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Crescendo Design
  • New home resources
  • January20th


    hannah w 2 copy1 The Value of Blueprints and 3D: Avoiding a Cake Wreck

    One of my favorite blogs, ‘Cake Wrecks‘ covers a challenge that anyone building or remodeling a home needs to take into consideration.  There is often a distinct, visible and potentially costly difference between what you think your new house will look like and how it actually turns out.

    The reality, when it comes to residential design and construction is quite simple: It is irresponsible to build, remodel or add onto a home if you have no idea what it will look like, and have not carefully considered a full menu of choices in material and color options!

    To a certain extent, there is no way anyone can guarantee what a home will look like after its built, since there are always variables and surprises that come up in any construction project.  However, there are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk of a ‘Home Wreck.’

    1. Work closely with your design team and/or builder early in the planning process, and be clear about your aesthetic goals for the home
      • Provide magazine clippings, page numbers from books, website url’s and any other visual reference you can find that conveys the style and character you are hoping to achieve
      • Revisit the issue of exterior aesthetics throughout design development, and how it will impact your construction budget
    2. Don’t let anyone rush you!
      • This is a major investment, and you should have time to weigh all of your options.  Other parties might benefit from rushing you into a home plan you’re not fully comfortable with, or threaten to delay your project behind other projects if you don’t build within x number of weeks.  We’ve heard them all.    If that is truly the case, then let it be.  There are plenty of other builders to choose from, and someone will work within your schedule and comfort level, not just their own.
    3. Work from thorough blueprints
      • This is arguably the most important bit of advice to avoid a Home Wreck.  Here again, we run into the rush-rush scenario, where some parties can save themselves money by rushing you through the process of home design.  The quicker they can get you to agree to a plan – no matter how preliminary it might be, the more freedom they will enjoy, and the less design restriction they will have to work within.  You are sitting in the back seat of the process, when you should be the one driving.
      • Many contractors work with a drafting service or a lumber company’s in-house drafting team to draw dimensioned plans they will use to get permits, generate bids and ultimately build the home.  This is perfectly fine, and very common.  But you should, at the very least, be given the opportunity to meet with the drafting team on a regular basis to review their progress and provide your feedback.   Again – this is a huge investment, and it is your right to see that the home is designed the way you want it, and you should be given the opportunity to share your thoughts, ideas, and concerns.  This will be your home, and you’re the one paying the bills.  You have the right to be a part of design development.
      • The more construction detail your blueprints include, blueprints, the more control you – the homeowner – can retain over what the end-product looks like.  If you are working with a construction team that includes reputable craftspeople, you *might* be able to trust their expertise in providing a providing a quality build that meets your expectations in the absence of a design team working on your behalf.  However, even the best builders require detailed drawings, since they too recognize the importance of making sure everyone is on the same page.
    4. Demand to see the design in 3D!
      • It is simply irresponsible to build a home design if you have no idea what it will look like.
      • If you can’t visualize what the home will look like by reviewing 2D plans and elevations, request or hire someone to sketch or illustrate your home in 3D.   Look up ‘architectural illustrators’ in the yellow pages or online to find people who can provide this service.  Consider the cost of this service on balance with the risk of investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a home that might look odd (it happens all the time!).
      • Many design teams will include 3D illustrations as an integral part of their process.  Consider this when weighing the decision of whether or not your project would benefit from the counsel of a design team.
      • No matter what anyone tells you, it is your right to examine multiple options of material choices and colors.   This is yet another area in the construction process where some parties benefit and profit from keeping you in the dark about the full spectrum of choices available to you.  A good design team can take 3D illustrations and show you what several options for material and color choices might look like.

    As you move forward with your construction plans, remember that this could be the single largest investment you will ever make, and it is your right to have a clear picture of what it is that you are investing in.

  • January16th



    [UPDATE: I created this site on the Ning network, per the commenter's suggestion - and it can be found here: - please be sure to sign in and share what you know about the trials, tribulations, rewards and excitement of building a new home or adding onto an existing home! ] or the ‘WeBuild Network’ is an idea for a web 2.0, social networking site I’ve been mulling over for some time now, that would function something like craiglist, but be simply dedicated to sharing information about building and designing homes on a county or region-specific basis.  I thought I would share the idea on this blog in hopes that someone might want to help build it, fund it, share some ideas about how it could be more effective, or just tell me why I should give up on it altogether!

    I drafted a very crude version of how it might work, posted here:

    Having worked in the residential construction and design industry for several years now, I have witnessed a tremendous disconnect and frustration on behalf of people who have knowledge of residential construction, matched only by an equal frustration found in people who want to build, but have no idea where to start.  The magnitude of knowledge related to home design and construction is ultimately a moving target, and incredibly vast; with material prices and best practices changing every day.  As a matter of practicality, the magnitude of information, both time-tested and hot off the press, is far far too vast for any single company to fully comprehend and employ in daily practice.

    Another reason a network like this might be beneficial is that the knowledge you find in books or online resources is generally not region-specific.  This becomes critically important when trying to learn about strategies and materials available in your county.  A construction practice or material might be commonplace or widely available in one county, but scarce or non-existent just 100 miles away in another county.  However idealistic or impractical this might seem, building a county-specific resource would be helpful in bringing the right information to the right people at the right time.

    Plus, one common and universal characteristic I’ve seen is that people who recently built a home are, for the most part, eager and willing to share everything they learned.  Many of them already write blogs, or publish stories of their process – good or bad.  They are often incredibly proud of their new home, and are willing to share that knowledge – primarily because they remember what they had to go through, and don’t want others to have to go through the same tribulations if they can help them avoid it.  This site would give people a centralized place to share knowledge.

    Ideally a username/password log-in would augment the site, and perhaps even a reputation index for contributors, or a means of rating the quality of posts, etc. Maybe even a twitter-style ‘micro-post’ line where people can just post very short blurbs of some material they found at some store, etc.  Maybe people could create Project Pages, where they gather pictures, questions, observations, and resources related to their project  – and share their project with others in hopes that they might know of ways to improve their process and connect them to appropriate resources.

    If the site did become a useful resource, it could then branch into other counties and communities – and connect them all to the same backbone – the WeBuild network – with individual counties accessed from the main site.

    So that’s the idea, now can WeBuild it?  Does anyone have any thoughts about how to get this built or funded?  I had hoped to slowly build and fund the project with bootstrap funding as time and money permits, starting very simple then building functionality over time.  But that will realistically take years, and I don’t think a single company like Crescendo Design should ‘own’ a public, community portal like this, anyway.

    Is there any way we can jump-start this?  Please email me if you have ideas, or add your comments to this post.  jbrouchoud (at) gmail (dot) com.  Thanks!

    one brick at a time

  • January16th

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    Directory of resourcesAt the end of every day, I find myself closing dozens of browser windows and tabs with reference sites and great information I plan to eventually revisit, but never do.  Sadly, I’m not very efficient with Bookmarks, so these sites often get lost in the shuffle.

    So, I decided to pull all of the best online references related to high performance home construction into a single, easy to find location, and publish it as a blog post so readers can share their own valuable resource-finds to it over time.

    Most are related to universal principles – especially in the U.S., but some are only relevant in Wisconsin or cold weather climates. This list is by no means exhaustive, and there are a lot more resources that could be added. I intend to continue adding to the list in this post over time, and encourage readers to share their own resources and links related to the topic of high performance, energy efficient, or otherwise ‘green’ single-family residential design and construction practices.  I would like to keep this list focused on resources provided by non-profit organizations or government agencies, but if a site is clearly an outstanding and helpful resource for people considering a new build, I’ll post those as well.  Enjoy!

    ENERGY STAR ENERGY STAR is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy helping us all save money and protect the environment through energy efficient products and practices.  Wisconsin ENERGY STAR:

    NAHB National Green Building Program The National Green Building Program offers several resources and tools to help builders, remodelers, home building associations, and homeowners learn how to build green, and the benefits of doing so.

    Focus on Energy Our Residential Programs show Wisconsin residents how to reduce their carbon footprints and lower their costs of living by being more energy efficient.

    Building Science Foundation – homeowner resources Practical recommendations for building, renovating and maintaining healthy and affordable housing. This site provides objective, high-quality information about buildings. This resource combines building physics, systems design concepts, and an awareness of sustainability to promote the design and construction of buildings that are more durable, healthier, more sustainable and more economical than most buildings built today.

    Green Home Guide A green home incorporates smart design, technology, construction and maintenance elements to significantly lessen the negative impact of the home on the environment and improve the health of the people who live inside. No matter your location or living situation, the opportunities for living a greener life at home are limited only by your imagination. Be sure to check out * Green Homes 101 * Green Homes Checklist o Includes discussion of location, Size, Building Design, Green Building Materials, Insulation, Windows and Doors, Energy Efficiency, ENERGY STAR® , Renewable Energy, Water Efficiency, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Landscaping

    The Healthy House Institute The resource for a better, safer, indoor environment

    The Forest Stewardship Council It’s purpose is to coordinate the development of forest management standards throughout the different biogeographic regions of the U.S., to provide public information about certification and FSC, and to work with certification organizations to promote FSC certification in the U.S.FSC-US has a national presence through the work of its Board of Directors, members, staff, and regional standards coordinators.

    Green Building Talk Provides information and Internet services to the construction marketplace about Green Building, including Insulating Concrete Forms (ICFs), Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs), Radiant Heating, Geothermal Heat Pumps, Solar and Wind Power, Windows, Doors, Interior Finish, Exterior Finish, Appliances, Lighting, Kitchen Fixtures, Bath Fixtures, and more

    Green Built Home Green Built Home(GBH) is a national award winning green building initiative that reviews and certifies new homes and remodeling projects that meet sustainable building and energy standards.

    LEED for Homes LEED for Homes is a rating system that promotes the design and construction of high-performance green homes. A green home uses less energy, water and natural resources; creates less waste; and is healthier and more comfortable for the occupants.

    The Residential Energy Services Network RESNET “RESNET is a national standards making body for building energy efficiency rating systems

  • January14th

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    dsc00820 k1 The Cost of Construction: How much will it cost to build a new home or remodel?This is, by far, the most common concern related to new home and remodel construction.  Unfortunately, determining the cost of construction is incredibly complex, with no clear standards or equations to guide you.  Worse yet, the cost of materials and services is a moving target, fluctuating widely from year to year, and in many cases from one month to the next.  Builder fees are also an unknown variable that vary from one builder to the next – also subject to change based on market demand.  But the good news is, you can establish some realistic expectations at the start of your project by working with the right builder and design team.  You can also establish some base-line figures by comparing your goals with recent market precedents and keep your project on track to avoid headaches and heartbreaks later in the design process.  Here are a few tips and observations that may help get you started.

    How much can you afford to build?

    budgetOne common rule of thumb that applies to any home is that your mortgage payment should not exceed 25% to 27% of your monthly income – though that percentage can fluctuate, depending on your personal circumstances. The most realistic means of determining what you can afford would be to work closely with your financial institution to determine how much you will qualify for. Once you have arrived at a budget figure, we strongly recommend keeping your construction budget well below that number, so you have some room to breathe and can still stay within your budget if any unexpected expenses arise.

    Being honest with yourself, and with your design team, about what you can afford to build might be the single most important step in any project. It is wise to look at what you can afford and stay well under that amount as a project budget. Unexpected costs will always come up as construction begins, and you will be glad to have some extra cushion in your budget when that time comes.

    How much do other new homes cost in your area?

    Unfortunately, there is no easy way of determining a standard or typical cost of construction. It varies widely, depending on the builder you’re working with and the quality of finishes and mechanical systems you specify. One way to roughly estimate construction costs would be to visit a real-estate website, and do a search for new construction of similar size and location as the home you are planning to build. List the cost, square footage and lot size of each home on a spreadsheet. Then, do another search for vacant land lots of about the size and location of the new homes you just listed and determine an average of how much per acre the price of land is in your area.  Subtract that lot cost per acre from each of the 10 new construction listings. Then divide each of the 10 by their total finished square footage. That will give you a very approximate construction cost per square foot. I just ran some numbers for within 5 miles of Madison, January 2009 – and found construction cost to be about $110 per square foot for a 2,800-3,400 square foot home.

    Why can I buy other new homes on the market for less than the cost of a custom designed home?

    cookie cutterWhen comparing homes available on the market, it is important to ask yourself if the homes you are comparing to have the same quality you would like in your dream home? You have to take a close look at the design and construction of those homes, and ask yourself if that is truly indicative of the kind of home you want to live in.  Were any of the home designs you’re comparing to ‘cookie-cutter’ plans chosen from a menu of home plans that have already been built many times before?   Does it feature the same materials and level of detail – both inside and out – that you would be satisfied with in a new home?  If the homes you are comparing to are in line with what you imagine as a dream home, then building a new home might not be the best fit for you.  (photo by justj0000lie, via Creative Commons)

    Indoor air quality

    As you look at other new homes more carefully, consider the quality and standard of construction to see if it is a home that was built to last.  Some (though not all!) newly built spec homes are referred to as ‘throw-away homes’ with good reason, as they are built with the cheapest and least durable materials available. Unfortunately, these same materials can sometimes be toxic and will need to be replaced just a few years after construction. That ‘new home’ smell is actually the bi-product of a process called ‘off-gassing’ which is the release of potentially hazardous chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOC) into the air that may cause long or short-term health effects on your health. If you want to build a home that will last, with acceptable indoor air quality, you will need to look at alternative materials and carefully consider your options. You will likely find that the lowest end materials will not be adequate by any standard, and will opt instead for less toxic and longer lasting alternatives. Obviously this will add some cost to the price of your new home, but it will also add significant value in both the near and long term.

    Mechanical systems and other home elements

    Finish materials aside, you will also need to look at every other system and product in these homes, and determine if they’re the right fit for you. They might have low-efficiency mechanical systems, poor quality windows, and sub-standard insulation. When you’re touring newly built homes, these ‘behind the scenes’ elements of a home might not be immediately apparent, but they will be when they need short-term repair or replacement, or leave you paying excessive energy bills to maintain it. With some research and attention paid to the importance of high efficiency mechanical systems and building elements, you might find yourself opting for a higher quality option than you will find in spec or otherwise newly built homes.

    Paying attention the site, and the sun

    Another thing to consider is how appropriate a home is for its site. Does it take advantage of the site’s features? Does it optimize window placement for solar efficiency? For example, consider 2 nearly identical homes built directly across the street from each other.  The experience of living in one home would be dramatically different than the other based on several different factors. Perhaps one lot might feature beautiful views to the east the other site doesn’t have, but the home has no windows that face it. Or, perhaps the vast majority of windows face north – which brings in almost no direct sun whatsoever, and ends up becoming a drastic source of heat loss in winter, and a very dark place to live. This might not be apparent during a Sunday afternoon open house on a cloudy day, but will dramatically affect the way you will live in the home, and will have a direct impact on your energy bills.  This is just one simple example, but the importance of site-specific design cannot be overstated.

    Additional features

    What other features do you have in mind for your new home that are not included in the other new homes you are comparing?  What about in-floor radiant heat? Will your lot require a well or septic system? Do you have any plans to incorporate renewable energy components, or high efficiency construction practices? There are a lot of additional features you will need to consider that will affect your construction budget that will not be apparent when comparing your costs to other newly built homes.

    How much of the finish space is in the lower level? Finishing lower level space can be quite a bit less expensive than main floor or above-grade finished space, given the fact that the basement space already exists (especially in cold weather climates) as a means of getting the foundation footing below the frost depth. This saves the cost of building the entire shell of the space, and generally costs less per square foot to finish.

    Revisiting comparable cost per square foot

    apples and orangesWith these observations in mind, lets take another look at that $110 per square foot average. Is it really in keeping with the quality, uniqueness, scope, efficiency and endurance you hope to achieve with your new home? Are you really comparing apples to apples? One way to make the comparison more useful is to rank the other homes on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of what you want your new home to be like. If its an 8, you might think of the $110 per square foot figure (just as an example) as being 80% of what you might spend, to reach a cost per square foot of $137.50. If you’re opting for a home with low material toxicity, high energy efficiency, and truly custom design, these homes might only be a 6 compared with what you hope to build, arriving at a guesstimated cost of $184 per square foot.

    Building for the neighborhood context

     The Cost of Construction: How much will it cost to build a new home or remodel?

    (photo by Daryl Mitchell via Creative Commons)

    Finally, just because you qualify for a construction loan doesn’t mean it is wise to spend that much – especially if you are adding on or remodeling an existing home. It is very important that you examine the regional context of your home, to be sure your renovated home will not exceed what people will be willing to pay for a home in your neighborhood. For example, if you live in a neighborhood of primarily 1950’s ranch homes that sell for an average of $180,000, building a $120,000 addition (no matter how great the home will look, or how great it will function, is probably not a smart move since a $300k home in the midst of $180k homes could be a resale nightmare. If, however, you love your neighborhood and have no plans to move in the next 10 to 15 years, the value of improving the home might outweigh the risk of resale loss.

    Again, there is no easy way of determining how much a new home will cost, and the framework I’ve described here is a very crude way of determining those numbers. But by taking a close look at comparable homes and determining a base-line cost for low-end construction, you should be able to get a sense of what you can afford, and how much the home of your dreams might cost. The best way to ensure that your new design will be in line with your budget is to discuss it early with your design team or builder, and revisit the issue of cost often to be sure you are still on track. It is very easy, while immersed in the design process, to get carried away and let the home get larger, and more comprehensive that you can afford to build. By establishing an honest budget early, sticking to it, and working with a design and construction team throughout design development, you can be sure your new home will be on track with your goals, and your budget.