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design and construction tips you may find helpful.

These tips are intended to give you general guidance when thinking about the design and planning of your new home. The tips are arranged alphabetically. They will be expanded and added to on a regular basis.

Also take a look at our Building Jargon page for some common terms used in general house construction.

Accessibility - An individual with a physical impairment requires special design considerations. Make doors 36" wide with lever handles. Keep wide hallway, we like to use 42" widths. Exterior grades should not be steeper than 1" vertical rise in 12" of horizontal run. Set light switches no higher than 54" above the floor and wall outlets no lower than 9" above the floor. Kitchens and bathrooms require special attention. Bathrooms particularly need allot of floor area to accommodate a wheelchair.

Aging/Retirement - A few simple measures can be built in now that will make your retirement house a lot more user-friendly, 1) Design a single level home, 2) Include plenty of bright lighting to accommodate failing eyesight, 3) Make electrical outlets and light switches easier to reach, place outlets 28"-30" from floor and switches 36"-42" from floor, 3) Use lever door handles, 4) Buy appliances that are easy to operate, side-by-side refrigerator, ovens and sinks with controls at front or side, 4) Plan a central kitchen work area to avoid carrying heavy items, a 3-foot counter between oven and sink, 5) Install a 'lazy susan' in the corner kitchen cabinet, 6) Install grab bars in bathrooms, 7) install anti-scald device in the shower head, 8) Make doorways 36" wide, 9) Install thermostats at eye level with easy to read numbers.

Attic - To use your attic space for storage you will need to put down a plywood floor. Before you do this make sure you add additional height to your ceiling joist. If you do not than the plywood you put down will crush the ceiling insulation and reduce it's effectiveness. You can add additional height by using 2x4's or 2x6's on top of your ceiling joists.

Bathroom Fixtures - The minimum clearance between and to bathroom fixtures is helpful to know when planning your bathroom layout. Here are minimums you can use.

Bedroom Windows - Unlike any other room in your home bedroom windows need to conform to very specific minimum dimensions for emergency egress. A minimum clear opening height dimension of 24 inches and a minimum clear width dimension of 20 inches. And a minimum net clear opening of 5.7 square feet on windows above grade level and 5.0 square feet on ground floor windows.

Building Cost - We use the following rules of thumb to estimate construction costs. We start with the base cost. Base cost is the square foot number you hear when you discuss construction costs with a builder, banker, realtor or others. It is the square footage of living space which is heated and or cooled. Depending upon the construction practices in your area it may include the cost of an attached garage or full basement.  We use this base cost number to start our estimate and adjust the base cost for the following design features:

Add 50% to the base cost for cathedral ceilings and two story spaces.

Add 40% to the base cost for porches and decks with a roof over them.

Add 40% to the base cost for insulated garages.

Add 20% to the base cost for porches and decks without a roof.

Add 20% for unfinished attics that include knee walls, plywood floors and windows.

Add 10% to the base cost for full basements. Here is an example in which we selected a base cost of $80\sf, The base cost can be anywhere from $50/sf to $250/sf.

House Size                    1,500 sf

Base Square Foot Cost    $80/sf

Base Cost Budget        $ 120,000

Adjustments                        Area                Adjusted sf Cost            Add to Base Cost

10x10 two story foyer            100                        40/sf                          $ 4,000

8x16 porch with roof            128                        32/sf                            $ 4,096

24x24 insulated garage        576                        32/sf                            $ 18,432

10x16 deck without roof      160                        16/sf                             $ 2,560

12x40 unfinished attic            480                    16/sf                                $ 7,680

24x48 full basement            1,15                        8/sf                                $ 9,216

Estimated Budget Cost                                                                           $ 165,984

Building Shape - Rectilinear shapes are always less expensive to build than polygonal or curvilinear.

Building Materials - Stock and standard materials are always easier to price and obtain. The also minimize mistakes and construction delays.

Building Framing - Minimize bearing conditions. One central bearing condition with one-way framing is always cheaper.

Closets - There is never enough of them. You should have at least, a coat closet near your front and rear entrances, a kitchen pantry closet is always nice, a linen closet in or near each bathroom, a hall closet in each hallway,

Degree Days - A measure of heating load. Record the maximum and minimum temperatures each day and subtract the average of the two numbers from 65. For example, during a 24-hour period the high temperature may reach 73 degrees and the low temperature may reach 45 degrees. The average temperature would be 59 degrees, (73+45)/2=59. Subtract 59 from 65 and you have 6 degree days for this example day.

Door Swings - When entering a room the door swing should open toward the center of the room.

Many times a closet door in a bedroom is behind the entry door into that bedroom. Using a sliding door will eliminate the bedroom entry door from hitting the closet door.

Finished Grade - Setting the finished grade at the front door requires some consideration. As minimum requirement for a house with a basement we use 21" from finished floor to finished grade, for a house on a slab we use 8"   The 21" works nicely because it can be used with 2x8, 2x10 or 2x12  floor joist construction and give you only three steps to get into your house. One 7" step from finished floor to entrance platform or porch then a two riser (7" each) stair to finished grade. This is economical because a handrail is not required on stairs with less than three risers. For a house with slab construction the 8" provides the minimum distance allowed by building codes between finished grade and any wood. 

A discussion on surface drainage around your home provided by the Pennsylvania Dept of Environment Protection can be found at Guidelines for surface drainage around a home.

Energy Conservation - A square home will use less heat and cooling energy than any other practical building shape. This is because a square encloses the greatest amount in interior floor space with the least amount of perimeter wall surface exposed to the exterior elements.

Furniture - Important. Important. Important. Always consider how you are going to place furniture in the rooms you design. Many floor plans you find in plan books have large wide open Living Rooms connecting several rooms together. They essentially function as a corridor. Look at them closely and consider how you would place furniture in them.

Electric Costs - Based on an electric rate of 7.5 cents per KW for a family of four here is a sampling of monthly electrical costs for common household appliances; 1) hairdryer $0.20, 2) toothbrush $0.10, 3) computer monitor $0.67 and computer $0.75, 4) computer printer $1.58, 5) waterbed $9.25 6) dehumidifier $1.95, 7) television $1.35, 8) VCR $.10, 9) ceiling fan $2.25, 10) microwave $0.75, 11) toaster $0.20, 12) stove/oven $5.65, 13) dishwasher $9.00, 14) clothes dryer $6.60 and washing machine $0.60, 15) iron $0.40, 16) coffee maker $0.68, 17) vacuum cleaner $0.40, 18)tropical fish tank $6.52, 19) frying pan $0.10, 20) swimming pool equipment $32.40.

Garage - You need room for your cars but don't forget your lawn maintenance equipment,  yard furniture and workspace. For a one car garage use 12'-0" wide by 24'-0" deep, for a two car garage plan one 24'-0" by 24'-0" deep and use 36'-0" wide by 24'-0" deep for three cars. You can use 22'-0" deep garages in stead of 24'-0" at the expense of storage space.

Hip Roof - Generally the most expensive pitched roof form for a house. If you are on a tight budget a hip roof design should be considered second to a gable roof design. If your budget allows more room then consider a hip roof design. We think a hip roof looks better on a one story design rather than on a two story design.  At our On-Line Design page you view a design which shows a hip roof design and gable roof design on  the same house.

Insulation - Whether you are in a warm climate or cold climate always insulate to the maximum limits. Remember insulation is cheap compared to the ongoing energy savings it continually will provide you. Proper insulation is a key element for a more comfortable and energy efficient home. Cost effective insulation values adapted from the U.S.Department of Energy 1997 Insulation fact sheet: More under Building Jargon.

If you live in a CLIMATE that is......                   Fuel            Ceiling          Walls        Floor          Bsmnt


with cooling and minimal heating                       gas/oil         R22-R38      R11-R13     R11-R13    R11-R19

requirements                                                     electric        R38-R49      R11-R22     R13-R25    R11-R19

(i.e.,FL, HI, coastal CA, southeast

TX, southern LA, AR, MS, AL & GA)    


with moderate heating adn cooling                    gas/oil         R38             R11-R22     R13-R25    R11-R19

requirements                                                     electric        R49             R11-R22     R25           R11-R19

(i.e., VA, WV, KY, MO, NE, OK, OR,

WA & ID, southern IN, KS, NM, AZ,

northern LA, AR, MS, AL & GA,

inland CA & western NV)


(i.e. PA, NY, New England, nothern Midwest,       gas/oil        R38-R49      R11-R22      R25         R11-R19

Great Lakes area, mountainous areas                  electric       R49             R11-R28       R25        R11-R19

(e.g. CO, WY, UT, etc.)

Figuring areas for insulation. A shortcut when buying insulation is to multiply the gross area by 90 percent, if framing is 16-inches on center. Use 94 percent if framing members are on 24-inches on center.

Joists - Floor joists are most cost efficient when designed on 24" increments, i.e. 12'-0", 14'-0", 16'-0" wide rooms.

Kitchen - Give yourself plenty of wall space for cabinets. Kitchens with doors or openings on three walls are difficult to design an efficient cabinet layout.

Lumber - For No.1 and No.2 graded  framing lumber Hem-Fir has the highest bending strength followed by Spruce-Pine-Fir and than Douglas Fir. This means that Hem-Fir can span a greater distance. Engineered lumber products, such as 'T' shaped joists and laminated beams can span even greater distances.

Plumbing - Stack "wet" spaces over first floor spaces that have plumbing. 

Remodeling - The average homeowner can recoups remodeling cost over the long term. Chances are you'll get back 94% for minor kitchen make-over, 89% for a new bath, 84% for a new family room, 82% for a master suite, 70% for a deck and 64% for a home office.

Room Size - Rooms have minimum sizes required by building codes. The building code for one and two family dwellings, CABO, specifies "Habitable rooms, except kitchens, shall be no less than 7 feet in any horizontal dimension." Individual building codes can specify other dimensions, for example, the New York State building code requires 10 feet  in any horizontal dimension.

Roof - The single design feature with the greatest impact. Look at a building and it's the roof which first defines your impression of the building. Is it pitched or flat?, is it high or low?, is it hip, gable, gambrel, shed, combination?, simple or complex?, large overhangs or small?, dark color or light?. So don't think of the roof as something which keeps the rain and snow out but as an important design decision to be given careful study.

Roof Framing - Symmetrical gable framing is always cheaper than ridge beams, multiple pitch trusses, hip roofs etc. Minimize valley and hips. Not only do they involve extra framing, they involve flashing. Simple right-angle eave fascias minimize trim detailing. 

Try to avoid gutters. Not only do they add cost, they also create a lot of maintenance. With carefull planning, the roofscaping can usually direct water away from where people enter.

Roof Pitch -  The angle of the roof or pitch is expressed as vertical inches per horizontal foot (12 inches), for example a 10/12 pitch means the roof angle risers 10 vertical inches for each 12 horizontal inches. The steeper the pitch the steeper the angel of the roof.

Site Planning - An ideal site for designing and building an energy efficient home, would have full solar access and protection from the harsh elements of nature. Energy efficient housing works on any site or lot, with any style or type of housing, on any compass orientation. When planning your building site you must know the prevailing winds in your area to take advantage of them. Shelter from the winter winds and cross ventilation from the summer winds can be incorporated into the planning stage. Although your lot may not have any solar access you can still build an energy efficient home. An energy efficient home is not necessarily a solar home, but solar energy can, and often is used, to further lower energy consumption. 

Smoke Detectors - Always plan to have them in each bedroom and at least one on each floor near the stair landing. They must be continuously powered by the house electrical system.

Solar Energy - To maximize the amount of useful solar energy place your Living Room, Family Room,  Great Room, Kitchen or any other room used allot on the south side of your home. 

As a rough rule of thumb to figure out the optimum window area for a south-facing wall, add the surface area of all the exterior wall surfaces to twice (multiply the floor area times 2) the floor area of your home and divide this figure by 35. This will give you the square feet of south-facing window area.

At 40 north latitude at mid day on average  the sun hurls about 230 Btus of heat against one square foot of south-facing window. About 80 percent or 184 Btus of this comes through the glass and into the house.

To maximize solar potential the home must be the proper shape and have unobstructed solar access. The optimum building shape is one which gains the maximum solar energy in the winter yet has the least exposed exterior surface area. The sphere has the least surface area in terms of volume enclosed and is the most efficient, but is not a very practical building shape. A square offers a more practical building shape, but southern surface area can be limited. The rectangular shape offers the best compromise for solar gain since it exposes a larger area to the sun while keeping the total surface area to a practical minimum.

Solar Site Planning - No obstacles should be in the way of the low angle rays of winter sun. This solar access must be clear from about 9.00 a.m to 3.00 p.m when over 90% of the winter solar radiation occurs. If the sun is blocked for even one hour, up to 20% of this energy will not be available. Deciduous trees, even without their leaves, can block up to 50% of the sun. The Long side of your home can face as much as 30 degrees east or west of true south and still receive over 90% of the available solar energy. 

Soundproofing - There are four elements to good soundproofing construction; 1) sound absorbing insulation, 2) caulking to block sound paths, 3) resilient clips to break sound paths, and 4) acoustic matting to isolate vibrations.

Stairs Construction - Simple straight-run stairs are always cheaper, and closed-stringer stairs are cheaper than open.

Stairs Risers - The higher your finished ceiling heights the more floor place your stair will require. A stair in a home with 9'-0" ceiling heights will require more floor space than a stair in a home with an 8'-0" ceiling height, nearly 3 square feet and two risers more.

Exterior stair risers should be maximum 7" height with treads of 11" minimum. For interior stairs the maximum riser height is 8.1/4" with a minimum tread width of 9". The rule of thumb formula for interior stair design is 2R+1T=24 to 25 inches. For example: a stair with an 8" riser and 9" tread would equal 25 (2x8+1x9=25). Exterior stairs are not as steep as interior stairs therefore the formula should equal 26.

Waterbed Loading - A typical queen size waterbed weighs about 60 lbs/square foot. The bed holds about 196 gallons of water. Water weighs 8.33 lbs/gallon, so the weight of the bed is 1,626 lbs. Add another 60 lbs for the weight of the bed and another 300 lbs for two persons and you get a total of 1,986 lbs. The surface area of a queen size bed is 33.33 square feet, divide 1,986 by 33.33 and you get 59.6 lbs/square foot.

Windows - The minimum size window for any room is 8 percent of the floor area. Bathrooms however require a minimum size of only 3 square feet.

Window glass which is less than 18" above the finished floor must be safety glass. Selecting a window size to avoid the requirement will save money on the costs of windows. With the standard header height of 80" a 64" high window (16"sill height + 2" for window frame and sash  = 18" floor to glass edge) works well.

Windows Energy Efficiency - Energy Ratings: Most manufacturers provide both the center-of-the glass and the entire window energy rating. R-value measures resistance to heat transfer, the higher the number the better. U-value measures total heat transfer, the lower the number the better.

Shading Coefficient: This rating tells how much solar energy a window captures. A single pane of glass exposed to the sun has a shading coefficient of 1.0, a single pane of glass blocked to the sun has a shading coefficient of 0.0.

Light: Clear double-glazed windows allow 77 percent of visible light to pass through. Low-e glass allows about 70 percent and high-R allows about 62 percent of visible light to pass through. Part of the visible light is in the form of the ultraviolet radiation that's responsible for the fading of carpets and furniture. You'll find windows that allow everything from over 50 percent of the Ultraviolet through to windows that let less than 1 percent through.

Air Infiltration: This is important in all climates. Windows should be well constructed and allow a minimum of air infiltration. A rating of .02 or .03 is very tight, a rating of .50 is loose. 

Wood Stove - As a rule of thumb you can calculate the size of wood stove by multiplying the area of the room/space to be heated by 5.16. This will give you the approximate firebox volume in cubic inches, that your wood stove should offer.