Custom Homes for Unique Lifestyles

We are all different. We are unique. We say it so often that it has lost much of its meaning, it has become a cliché. But then, most clichés are built upon some basic truth, and when it comes to your home – the way you live it, the way your family inhabits it – recognizing that truth is a fundamental part of getting it done right.

One-size-fits all construction fits no-one. No family of four is just any family of four, no newlywed couple is a prototypal couple, nor is a retired couple, a bachelor or a single mother merely a generic set of data parameters.

We all have different outlooks, taste, habits and needs. They impact on the way we live, the things we seek for in a home, the needs we look to fulfill.

A Custom Home in Greater Vancouver, Just for You

At Clay Construction we have worked for many years from Vancouver, British Columbia, and the Lower Mainland creating homes that are custom build and designed specifically for their owners.

We know the first and most important part of our work is to listen to you. But our extensive experience have taught us that sometime listening is not enough: we learned to ask the right questions, to help you tell us things which you couldn’t have imagined you needed to tell us.

Our emphasis on consultation is an integral part of the entire process from design to finish. We begin by helping you fill an extensive questionnaire to outline your needs and desires. We will take you to see the homes we have built and show you our projects online to stimulate the flow of ideas.

At every step we will discuss with you the alternatives with an understanding but informed approach, so that you can take part in the decisions but never feel the burden of them. As the design ideas encounter the realities of the terrain, the materials, the regulations and the costs, you will have all the information and support you need to come up with the right choices.

At the end of the journey, you will have a house that you can call your home, in every sense of the way.

Dealing with VOCs

Volatile organic compounds (abbreviated as VOCs) are gases that emanate from some solids or liquids and  include a range of chemicals which may have short or long-term negative health effects.

A big problem is that the concentrations of VOCs are  consistently higher in the interior spaces. Up to ten times higher than outdoors. They are readily found in most homes, which most people think of as their safe place in the world, the sanctum-sanctorum of private life.

The number of products emitting VOCs run  in the thousands, and all them release VOCs not only when in use but also when stored.

Most people is aware that organic chemicals are widely used in household products, fuels of all types, varnishes and wax, cleaning and disinfecting products, cosmetics, degreasers and more.

However, many homeowners don’t realize how often VOCs are introduced to the home when it’s being built or renovated. Construction materials,  paints, and adhesives, among others, are high on the list of VOCs emitting products, and poor designs in terms of air flow often compound the issue.

According to the EPA some of the health effects of exposure to VOCs may include eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination and nausea, damage to liver, kidney and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals, some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans.

The same source cites a variety of symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs, which range from conjunctival irritation, to nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reactions and more.

For these reasons, it is of paramount importance to make sure the reduction of VOCs in the household starts right at the beginning, with the planning and construction process.

Clay Construction in Vancouver, British Columbia, works with their clients to ensure this issue is taken very seriously at every step of the way. For this purpose they closely monitor the construction materials, and implement designs that permits for better ventilation in order to reduce harmful toxins and minimize their effects.

Air Quality Starts at the Foundation

To improve your home’s air quality, start at the foundation.

I received a call from a woman who had placed an offer on an expensive home in Vancouver. She wanted a renovation to this home, since she could not be in this home without quickly feeling sick. The home smelled musty, and she couldn’t bear the thought of living there. I concluded that a band-aid fix would not be satisfactory, considering her health issues.

I phoned my friend and ventilation expert, David Hill. David lives locally, yet his expertise takes him all over Canada and the U.S. for speaking engagements. He confirmed my suspicion that the smell and mould/mildew originated from the basement.

Nearly all new homes are built to the lowest common denominator – the BC Building Code. With respect to the foundation, let me show you what you get when you only build to code. We have two problems.

Firstly, traditional construction places the footing on dirt or clay. Footings, much like snow shoes, increase the surface area and spread out the load. The foundation wall sits on top of the footing. This footing, when sitting in water, can wick up 3 pounds of water per day per square foot. This moisture finds its way to the basement wall assembly.

Secondly, traditional basement wall assemblies are a victim of building science principles.

Allow me to illustrate my point.

Take one cold coke out of your fridge and put it on your counter. Take another one out of the pantry and put it beside the first coke can. Wait 5 minutes. What do you notice? The can out of the fridge has accumulated condensation on the outside of the can, while the other is dry. Moisture in the air condenses on cold surfaces.

Concrete is cold. Once moisture in the air gets past the vapour barrier, it condenses on this cold concrete wall. Furthermore, the poly sheeting prevents adequate breathing of the wall assembly.

What can be done?

Firstly, place your footings on a thick bed of ¾ inch free draining clear crushed rock. Water may wick up through sand and dirt through capillary action, but water will not wick up through ¾ inch clear crushed rock. Placing poly at the base of the footings will also prevent footings from making contact with water.

Free draining clear crushed rock and poly under the footings will prevent your foundation from making contact with water.

Secondly, choose a basement wall assembly that prevents air vapour from making contact with the cold concrete wall. Insulated Concrete Forms is one solution. Another would be to place rigid insulation on the interior/exterior of the foundation wall. Eliminate the poly vapour barrier and replace with a vapour barrier paint. This increases the breathability of the wall assembly.

foundation2

Insulated concrete forms prevent air vapour from making contact with the cold wall.

When building a custom home, you have one chance to get it right. Strategically, build above code. Spend a little extra money and build a home that is healthy, comfortable, durable and energy efficient.

Wall Assemblies: Have your Cake and Eat it Too!

When it comes to wall assemblies, you can have your cake and eat it too!

I grew up in a home built in 1911. Houses were different back then. This home had sawdust for insulation and single pane windows. As it got colder, we put more wood in the fireplace. There were days in the winter when the house was so hot that we kept the front door open to cool off the home. Neighbours would drive by and think, “There are those Crazy Clays, it is -20° and they have their doors wide open!” That was the past.

Conserving energy was not a concern, since we just put another log on the fire. Firewood was free. Insulating the wall and achieving air tightness was just not a priority.

Homes eventually made a move to oil/gas fired furnaces. This new fuel cost more than the wood, which was free, so energy efficiency became more important. Thus, people began to place a greater emphasis on putting insulation between the studs.

In the 1970’s, the energy crisis hit us hard. We increased the insulation levels even further, and improved air tightness. The vapour barrier poly sheathing became standard construction. While increasing insulation values and airtightness can be a good thing, it can also have some negative consequences. Remember the condo crisis with wall assemblies rotting from the inside out?

Allow me to share a building science principle.

Take one cold coke out of your fridge and put it on your coffee table. Take another one out of the pantry and put it beside the first coke can. Wait 5 minutes. What do you notice? Yes, the can out of the fridge has accumulated condensation on the outside of the can, while the other is dry. Moisture in the air condenses on cold surfaces.

One important objective of a well-built wall assembly is to warm up surfaces where condensation may occur.

There are three problems with traditional batt insulation:

 

  1. We can stuff only so much insulation between the studs.  There is a limit.
  2. Eliminate thermal bridging. While insulation has an R-value of 22, the wood studs have an R-value of around 6. The framing is about 23% of the wall. So 23% of the wall is only R-6. The wood promotes thermal bridging.
  3. Poly sheeting does not allow the wall assembly to breathe.
Is there a better way?

Dr. Joe Lstiburek is a world-renowned building science expert. He has been a proponent of the perfect wall assembly. This wall assembly reduces thermal transfer and keeps the exterior sheathing warmer, thus reducing the propensity for moisture buildup.

For greater detail on this wall assembly, see my article, The Perfect Wall.

By choosing the correct wall assembly, you will achieve the following benefits:

 

  1. Thermal transfer is eliminated.
  2. Inside of the exterior sheathing is now warmer reducing the propensity for condensation.
  3. Effective R-value can easily double.
  4. No poly sheeting allows the wall assembly to breathe.

 

A well-built wall assembly is breathable and free of moisture.

I speak to builders who remember the condo crisis. They make comments like, “I just slash the poly, so that the wall can breathe.” This is prehistoric thinking; there is a better way. Why sacrifice air tightness to improve the breathability when building science proves you can have both?

Homes of the future will be more energy efficient and air tight. This wall assembly will breathe and be free of moisture and mildew, making homes healthier. Yes, you can have your cake and eat it too!

Constructing Solid Stairs – how to avoid bouncy stairs

Have you ever walked up a staircase and it felt bouncy? Also known as bouncy stairs. There is an easy way to avoid this – for less $$ than you might think.

“Don’t you hate bouncy stairs? Well, I’m the same way. In fact, it’s one of my pet peeves. Let me give you one strategy that will give you strong, solid stairs.”

I’m going to give you one little suggestion that will only cost you about three hundred dollars a house. A quality house deserves quality stairs.

stair design

how to avoid bouncy stairs

Traditionally, framers will use dimensional lumber for their stringer. From this material, the framer will cut out the triangles to form the same shape of treads and risers. By going with the traditional use of dimensional lumber, the stairs will be bouncy, just not strong enough.

 

 

There is a better way.

LVL timber

The best material to avoid bouncy stairs

If you use laminated veneer lumber (LVL), you will have strong, non-bouncy stairs.  Ask your builder to use LVL for the stringers when you are framing the stairs.

For around three hundred dollars you will get for the life of your home – strong, solid stairs.  It’s one of the best places to spend a few hundred dollars. Every time you walk up and down those solid stairs you’ll be glad you took the time to invest.

We build this way in every home we build. We’re known throughout the Vancouver and Fraser Valley for building some of the best homes on the market.

 

We build by our own set of standards, above code – we call it #TheClayWay. If you’re thinking of building or considering a major renovation we’d love to talk with you and help you make the right decisions.

Buyer Beware! This poor woman was ripped off for $80,000.

Buyer Beware!  This poor woman was ripped off for $80,000.  Check out our interview on how to protect yourself from unlicensed and unscrupulous builders.

A Surrey woman is fighting to get some of her money back after discovering the builder she hired isn’t licensed as a new home builder in British Columbia.

Queency Marfa says she didn’t learn this critical information until after she signed the deal, and now she’s discovered there are a whole lot of things she should have done differently.

For example, she should have checked the licensing of the builder, as well as had an expert or real estate lawyer take a look at her contract before she signed it.
The Home Builders Association says there’s a lot more to being a good home builder than knowing how to swing a hammer and use a saw – you need business skills too. The company you hire needs to meet regulations and provide up to date paperwork and invoicing.

Larry Clay, VP of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders’ Association, took a closer look at Marfa’s contract and immediately saw a red flag with the warranty the builder was offering.

“This is not a licensed builder providing a 2-5-10 warranty,” Clay said, nothing this means a two-year warranty on labour and materials, five on the building envelope, and 10 years on the structure.

The 2-5-10 warranty is the strongest defect insurance you can get on a new home in Canada, but not every builder can offer one. Only a licensed residential builder can offer a warranty, and it needs to be registered with BC’s Home Protection Office and held by a third-party company – not just the builder.

Clay was also concerned about the 40 per cent down payment required in the contract, given that 10 per cent is the industry standard. He says a home building contract should be very specific, laying out a project schedule and terms of payment. Once construction beings, the consumer should be provided detailed job cost reports and expect weekly project status updates along with receipts for money spent.

Marfa says she’s paid about $80,000 to Steel Dragon Construction Ltd., which is not a licensed builder. Her old house has been demolished, and plans were purchased and submitted for permitting of the new home, but Marfa has been given no receipts for the work that has been done.

“I have no proof of anything of what [the company] has paid and what [the company] has done with the money,” Marfa said.

“If you look at my scope, my scope is going to be hundreds of pages,” says Clay. He offers homebuyers, signed agreements to make sure that workers are paid. Ten percent of the money is held back from subcontractors and kept in trust to protect the consumers from liens. He says only 10 percent of builders offer holdback accounts, but it’s worth requesting.

As for Marfa, she will likely have to go to court to get out of the contract and recover any used funds.

That’s why real estate lawyer Paul Roxburgh highly recommends that anyone building a new home get their own representation before entering into a contract.

“It’s, I think, dangerous for the unsophisticated non-lawyer public to be signing documents like this without some form of representation,” Roxburgh added.

In addition to checking out a builder’s license, check how long they’ve been in business and ask about their background and try to verify their credentials. You should also follow-up with references and ask whether they allow onsite inspections of the project.

Story courtesy of Ross McLaughlin on your side  CTV 

 

Get It In Writing

Let me start with a true story. I met a lady selling a lot and she started to share her story. Their plan was to subdivide, build a custom home on the one side and sell the other lot to pay for the cost of building their dream home. They would be mortgage free and could coast into retirement. A wonderful plan; one we would all like.

They found a contractor who had solid references and had many years in the industry. He was the kind of man who was a man of his word and his word was his bond.

To the homeowners, he was a remarkable find. He charged less than other contractors. In addition, they could save additional money since he was willing to do cash deals, and was willing to deceptively build the home under the owner builder exemption and save the 2/5/10 warranty fees. By hiring this experienced, character contractor, they would receive a quality house for less money. Who wouldn’t like that.

Sadly, the story did not end well. When I met her, the house was 85% complete and they had moved into the home. They had fired the contractor and were finishing it themselves. They had given him several hundred thousand dollars but he could account for a little over one hundred thousand dollars. There was no record of cash purchases. Sub trades and suppliers were knocking on their door and asking to be paid. Explaining that they paid the builder did not sit well and they received numerous liens. Lawyers fees were quickly climbing. In the end, they didn’t save any money, they had no warranty, hated the build and they didn’t sleep at night.

Is the risk worth the cost savings? We all look for value and want the most quality for the least amount of money. Price is important.

What competitive advantage does a professional builder have when they have already lost on price?

There is good news.

Protect yourself from inexperienced or unscrupulous contractors by getting it in writing. Demand to see the following seven items: budget, contract, permits, schedule, specifications, warranty and insurance.

A quality builder will build your home in such a way to protect you by providing those seven required items. Let’s look at each of those areas in a little more detail.

1.Budget
Whether it be a fixed price contract or a cost plus contract, keeping track of costs and change orders is critical. An experienced builder with solid business systems will be able to track costs and change orders so that you always know where you stand financially.

2.Contracts
The contract sets the parameters for the build and details your agreement. In the event the relationship goes sour, lawyers can quickly assess responsibility making it less expensive to resolve. And who doesn’t want to save money.

3.Permits
Your work will be done under city permit and inspections. In the event you sell your home, you will need to declare any improvements. If not done with a permit, it will not only hurt your selling price but you may be liable if something goes wrong.

4.Schedule
An experienced builder will give you a schedule so that you know when to make decisions. You can track the progress of the build and plan your move in date.

5.Specifications
There should be no question about the specifications for your home. You will not enter a build and start to notice inferior materials on your home.

6.Warranty
When you have your home built you will receive a 2/5/10 warranty. One year on everything; That will cover nail pops, floor squeaks, smells, and the like. You will receive 2 years on mechanical, 5 years on the building envelope or water ingress and 10 years on structural.

7.Insurance
A professional builder will have commercial general liability insurance, course of construction insurance and Worksafe insurance. In addition, he will make sure his sub-trades have the appropriate insurance. You could be liable if there is an injury on site and the builder or sub-trade does not have insurance.

Before I close, I would like to share a story.

Farmer Fred was looking for a farmhand to help with the chores. He interviewed several young men. He asked them why he should hire them. One of the young men replied, “You should hire me because I can sleep at night.” Farmer Fred ended up hiring this young man and was always stuck by his answer, “I can sleep at night”

Several months later Farmer Fred was woken up by thunder and lightning and a gale force wind. He ran to the barn to check on the animals. The cows were securely tied up in their stalls. The chickens were calmly perched on their roost. The tractor was parked in the barn. The pasture fence was securely fastened as was the barn door. Lastly, the farmer checked in on his helper who was fast asleep and it was then the farmer understood what the young man meant when he said that he could sleep at night.

Let me finish with a second couple who also built a house. They found a builder who was a member of their local home builder association. The builder presented a budget, contract, permits, schedule, specifications, warranty and insurance. They also received weekly financial reports, daily updates on the progress of the build and a warranty.

The couple went shopping every day, loved the build process and slept every night.

Radon Gas – The Good, the Bad and Ugly

The good news is that radon gas is generally not a problem in the lower mainland. The bad news is that is does still occur in some locations in Metro Vancouver and the ugly news is radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer in Canada.

 

In the Metro Vancouver area, radon gas has been known to occur in one house but not the one next door.  Radon is a radioactive gas that is formed naturally by the breakdown of uranium in soil. As a gas, radon is slowly released from the ground and will build up concentrations in well-sealed buildings.  Radon gas is colourless, odourless, and tasteless.

 

If radon gas is found, there are steps that need to be taken.  An upgrade to a more rigorous sub-slab soil gas barrier is one option.  A 6 inch layer of gravel promotes the breathability and movement of gases under the slab.  These gases are then drawn through a pipe in the floor slab that vents through to the roof.  A mechanical fan could be added to increase the draw of the gases.

 

For each home we build, Clay Construction performs a free test to determine if radon is present.  If we find concentrations during our testing, we can take the above measures to mitigate the radon gas.  If radon gas is not an issue, the homeowners have piece of mind at no cost.

The Perfect Wall

Your choice of wall assembly will not only affect the energy efficiency and the longevity of your home but will also affect the air quality through the presence of moisture and mould in your wall. A small investment into this wall assembly will provide benefits to not only the operating costs but more importantly the air quality and longevity of your home.

The wall assembly is comprised of the cladding, framing structure, insulation and air/vapour barrier. When considering the best wall assembly for your home the following issues need to be addressed: how do you prevent water from getting in, how do you keep air from getting out, how do you establish insulation levels as high as possible and how do you construct the wall assembly to increase its ability to dry out in the event water gets in?

One challenge of our traditional wall assembly is that almost ¼ of the wall is comprised of wood that has an R-value of 1.5/inch thus degrading the effectiveness of the R-value of the wall. This leaves only ¾ of the wall to shove our insulation into. The framing lumber acts as a thermal bridge. Since we are limited by how much insulation we can shove between the wood studs, the next generation of wall assemblies will involve moving insulation to the outside of the wall. This will greatly reduce the thermal bridging and moisture in the wall assembly whilst increasing the energy efficiency, longevity and health of the home.

Most of us are familiar with the poly plastic sheeting placed between the insulation and the drywall. This traditional approach has the poly performing two functions: the air barrier and the vapour barrier. Unfortunately, this poly can trap moisture inside the wall assembly. A better approach would be to move the air barrier to the outside of the home sandwiched between the plywood sheathing and exterior rigid insulation. Removing the poly will allow any moisture that penetrates the wall assembly to dry to either the interior or exterior. Since moisture promotes mould, a wall assembly that remains dry will be healthier for its occupants. Cutting edge builders embrace positive change.

Joe Lstiburek a world-renowned building science expert has coined this wall, the “Perfect Wall.” Any builder familiar with building science will be able to advise you on the best wall assembly for your current and future needs.

vapor

Effective vs Nominal R-values

The City of Vancouver has recently implemented their new Vancouver building code. One small change affects the insulation of exterior walls. Previously, exterior walls needed to be at a nominal R22 insulation level. The new code requires effective R22 insulation levels. What difference does this make?

Nominal insulation is the R-value of the insulation batt we stuff between the wood studs. This is the R-value we see printed on the bag. Don’t be fooled, this is not the R-value of the wall. Wood has an R-value of R 1.5 per inch and makes up approximately 23% of a traditional framed wall. A 2×6 stud will have an R-value of 6 while windows range from R2-R5. Relative to the insulation property of fiberglass, wood and windows are poor performers.

What will it take to achieve Vancouver’s R22 effective insulation values in exterior walls? Here are three options.

1. The traditional 2×6 wall insulated with R22 batt will achieve R17.89 effective. Fail!

2. A 2×8 wall insulated with R28 batt will achieve R22 effective. Pass!

3. A 2×6 wall with R22 batt and 1” exterior rigid insulation achieves R22 effective. Pass!

There are many variables at play to achieve R22 effective. Make sure your builder considers the many options and doesn’t default to what is easiest. There is one wall assembly considered by the world experts to be the perfect wall assembly. Check back for my next blog post on the “Perfect Wall” and its many advantages.