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Beware of Hidden Costs When Purchasing Rural Property

November 19, 2012

A version of this post can also be found on the website for Envirohaven, a company that manufactures panelized home kits designed specifically for the special needs of living without access to public utilities or, off-grid.

If you’re planning on purchasing a remote piece of property , you’ll want to be a good detective to find out as much as possible before falling in love.  Costs for improvements, water and septic as well as local building regulations can make your dream home cost prohibitive, if these costs are hidden at the time you purchase your property. Bringing in electrical power can cost in the neighborhood of $100,000 per mile.

Septic:  it’s unlikely that you will have access to a community sewage system. You can choose several options. If you plan on really roughing it, you might use a pit toilet. Some people choose to create a composting toilet system, or purchase one. In all probability, you’ll choose to put in a septic system. To find out if a standard septic system will function property in the soil and pass (US) health department regulations, a soils engineer will need to be hired to do what is called a “perk test”. Essentially, a big hole is dug, water added, and the engineer times how long it is for the water to drain.  Several issues can come up that would require a special (special is always more expensive) system that will need to be engineered specifically for your location. For example, if the water takes too long, if your ground water table is too high, or if there’s not enough drain-able dirt downhill from your home, it’s going to cost you. If a perk test hasn’t been done on your property, always purchase the property contingent on a successful perk test.

The Well:  How deep is the average well in your area, and what are the average well costs?

Access: Is there a road maintenance agreement with surrounding properties? This is a written document that reflects an agreement between all parties that use the road for access to their properties about many issues such as; how will the road be maintained when it ruts, is deep in snow, or washed out. Who pays? How is the responsibility divided up? Do the neighbors adhere to the agreement?

A road maintenance agreement can sometimes be required before a bank with finance a project on the property.

If there is no road or driveway to your building site, speak to an excavator who does road work, in your area, to get cost estimates before making an offer on the property. Crossing drainage or small ravines can add tens of thousands of dollars to your building cost.

Sprinklers: Does the county building authority require sprinklers in homes without access to fire hydrants or in remote locations?


The answers to these property improvement questions, and other unknowns, might require a such large enough chunk of your budget that you won’t have enough left over to build your dream home.

Finding a qualified Design-Build Construction firm with a sustainable focus before securing your property can help ensure that you will be shopping for property with a plan in mind. When you find your place to settle, it will be as ideal as possible for your logistical needs as well as your emotional needs.

Did I forget anything important that you have had experience with? Please add your comments or questions below. I look forward to hearing from you!

Why Rectangular Homes Didn’t Hold Up To Sandy

November 11, 2012

by Greg Bischoff for Envirohaven, Reno, Nevada

First published November 11, 2012

Watching the news about the devastation which Hurricane Sandy brought to the East Coast makes us all realize that everything man creates is insignificant when compared to the power of nature.

Having grown up on Long Island, my heart goes out to those tens of thousands affected by this tragedy. The typical suburban house that our family lived in was built in 1955. It had a full basement, part of which was finished into two bedrooms that my brothers and I shared. I remember when the carpenters came to finish out these rooms. I would go down there when they left for the day, and was fascinated by how it all went together. Maybe that’s what sparked my interest in building, and led to my career as a building contractor.

The houses now built here in Reno, NV, and most everywhere in the US, are much different than those built on the East Coast in the 1950’s. Those older homes didn’t have the straps, ties and hold downs that are required for homes built today. We all saw pictures of houses lifted off their foundations and moved hundreds of feet, still in one piece. This would be much less likely to happen to a newer house fitted with contemporary framing hardware. Today’s codes do make for stronger structures, but we can do better! I hope that out of this terrible tragedy,  new ideas will appear on the horizon that will make our homes even stronger. We can only imagine what will be the shape of things to come.

Of special interest to all of us here at Envirohaven was a CNN special report on the devastation wrought by Sandy that mentioned houses which looked undamaged from the street. When inspected further, there was evidence that they had actually twisted, from the strong winds. Where there once were straight flat walls, now an S-curved surface extended the whole length of the house. The reporter said that the whole house would need to be torn down. Even though still attached to its foundation, with no obvious blown out walls or roof, these homes became a big pile of trash. What could have been the cause of this?

Almost all houses these days are made of rectangles. A four sided rectangle is a very unstable structure. If you apply pressure to the side of an un-reinforced rectangle, it will deform rapidly. Keep up the pressure and it will eventually flatten. Builders add “shear” to these rectangles to strengthen them, by nailing plywood or OSB to the frame. This is a good solution, but not the best. A severe weather event like Hurricane Sandy, and the tremendous power it brings, can deform even reinforced rectangles.

Triangles, on the other hand, are the strongest shape there is. An un-reinforced triangle will not deform when pressure is applied to one side. Reinforce it with plywood sheeting, and you have something that is almost impossible to bend out of shape. Imagine a structure made of interlocking triangles. It will be close to indestructible. After the HUGE 9.2 earthquake in Chile a few years ago, the only structures left standing in Conception, the town nearest the epicenter, were houses made of interlocking triangles.

Our company, Envirohaven, is currently manufacturing triangular based homes. The principle behind our patent pending design combines the strength of interlocking triangles, with the space efficiency of a hemisphere. The efficient utilization of interior space is superior to what is found in a traditional rectangular home, a traditional “dome” structure or yurt. If you’re interested in  learning more about strong, hyper efficient, cost-effective and sustainable homes, check out Our Homes.

Please remember that an unimaginable number of people are still homeless, without power, heat (in severe winter conditions), water, clothing, food, and any basic necessity you can think of. The Red Cross is still the go-to organization in times of disasters. There are also many local organizations in New York and New Jersey that are doing the hard work of helping people and animals in every area of need.

Do you have questions about this post, or, do you have experience with homes that have survived a natural disaster? We would be very interested in hearing from you.

Are Triple Pane Windows A Good Investment?

August 19, 2012

Triple pane windows have been around for years and I believe that not enough attention has been given to the question of whether or not they are a good investment. There are several companies that I’ve become familiar with that use sophisticated sales techniques to sell triple pane windows directly to homeowners. Once such company here in Reno only replaces old windows with triple pane at premium prices. They are so overpriced, in my opinion, that they only work with unsuspecting homeowners and will not work with contractors at all.


I asked an expert on the subject, Brian McCormick of NVision Companies, Reno, Nevada. NVision was founded on over 32 years of industry experience and is one of the largest window distributors in Nevada and the leading green home energy company in the state.


All windows display a rating called the fenestration rating.  Which ever type of window you are considering, this is the most important information to use when considering which option would be most effective for energy savings, in any environment. According to Wikipedia, fenestration is refers to the design and/or disposition of openings in a building or wall envelope.  Who knew! Provided by the National Fenestration Council ( yes, there appears to be a council for everything!),  the rating label on the window is the only way to know if you are comparing apples to apples and getting your money’s worth when considering windows.


As far as triple pane glass is concerned, it can be more energy efficient if you choose the right surface configuration. Generally most experts will tell you that a quality frame with dual pane glass using a high Low-E (low thermal emissivity) value (366) is very close in rating and easier on your wallet.


Argon gas is available to be inserted into the dead space between the panes and does produce a slightly better fenestration rating. In past years Argon Gas would be used to fill the insulated glass units because it was necessary to receive a Federal Tax Credit for an efficiency upgrade. However, this tax credit is no longer in effect and Argon isn’t used as much. The elevation we live at, over 5,000 ft. and the route the glass has to travel require us to have a “Breather Tube” installed in all insulated glass units. The “Breather Tube” allows for the dead space to change with the elevation pressures as they travel. Therefore there is no guarantee that the gas won’t simply escape over time. Unless a home owner is adamant about wanting Argon NVision doesn’t recommend its use.


In our experience,  high quality windows with Low-E glass that are installed with insulated shades or even foil backed pleated shades give homeowners more bang for their sustainable buck than the cost of triple pane. When lowered, these shades help to keep warm or cool air from transferring in and out of the windows.

If you have further expertise and/or experience with efficient window products, we would love to hear from you.

Thank you Brian McCormick for taking your time to share your expertise with us. If you live in northern Nevada and would like further assistance from Brian, he can be reached at




Location, Location, Location: 5 Considerations For Locating Your Sustainable Home

August 11, 2012

When deciding to build a new home, the location is the most important consideration.

Some rules should be followed when searching for property on which to build any type of home. Finding the best location for a  sustainable home requires some very specific considerations.

So why is it that most often, folks pick their spot and then design their home?

When selecting a sustainable location, several basic aspects must be considered:

1. Select a realtor to assist you that has experience with property in your particular area of interest.

This, of course, is true for purchasing property for any use. A knowledgeable agent will be familiar with the history of the property and the area as well what any possible future plans for the area may be. Is there talk of a golf course or a power plant going in next door? In addition, contact the local planning department on your own to get a copy of the area plan. Talk to them about the area.

2. Will the view side have a southern exposure?

If you’ve been researching sustainable aspects, you understand that in the northern hemisphere, you’ll want your Solar PV and Solar Thermal panels facing south where the sun will shine for maximum value.

But you’ll also prefer to have the sun shining in your windows as much during the winter as possible. If south is facing the highway, that’s what you’ll see (and hear) from those solar collecting windows.

3. Hillside construction adds natural insulative value.  Is your hill on the north or south?

The cool north side is ideal for a pile of dirt that will keep the temperature, on average between 55 and 57 degrees Fahrenheit (13 to 14 degrees Celsius) below frost line. But if your hill is on the south side, your home won’t be able to take advantage of that topography.

4. Know the size and location of the, “Building Envelope” , easements, and possible height limits of your property.

Again, true for any property you might consider purchasing. Some properties are sold with what is referred to as a “Building Envelope.” This is the area of a piece of property that your homeowners association or local building authority will allow your home to be built on. Make sure that the size and style home you are picturing will fit on this property, apart from property that might be designated for easements. Some areas have view restrictions that will preclude the construction of a two story home.

5. In a subdivision or properties under 5 acres, as a rule of thumb, know the neighboring property.

If there is not yet a home built on neighboring property, where is the best building site for the neighbor?  Although this is again true for all properties, it is especially important with regard to homes requiring solar energy generation. With different possible scenarios for neighboring construction, will your view or solar exposure be obstructed?


Of course there is more, but with these 5 simple points, it’s easy to understand the value of deciding on some general design aspects for your home design before deciding on where to put it. If you’re planning on living without access to public utilities or off-grid, you’ll want to know if the property will perk for a septic system, how deep is the average well in your area, and general costs for those considerations. What is the road maintenance agreement with surrounding properties? Is there one? Do the neighbors adhere to the agreement? Speak to an excavator who does road work to get cost estimates before making an offer on the property. Does the county building authority require sprinklers in homes without access to fire hydrants or in remote locations? The answers to all of the property preparation questions might require a large enough chunk of your budget that you won’t have enough left over to build your dream home.

Finding a qualified Design-Build Construction firm with a sustainable focus before securing your property can help ensure that you will be shopping for property with a plan in mind. When you find your place to settle, it will be as ideal as possible for your logistical needs as well as your emotional needs.

Did I forget anything important that you have had experience with? Please add your comments or questions below. I look forward to hearing from you!

Why Buy Local?

May 11, 2012

While “buy local” movements have been gaining steam in the food arena, buying local construction supplies seems to be in the dark recesses of people’s consciousness’s. I’ve been trying to better understand just why that is. My thought on this is that home construction materials are bigger ticket items so while we may feel like supporting our communities when it doesn’t cost us much, we’re not willing to part with what we assume will be a lot of money in support of our community values. Most people assume that if they can get items cheaper on the internet than they can at the big box stores, they’re getting the best “deal”. And frankly, buying at the big box stores is better than buying from out of state, but did you know that when buying local, the economic impact of every dollar spent is over three times! But I’m going to surprise you here, I’m not going to suggest that the biggest reason to buy local is to help your community, although I support being a responsible community member, whatever the cost.

There are two personally impact-ful reasons to buy local:

Box stores are ONLY cheaper for stock items.

When you can walk into a big box store and buy a regularly stocked item, it’s going to be hard for a local store to compete with that. That being said, be very careful that it is a like-kind item. Some manufactures have been known to box up a product that looks the same, even has the same make and model label, but the way that the product is manufactured isn’t the same. Plumbing products from reputable manufacturers sold at big box stores have been known to have a plastic base instead of brass. You can feel the difference in the weight. These plastic bodied products will break much more easily and quickly.

Any items that have to be special ordered from your box store are most likely going to be more expensive. It’s where these stores make their money.

Your local distributors and show rooms provide valuable services that you are going to miss when they’re gone.

When we are shopping finished construction supplies, most people enjoy going into a show room so they can “try on” the merchandise. I highly recommend feeling a kitchen faucet to make sure that the shape of the handle feels good in your hand. It’s great to see just how far out into an average sink the water from a faucet will go. When looking at pictures online, it can be difficult to determine size and scale. Many people now go into stores, use their displays to gather information, use the show room personnel to provide information, and then leave to order the merchandise on the internet for a few dollars cheaper. Not only is this short sighted behavior, it’s also self- defeating behavior. By failing to support the showrooms, we fail to support our local economy. We also fail to support a resource that we have shown to be valuable, or we wouldn’t be in there. Would you choose to have a meal in a restaurant on the basis of getting bad service that you don’t have to pay for?

Even if you decided to leave your conscious behind when you clicked onto my website, you might want to think about something else that is going to impact you personally.

As a designer and/or contractor, if I have a problem with an item, I can reach out to that local supplier to go to bat for me with the manufacturer. The supplier has more buying power than me, I have more buying power than you. It’s why I get discounts, BTW. If a manufacturer gets a call from one of their vendors, from a contractor or from a homeowner, who do you think is going to get the fastest most satisfying service? I can give you a hint, it’s not the homeowner.

I wish I could say that the quality of finished lighting and plumbing fixtures has gone up since the recession and sales volume has gone down. Unfortunately, it’s far from the truth. Invariably, there are problems with materials and those problems are almost always found upon installation or with the passage of a little time.

So for self-serving reasons, you don’t want to lose the local show room the vendor supplies. If you don’t want to lose them, support your local businesses!

Do you have any stories or questions relating to this post? As always, we would love to hear from you.

The Business of Team Building

May 5, 2012

Of all the ingredients needed for a successful project, no other is more crucial than team work. In other posts, I’ve briefly mentioned the value of building a good team for any home construction project, but this subject is so vital to success, not enough can be said on the subject.

Any successful venture requires a solid team of individuals that are talented in their fields. But finding talented individuals or even experts doesn’t ensure a successful effort. This is as true for your construction project as for another type of greater effort. Winning teams of every kind are not made of individual all-stars that gather together to do their individual best. Most people realize that this is a fact. Why then, do so many people approach their home construction projects from, frankly, a penny wise and pound foolish approach? We all know someone who’s tried to hire someone to work on their home for the least amount of pay and then try to squeeze every last dollar out of the contract. The reason? It’s just business. Although some of those situations wind up working out OK, from my experience, they never create a stellar result that generates the most value for the investment of time, money and emotion.

Any successful entrepreneur will tell you that business is a team sport. Winning business teams, just like winning sports teams, start with a solid foundation of talented individuals. Those individuals are then gathered together by a leader with vision as well as expertise. Much has been written on this subject that doesn’t need to be re-hashed here, but the bottom line is that without a leader who understands the needs of the individual team members and how they can all personally benefit by contributing to the common goal, there cannot be an optimal outcome for the beneficiary of the effort. All the individuals will be working towards their own goals without understanding that the goals of the team will enhance their individual efforts.  Therefore, the most profitable business ventures are created by a leader  with vision and expertise, who can find the magic mix of human resources and support them with capital and natural resources in the most efficient and effective way possible.

Another key ingredient for good business is long term solid and trusted relationships. It is much more common for people to look to do business with folks they know than a stranger found through a Google search. If you need a new dentist, hair stylist, dog sitter or babysitter, you are many times more likely to call a friend or family member for a name before calling a phone number off the back of a truck driving down the road. There are several good reasons for this. I believe that the most common reason is that if any kind of hiccup in the business dealings occurs, maintaining the relationship will be a catalyst for finding resolution. Good, solid, profitable business that will bring about further profit in the future involves win-win scenarios. And I speak of “profit”, in a much broader sense than dollars and cents.

When selecting contractors to work “for” you on your home, take a giant step back and think about the situation through a larger window.

Ask yourself, what if? What if things don’t go the way you want them to? What if the plans don’t work in the reality? What if ……….

When reality rears its ugly head, how best to find a silver lining than a team, all working together to help make Plan B much better than Plan A ever was? I can’t tell you how many projects I’ve worked on where we needed to pull together the expertise and experiences of several different tradesmen to find a way around an unforeseen road block. A team leader with experience in construction problem solving is invaluable in those circumstances.

Yes, home contracting is, “just business”.  But business in the sense that it involves a knowledgeable and dedicated team of individuals all working together with a common goal of getting the project done in the most efficient, effective and profitable way possible,  for everyone involved. That kind of team work will ultimately result in the most rewarding and profitable result for the beneficiary of that effort: the homeowner.

Do you have experiences with team work, good or bad, that you can share? Your comments are always greatly appreciated.

I suggest reading Bret Simmons post: Goal Setting And Group Performance. Bret writes a Positive Organizational Behavior post that I always find interesting and inspiring.

Another perspective on Team Work  I found interesting is, Increase Your Team’s Motivation Five Fold.

Porcelain Tile Tips

April 28, 2012

Natural stone "rug" set in porcelain tile. Granite Hearth
(C) 2004 Suncrest Builders, Inc.

A creative design using tile is easier than ever today. The growth in the amount of  porcelain tile products now available have been a game changer for designing easily cared for beauty as well as durability. In this post, I’m not going into detail to explain the difference between Porcelain and Non-Porcelain. I’ll only say that while porcelain is a very hard material, ceramic tiles are much more fragile. All porcelain tile is not alike. The difference can be seen by looking at thickness and weight. I’ve provided link to two good informational posts, Baneclene, a cleaning products site, as well as the Tile Council of North America, that provide  facts about differences between porcelains and ceramics as well as cleaning information. What I’d like to offer up here is product and design knowledge that will help you create the most long term value from your tile design.

Porcelain tiles have texture, or not. There are porcelains that look like metal, bamboo and wood as well as slate, travertine, and any other hard surface you can imagine. It comes in many many shapes and sizes. If you like the look of natural stone tile, you can now get that look with porcelain without having the maintenance issues that natural stone has.

While solid surface granite on a counter top is relatively maintenance free, natural stone on a floor is a big maintenance commitment. Some of the softest stones, like travertine, should never be used on a floor unless you’re willing to put in a lot of time and expense for upkeep. Natural stone on a shower floor is a maintenance nightmare! Shower floor tile needs to be smaller, 4”x4”on average to allow the floor to slope the water to the drain. The smaller tiles will also be less slippery on a wet floor. Porcelain comes in sheets of smaller tile that can be used for this purpose or porcelain can be cut to size. The bigger sizes tend to run less per square foot, but by the time your tile contractor charges for the additional labor for cutting, you might break even on this deal.

Porcelain comes in a “through body” style and glazed or unglazed. The advantage of the through

Polished Edge, Thru Body Porcelain Tile
Glass Mosaic Tile Insert
(C) 2010 Suncrest Builders, Inc.

body is that it can be cut and the color runs through the tile. Not all porcelain comes with an interior that is the same as the surface. If your design is going to require a visible edge, you’ll want to pick a material that is the same color as on the surface, even if the pattern doesn’t run through it. This becomes handy when tile is going to be used for baseboard and the edge is polished to create a finished look. The edge of porcelain can also show when wrapping around the outside of a shower or top of a back-splash. Some tile is sold with a pre-polished or “bull-nose” edge. These tiles are sold in 3-4”widths to be used as trim, but there are many applications where the 3-4”size adds an extra grout line that is unnecessary, like a countertop or tub surround.

Porcelain can also be found with a ” rectified edge”. This material is usually more expensive than the alternative, but allows for the smallest grout line, using an un-sanded grout.

One other little thing I’d like to share about porcelain is that I love adding an element of natural stone with it. Not  necessarily on a shower floor, but in a dry area it adds an element of natural material that will make the porcelain look so much more real.

Mosaics come in many sizes and material combinations. They are an inexpensive way to add a lot of style and zing to your tile design. They can be broken into small or larger squares or lines. I love using them as floor transitions between rooms. I’ve put several examples  into this post because, as they say, a picture is worth 1,000 words. Enjoy!

If there’s anything that you’d like to add to this post, please comment below.

Porcelain Tile inset with Red Onyx Mosaic
(C) 2011 Suncrest Builders, Inc.

Porcelain with Glass Bricks and Glass Mosaic.
Etched Porcelain in Center
(C) 2010 Suncrest Builders, Inc.

Marble with Glass and Porcelain Mosaic. Natural Stone Chair Rail.
(C) 2008 Suncrest Builders, Inc.

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