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Questions to ask your builder

A blower door test to find air intrusions is important for any new structure. Photo by Ecotribu.

A blower door test to find air intrusions is important for any new structure. Photo by Ecotribu.

By George Harvey

As I chatted with a woman in a local food store, I mentioned how the energy market was changing, rapidly making energy more affordable. She asked, “How so?”

“Well, for example, an architect recently told me it has become possible for a new building to be so efficient that the fuel cost is reduced by 90%, but at the same construction cost as a conventional building.”

She looked incredulous. “How can that be?” she asked.

“The furnace and chimney cost about the same as the extra insulation and air sealing.”

Her face dropped. She told me sadly, “I just had a new house built.” She was thinking of hundreds of dollars of completely unnecessary heating bills, every year, as long as she had the house.

If you are about to build a new home and the builder is talking about conventional building practice and heating, we recommend getting very inquisitive. Here are some of the questions you should ask:

  • What do the designer and builder do to keep up with current building practices for efficiency? The fields are changing so rapidly, and the best in the field go to seminars and workshops to keep up to date. Those who do not do this are likely to leave clients stuck with old-fashioned equipment and practices.
  • Are the designer and builder familiar with Passive House standards? A Passive House does not need any heat at all, beyond what comes from cooking and day to day living. While such homes are a little more expensive than conventional homes, the pay back comes in only a few years of not buying fuel. Also, many of the best Passive House technologies can be used in other buildings to reduce fuel costs without increasing construction costs.
  • Does the designer use modeling software to predict the energy costs of a house before it is built? Working on a seat-of-the pants home design is no longer acceptable practice.
  • What testing equipment does the builder use to check that the work is done properly? At the very least, blower door tests should be made. These tell how much air infiltration happens.
  • How does the builder document the construction? Good construction includes documentation on methods, materials, tests, and results. The builder should be willing to photograph work in progress as part of the documentation.

If a designer or builder says these practices are too time-consuming and expensive, then the house could be too inefficient and expensive to be worth building.

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