The following is part of a guest blog post series on a high performance house being built on Philadelphia’s Main Line.

One year ago today I received an email with valuable feedback on our building plans from a consulting architect, Emily Mottram. Emily is one of the authors of Pretty Good House, a book which is packed with information on building energy efficient and healthy homes that approach Passive House standards.

Little did I know the journey that was ahead, and it had already been quite a journey. Briefly, I started the process of finding a location to build a house while I was living in California in 2018. At that time, the thought was to move to the East Coast where December isn’t 31 days of rain, yet there’s snow, and the foliage is a little more developed. New York was my first thought, and my target date was 2019.

I had to delay a year, and of course we know what happened next, but instead of New York Boston became the destination. I found a house that was situated on the edge of a 1 acre property, a perfect way to build a new home right in the middle of the land. The first problem? Driving to Cambridge and Boston became a habit, and it was too far. Walking Old Marlboro Road may have once been something to look forward to, but I needed a compromise between city and country dwelling.

I moved a little closer to Cambridge and tried again, but this time renting while looking for a property with difficult conditions of low interest, increasing inflation, and no free PPP money1. I wrote letters to neighbors asking if they’d sell a parcel or divide their parcel, for an absurd sum, but no replies. I put in two offers on non-move in ready homes to be beaten by a home seeker and a builder2.

On a trip to Pittsburgh I was told Pennsylvania was a nice place, and so I started exploring properties in the Philadelphia area. There are a lot of nice places in the Philly area, and obviously it had to be between city and suburban living: cars generally not required for day-to-day life, but a little room to breathe. Housing Medallions are annoying but necessary, even still in 2024.

In summer 2022, not long after losing the bid for the second Massachusetts house, we visited Philly and toured a new construction home. To build or buy? This home was nice, but it departed from a run of the mill new construction house with its style, and perhaps the most damning thing was the second floor had a slant3. There were few tear-down options, so I put in an offer. By some miracle, the builder waited nearly 24 hours to counter, and in that time a small real estate firm posted a tear-down. I let the contract expire, excited to build after all. It was for naught, as something shady was happening with that home, but another house started to lower its price in the doldrums of autumn 2022. I called the local code official and had a meeting to find out whether we could build. I was told to get a survey to be sure. I eventually put in an offer with surveying being the only condition, it was accepted, and after the survey allowed enough room to build, we finally had our canvas. If I haven’t conveyed the stress throughout this process, I haven’t done my job as a writer.

In 2018 I didn’t know what a passive house or pretty good house or high performance home was. I had thought I wanted an all electric house, but was unsure how the heating bill would be. In fact, even a few years ago I specified that all floors should have resistive heat. Through trickles of curiosity I discovered double stud walls and eventually passive house. Matt Risinger’s Build Show was instrumental in my initial education, and because he was actively building his own home no stone went unturned.

The next post I’ll get into selecting an architect and builder, and the various missteps taken in a circuitous and highly inefficient process. At this moment the house is just past the rough-in stage, when my initial gusto had us on a path to an early Autumn 2023 completion date, so there’s a lot to reveal. Before that, here are the lessons I’ve learned so far:

  • Hire an architect that knows how to build these kinds of homes as they will draw detailed diagrams. I didn’t understand why this was necessary, but subcontractors have no idea what’s going on. Caveat: even if you do this, subs will make mistakes or just not have direction since the architect isn’t on site. If you personally give direction to a trade during an initial walk-through, a) there may be different people doing the install b) it may be weeks later and they forget. Putting 3x5 cards around the house generally works.

  • The architect should validate the builder and vice-versa. Usually they have recommendations. Since I started with the builder I tried to hire an architect they recommended but none could get plans produced in a short time frame.

  • Don’t be blinded by degrees or other prestige. An architecture degree from Harvard means nothing if you don’t stay up to date on building science and developments. Builders of multi-million dollar houses just mean they are at least competent in high end finishes, not necessarily high performance and health friendly materials.

  • Builders have communication issues. I don’t know the solution to this. Maybe try putting a brown M&M’s clause4 in your specifications and see if they catch it? Problem is, they may catch it one day but another day totally miss it.

  • Be on site. If I started in March 2023 as originally planned, many mistakes would have been made and I wouldn’t have been there to catch them as I was in Massachusetts.

  • Get educated on everything. I’m exhausted. I know more about window installations than I’d like. I know a lot about building envelopes. I want to hand this off to someone else, but again, if the builder hasn’t done this multiple times and the architect isn’t on site, it’s up to you, dear reader.

  • You need to go over everything on site constantly. The weather-resistant barrier (WRB) was dinged many times and I had to find them so we could patch it. I didn’t notice until last week that 3 DC lines for interior windows were missing (electrician did a great job, just a lot to handle).

  • The latest technology means everyone has to learn. Our electrician spent a lot of time talking with someone I hired for whole-home DC lighting. Whole-home DC lighting isn’t a thing. (Lutron just came out with whole-room DC lighting.) The plumber reluctantly put in a loop for a reverse osmosis system because they were concerned about pipe corrosion, but re-mineralization and continuous reverse osmosis systems are also now a thing.

  • It’s better to push back sooner than later. You kind of trust people, but our builder was working on multiple projects at the same time and their office is more than an hour’s drive, so in effect you have to be co-builder and point things out immediately that don’t seem right. Christmas eve I went into the basement and it was filled with sewer gas from neighbors staying at home eating food and flushing toilets. I noticed this was uncapped for weeks, so I should have asked why sooner. (I taped it up and opened the egress window, no Christmas fireworks.)

  • Everything is horribly inefficient. Several things had to be redone either due to mistakes, misunderstandings, aforementioned communication issues, etc. The amount of waste lumber that went into the dumpster is unbelievable. Time, money, and valuable resources could have been saved if there were a more efficient system.

  • There should be no leaks. If something is leaking that means there’s a hole, which means you are building a low-performing house.

  • If your SO says, “Could we put a pool in the greenhouse?” lie and say “The code official said no.”

  1. While PPP money genuinely helped people, it also ended up lining the pockets of people who didn’t really need it, and there’s no doubt that it contributed to inflation. ↩︎

  2. The builder, it seems, still hasn’t built their multi-million dollar spec house and it has been almost two years. ↩︎

  3. You could see said slant in the marketing video which is even more heinous. ↩︎

  4. Or a raunchy scene between Shawn and Professor Lambeau ↩︎