In the Spotlight-The Biggest Mistake of All

This short piece was recently published in Fine HomeBuilding Magazine-Issue 321/February-March, 2024

In one way, a builder’s job is simple; Provide a structure that is safe and resilient and meets the basic needs of its owners or occupants.  But today’s homes are intricate systems.  Over the past decades, building enclosures have evolved with layers of complexity, heating and cooling systems have become more sophisticated, and new mechanical ventilation systems, meant to provide healthy indoor air quality are often misunderstood by the people living in the home.  Because these systems work together, it’s important that the owners understand how they operate, how they are maintained, and who to contact when there is a problem.  Unfortunately, homes rarely come with an owner’s manual.

The complexity of a modern heating system.

Some systems in a home are easy to understand, such as changing the heating and cooling setting on a thermostat, but others are more nuanced, such as determining the thresholds for indoor air quality metrics to set balanced ventilation system rates.  Training homeowners is no longer optional, and there’s a long list of topics that could be covered.  The intended temperature range for heating, cooling, and indoor humidity levels should be a top priority.  Heating, cooling and ventilation equipment maintenance schedules are also important.  Newer electrical systems with smart breaker technologies and high-tech lighting controls need to be discussed; so might on-site wastewater treatment systems with alarms and maintenance schedules.

Chances are that a few hours of training on how to operate a new home will be overwhelming for the average owner.  But getting all the BS (building science) right is of little use if the homeowners do not understand how the house works, and what needs to be done to maintain its durability, efficiency, comfort, and health.  Creating an owner’s manual is a great start.  Periodic return visits for basic inspections, to review operations and maintenance schedules and procedures, and to answer questions may pay dividends.  But not educating homeowners is a sure way to undo all the shared knowledge, brilliant design, and critical craftmanship we put into our work.  Let’s not make this mistake.

(A shout out to Brian Pontolilo, one of my editors at Fine HomeBuilding, for taking what I wrote and making it so much better.)

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