The Cobbler’s Home: How the Best Builders House Their Families

We’re checking to see to how sustainable housing professionals build things when it’s their own project

Bill Spohn is in the design phase for his project. Here he reviews bare sketches of forms and structures for the home he’ll build in Western Pennsylvania.

I’ve worked with a lot of construction professionals over the years: carpenters and contractors and laborers; architects and designers and building scientists; energy auditors, building inspectors, program managers, and even a few tool pushers. Heck, I get to work alongside people who invent the tools. It’s a wide range of people. But I notice that they all have very specific ideas about the best ways to build things, and plenty of consternation for those builders who get it wrong (For god’s sake, what were they thinking?).

I also know that talk is cheap, and opinions are hard to verify. So I’ve set out to identify how some of the most well-placed housing professionals actually house themselves. What kind of shoes does the cobbler provide for his own family?

For me, the thing we call high performance housing should encapsulate all that is good about the human race: a safe and sane and sustainable place to live out our lives. These interviews are the first in a series of stories that strive to tell us just how close a few individuals come have to achieving that ideal.

— Chris Dorsi


Casey Murphy

Location: Dunkirk, Maryland
Home Size: 3240 SF above grade
Designer: Shell design: Casey Murphy. Floor plan: DK Designs, Inc. HVAC: Energy Vanguard and Simmons Heating and Air. 
Builder: The North Star Companies and Casey Murphy
Estimated date of completion: July 31, 2018

Kevin Brenner

Location: Bedford, New York
Home Size: 3,575 SF
Designer: RH Designs in association with Jill & Kevin Brenner
Builder: Brenner Builders
Estimated date of completion: August 15th, 2018

Bill Spohn

Location: Allegheny County, Pennsylvania
Home Size: 2500+
Designer: J. Gardner, CPHC, AIA
Builder: EcoCraft Homes
Estimated date of completion: August 2019

Casey Murphy, a framer by trade, created a complicated framing plan designed to optimize the function of his interior spaces.

THE INTERVIEWS

Chris Dorsi. How adequate was your background in preparing you to tackle a project like this?

Kevin Brenner. I have been at it for 30 years. Having said that…I learn something new every day and always look forward to new ideas and techniques.

Casey Murphy. In general, I was very well prepared for this. For 20 years, I worked at, and eventually became the owner of, a framing company. For the past dozen years, I worked in the home performance industry supporting ENERGY STAR and utility programs.

Bill Spohn. I have heard a lot of the better-building buzzwords across the span of my career, but never paid very close attention to them as they did not often intersect with the “tool space” that I have built my career on. Interesting stuff, for sure, but not a focus beyond casual purview.

CD. Did you act as a general contractor ​or trades person ​on this project?

KB. Both. I’m a full-time general contractor but I really love being a tradesman as well. I personally did the HVAC work including the Zehnder ERV, central vac, and majority of the drainage. I assisted in the finish and rough carpentry. In addition, all the “miscellaneous” ended up in my lap.

CM. I acted as both the co-general contractor and trades person. I was fortunate to know a local builder who offered me the flexibility to manage the trades and processes that I wanted to manage, and who would manage the others. I managed HVAC, framing, insulation, siding/trim, windows, and interior trim. The builder took the lead on concrete slabs, plumbing, painting, sheetrock, and excavation.

BS. I will act as neither on my project. I respect the professionals that I plan to hire. But I will bug them with questions and ask for explanations all the way along. The fact that my training is in mechanical engineering, and that I “know enough” construction science to be dangerous, does set me up to be a customer who will try the patience of my pros!

CD. How much time did you take to plan your project before breaking ground? How much time do you recommend that others take?

KB. My wife and I spent about 2 years planning the project. I recommend about the same amount of time for an endeavor of this type — you could probably do it in a year if it was your sole focus.

CM. My wife and I spent a decade or more looking at different home plans. Once we put an offer to purchase the land, we had about 3–4 months to select our plans and customize them.

We had one closing for both the land and construction loans. As a result, we had to finalize our budget prior to purchasing the land. We also had a 12-month window for the interest-only construction loan, which established our construction timeline. We closed Aug 15th, 2017 but had a delay in clearing the land. Between September and November we crashed the schedule to get under roof before the snow started in late November. If you are working with a builder and you are a good planner, I’d recommend going as quickly as you can — the quicker you go you, the higher quality you get (ironically).If you are managing the project and have the financial ability, take two years to get it done. Create some natural breaks.

BS. Our planning phase will last about a year. When we decided on general region we were going to build, we spent about month searching for property — with a vista as a key attribute. We committed to the the property in March 2018, and do not plan to break ground until the start of the construction season in 2019.

Kevin Brenner reveals his appreciation for big steel — and ample foundation insulation — in the framing system for his new home.

CD. Did you build this house to meet any beyond-code standards such as Energy Star or Passive House? How well did you adhere to those standards?

KB. The house is scheduled to be LEED-Silver, Net Zero Energy, EPA Indoor airPLUS, and ENERGY STAR. We have adhered to those standards without compromise.

CM. My goal is net zero. As a means to get there, I wanted to build a Pearl Platinum home and a home that met DOE’s Zero Energy Ready requirements. By definition, it also had to meet ENERGY STAR, Indoor airPLUS, and meet certain criteria of WaterSense. I took special care to review and redline the HVAC contractor’s traditional contract. I had to ensure they were willing to become credentialed, as well as provide QI related documentation.

BS. We are tentatively planning to build to Passive House standards. Time will tell how well we adhere to those standards.

CD. How close did you come to achieving the ideal design you had envisioned? What concessions did you make? What items were you un-willing to give up?

KB. I wanted the house to be under 3,000 sq ft with 2 bedrooms. My wife wanted 4 bedrooms. She won. That pushed the square footage to about 3,500 sq ft. Other than those marital bedroom quantity differences, we did not make any significant trade-offs or concessions. I was not willing to give up the Net-Zero goal, or Energy Star label.

CM. “Ideal” is a pretty high bar. But our home has achieved and exceeded our initial expectations, up to this point. The real test will be when we move in: indoor air quality, thermal comfort, sound comfort, low or no energy bills. Our trade-offs:

  • My “ideal” was different from my wife’s. I wanted a 100% electrified home with an induction cooktop. She wanted a gas (propane) cooktop. She and I both agreed that her idea is better.
  • Initially I wanted ductless mini-splits for the whole home, and a dedicated ERV/HRV system for IAQ. I gave up partly based on fears of high costs, but mostly for lack of professional guidance.
  • There were a lot more “exotic” ideas I had wanted to implement, but it was analysis paralysis and a fear that I was violating the KISS principle.
  • I wanted a zoned system for both of my HVAC systems. To lower costs, I was convinced to keep one system on a single zone, and have a 2-zone system on the other.
  • I was unwilling to give up on program compliance. I could have (and maybe should have) kept the water distribution system simpler and not met WaterSense requirements (and ergo ZER requirements).

BS. I’m still struggling with the desire and/or need to go 100% passive.

Kevin Brenner dug into his deep network of trades-people to put the best crews possible on his own job.

CD. How successful were you in communicating your needs and interests to sub-contractors, code officials, and suppliers? How would you recommend that others approach project communication?

KB. Experience helped here. I told all the subs and vendors that this was the way I wanted it done, gave them a brief explanation why and mentioned that if they wanted to dig deeper, I would be happy to “educate” them a little further or at least until they got bored. I met a little resistance at first from the framer who was used to everything at 16” o.c., but he was sold on 24” o.c. after the first floor walls. The plumber was fascinated by the waste water heat recovery unit. The electricians loved the whole house LED lighting approach. They were a little confused on how I wanted to configure the sub- panels but when I told them it was for power monitoring purposes that got it. The code officials were happy to see that I was exceeding local building codes. The suppliers could care less about any of this as long as I was buying their stuff.

CM. I took different approaches.

  • Code official: I tried not to communicate at all. He was old school, and I was far exceeding county requirements. My biggest challenge was to de-emphasize what I was trying to do. I did encounter a significant delay when he failed me at the insulation inspection. That led to a 3–10 day delay.
  • Suppliers: I had no significant challenges. The roof truss manufacturer was familiar with “energy heels”, and most other suppliers did not factor into my unique design.
  • Concrete wall contractor: had consternation about footer/wall capillary break. He didn’t want me to backfill because he thought the walls would “slip off” the footer.
  • Concrete slab contractor: we struggled with how to deal with thermal breaks. We (I) missed creating thermal break at walkout doors (a failure on my part).
  • Framers: they are me and I am they. But even so, I failed to create enough spacing between rim and the next parallel joist, making it very difficult to properly install insulation. It took persistent supervision to ensure that details were being followed (such as applying glue on exterior OSB panels).
  • Insulators: egad we had lots of problems. They started installing faced insulation when it should have been unfaced. They missed rim joist areas. They had lots of internal company miscommunication. My sense is that they are so beaten down on cost that they fly by the seat of their pants. This reinforces the need for HERS Raters, and makes one wonder about quality control for HVAC contractors.

BS. N/A: not yet built.

With ultra-durable roof, cladding, and windows, Kevin Brenner has built a house for the ages.

CD. How well did you meet schedule and budget?

KB. We are right on schedule. Budget….not so much. One of the goals of this project was to keep all materials as maintenance-free as possible. The exterior has three components: stacked stone veneer, copper panels, and Shou Sugi Ban vertical boards. The stone and copper will last way beyond my lifetime and since the Shou Sugi Ban has a 50-year warranty, that also is way beyond my lifetime. None of those items are cheap. I am also pleased that the exterior materials can easily be recycled or repurposed. I did, however, make one budgetary choice. Originally, we wanted thermally broken steel windows and exterior doors. The quote came in at about $325,000. Yes, for one 3,500 sq ft house. I was actually considering it until the Pella architectural series came in at $75,000. Aluminum clad exteriors with prefinished wood interiors. Are they the same as the steel windows? Absolutely not. Would it have been worth an extra quarter of a million dollars? Absolutely not. In summary, we came in about 40% above our original budget all-inclusive.

CM. I wanted to move in at the end of April 2018. It’s June, and I’m a month away.

The budget was always a bit theoretical. First, we needed a quick and realistic budget to get to closing. Second, we always knew the budget would significantly vary based on 1) when we purchased materials from certain sources, 2) the use of recycled insulation, 3) items we could purchase at auctions, and 4) the strength of Casey’s working relationship with framers and other tradespeople.

Our originally construction budget (without land acquisition and without builder payment) was $460,000. About $60k of that was lot clearing. compliance with stormwater management, and the septic system. In the hustle-and-bustle of trying to create the budget for the construction loan, there were several variances:

  • HVAC installation assumption was $18,000. I had assumed that I could save money on a simpler HVAC system since my shell was awesome. But with the ERVs and a SEER 19 / variable compressor Bosch system, it was $29,000.
  • My labor costs for installing my shell design far exceeded my estimates. In fact, I don’t even know how much because my rainscreen design changed significantly when I switched from a low-weight siding to a heavy weight material. I then had to change my continuous insulation assumption to add structural integrity to the siding.
  • If I had to guess, my new (and much higher quality) exterior added $15k to the costs. At least half of that cost was related to exterior painting ($0 vs. $8k). But the other $7k related to modifying the rainscreen structural integrity and installation of the siding itself.

BS. N/A: not yet built.

CD. How well did your family understand and support your project? Any advice on this part of the job?

KB. I am very fortunate that my wife and I see eye-to-eye on this. This is our third new home together so we know what works for us. My kids have said that they will miss the house they grew up in but understand why we are building this home.

CM. My wife Desi Avila has been incredibly supportive. It’s also an awesome opportunity to teach your kids about STEM, and just about life.

BS. Marilyn, my wife, is 100% onboard. Our 6 adult children are at various levels of comprehension of the details, but supportive over all. Our friends and relatives are slowly learning what we are after and why.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Kevin Brenner

Build the tightest thermal envelope as you can afford to build.
Build with the best material and subcontractors you can find.
Most importantly, enjoy the process.

Casey Murphy

So you want to build your own home?
Do you know how lucky you are to even consider answering that question?
Things will go south — deal with it by putting your life in perspective!

Bill Spohn

Think about those things you must have and be clear about them.
Communicate and explain to others what you are doing and why.
Stick with this process and you’ll better understand yourself and get closer to the house you want.

We’ll check back in with Kevin, Casey, and Bill in 2019, and publish an update on their projects in conjunction with the 2019 Habitat X Summer National Conference.