June 2012 Archives - 2/13 - Bob Vila

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Bob Vila Radio: Garden Journals

You can read all you want about gardening, but a garden journal is the best tool for making sure you remember what works—and what doesn’t—in your garden!

Garden Journals

Photo: Rambling Rose


Listen to BOB VILA ON GARDEN JOURNALS, or read text below:

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The Right Time and Place for Pocket Doors

A&A Millwork Pocket Doors

Photo courtesy: A&A Millwork

One of the reasons we chose the house plan we built was because there was a “flex” room off the breakfast nook. We thought it was the perfect location for a playroom during these early years with our kids. For one thing, it’s close to the kitchen, where I spend a good portion of the day. In the future, it will make the perfect guest room or study.

The original house plan called for traditional French doors in this space. But since we plan to use this breakfast nook for all our eating and entertaining (we’re just not formal dining room people), we felt the French doors, which opened out, would really get in the way and impede our use of the space. So instead we decided to have pocket doors installed.

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Construction Contract Checklist

Get the work you need done by ensuring that your contract is solid.

Construction Contracts

Photo: forbes.com

All contracts you sign should begin with the parties to the agreement. Your name and address and that of the contractor’s should be stated up front, along with the date the agreement was drawn and a brief statement describing the work to be done.

Here are the rest of the items for your checklist:

  • The Stages of Work.  The stages in the process should be identified and the job described in some detail (more is better). If the job requires cutting into the existing structure (to install electrical or plumbing lines, for example), the contract should specify whose responsibility it is to patch and repaint.
  • The State of the Site.  The area and the limits of the job should be specified here (new shingles on the house, not on the attached garage?). Who’s responsible for the trash removal? The term “broom clean” may be useful. You might want to insert the phrase, “The job shall not be deemed completed until the premises are broom clean and all trash and unused materials removed.”
  • The Building Materials.  Detail is important throughout the estimate, but nowhere more than here. The specifications should include brand names, dimensions, style, color, weight, and other identifying characteristics of all the materials to be used.
  • The Warranty.  Is there a warranty? If there is one for all the work or even a part of it, it should be spelled out here. Oral representations are more often forgotten than remembered.
  • The Liability.  A copy of the contractor’s insurance certificate should be attached to the agreement and mentioned here, along with words to the effect that the contractor will not hold the homeowner responsible in the event of any personal injury or property damage.
  • The Schedule.  When does the work begin and when is it to be finished? Put in specific dates.
  • The Cost.  The total cost and the schedule of payments belong here. As a rule, you should pay for work that’s completed, and paying less now and more later gives you maximum leverage.

Quick Tip: Hiring a General Contractor

Identify important clues to help you assess which contractor you want on your job.

General Contractor

Photo: Shutterstock

The Bidding Process Is Telling
By now, most homeowners know that you need to get quotes from several contractors before deciding which one to hire for your job. But how do you know who you can trust? While the numbers are useful, the way contractors bid for your job can actually help you decide how trustworthy they are.

You Get What You Pay For
First, beware of low-ball estimates or special discounts for today only. Often, a contractor who bids much lower than everyone else either doesn’t understand what the job entails or doesn’t plan to do it right.

Minimize Upfront Pay
A reputable contractor can get subcontractors and materials to start most jobs without your money, so be very wary if a contractor asks for more than a 10 to 20 percent deposit up front or requires payment in cash.

Get It in Writing
A verbal quote isn’t good enough. A good contractor will always be happy to give you a written quote itemizing labor and material costs, as well as references you can check.

Check References
Always verify the contact information you’re given to be sure it’s a legitimate business, and follow up on those references. If in doubt, you can check for any past problems with your city’s building department.

Supervising the Construction

Follow our guide for establishing a positive working environment while your house begins to take shape.

Construction Supervision

. Photo: merchantcircle.com

During your construction project, you will have to deal with the workmen. Even if you feel comfortable with them—and especially if you don’t—it is important that you keep a couple of considerations in mind. I call it the “3 P’s”:

These men and women are pros in their own worlds. You need them. You wouldn’t dream of buying a car and assembling it yourself, would you? In the same way you leave a mechanic to do his or her job, let the carpenters and electricians and plumbers do theirs. Watch if you wish, but don’t interfere.

Step back, count to ten, think before you speak. Speak your mind, but with a little perspective. Don’t violate chains of command. Yes, you’re the boss, but unless you are also acting as your own GC, you are not the only boss.

Be polite and complimentary. Even if you are not totally satisfied with the work, you are better off finding something good to say about part of it (to the fellow or gal wielding the hammer, as well as his or her boss). Then, through the proper channels, detail the problem areas to be corrected. It is human nature to want to do better work for someone who appreciates it and, conversely, to be less inclined to work for the person who doesn’t know how to do anything but complain.

Quick Tip: Proper Insulation is Key

Insulate your house to keep it warm in the cooler months, cool in the warmer months, and save big money on energy bills.


Well insulated attic space.. Photo: umbugjug.com

Contain the Heat
How much insulation does your home need and where? It depends on your climate and the energy costs in your area. The basic principle is that you want to keep heat energy from doing what it does best: dissipating to colder areas. The best way is to trap a layer of air next to the heat source. In new framing, sprayed-on polyurethane foam, fiberglass or cellulose do a good job of providing this layer before the drywall goes up. If you’re retrofitting your insulation, you can still spray in cellulose through holes cut from the interior or the exterior.

Choosing the Right Insulation
To find out what insulation will work best in your home, you’ll want to know the recommended insulation r-values in your area. R-value is the measure of a material’s resistance to heat flow. The higher the value, the more effective it is. To see the recommended insulation r-values and cost estimates in your ZIP code, visit the Department of Energy’s Web site.

Eliminate Drafts
Even a small draft can make your insulation less effective. Seal any gaps around electrical outlets, ducts, windows and doors with foam sealants, caulking, or weather-stripping. 

Focus on the Attic
The most important area to insulate is your attic. Make sure you’ve got at least the attic floor insulated with blown-in or batt insulation to your area’s recommended r-value, and consider insulating the roof and attic walls as well. This can provide a fully insulated buffer zone to keep heat where you want it and keep the lid on your energy costs.

Quick Tip: 4 Ways to Soundproof Your Home

Soundproofing is not only possible but relatively easy, whether the source of noise is within or outside of the home.

Home Soundproofing

A contractor installs drywall over acoustic wall studs.. Photo: crutchfield.com

Even if you live in a quiet neighborhood, laundry and dishwashers, hair dryers and even showers can make your house a noisy place. If you work at home, you know how important a quiet environment is, especially when the kids are enjoying that fabulous new home theater. So what’s the best way to keep sound from going where you don’t want it? You can absorb it, block it, break it or isolate it.

Absorb Sound
Absorption dampens sound waves by converting them into weaker energy. Fiberglass batt insulation inside interior partitions actually converts sound to heat. Carpets, upholstered furniture, and acoustical ceilings also help with sound absorption in large open areas.

Block Sound
Blocking sound requires a barrier with enough mass to stop the air movement caused by airborne sound waves. You can block noise by using acoustical caulk in all gaps, double drywall, concrete walls and even lead sheeting.

Break Sound
Breaking the path of the sound means removing the point of contact between the inside and outside so sound doesn’t reverberate through the structure.

Isolate Sound
Acoustic wall studs or a layer of foam under flooring allow the inner surface to float and isolate the noise. Even if you’re not building a recording studio in your garage, there are lots of reasons to consider noise control.

Quick Tip: Radiant Heat Has Other Options Beat

Save money on energy bills using radiant heating in your new home or remodel.

Radiant Heat

A radiant heating system being installed in subflooring.. Photo: bayhydronic.com

Start with Heat
Whether you’re building a whole house or just adding a new bathroom, one of your first decisions has to be how you’re going to heat the new space.

Benefits of Radiant Heat
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, radiant heat is more efficient than baseboard or forced air systems. Rather than just blowing hot air around the room in bursts, radiant systems slowly and steadily charge the floor with heat, keeping it where you want it, longer. 

Hydronic Radiant Heat
Hydronic, or water-circulating, radiant systems are best for new construction or large additions. They come in many forms, for installation just below the subfloor between the joists, directly under tile or hardwood flooring, or even inside a concrete floor slab.

Electric Radiant Heat
Where you only need to heat a small space, like a bathroom, electric radiant heat is an easy luxury option. Electric radiant mats can be installed directly under tile and are ideal over a concrete subfloor.  Set the timed thermostat to turn the system on only when you’ll be using the room, like the morning when you shower, and it will use less than 15 cents of electricity per day. This way, you don’t have to make room for ductwork or baseboard units when you add a bathroom.

On a cold winter morning, your toes will thank you for choosing radiant heat!

Quick Tip: Make Your Fireplace More Efficient

Reconsider your old fireplace, which could be costing you more money than you know.

Fireplace Efficiency

Photo: Elizabeth Dinkel Design

Burning Money
A fire in an open hearth is only 10 percent efficient at best, which means that 90 percent of the heat energy you’ve paid for goes up in smoke. Heated room air is drafted up the chimney as well, so your main heating system actually works harder to keep the house warm. Glass fireplace doors raise the efficiency somewhat but only to about 20 percent.

Wood-Burning Fireplaces
While wood burning is becoming less viable in heavily populated areas, if it’s still your fuel of choice you should invest in an EPA-rated wood stove with a catalytic combustor. And only burn seasoned wood or wood that’s been split and stacked in the sun for about 6 months. Green wood makes for a smoky fire that pollutes more and coats your chimney with resins, which can lead to chimney fires.

Gas-Burning Fireplaces
If you’re tired of shoveling ashes and hauling wood, a gas-burning fireplace insert is a more efficient option that also saves space. A built-in fan distributes heat into the room and a thermostat allows you to set a target temperature. Some models even have a timer so a roaring fire welcomes you when you get up in the morning. One gas fireplace insert can heat a whole small house in all but the coldest weather, which can save you a lot if your main heating system is oil-fired or electric.

Your Home’s Construction Schedule

Here are time estimates for the 10 major stages of home building.

Home Construction Schedule

The crew works on the home exterior. Photo: From Bob's Shingle Style Home

How long do the steps take? No two jobs are the same, but here are some reasonable estimates of what will be required for each stage. Do keep in mind, though, that even the most organized job will, occasionally, have quiet days when work is on hold because of scheduling conflicts, delays in deliveries, and the rest.

Here are the steps and the time required for each:

  1.  Surveyor staking foundation location (1/2 day)
  2.  Excavation and, if necessary, clearing and tree removal (1-2 days)
  3. Footing and foundation work, including time for curing concrete, installing drain tile, waterproofing, back filling, etc. (2-3 weeks) 
  4.  Framing (1-3 weeks) 
  5.  Roofing and flashing work, chimney installation (1-2 weeks) 
  6.  Window, exterior door installation, siding, trim (2-4 weeks)
  7. Electrical, plumbing, other rough-ins. Note that this step overlaps with step 6 (1-2 weeks) 
  8.  Walls and ceilings (2 weeks) 
  9.  Finish work: interior trim, doors, floors, cabinets, painting, set fixtures, etc. (2-8 weeks) 
  10.  Punch list, final inspection, etc. (1 week)