered if the new windows were faulty.

I told them the problem probably isn’t with the windows, but with the humidity level in the house.  The triple pane windows didn’t have condensation because their interior surface stays warmer than the glass of the double pane windows they just installed.  The 1950’s windows they had just replaced didn’t get condensation as easily because they let more fresh air into the house through their leaky construction and installation.  I’m guessing they had more air sealing done as part of the siding work too.  So now the moisture from showers, cooking, houseplants, and everyday activities stays in the house longer; driving up the relative humidity and creating condensation on those nice new windows.

Two catch phrases in building science are “build tight, ventilate right”, and “the house is a system”.  My clients had made a lot of progress on getting their home more air tight, and I’m sure their energy bills will be lower this winter.  But since they had changed the part of the system of their house that brought in fresh air (even though it was brought in by accident through leaks, without any way of controlling it), they need to change their behavior to take out the extra moist air from showers and cooking. I expect running the bath fans and range hood longer than they used to will help.  If a house is tight enough, it may be necessary to have a dedicated ventilation strategy such as a heat recovery ventilator (HRV or ERV), a fresh air intake at the furnace, or an exhaust fan that runs on a timer.  Ventilating right also means not having a super-sized kitchen hood without providing make up air, because that has been known to cause dangerous back drafting at the furnace.

Most of us can’t upgrade everything in our homes all at once, so doing one project at a time is the most practical way to improve our efficiency.  Just remember that a change to one thing can affect a number of others.  So check in with a home performance professional or your architect to learn more about how the pieces fit together.

Sustainable Homes Summit on February 2nd!

Sometimes creating quality, energy efficient home construction means networking with other people who are excited about it. That’s why New Leaf Home Design and the Greater Akron Innovation Network for Sustainability (GAINS) are hosting the first northeast Ohio Sustainable Homes Summit at 5:30pm February 2nd at the Mustard Seed Café, 3885 West Market Street in Montrose . We will be bringing together builders, architects, HERS raters, suppliers, and other to share successes, best practices, challenges, and solutions so we can raise the standard of home construction in Ohio. Space is limited (or we’ll need to make more!) so please register here if you would like to attend:  Sustainable Homes Summit.