Do as I say, not as I do…

I have maybe written about this before, but if not… here goes. Some house-building advice:

1. Hire a builder, any builder. Just make sure they are obsessed with wanting to learn this stuff … passivhaus, superinsulation, etc.

2. Hire a very good architect (or do it yourself) but what you will need is:

2.1 A detailed all-in-one diagram showing where the air barrier is on your wall/roof

2.2 See #11 and #12

2.3 require a 3d walkthru view — if not the architect, hire someone to do with with SketchUp

2.4 Consider the site… your unique location — in designing the house, window locations, entrance etc.

3. If doing passivhaus, absolutely do the PHPP before your design is even finalized

4. Don’t give up views. If your N views are gorgeous, I don’t think it’s worth $50 or $100 in heat per year to give that up.

5. Build a gorgeous looking house. I don’t mean expensive, I mean the outside design. Make it look nice. Even if/when energy prices go up or people start caring about global warming, people will want a nice looking house. And this definition won’t change TOO much. Because I am telling you… people will build nice looking passivhaus-es in the Northern US even if you haven’t seen one to your liking yet. Human ingenuity.

6. Use cellulose. I’d build a 2×6 load bearing wall and pull wood I-joists on the outside and fill with cellulose. Voila, no foam and no thermal bridging at the studs.


7. Consider “innie” or “midway” windows. At least behind the kitchen sink. Our walls are 17″ thick with outie windows. In most places this is great. A built in cat bed, book shelf, plant location. But behind the sink is VERY difficult to reach, at least if you have the intention of using cellular blinds. For the same reason, even if you really like double hungs (leaky but nice in my opinion) consider casements in SOME spots.

8. Don’t make those windows too small. There are a few spots I wish we skipped a window and instead made another window twice the size.

9. Talk to your local building inspector and show him rough plans LONG before you finalize a design. Especially if you have a deed restriction of some sort.

10. When getting detailed bids from builders, I think it’s worth paying a little to have them do the numbers and have them categorize the numbers in the same ~20 categories that YOU give them. That way you can compare apples to apples. Otherwise it’s difficult to know if a given estimate truly includes the weird specs or products you are asking for. Also consider (mandate!) using the same ~20 categories the bank is going to want you to use (if you are getting a construction loan).

11. Architect should draw framing plan. Every stud. Framers won’t nec care.

12. Architect should draw HVAC plan. Every duct. HVAC contractor won’t nec. care.

13. Give detailed outside specs, even if mostly unfinished site. Depth of topsoil. Depth of gravel drive. Require some sort of edging separating the gravel drive/walk/round the house from the yard. It’s a HUGE pain to deal with afterwards.

14. Storm doors on every door without overhang.

15. I still think a partial basement is smart (especially if you might need water filtration which takes up a lot of room) but also consider a garage with an “attic” for storage, instead of a large basement. It can even be built to look connected, even if it’s really not. If you are an active family, even without car storage, you are going to need a $3000 shed to hold:

– bikes, scooters, bike trailers, skateboards, sleds, ice skates, skis, and on and on.

– lawnmower, shovels, rakes, and on and on.

16. Remember that you kids are going to grow. Remember also that they are going to leave shortly.

17. Don’t use any unusual product for interior finishes without seeing/trying it *in person*. And require that the installer/finisher be someone who has worked with the product before.

18. Give yourself a lot of roof space for PVs. A shed roof or (2 story house instead of 3) will have more room. I don’t personally think it’s worth having more passive solar window space at the expense of good roof space for PVs. Better to do a solar furnace in your yard or a thermally-isolated sunspace attached directly to the house rather than “living in the heat battery”.

19. Skip the solar hot water and pack in the PVs. Not worth it. Sunpower PVs if possible. Look into at least. Don’t dismiss it out of hand. Run the numbers.

20. have someone — an arborist probably — help you choose what trees to keep and which not and use this to inform house location.

21. Save money on something and spend it on a pool. Or so that you can afford ______ (insert thing that you might consider giving up). It’s not worth it. Really it’s not.

22. Consider moving closer to work, riding a bike, a prius, instead. Think holistically and big picture. If you are trying to save energy, you might get more bang for your buck with a prius, a bike, or a nearby home rather than a superinsulated house out of town. Do the simple math. For instance, our kid school carpool commute essentially uses as much energy as our solar panels make each year. Just as good to live close to school/work!

23. See above links about design… consider a design someone has already built and pay a little to have an architect adjust it with thicker walls. Better than settling for a poorly designed but VERY energy efficient house.

24. Read the PRETTY GOOD HOUSE posts at


So… detailed specs.

And I feel like there are exceptions to every rule.


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