Q&A: Where’s the book on best construction practices?

Joelstiburek3_2Question: I am thinking about doing a large remodel project at home using a contractor. While there's plenty of information available to educate a homeowner about how to find a qualified contractor — checking licenses and insurance, talking to past clients, etc. — there is a lack of books or other materials that give a homeowner reliable information about good construction practices.

By construction practices, I am referring to issues such as the correct/optimal way to perform a construction task, such as how many coats of paint applied to a wall are optimal or the optimal materials to be used for the construction of a kitchen cabinet. Other examples would be the type of electrical wiring that should be used to re-wire a house or how a new roof should be installed. It seems that the range and quality of materials used and the manner in which those materials are installed vary from contractor to contractor, leaving a homeowner at a disadvantage when discussing these topics with a contractor.

Do you have any recommendations for a book or books that offer such guidance to someone like me? — Ruben

Answer: Ruben, I think this is an excellent question. I’m going to give you my take on it, and then I hope other astute readers will weigh in.

I don’t believe such a book on best construction practices exists and for these reasons: regionalism, shifting industry and the enormity of the topic.

Regionalism: Unlike factory-produced goods like Rolex watches or Lexus automobiles, houses are very site-specific and construction practices depend on, among other factors, geography, climate, local codes, local talents, local customs, contractor preference, subcontractor preference, homeowner preference, and budget. A house built in Southern California will require a vastly different construction than will a house built in North Dakota or Oklahoma or Arizona or Alabama. There are issues of earthquakes, tornadoes, humidity or lack of it, heat, cold, wind and so on. Houses must be built to withstand the climate they are in. One book could not cover all climates. You could go to the website of Building Science Corporation to study up on requirements of various climates and conditions. (One of the highly regarded guides by building science expert Joe Lstiburek's [pronounced STEE-brook] is pictured here.) As for the optimal coats and type of paint and primer, I think you’d find vast controversy on painting techniques even within the community of professional painters. Line up 10 paint pros, and you’ll get 10 opinions on the "right" way to do things.

Shifting industry: If such a book on good practices and materials in your climate zone did exist, it would be out of date the moment it was published. That’s because of the new and improved building materials that are introduced each year. At The Remodeling Show earlier this month in Las Vegas, more than 30 new products competed for honors. There are new tile backer boards that are paperless, which cuts down on the potential for mold. There are new paints with microscopic beads that help insulate. There are new laminated beams made from bamboo. So a good contracting company is on the lookout for all these new products, and attends construction shows like the one in Las Vegas to see new products demonstrated. The Journal of Light Construction is an excellent magazine that shows step-by-step how to use new and old products in the best manner. However, if you read the Letters to the Editor, you’ll find all kinds of regional opinions on those techniques. Vapor barrier? Water barrier? Air barrier? Seal the crawlspace? Insulate the attic? Many topics, many opinions. Many codes for many climates.

Enormity of the topic: I liken a contractor orchestrating a complex home remodel to a surgeon performing a heart transplant or an attorney representing a murder defendant. Would you read a book on surgery techniques to discover the optimal suture materials and the optimal spacing of sutures and all the other techniques involved so that you could have an intelligent conversation with potential surgeons? I think not. I think you’d find a surgeon who is highly respected and put your trust in her or him to do the job. And on that note, I’d hold up the best remodeling contractors to the best surgeons or lawyers in terms competence, knowledge and integrity.

All that being said, I do think it’s possible for homeowners to study up on topics and do simple remodeling projects. They won’t typically be artful or savvy (though I’ve seen some true beauties), but they will be passable. After all, I could stitch up my own wound. It won’t be pretty and it will likely leave a scar. But I could do it, and I don’t believe I’d be breaking any laws, other than the laws of common sense.

Bottom line: There is no book that covers best construction practices for all of this country. And when you start separating the topic into regions, the potential readership gets smaller and smaller until it’s not economically feasible to produce such a book.

For a complex remodel, I suggest this for a homeowner like you with (presumably) a high need for craftsmanship and competence: Use your time finding the most highly touted and respected contractor in your area and put your trust there.

Any other opinions on this topic?