Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Building High-performance Homes Through the Winter

Green Energy Times Staff

Building season doesn’t need to stop in the winter. Some high-performance builders know how to keep their work flow moving comfortably forward in the winter for many reasons. We asked some in our area how they do it. Here is what we learned.

Panels in a climate controlled warehouse. (Silver Maple Construction)

Silver Maple Construction, New Haven, VT

Any clever construction company in the Northeast plans its “build cycle” so foundations go in and frames go up in warmer months, so sites can be dry and protected by the time snow falls. A roof, a shell, installed windows, and temporary heat make gloves-off winter work almost bearable. Unfortunately, the slightest delay can scramble the plan and leave carpenters starting every morning with snow blowers, plows, and shovels. Also, homeowners on budgets feel frustrated with charges for snow removal. Maximizing time on construction rather than weather mitigation makes everyone happier.

Silver Maple Construction has been building in Vermont for over 15 years and it seems most of those years included working outside in winter. Potential customers talk about a busy season and a slow season without realizing that our only two seasons are “foundation” season, with no freezes, and “roads posted” season. We have to fit projects around those two seasons. Despite everything we know about framing in the snow, we can get off-cycle, and after that we spend time trying to re-set, just like other cold climate builders.

We’ve invested in snow blowers and shovels. We’ve paid for plowing. We’ve tried to keep our crews in warm work gloves and hand warmers, good socks and toe warmers, and lots and lots of hot beverages.

A warm solution. More recently we have focused on panelizing frames, which means Silver Maple Construction can convert a weather-exposed jobsite into a sheltered workspace quickly. Custom house plans are made for framing sets. The framing sets are made into framing panels in our climate-controlled warehouse. If the job site is not ready to receive these, they are stacked and wrapped, protected from the elements. As soon as the site is ready, the panels are delivered and framing commences. Erecting panels is faster than traditional stick framing, so our crews and the materials are out of the elements as quickly as possible. Then both homeowners and carpenters get to enjoy, rather than shake their fists at Vermont’s falling snow.

Framing in the winter. (Wright Builders)

Wright Builders/EarthKind Homes, Northampton, MA

Every project is unique. Some require winter construction, with additional planning, but that enables year-round construction and earlier occupancy. Winter work does cost more, but owner needs may be urgent.

We consider winter and how it will impact construction, starting with site work and foundation preparation. Site grading, clearing, a solid base coat of driveway asphalt, and utility work preparing for a spring completion, all happen before road work deadlines or asphalt plants closing in mid-November.

If we are excavating the foundation in the winter, we may need to cover the ground to keep the frost out using heated blankets or a thick layer of straw. Digging through hard ground takes longer and increases costs. We assess what the site contractor can complete before winter and prepare the site for easy access.

We consider the type of foundation. A full basement and a slab on grade with 4-foot frost walls are different. Hot water and concrete mixes with additives add winter costs, as do labor and blankets to cover foundations after a pour.

Next comes framing and rough-in mechanicals. Working with cold hands and bundling up in thick layers slows progress and increases costs. But high winds and winter weather can limit work as snow is removed or stop it completely.

With the building enclosed, we still need heat for flashing and air sealing. Fuel costs and heater rentals can get expensive for uninsulated buildings, but a building needs some warmth to pull wire and run pipes efficiently. Air infiltration rates in our buildings are very low, so once we are enclosed and insulated, the heating bills become reasonable, and work inside can continue at a normal pace.

Tenting, and temporary heating may be required to complete exterior work, such as masonry, stone, or painting. If this work can wait to spring, there can be major savings.

Every building has its own challenges and winter construction means specific planning. Costs and earlier occupancy have to be weighed. Planning is crucial, but it leads to cost reductions.

Installation of prefabricated roof trusses. (Unity

Unity Homes, Walpole, NH

Unity’s off-site construction methods allow us to build homes year-round, once the foundation is in place. We prefabricate the floor, wall, and roof panels of our homes in the controlled conditions of our factory in Keene, NH. All of the framing, sheathing, insulation, windows, and doors are preinstalled in the panels. We then “flat pack” the panels in bundles, shrink wrapped for protection, and truck them to the jobsite for installation.

A typical Unity home requires about a week of work on site to assemble the panels into the weathertight home shell. The assembly work is not difficult to do in the cold or even in snow, because the detail work has been completed in the shop, and the heavy lifting is done by a crane on site. We seal the joints between panels with double gaskets, rather than with caulk or foam, because the gaskets work well in any weather.

Once the shell of the house has been completely assembled, finishes can be installed on the exterior, and the mechanical rough-ins can begin on the interior. And because the shell is already insulated and the windows and doors are installed, a modest electric heater is all that’s needed to maintain comfort.

Unity’s off-site methods work well for the general contractors who finish the shells, because the exterior is essentially weather-protected when we’re done on site, and the subcontractors finishing the interior have a comfortable environment in which to do their work. One comment represents what we often hear from contractors who work on Unity projects. It is, “I don’t want to build any more houses the conventional way!”

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