The other day I had the opportunity to show off my house on our site. Thanks to all who complimented me on it. T’was a work of love, no doubt (and for some a work of folly… just ask my wife). But in the end, it’s turned into a great success, allowing me to raise my family in a healthy, sustainable and beautiful home.

Of course, after building a home there are always those things that you’d have done differently, as well as those things that worked exceptionally well. So here’s my list of both (spread across a couple of days); I’m hoping it informs some of you as you undertake your own projects. I’m staying away from size considerations, since most people always want more room, even though they really need less.

So here are few things I’d have done differently:


Photo by: Studios Architecture – CC BY SA 2.0

  1. Look seriously at air source heat pumps. For excellent economic and environmental reasons, we chose as our heating and cooling system a ground-source heat pump (i.e., a geothermal system). Despite the fact that the payback on such a system was about five years for us (at which point you just we would just start making money on the project), the initial cost made us swallow hard. A geothermal system is two to three times as expensive as a standard system. One alternative that we really didn’t look at it (and now wish we had, if only to rule it out) is an air source heat pump (sometimes called a ductless mini-split). What’s nice about air source heat pumps is that they are less expensive than a geothermal system (though the payback is longer).  Plus it’s easy to zone every room, adding to everyone’s comfort.
  2. Position the thermostats better. You don’t just set the temperature of a thermostat; the thermostat is actually where the temperature also gets read. From that reading the thermostat adjusts the HVAC output. So it’s really important where you put the thermostat.Nest
    For example, if the thermostat is by a door that is opened and closed a lot, the thermostat repeatedly gets warmer and cooler, which then causes it to cycle the HVAC a lot. This process wastes a lot of energy and makes for an uncomfortable home, since the rest of house goes from intense heat to intense cool regularly.For this reason, when I placed my own thermostats I would have placed them more carefully and, in a perfect world, would have used wireless thermostats. Their advantage is that I would’ve been able to try them out in a few different places to get the perfect spot.
  3. No fancy appliances. Given that we were building our dream house, we also wanted that dream kitchen. This means tens of thousands of dollars spent on large, stainless steel appliances that would mellow Gordon Ramsay. Instead I should have taken a lesson from my mother’s kitchen, where she cooked gourmet meals for all six of us on a four-burner, two-oven Kitchen Aid, a small Maytag fridge, and a really old dishwasher. (Which was actually my father. No, not really).Candidly, while the appliances are beautiful, they sort of suck. Ours were too expensive and they broke down all the time. Over the past five years, we’ve replaced one dishwasher and our freezer, plus we had to put a new motor into our washing machine (I only remember one washing machine in my mother’s home, ever.) They were all under warranty (that shows you how soon they broke), so we didn’t pay anything, but while we fought with the manufacturer, they were offline for months.Kitchen Appliances
    Unfortunately, my story isn’t unique. Complaints around ice machines that don’t work, freezers that are too warm, ovens that won’t warm to the right temperature, and burners that never work are ubiquitous. Today’s high-end appliances remind me of the Jaguar S-type: an ostensibly great car from the late ‘90s. For the low, low price of about $50,000, you get a truly exquisite looking car that was actually a piece of s**t and breaks down all the time. I have heard of people who actually had to call AAA every morning to get the car started. Whoever bought a Jaguar S made sure their next car was something more reliable like a Honda Accord. I wish my appliances were like a Honda Accord. (If you email me, I will tell you exactly which appliances I bought).
  4. LED BulbLED Lighting & Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV).This was more a question of timing for both of these items than anything else. Back when I built my house in 2008, LED Lighting and HRVs were just becoming mainstream. So instead, we didn’t install an HRV (which cleans interior dirty air, extracts all the heat or cool from it and replaces it with outdoor, clean air). And with regard to lighting, we had to go with mainly CFLs with some Halogens thrown in there. If I were building today, it would only be LEDs and an HRV.
  5. Think more about the laundry room. A laundry room is a moist, loud place that creates clouds of dust and sick air, and can also be a wonderful source of catastrophe if your hot water tank busts. Yet frequently, it’s next to the rooms where we spend the most time (family room and bedrooms). With that in mind, I would have been more thoughtful about not only where I placed the laundry room (a good place is the basement corner), how I segregated it from the rest of the house, and also what’s inside it.
    Laundry Room

    Photo by: Maegan Tintari – CC BY 2.0

    I’d first find the least-centrally located, ideally dead space, I could find. I’d then treat it as if it contained nuclear waste. This would include insulating all the interior walls (which I did, but most people don’t) and even doing a layer of a rigid foam board for sound deadening. I’d then use an exterior, insulated door rather than the usual thin interior doors. Inside, I’d put a self-contained ventilation and filtration system that included a heat recovery system, with a direct connect to the exterior. Beside the washer, dryer, and sink there, I’d also put in a heat pump hot water tank (a highly efficient way to make hot water), which also is a great dehumidifier (though it’s loud, hence all the sound deadening tactics). I’d probably also put in a phone, just in case one of the children “accidently” got locked in there. By the way, you could probably do all of this for around $1000, give or take, more than covered by buying simpler, more reliable appliances.

Well that’s what I would have done differently. None of it’s anything fatal and nothing I’d really change now, even if I could. Tomorrow I will share with you what I did right.