Homebuilders spend a bundle dressing their model homes so you are seduced by their sectionals and wowed by their wallpaper. What's behind the walls, though, is what determines if a house is best in show or just for show.
True, "they don't build ‘em like they used to." You can no longer find a new house framed with knot-free lumber, as in the old Sears houses. But, on the plus side, you cannot find one that's laced with asbestos or lacks insulation. Not if it is built to code, that is.
The state's new Energy Efficient Building Act says new houses must meet the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). "Most high-end builders already do this," explains Mark Perlman, president of Empeco Custom Builders in Northbrook. "But this forces production builders to meet higher standards, too."
In addition, builders must comply with city and county building codes, which primarily address safety issues. Within these parameters, though, the bones of new houses vary greatly.
Compared to their Swiss-cheese-like predecessors, today's homes are "tight envelopes," say the builders. A diligent builder caulks and seals every opportunity for heated air to escape.
Keeping the house's frame dry is house wrap. "Even at entry-level price points, buyers expect it and should get it," reports Jeff Benach of Lexington Homes in Chicago.
If house wrap is the exterior skin, drywall is the house's interior skin. But "drywall" is a generic word that encompasses many products.
"We use QuietRock, which has a higher insulating value and deadens sound more than ordinary drywall," says Patrick Shaver, director of sales and marketing at Century Bay Builders in Libertyville. "It costs a little more, though, so you can at least use it for bedrooms, media rooms and other rooms you want to keep quiet."
Standard drywall is a no-no in bathrooms. "Bathroom walls should be made of greenboard, which is water-resistant drywall," explains Shaver. "Behind showers and tubs, you have cement board, which is waterproof."
Behind the drywall is the house's skeleton or frame. While a handful of builders use metal framing, most still use wood.
"SPF (spruce/pine/fir) is the standard," reports Ed Kubiak, director of construction, Beechen & Dill Homes Inc. in Burr Ridge. "Hemlock is cheaper but shrinks more when it dries, so the result is inconsistent."
For floors, Kubiak prefers engineered wood. "OSB [oriented strand board] is the cheapest but can swell with moisture," he explains. "Plywood is better. But we use engineered wood that's sealed on six sides, so it doesn't absorb moisture. It costs more but won't create a squeaky floor."
Beware the builder who buys the cheapest wood at the lumberyard, which is warped, full of knots and/or moldy. "With the housing slowdown, the lumberyards have wood that's been sitting out," says Kubiak. "A good contractor won't buy it."
Most builders use 2-by-4 studs for walls, says Westmont architect Bill Styczynski, although walls taller than 10 feet tall require 2-by-6 studs for strength.
The home shopper should consider not only the size of the stud, says Styczynski, but the distance between them. "Sixteen inch on center" means there are 16 inches from the center of one stud to the next. Some builders use "24 inch on center." Combined with the stud size, it makes a difference, says Styczynski. A 2-by-6, 24-inch-on-center wall minimizes framing costs and offers more room for insulation, he explains, but squeezes a few inches out of the width of the house, which matters on a small lot.
Between the studs is cavity insulation. Like the fat on our bones, it keeps the house warm. (Or, in the summer, cool.)
"Whether you're building a 2,500- or 6,000-square-foot house, get the best insulation you can afford to keep the house warm and prevent huge utility bills," says Steve Buonsante, president of Mondo Builders Inc. in Elmhurst. Insulation also softens sound.
Fiberglass batting is the insulation norm among entry-level housing. But most custom-home builders prefer insulation that gives the walls better R-values, though it can cost more.
"We use spray foam insulation," says Neil Fortunato of Green Building Technologies Inc. in Highland Park. "It completely fills every space in a way fiberglass can't. Unlike more complicated and expensive approaches like geothermal, wind or solar systems, this simply reduces heating and cooling demands."
Buonsante likes cellulose, which is made of recycled newsprint, and can be blown in wet or dry. "Many of my buyers use what I call the ‘Mondo hybrid' — cellulose in the walls and foam in hard-to-reach cavities," he says.
Not every builder insulates interior walls, but the buyer who adds this to his must-have list thanks his builder when the teen in the next bedroom cranks up his music.
Another feature that makes the house "not your father's first new home," adds Benach, is blown-in attic insulation. Even builders at modest price points now include this amenity to prevent heat from literally going out the roof.
The circulation system
Inside the walls is a complicated tangle of pipes that deliver electricity and water to rooms. Unanchored by a short-cut builder, the latter can result in banging when water flows.
One of the greatest variables here, say the builders, is the ductwork, which sends heated and cooled air to rooms and returns unheated and uncooled air to the HVAC system. "It's common that 30 percent of the air leaks before it reaches your rooms," says Kubiak. There are no "duct police," he says, so you should choose a builder who seals the ductwork well to achieve a better percentage. "We seal ours with a brushed-on mastic, then test it to make sure no more than three percent (air) leaks," says Kubiak.
Also tucked into the walls of many of today's new houses is home automation wiring. "There's a main brain, usually in the basement, which connects with the security system, lighting, blinds, HVAC, music and TV," says Shaver. By thinking ahead, the homeowner can add features later without tearing out walls.
Automation varies widely, depending on the buyer's budget, adds Shaver. "Some homeowners just want a lighting-control system," he says. "But others want everything automated and integrated, so they can, for example, get an e-mail at work if one of the kids gets home or see a picture on their bedroom TV of who is pulling into the driveway."
Not to be omitted is a passive radon vent that extends from below the basement through the attic, adds Styczynski. "It's required in some counties, not in others," he says. "But radon is prevalent in this area and causes lung cancer. So it's important. It adds to your cost, but it costs a lot more to mitigate the radon problem when you try to sell the house later."
How does the home buyer know if his intended house has good bones? Grab your hard hat, say the builders.
Many production builders host "pre-drywall walks" for their buyers. Custom builders are less formal, meeting their clients at the construction site often to inspect the house's progress.
"Ask the builder about (professional) inspections," adds Kubiak. "The more sets of eyes, the better. We have three levels of management inspect the house pre-drywall, plus a third-party energy auditor, plus the village inspector."
One of your greatest resources, adds Perlman, is the builder's previous clients. "Get gobs of references," he says. "Ask them about their houses. Are they drafty or comfortable? Are they quiet or do the pipes clank when the heat comes on? They'll tell you."
Finally, there's more to "good bones" than quality building materials. As Sarah Susanka details in her "Not So Big House" books, a house should be in proportion to human scale. If it is, is "feels right" even when empty. If it isn't, no amount of decorating will fix it.