Better Built Homes at Any Budget

Shawn Nienhouse-1Shawn Nienhouse is a Certified Green Home Professional (CGHP) and Construction Project Manager for Habitat for Humanity of Kent County in Grand Rapids, MI. He oversees the construction of LEED-certified housing for families in need. His background also includes a stint as an estimator for a production builder that built close to code minimum homes. He's spent significant time recently learning building science principles and high-performance, green construction details, and he shared his thoughts with us recently on why home builders must evolve from code-built to high-performance.

Code minimum isn't cutting it

In the ethos of high-performance home building, building to state minimum code is the floor, not the ceiling (pun intended). "Some much wiser building science experts have called a code-built house "the worst possible house that can legally be built," he told me. "Over the lifetime of a home, things like paint, furniture, flooring, fixtures, and countertops will be changed periodically to keep up with the latest trends, but it's quite difficult and expensive to change a building enclosure."

With millions of American families struggling with the costs of housing and home ownership, he says it's rewarding to be part of the solution for these Habitat families. That's why a high-performance home matters so much, not just for the Habitat families but for all homeowners.

"As a nonprofit builder, we do not have an unlimited budget, so we design our processes and assemblies to be both cost-effective and repeatable," Shawn noted. "Steve Baczek has said that "the best wall assembly is one that your trades can consistently build well." "Changing from a 2 x 4 wall to a 2 x 6 wall may cost slightly more in a lumber package and insulation materials, but the labor costs are about the same. Yet doing this, along with proper air sealing, can decrease the heating and cooling loads for a home, which means the builder can save on the cost of mechanical equipment. So, does it really cost more to build a high-performance home?"

One thing that's certain is that it definitely costs less for the homeowner to keep and maintain a high-performance home. Moreover, data show that both the sale price and loan performance are positively linked to better home energy efficiency.[1] Thus, for the homeowner, it's definitely a huge win to have a better-performing home.


Getting better than basic homes

ilding to a high-performance building standard like LEED or Energy Star has other proven benefits as well. "A high-performance home will provide healthier indoor air, a more comfortable environment, and lower operating costs for the lifetime of the building," Shawn said. "The first principle of a healthy home is to start with a good enclosure." This is where a construction manager's job becomes critical.


Being intentional about the details

Shawn said the construction manager's job is to ensure that the trades are intentional with the details, which means verifying that all the work is done correctly.

"It's all about the building enclosure and separating the indoors from the outdoors. It's really important to build an airtight home. You can heat and cool a home all you want, but if the home isn't built tight, it will be like leaving a window open 24/7 that can never be shut. If you seal the building and separate the indoor and outdoor conditions with air sealing and insulation, you can control the indoor environment much more effectively."


Every homeowner wants to control costs

While Shawn's role involves building for families in need of housing stability, a 2022 study showed that 87 percent of Americans across income brackets are concerned about the cost of housing.[2] It's not just moderate-income owners sweating the rising costs of everything from the home itself to utilities.

"Construction managers and builders must understand that every component that goes into a house is part of a system," he said. "If you choose materials that work well together, you will have a more cohesive system. Focusing on a systems-based approach is the best way to ensure consistency and continuity in your projects, and implementing quality assurance procedures is vital to catching potential issues while they are easy to fix or avoid altogether."

Shawn offered this bit of advice for those interested in constructing high-performance homes but still building to code minimum: be humble.

"No one can know everything, so be willing to ask experts in each specific area and try new methods. Your customers are counting on you to give them an efficient, well-built home. As a builder, you have to make the changes that will deliver that at reasonable costs."






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