Selecting a builder is tough, particularly for a the quality conscious homeowner. Most builders know the right things to say, so initial meetings are about as awkward as slow dancing with your high school ex. If you’re interviewing builders, you’ll probably hear a lot of this classic, “we’re not cheap, but we do quality work.” Yeah thanks, I haven’t heard that one in at least 20 minutes. But what does ‘quality’ mean, and how can you be assured of getting quality construction?For years, I was a quality parrot during sales meetings. But then I realized just how ridiculous this must sound to prospective clients. More recently I’ve taken to describing our techniques as “best practices”.

Over the course of several entries, I’ll be discussing the role of quality in construction. In this entry, we’ll examine the publications and standards that are most important to successful building.

Building Codes

I know, you saw the heading and you thought, “well duh!” Yet the majority of people I speak with still shudder when they hear that they’ll need permits for their work. “But it’s just a
bathroom/kitchen/basement/roof/deck/addition” they protest. If you’ve read this far, you probably recognize that construction trades are both highly specialized, and at least somewhat outside your sphere of knowledge. Building codes are principally geared to keeping home occupants safe, and are usually a minimum standard for safe occupancy. Yet code violations committed by others provide me with tens of thousands of dollars in work every year.

If you recoiled at the term ‘building department’, consider your position. Given that codes are a
minimum standard, ask yourself if you’re capable of identifying code compliance. Do you have the skills or technical knowledge? Will you be available to evaluate critical periods of construction such as ensuring there’s adequate insulation prior to the installation of drywall? What about proper waterproofing prior to the installation of shower tile? If you’ve answered ‘no’ to these questions then guess what? Your local building department could be the only thing between you and a mighty cold January, or 6 inches of rain in your family room!

Building codes and their enforcers have their shortcomings, but they do an excellent job of providing the nation with safe housing. If you have any doubts about whether your job requires permits, call your local building department and ask. If permits are required, then get them.

Manufacturers Instructions

Many people, including some contractors, don’t realize that almost every product that goes into your home has highly specific installation instructions. In most cases these instructions must be followed or the product warranty will be voided! As with building codes, ensure that your contractor view installation instructions as sacrosanct.

Journal of Light Construction Field Guide to Residential Construction: A Manual of Best Practice

Now we’re going to move beyond the code-based notion that you’re house shouldn’t be the cause of sickness, injury, or death. If you’re a homeowner with even the slightest technical inclination, I highly recommend that you pick up the JLC Field Guide. Then ensure that every contractor who sets foot in your home follows the instructions and guidelines, or provides you with a clear rationale for not doing so. (I add the caveat because of the classic problem of the written word being outdated in short order – e.g. My copy of the guide doesn’t address new rules specific to lumber treated after 2005.) This guide is probably the most comprehensive guide to construction details available. It’s got a bit of everything, and it’s all geared around the highest possible home performance. A ‘quality’ builder should have no trouble conforming with JLC guidelines.

Tile Council of North America: TCA Handbook for Ceramic Tile Installation

As a second generation tile-setter, I know that proper tile installation is fundamental to tile longevity. The TCNA is the premiere industry overseer, it sets standards for the installation of tile, tests tile performance, and has a training division. Most US tile manufacturers refer to TCNA details for installation and warranty. Yet the vast majority of tile installations I’ve seen do not conform to TCNA standards. (hint: here’s a simple conformance check – does your tile tub surround have caulking at every corner? If not, then guess what? No warranty for you!) Ensure that your tile-setter is aware of and conforms to TCNA standards for all of their installations.

Energy Star

For household appliances ensure that your product is blessed with an Energy Star. This means that the appliance has met a high standard for energy efficiency.

You should also insulate to Energy Star standards. The guidelines are available on the web:

If you’re building a new home, peruse the ‘New Construction’ section of the Energy Star website, then speak with your builder about meeting the standard and/or becoming certified. Because our chief focus has been remodeling, we’re not an Energy Star certified builder. But if you’ve got $5mil and are thinking about building your dream home, I’m a phone call away. I promise to be Energy Star certified by the time we start digging.

Trade Publications

We currently subscribe to about half a dozen magazines and journals (all of which are available on loan to our construction clients). Of these, the best two are Fine Homebuilding, and The Journal of Light Constructions. Of the two, Fine Homebuilding is the most appropriate for homeowners, while the JLC is geared towards contractors. This Old House magazine is the next best, and standards drop precipitously from there. (Yes I’ve read the magazine whose title rhymes with Shmarchitectural Shmigest). These magazines are most relevant to best practices when they discuss techniques in fields where there’s still room for debate.

We also have a pretty decent library of building books. Again the standout publisher is Taunton, which is the Fine Homebuilding publisher.

Television Shows

I’ll admit to taking a pretty dim view of most remodeling shows. Nevertheless, there are a couple of standouts. Anything with Norm Abrams is worth watching (New Yankee Workshop, This Old House). Holmes on Homes is also pretty good. But, while I’m sure that Mike Holmes is fundamentally a decent carpenter and human being, I disapprove of a small number of his practices. However, as my wife often reminds me when I’m screaming profanities at some hair-gel wearing slickster in a shiny, new tool-belt, it’s only television.

In the next entry we’ll be discussing why quality matters.

Thanks for reading,


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