Growing Your Top and Bottom Lines

Building a high-performance house involves not only your construction practices but also the operation and philosophy of your company.

February 01, 2004

Research suggests that builders who achieve high home performance levels use different strategies throughout the planning, design and build phases.
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Documenting HVAC Design Changes

Building quality homes can grow your top line and boost your bottom line. Customers are happier with comfortable, efficient, well-performing homes, resulting in more referrals, fewer callbacks and lower warranty expenses. But how do you begin? Improving the homes you build requires changing not only your construction practices, but also the philosophy of your company and how it operates. How do you do that?

The Process Research Project at IBACOS attempts to answer those questions.

To build quality homes cost-effectively, builders must assess their operations and proc-esses critically and be willing to change where necessary. IBACOS has found that builders who achieve higher performance levels use different strategies throughout the planning, design and build phases. They also use different marketing techniques to convey high-performance homes' value to consumers. Easier said than done. Many builders often don't know where to start, what the steps are or whom to ask.

Process Research Project leader Duncan Prahl is trying to determine the processes and tools a builder needs when making the transition from conventional construction to high-performance homes. He's also researching how the industry can develop reliable local resources to support builders. His work involves examining which processes are needed, including:


  • setting performance standards.
  • developing an integrated design process.
  • measuring results.
  • documenting which types of activities must occur.


We also are analyzing industry needs, such as contractor certification programs to ensure that trades understand the nuances of quality construction; how to detail construction and purchasing documents to ensure that best practices are implemented in the field; how building performance could be a key metric in determining bonuses; and understanding the overall financial repercussions of higher performance. This seems simple in concept, but the hard part, the guts of the Process Research Project, is figuring out exactly how to do it.

"With many of the tools and resources available today, simply developing the 'kit of parts' to build better homes isn't necessarily rocket science," Prahl says. "The difficulty lies in the changes to the builder's operations, processes and construction methods in order to implement it most cost-effectively. Our goal is to develop and document these processes and develop a support network of local specialists to help builders through the transition and provide ongoing building performance feedback." Many builders simply take an additive approach and do not aggressively look at how to design for performance from a project's outset.


Whole-House Design

Builders can reap big benefits from an integrated design process. In a worst-case scenario, a house design is purchased from an architect and given to a structural engineer who provides framing layouts and key structural details. Once framing is completed, the plumber, electrician, insulator and HVAC contractor are told to "make it work."


They get the job done, but it isn't pretty. The builder calls back the framer to reinforce all of the notched joists, drop a soffit around the plumbing run in the living room and build a chase around the B-vent. The result, all too often, is rooms that won't maintain desired comfort levels, with inadequately insulated areas and unsightly design modifications.

Using integrated design, the builder starts with performance standards developed before the design process begins. These standards lay out the home's overall performance parameters and the strategies to achieve them (e.g., all ducts located inside the conditioned space by putting the HVAC system inside a conditioned, unvented crawl space). Then the architect, engineer and trade partners meet throughout the design phase to ensure that the performance standards are being achieved and that all systems and strategies are coordinated before construction begins.

During this phase, energy calculations are performed, heating and cooling systems are sized, and all of the systems are integrated with the home's desired aesthetic and structural aspects. This information is documented on the construction drawings and in scopes of work so information from the design phase flows smoothly to purchasing and the field.

Adopting an integrated design process is challenging because most of the participants must rethink their role. Few HVAC contractors are asked for the furnace's ideal location as the schematic designs are started. Framers seldom are asked when room sizes are being designed for the most efficient layout for a wall or floor system. And architects for years have relinquished responsibility for balancing the aesthetic, structural and systems integration in order to come up with creative solutions that meet project requirements and budgets.




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