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Before you build: 10 Questions

Before you build: 10 Questions
Achieving the best results, like this compelling design by Donal
I talked at length this fall with dozens of people either thinking about, or in the process of building the home of their dreams. Their excitement ran high as they perused the exhibit of Life-Changing Products that I took to several home shows across America.

Many people who had bought the land or design they had always cherished wondered about next steps. Others had questions about building systems and technology to incorporate. Some wanted to know more about the new crop of app-driven products on the market. Here’s my current list of 10 questions to consider before you build. The first five were questions that I had for visitors to my booth. The second five were the questions that visitors had for me.

Which way is your lot oriented?
That can have a big influence on what you can do these days. The best alignment would be along an east-west road, which would give you more roof facing south, the prime location for photovoltaic panels. You can put a big porch overhang on the south side of the house that will provide shade from summer heat but still permit winter sun to enter. Not interested in solar? Consider this: the installed cost of photovoltaic panels has dropped 50 percent in the last three years.

Have you thought about an outdoor living room?
Outdoor living rooms (as in Plan 48-651, above) connected to indoor spaces with sliding window walls, are driving the sale of many production homes these days. They can completely change the way you experience your home. All this is possible because the cost of the windows walls has dropped to within the financial reach of many buyers. The systems vary widely in cost and style. Some slide into wall pockets, others open accordion style, and still others push back as panels to one side.

Will you have a screened porch?
A new generation of porch systems – some with screens that slide up into the roof, others with windows that slide open on warm days -- can make this the best room in the house -- year-round. One thing to consider is the direction of prevailing breezes. You want to capture breezes if you can. That makes the porch a more pleasant spot for humans, and insects would prefer not to be in the wind (the screened porch above is from Plan 928-13.)

Are you considering a first-floor master bedroom?
This might be the most important question for many people building a new home these days. Many people want to prepare for the day when climbing the stairs would be a challenge. But there are trade-offs. Two-story homes are fundamentally more energy efficient – you can zone the bedroom floor and turn off the air conditioning during the day. Plus, as long as you are still healthy climbing the stairs can be good exercise. It’s a tough decision. The compromise would be to have a room on the first floor near a bathroom – maybe it’s an office to start – that could be converted to a bedroom later (the layout above is from Plan 120-189).

Do you want to be off the grid?
A new generation of home batteries has hit the market that brings this dream within the realm of possibility. For what it cost just to buy solar panels three years ago, you can now buy an entire system that will free you from the utility grid. If the power goes out in your neighborhood, these batteries can provide all the power you need for several days, depending on how many you buy. One question: Do you still need natural gas for your cook top or heater? In that case, you may still need a gas hook-up.

What are you doing for a rainscreen?
The problem is that wind-driven rain gets behind most siding, even brick, composite, or vinyl. Then where does it go? It needs a way to escape before it gets lodged in the building envelope. Thankfully, there are a dozen or more ways to create an all-important capillary break. You can use plastic mesh, ribbed water barriers, and even furring strips.

Does anyone in your family suffer from allergies?
  It’s amazing the control you can have over indoor air quality these days. The first step is to build with paints, solvents, and pressed wood products that emit as few volatile organic chemicals as possible. But you may also want to detach the garage, since it’s a major source of indoor air pollution, or build an air tight barrier between the garage and the best of the house. Now there’s a new generation of inexpensive sensors – I showed Foobot in my exhibit – that monitor for virtually every source of indoor air pollution.

Do you still need to hardwire for computers and entertainment?
The answer to this is yes. The dream of a truly wireless home is still several years away. You are better off running structured wire – Cat 6E is good enough – to the rooms where you know you will be streaming video or working on a computer, since those are the big bandwidth hogs. It’s often a good idea to run wire for audio speakers and security systems as well, since the performance is better and it’s less expensive when building from scratch. Another piece of advice: Get a high-quality router and put it on the second floor so that its signal can cover the house like an umbrella.

Do you need a hardwired home automation system?

The answer to that depends on how big and complicated your home is going to be. If you are building a mansion – 5,000 square foot or more – then you probably have the budget to do a fabulous hard-wired home automation system that may cost $20,000 or more. It’s nice to push one button when you leave the house to turn off all the lights, lock the doors, and activate the home security system. You’ll probably get a great, easy-to-use home entertainment system to go with that.

Are there less expensive systems that provide a lot of the same functionality?
Yes. Several home automation companies have come out with “lite” versions of their systems that interface with the Nest thermostat, Ring doorbell, and virtually anything else connected to the Internet. You could even do this yourself after your home is complete. Unfortunately, though, these app-controlled products may not all work together. The best advice is to figure out where you want to start, whether it’s with a product like Apple TV, Google’s Nest thermostat, Amazon’s Alexa, or one of the inexpensive home automation systems on the market. Then go from there, adding products within the core system’s ecosphere.

Boyce Thompson is the author of The New New Home, published by The Taunton Press

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