a chat with the builder

We sat down with the builder to go over his estimate and discuss material choices and whatnot, and that was great fun. Builders have a lot of practical experience that can be real useful. And given that this builder has a lot of experience and appreciation for Modern architecture, we don’t have to listen to ”Get the plans from that there architect and we’ll even out them windows during the build and put a real roof on that house.” or “What the hell!?!?! You building a house or a Jiffy Lube!”

Random things we talked about:

1. Stucco: The builder said that stucco with imbedded pigment will crack (which freaks some folks out) and that painted stucco with elastic paint is less likely to crack (and easier to "fix" [seal and paint over] if it does crack). We’re prolly-definitely in the ”freak out” category, so based on that information (and our previous good experience with painted stucco), we’re thinking painted stucco. However, the architect was thinking two layers of the standard stuff with a topcoat of elastic stucco with embedded color to deal with the cracking issue (and lower the maintenance). The builder and the architect will discuss…

2. Outside walls: The architect specified 2x4s for the outside walls. The builder says he hasn’t built a house with 2x4 exterior walls in seven years. Given that his pricing assumes 2x6 exterior walls, we’re going to go with 2x6 walls. We feel better with 2x6ers.

3. Geotechnical: Now’s the time to get technical done!

4. Roofing: The architect specified TPO for the roof. TPO (thermoplastic polyolefin) is white (reflective = green) and typically used in commercial roofing. The builder says that TPO is top of the line, and, if we can afford it, go for it. Otherwise torchdown (sheets of fiberglass, polyester, and bitumen that are melted together with a torch) can be had for a bit less. We can afford TPO. And with a sizable part of our roof visible from the second story, white is even better.

5. Cladding on the garage: Stucco is expensive, so the builder suggested Hardie on the garage as an alternative. The architects thought this was a good idea as long as they could clad part of the house (where the laundry room and master closet are) with Hardie as well to better visually connect the garage to the house. Makes perfect sense with the added bonus of saving even more money on stucco.

6. Drywall finish: The architects specified light orange peel. The builder noted that a smooth finish can be had for 20 percent more. We’re considering smooth in the public areas of the house (something a pure modernist would shudder at since one Modern tenet [at least among some…] is to have consistent finishes throughout the house; we just won’t invite them over for dinner!). Smooth is sweet.

7. Dishwashers: The builder loves Bosch dishwashers. We spent quite a bit of time talking about ’em. We will disappoint him if we don’t get a Bosch dishwasher.

8. Central vacuum: A la Corbu, we demand a (central) vacuum cleaner. The builder says they run $1,400 installed (and are quite handy).

9. Orientation of the garage roof: We want the garage to be solar ready. The garage roof is currently oriented toward the east. The builder says that although it’s possible to orient panels on a roof sloping the ”wrong” direction, it’s better to orient the roof in the right direction in the first place (makes a lot of sense...). His suggestion was to slope the garage roof at the appropriate slope (which seems to be 45 degrees?) rather than orienting the panels to the appropriate slope. We’re amenable to that if the architects think this would work compositionally with everything else going on with the house (see helpful sketches we provided to the architects below; we provided those so they knew we were open to a non blocky roof line if it “made sense”). He also said that fixing solar panels to TPO is a little "disconcerting" (my word to describe his discomfort). He recommended attaching them to standing seam metal. Bonus: Standing seam is 35 percent less expensive to install! Since it appears that you can get 1 kW of capacity per 100 square feet, our ~500 square-feet of garage roof might-could support a 5 kW system.

10. Neoplastic walls: The builder said that footings (just the freakin footings!) for garden walls run $140 a foot. That means my dream of neoplastic walls will run us at least (let’s see here, that, plus about that, plus [squinting] about that, times 140) 20,000 bucks. Gulp.

11. CMU sound wall: The builder says this would run about $8.50 to $10 a square foot (area facing you). So that’s about 5 to 10K. Hmmmm…

12. Building time: The builder thinks he can build the house in 7 months, start to finish! Wow!

In other news:

A. We decided we would rather have the storage space in the laundry room than the ”special spot” for the grill. The loss of storage space plus the (shockingly) high prices for built-in grills (think thousands) prompted this decision.

B. After we staked the footprint of the house out on the lot, we ”looked out” the windows of the house and now think that the over-the-counter horizontal windows in the kitchen would be better up high (where we can see the neighbor’s trees and the sky). Otherwise we’ll be looking at fence.

So there you have it. Builder input. 


  1. I'd totally go for the smooth walls. I wish we had. I asked about it but was only told that it was waaaay more expensive, so we didn't pursue it. I don't recall what we spent on the walls, but 20% more doesn't sound like a bad deal.

    Solar panels on the garage -- be sure to use real standing-seam, not the faux-standing-seam that we have. It was a bear to attach solar panels to.

    Wow, 9-10 months from start to finish! (For your convenience, I translated from the builder calendar to the regular, human calendar.)

  2. Faux standing seam! What?!?!?!

    Thanks for the builder calendar to human calendar conversion. Seven months does seem rather remarkable.

  3. How exciting to be getting close to breaking ground. We sold our house last fall and are on the hunt for a lot. Already have an architect and builder, but finding a property to fit our budget, programatic criteria and location preference has been difficult.

  4. That lot looking is a bear, no? Although we really (really) enjoyed seeing different parts of town (and the dreaming associated with each lot). We started this blog late into our lot search (and found a lot soon thereafter), but we looked for several years. Ultimately, because of our (relatively) limited budget, we had to compromise on location.

    We wish you the best on your adventure!