Building a custom home for yourself: the joys and pitfalls

Most people buy a home, take possession, move their furniture in and call it a day.   But those that are a little more adventurous decide to buy a piece of land and have a custom home built for them selves.  This is an opportunity to tick off more boxes and get a whole lot more of what you want in your home than you would by buying.  You can custom design your space just the way you want so it suits your lifestyle and tastes.  In this article I will try and share some of the wisdom I’ve gained over the years while helping families and couples through this process.


1.Bring the builder into the picture early.  When you first decide you want to build it may arise from a frustrating unsuccessful search to find the home you want.  Or it may have been your goal all along.   I’ve had many clients buy their property, hire a draftsman, design their home and then call me the builder.  Sometimes they even hire consultants and get their permit and then call me.  In doing this they have missed an opportunity to have me, the builder give them advice from my years of experience.  In some cases I could have saved them thousands of dollars just by making simple changes to their design so it can be more “build friendly.” I can ALSO lend my advice in terms of how the building will interact with its surroundings and with deciding which type of building is suitable for each property.


2.Thoughtful design.  It’s my belief that every new home should be designed individually for the property it’s built on.   Some people have the idea they can buy or use a set of house plans that was used somewhere else.  That may work sometimes and it may work for homes on the flat prairies where subdivisions are all cookie cutters.  Here on the west coast our land is so full of rocks and hills it’s difficult to just pick any old plan and expect it to work.   Things like orientation to the sun, slope of the land and potential views all should be important factors in designing your new home.


3.Getting out of the ground.  The part of building your new home that has the most potential to effect the cost of it with out you having anything to do about it is the cost of the excavation, backfill and foundation.  The reason for this is because when we start digging we don’t always know ahead of time what we might find.  If we don’t find a suitable building surface to put down the footings then we have to keep digging until we do and that means we need to come back up with a taller foundation.  It’s for this reason that we always recommend a design that does its best to work with what nature has given us.  What that means is that if a lot slopes up we design a lower entry and living up, but if the lot slopes downward then we design a level entry with a walk out basement.


4.Fixed Price or Cost Plus.  There are essentially two different ways to go about the pricing, planning and paying for your construction project.  There are pros and cons to each.  In a fixed price situation there is a precise pre-determined cost for the entire project right from day one and a detailed design including specific quality and finishing products.  The more detail that is put into these specs the more accurate the price will be.  The benefit to this method is that the client and the builder both know the final cost before the start.  The potential pitfalls come when the builder and customer don’t agree on a specific finishing item.  This is where the detailed planning comes in.  Another huge pitfall comes in the part I mentioned in my earlier point about getting out of the ground.  If we as the builder were asked to place a fixed price on this part of the project we would be forced to price a worst case scenario.  The same goes for the sub trades that do the excavation work.  Most of these companies work by the hour on excavations because of the unknowns.  There are a few that will give fixed pricing, but again these prices will be worst case scenarios.  Cost plus is just like it sounds, you pay the cost, plus a fee.  Some times the fee is a fixed amount and sometimes it is a percentage.  The percentages in our area range from 15% to 25%.  This allows flexibility.  The customer can basically build and choose anything they want and they know they will pay its cost plus the fee.  The benefit to this system is that the clients can be free to choose whatever they want for the fixtures and finishes and can feel free to make changes along the way.  And of course this becomes a danger if both the client and the builder don’t at least keep some attention on the overall cost.


5.I want to do some of the work myself.  For people who are handy do-it-yourselfers, getting your work clothes on and doing some of your own work on your project can save you some money and can also give you a sense of pride knowing you had a hand in building your new home.  If you are handy enough, you really can save yourself enough money to make a measurable difference in the cost of building your new home.  This is often known as “sweat equity.”  The items typically that the average homeowner can tackle themselves are things like interior painting, exterior painting, laying floors like laminate or hardwood, and baseboards and trims.  Some clients like to do their own clean up, this too can save some money.  The pitfalls of this are the quality of the finish work may not be up to the same standard as the professional who does it for a living.  Another potential pitfall is this may interrupt the flow of the project.  Most homeowners if they are going to tackle their own work are going to be doing it on evenings and or weekends, so if this takes longer than planned they may cause a subtrade coming after them to be delayed.  During busy times, missing a spot for a subtrade has a trickle down effect that can sometimes cost weeks of time on the project.  Overall, doing some of your own work on your project is encouraged and has more benefits than pitfalls if its done right.  We encourage our customers if they are so inclined, to take an active role in the construction of their new home.


6.How much does it cost to Build vs Buy?  It is my belief that overall once you buy your property and hire someone to build it you will still come out ahead financially vs buying the exact same home.  And of course the bonus us that you get to help design it the way you like and to suit your lifestyle and tastes.  This is difficult to prove since no two are alike.  As for the actual cost of the building part, asking what it may cost will likely get you a different answer depending on who you ask.  I will try here now to give some numbers to be used only as a general guide.  As I write this we are in 2018 in the central Vancouver Island area and from my experience the starting cost for a custom build is around $140-$190 per square foot of living space not including garage.  This is for an average cost to get out of the ground and for a modest or entry level grade of finishes.  Vinyl siding, laminate countertops, laminate floors, and basic trims and finishes.  The next level up from this is  $175-$225 per square foot.  This will get you hardie plank siding,  Quartz countertops, hardwood floors and mid level finishes.


7.How do I keep from going over budget?  It seems in construction that everything takes longer and everything costs more.  It’s a saying that I have developed in my decades of experience in this business.  “Everything costs more and everything takes longer.”  The part about taking longer sucks and is inconvenient, but it’s the costing more that really hits home.  I have worked with many different clients over the years on custom homes.  Some stay on budget and some go way over.  As an organization we feel that we have a huge responsibility to our clients to make them aware each time they make a decision or buy something for their new home what it will do to the overall cost.  We provide regular updates on the progress of the project and where the cost is vs the projection.  This doesn’t stop some clients from going way over and then being shocked at how over budget it is at the end.  In my experience it is the clients who diligently watch their spending through the entire project that are the ones who finish on budget.  This does not mean you can’t splurge now and then.  A splurge on a custom quart countertop can add a few thousand dollars to the cost but can make the difference between a kitchen really like and one you absolutely love.


8.Too many opinions.   When you are going through the process of building you will inevitably be bombarded with other peoples opinions.  Your builder, the crew, the sub trades, your family and your friends will all be eager to weigh in on what’s right or wrong or what looks better or worse.  I for one always try to express my opinions but clarify that they are just my opinions.  Others may not be so clear and they may be very convincing that their opinion is right.  This can be the placement of rooms and windows or types of tile and flooring or wall colors.  Its always okay to listen to these opinions because they usually speak from experience and you will learn a lot from those around you but in going through this process you should always stay true to your original vision and be strong.


9.Conclusion.  The process of building has broken marriages, caused people to go bankrupt and maybe even caused suicides.  But these are the small minorities.  Most people take great pride in living in the spaces that they had a hand in creating even if it was just to make the choices of wall colors and finishes.  There are pitfalls, but the joys far outweigh them.  If you are thinking about building a home for yourself then I hope this article has given you a bit of insight into the process.  At Boehm Construction, myself and our team can guide you through the process and try to make sure that there are far more joys than pitfalls in the process and we promise that in the end you will be glad you built instead of buying.

What is Net Zero?

Recently the BC Government announced a goal. This goal is that by 2032 all new buildings built in the province of BC – including homes, apartments, schools and commercial buildings will be ‘Net Zero’ ready. This goal is shared with Washington and Oregon as well. What is ‘Net Zero’? This term refers to a building that generates as much energy as it uses. So far, we haven’t been told much more than this.

This will represent a monumental change in how our buildings are built. We at Boehm Construction build and renovate single family homes, so for this article I will focus on the residential component.

Getting to Net Zero in 15 years (2032) from where we are right now in my opinion is a very tough goal. Right now we are a long way off. What are we going to have to change in order to get there? That is a huge question, and even as a well educated and experienced Contractor and Home Builder, I don’t have the answer to that question. By writing this article I am going to try to at least let the reader know as much as we’ve been told at this point and maybe take some guesses at what the future holds. Knowledge is power, and the more we can all learn, the better!

BC’s first Net Zero home to qualify for the new labeling system was completed in June 2017. Lets assume that since there has only been one home built thus far to this standard, we have a long way to go before all new homes meet this standard.

I am assuming that without a way to harness or create energy, Net Zero is impossible. In the cold months of winter, no matter how much insulation and vapor barrier, we will still need some energy source for lights and heat. Therefore I can only assume that achieving Net Zero will require at least some sort of Solar, Wind or Geothermal source of energy. Since Net Zero is the overall goal, it will be up to each individual how they get there and which of the available technologies they choose to employ. Solar energy is coming down in cost but is still pretty expensive and still requires having and maintaining DC batteries. Air source heat pumps are quite efficient but still require electricity to operate. Ground source heat pumps (also known as Geothermal) are still quite expensive and require a lot of space and drilling deep holes.

The neat thing about Net Zero is that our current method of applying standards will likely not be needed as much as there is this end goal in mind. And the method of measuring it will be quite simple and the evidence will be right there in the owners wallet. If we have any chance of attaining this goal of building Net Zero buildings by 2032 then we will need to take small steps toward it. These steps are called ‘Step Codes’ and like I said about the overall goal, the steps will be measured in a similar manner by measuring the end performance of the building and not really caring about how the designers and builders meet that standard.

At Boehm Construction we are committed to doing all we can to help achieve this goal. We attend courses regularly to keep up on the latest technologies. We take extra steps to ensure our buildings are air tight and better insulated that most others. We have recently begun testing our homes for air tightness as well as Energuide testing and will continue ti use this testing as a way to help us improve. Another thing we are big on here at Boehm Construction is cost. One of our core principles is affordability. Attaining Net Zero will be expensive. It will add tens of thousands to the cost of every new home. Change comes with a cost. Saving the planet comes with a cost. One thing we will commit to doing is making sure we give our clients the best and most affordable options alon the way and put pressure on suppliers and sub trades for the best pricing.

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The Affordable Housing Crisis

Affordability. Affordable housing. These are buzz words these days. I think we are repeating them more and more as we all watch affordability slip away before our eyes. Like bailing water with a bucket by hand on a sinking ship that everyone on board knows is going down anyways.

As I write this I am 46 years of age and in my lifetime the price of a single family home in Canada has basically gone from $20,000 to $400,000 or more. That is a 20 fold increase. And wages have not kept pace with that, not even close. A person who made $5 per hour in 1970 might make $30 an hour today. That’s only a 6 fold increase. And then look at what has happened in just the last few years in Vancouver and Victoria! A home costs a million dollars anywhere in the lower mainland and $750,000 in Victoria! What’s happening is just insane. Sometimes I feel like the only one who sees all of this as a bad thing. I know I am not alone when I read articles and see news stories referring to this as a housing affordability crisis. And make no mistake this is a crisis. Unfortunately it is a crisis that we are all going to get a front row seat for. We are going along for this ride whether we like it or not. And few people seem to be acting on it. Most, however, seem to just be enjoying the buoyant economy and the positive growth numbers in jobs etc. I guess because our entire economy ebbs and flows based on the real estate market which means the optimism trickles all the way down the line in good times.

The price of real estate of course is a huge part of this, but to make matters worse the cost of building new homes is going nowhere but up and up and up. Concrete, lumber, drywall and the application of new building codes all make today’s home construction more and more expensive. I for one would like to do what I can to help. I see a crisis on the horizon and I want to do my part to help out by building smaller and more sensible living spaces for people to live in.

It seems like a pretty bleak future for our economy overall. What are the solutions? The solutions are going to be in being sensible about how we build. We are all going to have to learn to live in smaller spaces. Luckily we have been living in spaces that are too big now for a couple decades. So that will help. Municipalities are coming up with creative solutions like allowing suites, encouraging density and multi-use buildings, laneway houses and carriage houses.

I don’t have to look any further than my own living situation for an example. I built the home I currently live in in the back yard of an existing home which happened to be small enough to become the carriage house so I basically got my building lot for free. I did this to save money and make it an example if affordability yes, but more importantly I did it because its what I could afford.

We at Boehm Construction Ltd are committed to becoming a part of the solution not a part of the problem. We have already built many carriage houses. We were involved in micro-housing on a recent project as well as a recent townhouse development. We have experience with tiny homes, which are really small homes built on flat bed trailers and are very stylish and sensible. We have a company that has a low overhead and build efficiently, economically and sensibly. We also do what we can to build green, sustainable buildings that are energy efficient. We are passionate about modern. Modern buildings in addition to looking fantastic are also minimal. And minimal is synonymous with affordable.

If you are in an unaffordable living situation and would like to know how to change that, give us a call and maybe we can help you to change it.

What the heck is a Carriage house?

A carriage house is also known as a laneway house. It’s a small house built on a property that already has a house on it. Several years ago our city council followed the lead of cities like Vancouver with their Laneway housing and decided to allow this type of housing in our town. The popular version in Vancouver is a separate garage building that has a suite above. Lately there have been dozens of them popping up in neighborhoods all around town. At Boehm Construction Ltd we have become known as the guys who build carriage houses. To date we have completed two of them and have just started on our third.

There are some rules to follow of course, the square footage is limited to 950 square feet and you also need to obey set back minimums. And you can’t have a suite. You can have a carriage house or a secondary suite but not both. The obvious benefits to the carriage house are that you can get more rent than a suite and the renters aren’t sharing the same house as you are.

Our most recent build was one we did for Carsten Jensen of Jenseys Buildings Ltd. Which is a design build company. This carriage house on Howard ave was built as a prototype for future builds and incorporates the Insulspan SIPS wall system and some very innovative storage and kitchen solutions from Ikea.

Depending on the land you have to work with a typical carriage house can cost anywhere between $180,000 and $220,000. Contact us anytime if you have questions or want to know more about carriage houses and laneway housing.

Heated concrete floor

Hydronic Heated Floor

I had always heard that living in a space heated from the floor up is the best kind of heat and makes for a very comfortable living space. I now know that to be true from my own experience. In the 1020 Nelson st project which is the house I now live in, we decided to heat the main floor of the home with a hot water heating system embedded in the concrete floor.

This system is quite simple and with some creativity it can cost less than what most people spend. Most systems cost $10,000-$15,000 and we built this one for less than $7,000. It consists of pex water lines running in a grid about every 12 inches and connected to a water heater or boiler and run through the floor with a water pump. The system is connected to a thermostat on the wall in the center of the house and calls for heat when it needs to just like most other forms of heat.

This type of heat isn’t the kind that you would want to connect a smart thermostat or Nest. A smart thermostat saves you money by lowering your room temperature while you are at work or asleep. Heated concrete takes too long to cool or warm for this to make sense. Having lived through the hot summer we also noticed that having the main floor of our house made of concrete the constant even temperature of this mass of concrete really helped keep our house cool through even the hottest summer days without any kind of mechanical air conditioner.

Please feel free to contact me for more details if you are interested in living in a space with heated floors.

Exterior wall assembly

A modern exterior wall is designed to keep the warmth inside your home and keep the elements from causing damage. Starting from the outside the first plane of protection is called cladding. This can be hardi plank siding or vinyl siding or many other materials. It should be waterproof, but just in case water somehow gets behind it we install what is known as a capillary break. This is a half inch air space. A half inch happens to be the distance that a drop of water cannot capiliarize or jump across. Then, if water somehow gets behind that we have a home wrap (Tyvek) or two layers of 30 minute Tar paper. Behind this is wall sheathing (usually ½ inch plywood or OSB).

Behind this we have 2 by 6 lumber, which forms the structure that holds up the roof and in the cavities we have R26 insulation (which because of the space taken up by the studs actually only performs to about R22 on average).

Then after the insulation we have a layer of 6mm vapour barrier. This keeps moisture, air and valuable heat energy from entering the wall cavity. If moisture enters the wall cavity it will cause the wood to rot and shorten the life of the home. Modern vapour barriers are becoming increasingly sealed in more creative ways in an effort to help keep the valuable heat we spend money generating from leaking outside our homes.

Ener-guide testing can be done by placing fans in the homes doorway and then measuring the amount of air that leaks out of holes and weak spots in a home.

The last part of the wall assembly is the interior drywall and of course a coat of paint. Please feel free to call me anytime if you want to know more about wall assemblies and how they affect energy efficiency.