Sunday, March 30, 2008

You Want How Much?

How much will my project cost? It’s the most common question posed by homeowners contemplating a Renovation. It’s also one of the most difficult to answer. Here are a few tips for helping your contractor, architect or renovation consultant put together the most accurate numbers possible early on in the project timeline:

  • Keep a file of floor finishes, plumbing fixtures, light fixtures, cabinetry styles, counter tops and appliances that you would like to incorporate into your project.
  • Make a list of all of the rooms involved in your Renovation Project and assign floor finishes, wall finishes, light fixtures, and any special items that will be in that room. For example: The Den will have carpet, wood paneling, recessed can lights and built-in book shelves on two walls.
  • Familiarize yourself with available products. Look at carpet, tile, counter tops and appliances in showrooms and magazines. This will help you intelligently answer questions such as: What type of carpet do you prefer (berber, loop, pile, etc.)? What weight carpet pad do you want? Do you prefer ceramic, porcelain, glass or natural stone tile? and What counter top material is most appropriate for the type of cooking that you do?
The point is that anyone can throw out a “budget number” for your Renovation of $100 per square foot. But more often than not, it is the quality of the finishes, the fixtures, the cabinetry, the appliances and the windows and doors that will determine if your project costs $75 per square foot or $225 per square foot.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

In Hot Water

Wouldn’t it be nice if you were able to reduce your energy consumption by up to 50%, qualify for a $300 tax credit* and have enough hot water for a relaxing shower even though you’re last in line for the bathroom? Tankless water heaters are quickly becoming the darlings of the green building crowd for these reasons and more.

The fundamental difference between tankless and traditional water heaters is obviously the tank. But it’s an important difference. Traditional models are inherently inefficient because they store, heat and reheat water. They can account for up to 25% of your home’s energy consumption and the vast majority of that energy is wasted as “standby loss,” in other words, keeping all of that water in the tank hot.

Tankless models by contrast, heat water as it flows through the unit making them up to 50% more efficient than their big, bulky cousins and qualifying many for tax credits. As a bonus, the life expectancy of these super efficient units can extend beyond 20 years, potentially twice what you’d expect out of the tank that you have in your basement right now.

So why don’t we all have these tankless units in our homes already? The short answer is probably cost. The tankless technology is relatively new to the United States and units can cost twice as much as the traditional models. Installation can also run more due to the potential need to upgrade fuel supply lines and venting over your current system requirements.

Before you run out and purchase a new tankless system for your home, do your research and consider not only unit costs and installation costs but also the life cycle costs. You may find that the unit pays for itself in a relatively short period of time. Whether you are beginning a Renovation, adding a kitchen or bathroom, or your old water heater just sprung a leak, the tankless models are definately worth considering. To get you started on your research, check out three of the most popular tankless brands available in the US: Bosch, Rinnai and Takagi.

*Unfortunately, the Federal tax credits have run out but check to see if your State gives any tax credits for energy efficiency; many do. As I understand it, there is a movement in Congress to reinstate the 2005 credits. I'll keep you posted on progress towards that goal.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Seeing the Light / Saving the Green

Even Walmart has figured out that conserving energy makes sense. Their goal: sell 100 million (yes, that's 100,000,000) compact fluorescent light bulbs in 12 months. That was 2007.

One easy way for consumers to conserve energy in their homes is by making intelligent choices about lighting design. Lisa Donato of LightSOURCE explains that when it comes to lighting, saving energy is all about using fewer Watts. The Walmart strategy designed to reach this goal is the compact fluorescent bulb which uses roughly a quarter the wattage to produce the same amount of light as an incandescent bulb. However, when you're planning your Renovation project, consider the fact that there are several components to a good design that can take your lighting conservation one or even two steps further.

Lisa offers these suggestions:

  • User fewer incandescent light sources, instead opt for compact fluorescent or LED type fixtures.
  • Design spaces to take maximum advantage of natural daylight.
  • Consider Lighting Control Systems. These systems can incorporate occupancy sensors, daylight sensors and stepped dimming to provide only the amount of light needed in any given scenario and location throughout your home.

You've no doubt heard of the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star rating system. Look for Energy Star qualified lighting packages. Many of the major lighting manufacturers offer such systems and fixtures and the number is growing every day. On its Energy Star web site, the EPA offers a high-impact but practical piece of advice, "Replace your highest use fixtures or the bulbs in them with energy efficient models." The EPA claims that Energy Star qualified lighting typically uses 66% less energy, produces 70% less heat and last 10 times longer.

If you're still a doubter, you're not alone. Lisa Donato says that the biggest reason that energy conservation in the residential lighting market is still in its infancy is money. "It costs more up front to be efficient; the payoff to the homeowner comes down the road when energy savings brings cost savings."

Visit the Energy Star web site for more information on that program and contact Lisa Donato for your illumination consulting needs.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Are You Permitted?

"Don't pull permits, it will just drive your property taxes up." "Why get permits? It's not like anyone is going to come out for an inspection anyway." "I don't typically pull permits for my work because it takes too much time, it's too much trouble and it just ends up being an extra expense to you." Has anyone ever said anything like this to you? None of these comments are totally without basis. But none of these comments are necessarily well guided either.

Many times, the "party line" on the purpose of building permits and zoning regulations includes terms like "public safety," "public health," "life safety," "conservation," or even "property value," but let's take a minute to consider why proper permitting is important from a slightly different angle. As you enter the planning stages of your upcoming Renovation project, don't think of permits in terms of scheduling or budget, but look beyond to re-sale or re-financing or even estate planning.

When it comes time to sell or re-finance your home one or more appraisers is likely to get involved. If you've completed a Renovation project that has added significant and most likely very valuable, square footage to your home, what will the appraisers find when they search the public record for the recorded square footage of your home? If permits weren't secured for your project, that new kitchen expansion which was supposed to be the major selling point of your home, may not figure into the appraised value. If you live in an historic area and didn't receive a Certificate of Appropriateness for your project, matters could be complicated even more. If your Renovation project violates a setback requirement or an easement and you didn't go through proper Zoning or Variance procedures, extreme measures could be required to rectify the deed. Any one of these scenarios could easily derail the sale or re-financing of your home or the distribution of your estate.

To be honest, many Renovation projects are completed, homes sold, financed and re-financed without a hitch and without going through proper permitting processes. But the next time that you undertake a major project and someone suggests foregoing proper approvals, seek out better advice and the expertise of a qualified professional that can guide you through the proper channels. After all, delays, fines and penalties could be the least of your worries.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Grass is Always Greener

Hardwoods are popular options for flooring today and a lot of effort goes into making more economical and sustainable use of the oak, maple, walnut and even cherry that we expect to tread upon daily. But in the name of sustainability why not walk on grass? Bamboo is becoming a mainstream "hardwood" flooring option and it's not a wood at all.

Botanically speaking, bamboo is a grass. It is also one of the most sustainable "wood" products available today. Here's why:

  • The growth period for bamboo stalks from sprout to maturity is approximately 3 years.
  • Bamboo forests require minimal, if any, fertilization or pesticides.
  • Bamboo plants regenerate themselves without a need for replanting.
If you're not familiar with bamboo flooring products, you may be wondering how a grass can possibly make a good floor in your home. Isn't it too soft or flimsy or green? Although a grass, bamboo is actually very strong, hard and dimensionally stable. And, a variety of finishes are available.
As a point of reference, bamboo's hardness, as measured by the Janka Ball Hardness Test, typically compares to or surpasses the hardness of red oak. Its dimensional stability is significantly greater than that of most common hardwoods.

Although there are many finish options to choose from, the major selection criteria to consider are vertical grain vs. horizontal grain and natural vs. stained vs. carbonized.
The grain direction refers to how the bamboo stalk is sliced. Vertical Grain, or VG, cuts result in thin, 1/4 inch wide strips that result in a floor with a traditional hardwood appearance. Horizontal, or HG, cuts produce 1 inch wide strips with the typical bamboo look.

The natural color of bamboo flooring is a light, golden tan but it can be stained any color. Another option is a process of heat-treating called "carbonization" that darkens the product to an amber color. It should be noted that as with most engineered products, each individual manufacturer has its own standards and means and methods.

Green Way Supply in Indianapolis is a supplier of a variety of green building products. According to Fred Gray, a co-owner of Green Way, Teragren Products is the bamboo flooring manufacturer that Green Way represents. Fred says that the reason he's so enthusiastic about Teragren is that they are committed to the environment.

Not only has Teragren established ISO certified manufacturing facilities in China, but their products use adhesive and finish materials that meet the most stringent environmental protection regulations in the world. Each of their bamboo products contribute to certification under the United States Green Building Council's LEED Rating System.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

You Are Here. Now What?

You've probably been contemplating a Renovation project for some time now. These things don't usually come to fruition too quickly. Rome wasn't built in a day you know.

Homeowners Renovate for different reasons; your family is growing or the kids finally moved out or you're going to get the kitchen that you always dreamed of. But the reality is that there are as many reasons for not starting a Renovation as there are reasons for Renovating; we just can't afford it right now, will this price us out of the neighborhood, where do we begin, we don't know any contractors. Have you ever uttered these words?

One of the biggest keys to a successful Renovation is getting good advice upfront. Whether you work with a Renovation Consultant, an Architect or a Design / Build firm, it's important to have questions concerning feasibility, scope and budget answered early on.

If you will be putting your project out for bid, your goal should be to have your project as accurately defined as possible before you go to contractors for bids. Working with your design professional, strive to define not only physical dimensions, but material and fixture selections, details and finishes. This information will not only help the professional that you're working with put together more accurate budget numbers for you, but it will also help glean tighter and more accurate bids.

When it's time for the bid process, make sure that you're comfortable with a list of at least 3 contractors before asking them to bid. The following 5 tips will help you to pre-qualify those in consideration:

  • Ask for references, including not only clients but material suppliers and creditors.
    Contact past clients and inquire about the contractor's reliability, honesty, quality and cleanliness. Also ask about their attitude, ability and process for dealing with changes. And the most important question, "Would you hire them again?"
  • Contact material suppliers and creditors and inquire about the contractor's credit and promptness of payment.
  • Ask for license and proof of insurance information and check with your local Better Business Bureau for reports about the contractor.
  • If possible, tour not only completed projects, but projects that are currently under construction.
  • Most importantly, work with a professional that will help you to develop a well defined game plan and help you stick to it. They will help you work within your budget, prepare for and conduct the bidding process and analyze bids and select a contractor. The strategy that they help you prepare will lay the groundwork to a successful Renovation.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A Different Kind of Audit

You might be wondering “just how energy efficient is my home?” There are, of course, many factors that go into answering a question like this. Luckily for homeowners there are professionals that focus their practices on answering just this type question. But you should be aware that the level of service and techniques used vary and the cost of the services will reflect this variety.

A “simple” heat loss analysis is usually conducted by reputable Heating and Air Conditioning Contractors as they design the HVAC system for your new addition. This method involves calculations incorporating factors such as the area and volume of space, foundation type, wall and ceiling or roof construction and insulation and window and exterior door construction.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are companies that specialize in providing Infrared Analysis of building envelopes. These companies come into your home and use infrared photography to illustrate the temperature differences in exterior wall constructions.

Perhaps one of the most useful services available is the relatively inexpensive Blower-Door Test. This test uses a large fan to pull air out of your house while a technician locates and measures leaks. Certified Energy Auditors will also test your heating and air conditioning ductwork for leaks and even inspect appliances, HVAC equipment and water heaters to analyze the cost effectiveness of replacement.

A quality analysis may combine all of these techniques and should produce a report that pinpoints and prioritizes specific problems, as well as, providing cost effective solutions. A relatively small investment of a few hundred dollars before you embark on an expensive window replacement program or insulation upgrade could pay huge dividends if you find the real culprits to your energy loss problems.