Monday, May 18, 2009

Sustainable Steps for Housing

The housing industry continues to struggle and is perpetually on the forefront of the green movement.  Homes and buildings are the most utilized assets and consume the most resources to both build and operate through their useful life.   While builders can include many sustainable features that reduce future power, water and resource consumption, the responsibility to reduce usage is up to the future owner.  Green features are sellable, but the opportunity to reduce ecological impact begins much earlier in the process. Today the focus needs to be on material usage and waste on the jobsite. 

Several misconception exist surrounding material usage and waste.  One major misconception is that if you see no additional material orders, quantity estimates must be accurate.  The reality is, additional orders is a better indicator of performance than no orders at all.  In the best case scenario, only the amount of material needed in the structure would be ordered originally and any mistakes or extra would result in additional orders.  Great for materials, but bad for transportation.  There must be a better way.

As an estimator, I was taught three methods for estimating a homes materials and labor.  These methods are the Good, Better and Best.  Good methods are just that; they are pretty good but fail to rise to the occasion when it is important.  (Pretty Good, by Charles Osgood)  The good method consists of tested Rules of Thumb; methods that get close enough to the right number to ensure extra material is not needed.  The better method starts with a rule of thumb and applies additional thought to the process.  The best method takes an entirely different approach and, in the end, drastically reduces material and labor needed to build a home.

A great example is estimating the stud count for framing.  While less applicable today with the introduction of wall panels in typical home construction, it provides a spectacular example of Good, Better and Best:

  • The Good – The rule of thumb for studs tells us that a wall with 16” spaced studs, estimating 1 stud per lineal foot of wall is sufficient to cover studs for the wall as well as king, trimmer and cripple studs needed for door and window framing.  Close, but efficient structures, which are typical in production homebuilding, require a lot fewer studs and incorporate varying spacing based on the structural needs of the wall.
  • The Better – The better methods starts at a one stud per foot methodology, then logically backs out studs, based on experience, to produce an end number.  This method is useful for a one-time build, but still leaves a large opportunity for savings, either in less material or saved trips to the jobsite. 
  • The Best – Taking the entire process back to formula, and putting aside estimating, the best method determines the actual stud usage in the wall, then based on industry cull rates, adds material to the estimates to cover the material in the wall, the cull rate and nothing more.  The best method does not add material for mistakes and what-if’s as the method requires accurate plans and homes built to these plans.
  • Verification – The best method, because of the estimating methods, creates verifiable numbers.  These quantities, once constructed, can be verified and corrected.  Once a number is verified, it is no longer an estimate, but actual quantities required for construction.

Material waste represents a significant cost to both the builder and the end consumer.  Material waste also creates unnecessary impact on the environment through use of raw material, processing (heat, beat or treat) and waste sent to a landfill or down-cycled into less useful products.

To learn more about reducing waste in all construction processes, contact me at and request a no sales pitch White Paper from Scott Sedam and True North Development.  To learn more about Best Estimating practices, submit a request to

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Presidential Online Seminar

Tomorrow, Builder Magazine is offering a unique opportunity to hear Scott Sedam, Founder of True North development, speak about "Becoming the Lean Builder". This 60-minute webinar will cover the importance of Lean Building practices are part of your companies strategy to survive this changing economy. In Scott's own words, "It is not merely slashing overheads and sending “demand letters” to your suppliers & trades. This is about learning to identify and eliminate waste in all products and processes wherever it is found, tapping into the knowledge and experience of every associate, including suppliers & trades." Join other industry leaders for this experience:

The 90/90 Rule and the Rebirth of Operations

Presidential Online Seminar
Wednesday, April 15, 11:00 AM EDT
Registration is fast, easy and no charge at:

Please register and forward this email to members of your team, your company, other associates and perhaps your key suppliers & trades. This webinar will appeal to and inform all functions and all levels. There is no “sales pitch” in the webinar, of course, but if you are not sure it will be worth an hour investment of your time, ask yourself this: If you had added $8,300 per unit in margin the past 12 months, brought to you willingly and enthusiastically by your suppliers & trades, would it have made a difference? In just over 2 years, that is the amount that TrueNorth Clients of our LeanBuilding Blitz have found on average – and your results are 100% guaranteed. No matter how you have been pursuing cost reduction, the LeanBlitz approach is genuinely different, as we have heard repeatedly from some of the most sophisticated builders in the industry.

If you cannot register and you would still like to have our educational, no sales-pitch white paper, “Seeing with New Eyes – an Intelligent Guide to Lean Building,” to learn more about this groundbreaking approach to cost reduction, just contact me and write “send white paper.”

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Green Product Reviews

On several occasions, I have mentioned the need for products that are innovative, green and affordable. In Las Vegas, I spent a great deal of time seeking out products that meet these criteria. As part of my continuing efforts to share green methods with the world, product reviews will become an vital part of this blog moving forward. So, the lucky winner of the first review is….

Fi-Foil Company: Radiant Insulation Solutions

In Las Vegas, I had the pleasure of meeting Tim with Fi-Foil. The one product that stood out was Flash & FOIL frame wall insulation with VR Plus Shield. This is a unique product that combines with spray foam insulation to provide a high r-value in normal 2x4 construction wall.

As a builder and purchasing manager, I reviewed pricing for spray foam insulation on a number of occasions. Each time, the benefits of spray foam were far out-weighed by dramatic increase in cost. In addition to the cost, filling wall cavities with foam makes repairs to electrical, plumbing and any other product contain in those walls a little more challenging. Thus enters a revised system.

This system consists of 2-½” of spray foam combined with the VR Plus Shield. VR plus shield is a multi-layer foil product with a paper face which, when applied to the studs, separates allowing air to pass between the layers contributing the insulative properties of the product. This system allows wiring and plumbing to be installed so as to not be covered in foam. It also reduces the quantity of foam required replacing it with a less expensive, more effective product.

So, Fi-Foil makes a great insulation product that increase energy efficiency, improves indoor air quality and reduces the cost of installation. Find more information on their website at:

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sustainable Solutions

As more research and study continues on the environmental front, the larger solution to many problems we face is sustainability. In basic terms, sustainable products are items that have a long life and do not require replacement on a schedule. The definition can also be expanded to items, once used for a time period, which can be easily converted to another product or use, as communicated in Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonough & Michael Braungart.

Residential construction has been through periods of very sustainable and very disposable construction practices. As a college student, I worked for a remodeler in Pittsburgh, PA for a summer. One of our projects was a 100 year old renovation and addition. The craftsmanship of the original home was phenomenal. While modern conveniences of air conditioning, kitchen appliances and bath upgrades had been added, the original structure stood on it own. Very little had been replaced, as the home had the original windows, exterior cladding, floors and plumbing fixtures throughout the home.

Today, builders continue to work towards more sustainable structures. Treated wood is used to prevent termite and rot issues. Better water intrusion prevention systems are employed as a best practice for construction. Unfortunately, some areas of the home still need some work, especially on entry-level homes. Many consumers are guilty of contributing to the problem when they say, “Oh, I’ll just replace that when I find what I like” or “ It will last until I can find something better”.

Below, I have broken down a list of the most common “disposable” products still installed by builders on a regular basis. Most of these have a viable alternative, relatively low in cost, yet more sustainable.

  • Toilet Seats – The standard seat installed by a builder is a molded wood, high gloss finish toilet seat. At first glance, the seat is fine. But two years later, even with a clean freak (my wife hates a dirty toilet), the seat is stained, the finish on the bottom is deteriorating and the only solution is to replace the seat. Cost to upgrade to a Kohler plastic seat is about $7/seat retail. A small price to pay for longevity.
  • Dishwashers – Builders are known for the cheapest dishwashers on the market. A standard entry line is loud, inefficient and requires additional rinsing and rewashing of dishes. For a small upgrade of $40-50, these inefficient models can be replaced by a more efficient, quieter model. Options are often offered, however builders should be encouraged to eliminate non-performing models for better units.
  • Carpet – As a general rule, the actual carpet in any home will have to be replaced at some point. However, on the low end, ensuring the right carpet is installed will provide long life to that particular carpet. Nylon 6, a polyester fiber used in some carpets, has endless recycling capabilities. This fiber, compared to others, can be recycled again and again without degrading the original material. Even on the low end, this fiber is affordable and can provide consumers the convenience of changing carpet as the needs of your family changes, without contributing to landfills.
  • Lighting – Another area where builders are prone to find the least expensive items which homeowners can replace later; I was guilty of this early in my career. As a consumer, you will find little success changing this trend in the near future. However, if you are planning to change out fixture upon occupancy, ask you builder to cap the fixture location instead of installing a disposable fixture. If overhead lighting will not be used, ask for a switched outlet for lamp lighting control. Also, request ENERGY STAR lighting options to replace standard fixtures.
As a general rule, Homebuilders are slow to change to the latest practices and technologies. The consumer mentality of “I’ll fix it later” needs to be changed to a request for alternatives. To change the trend from disposable to sustainable construction requires feedback to the builder so they know how to improve products and meet consumer demands for quality.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Define Your Shade – Resource Efficiency

This is the last article in the series that defines Green Building for homes. In a previous article, we discussed the definition of efficiency: utilizing products better than before to reduce usage, rather than just eliminating the item (conservation). With respects to resources, efficiency reduces the amount of product needed to build a home without reducing the overall performance of the structure.

The most common methods of reducing material usage onsite is through pre-manufactured systems: Walls, Floors, Roof Trusses, etc. Building these products onsite creates more waste. In a manufacturing environment, wood is cut to length in one area and the fall-off, smaller end pieces typically less than 2 feet in length, is moved to another part of the facility for use in other products. Manufacturing also provides better avenues to recycle not only the waste material, but sawdust, in the case of wood construction, as well.

Resources also play a role in the design phase of the construction process. Knowing the dimensions of standard goods will reduce wasted material and wasted work. Carpet is typically purchased in 12’ roles; Stud spacing is 16” or 24” on center; Drywall is purchased in 8’,12’ & 16’ lengths. Designing room dimensions and overall dimensions to maximize the usage of material is preferable in the green building process.

Recycling can also play a role in resource management. While some materials are recycled into products not used in the construction industry, some recycled products can be used in the construction process. In Nashville, Tennessee Waste offers the most comprehensive construction waste recycling program available. Meeting both LEED and NAHB Green Building standards, Tennessee Waste recycles about 70% of waste collected and returns a portion of that material to jobsites through there aggregates program, saving the landfills while saving builders money.

An aspect of resource management often overlooked in the industry is scheduling. Installing products too early can result in rework due to damage or replacement due to theft. Some builders spend as much as 15% of total construction costs on rework, repair and theft. In some cases, builder could build a much greener home and pay for the upgrades through better scheduling and trade management.

In summary, Green Building is much more than just lighting and smaller homes. Homes of all sizes and uses can be built better and more green by understanding the various aspects of efficiency, air quality and site work.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Define Your Shade – Site Layout

The way a house sits on the lot with landscaping and concrete work can greatly impact the way it utilizes resources, energy and water. Proper placement can decrease the HVAC load, reduce impact on the surrounding environment and change the usage of onsite resources.

Placement depends on your specific location, but some general rules will help. Ensuring window locations minimize exposure to the sun during summer months will greatly reduce the cooling loads in the home. In communities, this can be very difficult as lot location is based on the overall plat map. Beginning in the planning stages allows the development design to match green requirements as much as possible. Within some communities, it is nearly impossible to ensure all lots meet this criteria, however, most neighborhoods can be designed so that 80-90% of the homes minimize solar heat gain through window placement.

Vegetation, trees and landscaping can also affect the eco-friendly traits of the property. Trees can shade windows, giving the same affect as placing the house on the lot to minimize solar heat gain from the windows. Planting shrubs and bushes that require little watering and suited for your particular climate help reduce the amount of water, beyond rain, that is needed to maintain landscaping.

Other features that assist with site impact are rain collectors, permeable surfaces and low water turf. Rain collection can be difficult, however several products were featured at the International Builder Show in Las Vegas that will assist in collecting and utilizing run-off water onsite. Minimizing concrete and hard surfaces assists with rain absorption and reduces heat gain from the suns rays on concrete. Low water turf, indigenous to your region, keeps water needs low, matching regional climates.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Define Your Shade – Indoor Air Quality

Last evening, I attending an interesting session with my local chapter of the USGBC. The meeting was an introductory session on LEED for Homes with a great deal of time spent discussing Indoor Air Quality.

Improving indoor air quality is important to the overall health of the occupants. Whether at home, work, church or shopping, the air we breath indoors is often more detrimental to our health because of these wonderfully tight structures that trap all the contaminates, dust, and bacteria inside. Our challenge is to find effective ways to prevent contaminate infiltration and to filter and remove any particulates that end up indoors.

This can be done in a number of ways, but here are a few options:

Burning Fuels
– Unless you are in an all electric home (which is one way to guarantee improved air quality), location and venting of gas fired appliances is critical to indoor air quality. Keep all furnaces and indoor air handlers out of the garage. Any leaks in the ductwork is a potential for car exhaust to enter the system an eventually the home. Install water heaters in the garage when possible. If a furnace or water heater must be installed in conditioned space, place it in a sealed closet with fresh air vents and combustion air vents.

Fireplaces – Wood burning fireplaces can be very inefficient. Installing doors, additional flue dampers, and better seals on the unit will reduce air loss to the outsides as well as reducing smoke and fumes from infiltrating the home. All gas fireplaces should be sealed units, vented to the outside, to prevent adverse affects on you and your family. The best case scenario is to just not install one if it will not be used.

HVAC Installation
– While sealing the ducts and plenums is typically talked about in energy efficiency, it is also vital to indoor air quality. Without properly sealed ducts, the air handler will inevitably draw air from the crawl space, attic, floor system or other unconditioned space into the air you breath. A commonly missed area is the return air duct, especially if building cavities are lined to act as the duct. Ensure proper sealing of all HVAC components.

– Filters are important to the system. The most important advice on filters is simple, replace/clean them regularly. Filters can be an entire discussion on their own and will be covered in another article.

Fans & Exhaust
– Removing air from the house is also important. This can be as simple as a 50cfm fan in each bathroom or as complicated as a whole house fan on automatic timers or a humidistat. If fresh air is added to the house, venting air from the house is vital as well. Fans should always be run after showers, baths or other excessive use of hot water.

– Chemical usage can also affect the air quality. During construction, utilizing products that have no noxious chemicals or low/no VOC sealant/paint. Following closing, encourage homeowners to find alternatives to bleach, ammonia and other chemical based cleaners.

This list is in no way all-inclusive, but it does give you some ideas where to start. As part of a green program, there are many affordable options to ensure better air quality. However, if the homeowner does not use the features, they will do little to improve the overall home health. Many innovative product reviews to come in the near future on this blog, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Define Your Shade – Water Efficiency

Today we are looking at Water Efficiency. By definition, water efficiency is accomplished by completing typical tasks using the least amount of water possible. As with energy efficiency, the idea is not to completely change behavior, but to change the mode in which water is delivered.

In order to reduce the amount of water used, many companies are developing new, viable products that accomplish the same tasks using much less water than their predecessors. Some of these products include:

Dual Flush Toilets
– Unlike a typical toilet, Dual flush units have an innovative system that allows for two different amounts of water based on need. The first flush typically delivers about .8 gallons of water, saving about 1 gallon per flush. The second flush delivers 1.6 gallons, the normal amount of water a typical toilet delivers. In a given day, a family of 4 can save about 20 gallons of water, depending on usage. (Additional Cost ~$70-120 depending on manufacturer and wholesaler)

Low-flow Shower head
– Delivering about 1.75 gallons per minute, technology has dramatically improved over the past few years to deliver the water in such a way as to not feel like you are stepping into mist, as opposed to a shower. Water savings is about 30% over a conventional unit, saving about 20 gallons of water for a family of 4. (Additional Cost ~$20/shower)

Low-Flow Faucets
– Faucets typically flow at about 2.2 gallons per minute. Their slim sister reduces flow to about 1.5 gallons per minute. Side-by-side comparisons show little difference when used by consumers and industry professionals. Water savings will vary greatly depending on your typical usage, for our purposes and to complete the example above, we will use about 10 gallons for our sample family per day. (Some faucet manufacturer include this feature at no cost beginning this year, otherwise about $2/faucet)

Innovative Options
– The list so far are items that will not really change the way in which you use these features in your home. Other options are available, however, to be effective, you must change habits and behaviors. The following is a short list of optional features:

  • Recirculating Pump – delivers hot water immediately eliminating the need to run water for it warm up.
  • Composting Toilets – Waterless toilet system that converts human waste into usable compost/soil.
  • Low-water Irrigation Systems – System that use rain collection systems, non-spray (drip) systems, or special timers and moisture sensors.
  • Specialty Faucets – Motion sensors, shut-off valve or pedal-activated faucets.

In summary, if you implement only the first three items, you average monthly savings for a family of four will be about 1500 gallons of water. Remember this is without changing any behaviors or standards of living.

Next week is the International Builder Show in Las Vegas, NV. During the show, many products will be demonstrated to show the newest technologies to save water and reduce usage. Stay tuned for future product reviews and options to save water.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Shades of Green Blog Launch

I have launched a new blog today, Shades of Green. Different from this blog, Shades will focus more on the Political and Socio-economic issues facing the Green Building movement in our world today. The first article discusses Global Warming and Climate Change.

Here is the Link:

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Define your Shade – Energy Efficiency

Let’s begin by defining efficiency. This is a term that will surface throughout our discussion on green and understanding what it means will help facilitate more meaningful discussion.

Efficiency is a measurement of the amount of output given a certain amount of input. To increase efficiency, you must find a way to do more with less. All of us know we have 24 hours each day with which to live our lives. Some days we are very efficient and accomplish a great deal of work or output. Other days, we sit on the couch, watch the ballgame and accomplish very little. Both days had the same input, 24 hours, but one day was filled with work and the other was not. Organizational tools can increase our efficiency as well.

In terms of energy efficiency, there is a fair amount of debate as to what truly defines energy efficiency and how can you do the same tasks using less electricity. Don’t confuse efficiency with conservation. Conservation is the act of turning things off or just not using electricity. Important, but not the discussion today. Conservation suggests you live without something, no lights, no water, and no additional features. Efficiency is doing the same things you have always done, only use less. An example is driving an inefficient car less or driving a hybrid vehicle, conservation and efficiency, respectively.

Replacing incandescent lighting is one-way builders can increase the efficiency of their home. High efficacy lighting still provides light, and in most cases the same light, using a lot less electricity. Energy Star rated appliances still allow the consumer to wash clothing, refrigerate food, and clean the dishes. The appliances work, for the most part, like any other inefficient model. The savings comes by completing the same task with less.

A big obstacle many builders face in selling green is the idea that it requires you to sacrifice (or conserve) the comforts you are accustomed to having in your home. Some choose to take efficiency to that level, but others choose better items for their home. The follow list is examples of energy efficient features:

  • High Efficacy Lighting (Fluorescent or LED lighting)
  • Higher R-value Insulation
  • Housewrap
  • ENERGY STAR Appliances/Furnace/Windows
  • Sealants, Weatherstripping and Caulks to reduces leaks
  • Dimmers and Sensors for Lighting
  • Geo-Thermal Heat
As builders, a number of options are available to meet the requirements of a green program. Consumers can rest assured knowing there are options and if one product does not meet their needs, there are alternatives to ensure an energy efficient home without compromising your lifestyle.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Define your Shade - Introduction

For those that followed my blog in the “early days”, my articles were split between this blog and my former employer. Following my departure, the original articles were removed and along with it, my first blog about what green is and what it means to builders and homebuyers alike. Given my last article and several conversations of late, I am revisiting the topic here, only in more depth and in greater detail.

For purposes of this forum, my commentary will focus on defining and explaining green for the home industry, applicable to both existing and new construction.

When discussing this topic with consumers, the definitions are varied. Some say it is merely energy efficiency. Others think of high tech energy systems with plants on the roof and waterless toilets. A rare few think the whole thing is a hoax to charge more, which is rather ludicrous given the current market and the state of the economy. At the end of the day, it still begs the question: What is green building?

Green building can be many of the things mentioned above. Green building is the process of building homes that have less overall impact on the environment than existing homes. This is accomplished not only by the end product, but through the construction process as well. While each program varies and attains the status of green through different methods, most green programs include the following components:

  1. Energy Efficiency - Design elements and equipment that utilize less energy and require less electricity then typical homes on the market.
  2. Water Efficiency – Faucets and fixtures that utilize less water to accomplish the same task as traditional fixtures.
  3. Indoor Air Quality – Building homes that breath as designed and reduce the amount of dust, contaminates and chemicals in the air, thus improving the overall health of its occupants.
  4. Site Layout – Placing the home on the site/lot in such a way as to reduce cooling loads and the environmental impact of the structure.
  5. Resource Efficiency – Employing construction methods that reduce waste and utilizing better construction materials efficiently in the home.

Over the next few weeks, I will discuss each of the above sections, providing examples of methods, materials and best practices to accomplishes some of the requirements for each. Much of what I will share is derived from the NAHB Green Building Standard, as released in February of 2008.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Resolutions: Light Green or Emerald Green?

I spent a couple of days on the road this week looking for new opportunities. With the housing market still in the tank, building professionals are uncovering any means necessary to survive this down turn. My focus is on moving green forward as a viable movement with the building industry.

I meet with a company this week that focuses on consulting homebuilders through the process of simplifying their company and saving money. Lean operations are the name of the game. As a builder, I was fortunate enough to work with them last year and see how “Lean” our operations could be. Whether saving money, increasing efficiency or reducing waste, everything they do is directed at showing homebuilders a better way to do what has been done so many times before.

Green consulting, in housing, is a largely untapped market. As compared to the entire nation, buildings with a green story are relatively few and far between. Not only are few builders doing anything to be green, their operations are skinny with few or no additional employees. Sharing of ideas and knowledge through green consulting can help bring the industry up from the stone age.

After my meetings in Detroit, I spent an evening with family in Indiana. As the question of employment came up, my brother asked me what all this green stuff meant. More specifically, did the green I talk about include planters on the roof, solar panels, no flush toilets, etc. As I explained green starts long before those products, we quickly realized that many in middle America have a false sense of what green really means.

Initially, his sentiment on green focused on the negative aspects: expensive, inconvenient, and difficult to do without professional help. I realized I am not doing enough to share my own message of Shades of Green. In our conversation, he quickly learned that going green is not only the big changes, but all the little decisions we make everyday,

I submit my resolution to you. This year, I will spread the message and teach anyone who will listen, and even some that won’t about Shades of Green. This year, I will move shades closer to the green I want to be.