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Value Engineering-Beware!

By David MacLellan


Value Engineering: a loosely defined term that implies alteration of a product or system to achieve a cost savings without significantly deviating from the performance of the original system. To many builders and developers, value engineering is the salvation for construction budget over-runs.

Value engineering often involves substitution of waterproofing materials, such as roofing, building wraps, below grade membranes, and substitution of heating, cooling and plumbing equipment. Typically the statutory period of strict liability is a driving factor for the builder’s selection of material. Strict liability means that period of time that the builder is held liable for the performance of his product, and this is typically 10 years (although it can be shorter). If the product (such as any component of a house) fails to perform as intended, the builder is liable regardless of the reason. There are some exceptions such as acts of God, war, etc. Therefore, materials or systems that will last 10 years, and not much longer, are often value engineered into the job.

But value engineering decisions can often backfire. Substitution of materials or methods can result in an initial cost savings, only to create costly liabilities in the future. Perhaps one of the most egregious examples of value engineering gone bad occurred at a large assisted living complex in California. The structure was a single building, about 60,000 sq.ft. consisting of three floors of apartments. Although the building was designed to have an individual climate control system for each floor, the owner/builder was convinced by the mechanical contractor that a single control system on the middle floor would adequately serve the residents. The building was located in a warm to hot climate zone. When the facility reached about 80 percent occupancy (the month of July) the complaints by the residents began in earnest. The top floor temperature in was in the upper 80’s; the middle floor was in the mid 70’s and the lowest floor was in the 60’s. Attempts to “balance” the system failed. The owner tried many patchwork fixes including financial incentives, but he was not only dealing with the unhappy residents, but their adult children as well.

The subsequent lawsuit pleaded health and safety issues of the elderly and needless to say, it never went to trial. The cost of the settlement was nearly 10X the “value engineered” cost savings, not to mention the cost of retrofitting three independent heating and cooling systems.

So, before value engineering decisions are made, they should be argued pro and con by experienced industry consultants, keeping in mind long term effects.

Posted in Construction Practices, Green Building, Green Home, Green Maintenance, Home Builders, Home Maintenance, Home Ownership, Housing Recovery, Renting, Uncategorized, Yard Maintenance | Comments Off

It’s summertime and a lot of time is being spent in backyards, and on decks. Don’t let a fun gathering turn into a nightmare.

Composite decks are the wave of the future. With few exceptions, wood decks are giving way to plastic and wood-like boards that are often made from recycled materials. The advantages of composite decks are sustainability and the lack of maintenance. These decks do not need to be sanded, stained, or sealed on an annual or bi-annual schedule.

However, composite deck boards are not as structurally sound as wooden deck boards. Often the spacing of the underlying support joists, which are generally pressure treated framing lumber, must be closer in order to carry the span of the composite boards. Because composite boards are a manufactured product, they are sometimes prone to failure, as Louisiana-Pacific discovered.

In May 2009, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in cooperation with Louisiana-Pacific, recalled about 48 million linear feet of its composite decking boards. It was determined that the deck boards deteriorated prematurely and broke unexpectedly. Injuries have been reported including broken wrists, ankles, and lacerations.

The recalled boards are sold under the names LP WeatherBest®, Veranda® (Home Depot), and ABTCo. They are all manufactured in the U.S. Louisiana-Pacific will provide a free inspection upon consumer request, and if the boards show defects or premature deterioration, they will be replaced free of charge. Interested persons should go to Louisiana-Pacific’s website

Another problem that has made decks dangerous and likely to collapse is the method of attachment to the house. The board that runs parallel to the side of the house, and is attached to the house, is called the ledger. The ledger is the first component of the deck frame to be applied. For proper deck safety, the ledger must be fastened to the frame of the house, not the siding. The fasteners should be lag bolts that penetrate the framing members by at least 1. inches, on 16-inch centers. Under no circumstances should the ledger be nailed to either the siding or framing members. The ledger should also be flashed on top so that water does not get behind it. If water gets behind the ledger, regardless of the type of material used, it is likely to rot and fail structurally.

Another area of deck safety is the construction of the railings (if the deck is more than 2 feet off the ground). Deck railing posts should be lag bolted or carriage bolted to the deck frame. Bolting the posts through the outer ledger is not sufficient or safe. Nails should not be used. They are not adequate fasteners.

During the first year, maintenance is required on both the deck boards, and the deck posts and rails. Wood shrinks and the bolts on the posts will be loose. Tighten the bolts once a year to keep the rails safe and sturdy. While current best practice is to install the deck boards with stainless steel screws, some installers still use galvanized nails. The nails tend to back out from wood shrinkage and weather activity, and can become a tripping hazard. Rather than re-nailing the top boards, which can become an annual chore, consider replacing all the nails with stainless steel screws.

NOTE: There is an excellent publication on wood deck construction entitled “Prescriptive Residential Wood Deck Construction Guide” published by the American Forest and Paper Association, The booklet has clear and easy to follow illustrations. It should be used by professional installers as well as do-it-yourselfers as part of the deck-planning process.

Following these tips for routine, seasonal inspection of your deck and its support system will save you money and extend the life of the components…and provide years of enjoyment.

Adapted with permission from The Home Book: A Complete Guide to Homeowner and Homebuilder Responsibilities by David E. MacLellan, George E. Wolfson, AIA and Douglas Hansen © 2014,

NOTE: There is a FREE Home Maintenance Checklist available at that will help homeowners determine which tasks to perform throughout the year.

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The Green Movement in home building started about 12 years ago. There are two main pillars to the Green Movement: (1) the use of sustainable, non-polluting, and renewable materials to construct a home; and (2) the installation of both passive and active energy saving components as part of the construction process.

This article deals with the second main pillar of the Green Movement, the energy saving component. The International Code Council has developed an International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) and it covers eight designated geographic climate zones in the United States. These zones range from mild coastal climates to severe regions along part of the Canadian border. Several states have more than one climate zone. The individual states have the option of adopting and amending the IECC, with the latest version written in 2012, and more and more states are doing so.

But here is where the practical camp splits off from the “feel good” camp. True, all of the code requirements of the 2012 IECC will save energy, but the question is “how much” and “over what period of time?”

Recently the Home Innovation Research Lab (an affiliate of the National Association of Home Builders) published a report entitled 2012 IECC Cost Effective Analysis. According to this report, it costs more than $7000 to build the same home under the 2012 IECC than it did under the 2006 IECC. For an industry that is just beginning to recover from the Great Recession, this cost is burdensome. Further, it defeats the overall housing replacement cycle because the more expensive housing becomes, it keeps future buyers from moving out of their current higher energy consuming houses.

To understand in greater detail what sections of the 2012 IECC would be economically impractical, let’s look further at some of the specific provisions in the Code. All figures here have been provided by the Home Innovative Research Lab.

•    Insulating hot water pipes inside the house. Yes, it makes sense to insulate hot water piping that is in unconditioned (non- heated or cooled) areas such as the garage or unheated basement. However the cost to insulate the other hot water piping varies from $500 to $1000 for an average size house. The energy savings would be $5 to $9 per year. The cost recovery time may be as long as 200 years.
•    Reduce the insulation requirement in Climate Zone 3. To go from R-13 to R-20 may sound like a good requirement, but the annual cost savings is only $50, and it will take 24 years to recover the extra $1200 cost.
•    Reduce the wall insulation requirements in Climate Zone 6. The current Code calls for R-20 in the walls plus an R-5 continuous insulation like foamboard. The previous Code called for R-20 only, and to add R-5 would result in an additional cost of approximately $1,819 for the average house. The annual energy savings would be $33, and the cost recovery time would be 55 years.
•    Reduce basement wall insulation requirements in Climate Zone 5 from R-15 to R-10 per the previous Code. The increased insulation will cost $590 for an average house and will save $7 per year. The estimated cost recovery time is 84 years.

While energy conservation and energy independence are fine concepts, our goal should be to get buyers into energy efficient homes they can afford.

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Don’t look now, but a battle line is being drawn in the sand. On one side, the solar power industry and their consumers face off against the big electric utilities on the other side. Rather than name specific companies, let’s just call the two opposing forces Solar Power and Big Electric.

Big Electric is very worried that solar generated electricity will surpass conventionally generated electricity, and they want to reduce or eliminate the federal and state tax credits that Solar Power has enjoyed for as long as two decades. The more customers that convert to solar, the less revenue Big Power receives. However, their fixed overhead and maintenance costs do not decrease proportionally.

For the most part, electric utility companies are monopolies that are supposed to be regulated by a state public utilities commission (PUC). A person does not have a choice of electric power companies. Residents must become customers of the company that has the franchise (monopoly) in that particular geographic area. Big Electric sets rates according to a complex formula that is approved or rejected by the PUC. In addition to having power generating facilities (or buying power from ones that do), Big Electric has a long term interest in what is know as the grid. The grid is that series of towers, transformers, substations and wires that spans America. The grid allows power companies to interconnect and buy or sell electricity depending upon demand.

Alternate forms of clean power generation, such as hydroelectric and wind turbines, still require a transmission grid. So Big Electric is in a comfort zone on those two forms. On the other hand, Solar Power offers the homeowner or office owner an opportunity to produce their own electricity, and thumb their nose at Big Electric. True, solar power is generated in the daytime, but add a battery array to the system and you have 24/7 independence.

However, Solar Power has a few drawbacks that are not fully understood by prospective purchasers: it doesn’t operate at night; the small size and solar orientation of the roof; the number of overcast days in the geographic area; the drop in efficiency when the air temperature is hot and the solar panels are dirty; and zero net metering. This last drawback, zero net metering, bears further comment. When purchasing their solar system, many consumers are told “Big Electric is required to purchase any excess electricity your system generates.” Not so fast. The “Ah Ha” moment comes at the end of the year, when Big Electric tallies up your annual power generation and compares it to your consumption. This number determines whether you pay Big Electric or they pay you. If they pay you, it will likely be at the wholesale price of $.03 or $.04 a kilowatt. If you owe Big Electric, you will likely be charged the retail rate of $.11 to $.35 per kilowatt.

Although solar power today constitutes less than one percent of electricity generated, the market is predicted to grow by 22% annually according to Bloomberg Energy Finance. If this prediction comes to pass, Big Electric will lose more customers. Hence, those non-solar customers will pay higher rates to make up the difference. Then solar power becomes more attractive to the non-users, and the incentive to go to solar (with or without tax credits) becomes a “no brainer”.

Big Electric needs to be less adversarial, and should make significant investments in the solar and other sustainable energy industries. If they don’t, well…look what happened to telephone land lines when everybody got a cell phone.

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Ah, spring has sprung and it’s time to take stock of the ravages of winter. Whether you’re getting ready to plant your new seasonal garden, or you’re still keeping the snow shovel handy, it won’t be long before the real green shoots (not the ones Washington has promised) assert their presence in your lawn and garden.

There are numerous tasks you can perform in spring, so be sure to refer to our Seasonal Checklists. However, two of the most important maintenance tasks involve your yard fencing and your irrigation system. Although wooden fencing will warp, twist, split, rot and become a candidate for early replacement, by taking a few simple steps annually, the life of a fence can be extended to 20 years or more. Here’s what to do: look for warped or split boards and replace them. Look for top and bottom rails that have pulled away from the posts. Re-nail with a one size larger galvanized nail, or if the gap is too big, tie the post and rail together with a galvanized framing strap. Posts that have rotted can be replaced with post replacement kit found at any home improvement store. However, posts that have leaned over more than 10 degrees should be dug out and re-leveled or replaced.

The other maintenance item is your irrigation system. Whether you live in an area that is subject to freezing or not, your irrigation water should be turned off at the main supply valve during the winter months. If you leave the water on and only turn the controller off, you could be asking for a big surprise water bill. Here’s why: electric irrigation valves are notorious for sticking open, sticking closed, and leaking at the main body gasket. Valves are usually housed in an underground box where small leaks can go undetected for weeks or months. Turning off the controller just turns off the power to the valves, and if the irrigation water supply is still on, the valves are under pressure. If a valve is stuck slightly open, it will allow water to flow to the sprinkler heads. If the main body gasket is loose, water will drip out between the two valve parts. Fixing a valve that sticks open or closed usually involves replacement of the solenoid, a simple task that runs about $25 in parts. Fixing a valve that leaks at the main body gasket involves tightening the screws that hold the two parts together. If that doesn’t work, then the entire valve will need to be replaced at a cost of about $45 in parts.

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Learn more about radon and other home maintenance items. Purchase the California Building Performance Guidelines at

General Subject Information: 
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is a result of decaying thorium and uranium.  Radon typically comes from rocks containing uranium and thorium, like certain granites or shales.  The colorless and odorless gas can be found in the air, or it can be absorbed into ground water and then subsequently released in the air.  Radon is considered to be chemically inert, meaning it does not readily combine with other chemicals.  However, certain levels of radon exposure can be hazardous to human health.

Why is it important to know about radon? 
Radon is classified as a human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and the second leading cause among smokers.  However, any cancer resulting from inhaling radon is not likely to become apparent for at least 20-30 years after initial exposure.  The level of radon exposure, duration of exposure, and use of tobacco (smoking) are factors in determining the risk of developing lung cancer.  Exposure to radon does not result in acute respiratory symptoms such as colds, asthma, or allergies.

A standard unit of measurement for radon is picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L). In the United States the average level of radon found indoors is 1.3 pCi/L, but it can range from 0.25 to over 3,000 pCi/L. There is insufficient data to define a “safe” or harmless level of radon, though it is accepted that the greater the level of exposure and the longer duration of exposure, the greater the health risk.  The EPA guideline states that radon levels should not exceed 4 pCi/L indoors.  If the radon level of your home measures above 4pCi/L, the homeowner should consider a radon mitigation system.

Radon gas enters the home through the soil from cracks and openings in concrete slabs, crawl spaces, floor drains, sumps, and concrete blocks.  Generally, living areas that are closest to the soil will have the highest levels of radon, as compared to living areas or rooms on second stories.  Radon can also be present in tap water, as it can be absorbed into the ground water from soil containing radon.  Radon present in water can be released when showering, washing dishes, or washing clothes.  Radon can also be present in water when the water source is a well that is exposed to uranium and radium rock strata.  Radon is of more of a concern when it comes from this type of source.  A granite countertop is not considered harmful because of its low level of emission.

Builder Responsibility:
Within certain counties of the following states, the builder is required to install an approved radon mitigation system:   
• Florida
• Maine
• Maryland
• Michigan
• Minnesota
• New Jersey
• Oregon
• Virginia
• Washington

Each state has slightly different requirements.  As the harmful effects of radon become more widely known more states are expected to institute radon regulations.  The builder is not responsible for the presence of radon.

Homeowner Responsibility: 
Whether the house contains a radon mitigation system or not, it should be tested.  It is not possible to test for radon on a lot before a house is built.  Results can vary from house-to-house, and from street-to-street. 

  • Homeowners may also consult a government agency to help them determine the amounts of radon present in the home and any recommended subsequent actions.   To get more information on radon testing, call 1-800-SOS-RADON.
  • A water test should be considered, especially if the indoor air levels of radon are at or above the EPA guideline of 4pCi/L.  The water company that supplies the house should have information about the source of the water and any radon tests performed.  If the house has water supplied by a well, homeowners should contact a laboratory certified for radon testing to perform a water test. 
  • For more information on radon, visit
Posted in Construction Practices, Green Building, Green Home, Green Maintenance, Home Builders, Home Maintenance, Home Ownership, Housing Recovery, Renting | Leave a comment

San Francisco-David MacLellan, 69, a 45 year resident of Walnut Creek and Lafayette, was inducted into the California Homebuilding Foundation Hall of Fame on June 21. The ceremony took place at the Intercontinental Hotel as a kick-off for the 2011 Pacific Coast Builder’s Conference at the Moscone Center.

 MacLellan, who was a Bay Area homebuilder for 25 years and an industry consultant for 17 years, was one of five persons recognized for their contributions to the long term advancement of homebuilding. MacLellan was recognized particularly for his contributions as an author of three books that set the workmanship standards for the homebuilding industry, both in California and nationally. His flagship book, the California Building Performance Guidelines for Residential Construction and Homeowner Maintenance Guide was first published in 2002 and has sold more than 70,000 copies.

As the CEO of Pacific InterWest Building Consultants Inc. a tri-state quality control company, MacLellan became concerned, first as a homebuilder, and later as a consultant, that a new homeowner did not have any reference material to rely on for reasonable workmanship standards. The California Guidelines book levels the playing field between consumer expectations and a builder’s ability to perform. This book has been used by the California Superior Courts, the Contractors State License Board, as well as builders and homeowners.

Currently, MacLellan is writing a new book that will cover uniform workmanship guidelines in all 50 states.

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Solar hot water systems have been in existence for 40 years or more. These systems had historic problems of freezing and panel failures from UV breakdown. Technology has improved and many of today’s systems do not circulate the water from the storage tank to the roof. Rather, a non-freezing mixture of glycol and water is heated in the roof panels and the hot fluid transfers its heat to water in the storage tank via a heat exchanger. In many systems, the storage tank also serves as a backup water heater for nights and cloudy days. There is a recirculating pump that keeps the fluid moving through the panels and piping. he roof.


 Recommended Maintenance: Like many systems that handle the flow of water, the maintenance of the system depends upon the quality of the water supplied to it. In areas where the main source of potable water is wells, either municipal or private, the water is likely to have a significant mineral content. At least once a year, the primary storage tank/heater should be drained by connecting a hose to the bib on the tank. Be sure to cut off the power to the recirculating pump. Failure to do this will result in the pump overheating and failing because there is no fluid passing through it to cool it. If the tank has a gas or electrical back up, be sure to turn off the gas or throw the breaker marked: Water Heater. Drain the tank completely into an area that can accept hot water (not a landscaped area). When the tank is completely drained, refill it and turn the gas or electricity and the recirculating pump back on. 

Because of the high heat loads that the glycol solution is subjected to, it will eventually break down and the system will have to be recharged. The recharging must be performed by a qualified technician. The glycol solution should be tested annually, in late fall. 

Also, on an annual basis, wash and inspect the collector panels on the roof. If the roof is a tile roof, it is recommended that the inspection be conducted with binoculars from a ladder. Do not walk on the tile (it is likely to break). Look for any cracks in the panel surface and leaks in the piping. If either are found, it is recommended that a professional service contractor be called in for repairs. Clean the panels when they are cool, such as during the early morning. 

Stay tuned for the next maintenance item to complete on your Green Home! 

* This blog contains items that are guidelines to follow. Advanced prototype and limited production components are not considered. If any conflicts exist between these guidelines, and those set forth in the manufacturer’s literature, the manufacturer’s maintenance instructions shall take precedence. 

© 2011 All Rights Reserved MacLellan Media, Inc 


Posted in Construction Practices, Green Building, Green Home, Green Maintenance, Home Builders, Home Maintenance, Home Ownership, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Today’s green building places great emphasis on resource conservation, by using sustainable and renewable materials, by reducing our dependency upon carbon based products, and by limiting consumption of both water and power.

Green home maintenance is not very different from conventional home maintenance. will blog items that homeowners should complete on their green home.

Solar panels, usually mounted on the roof, provide a low voltage direct current from the sun’s rays that activate a metal based compound in the panel. The direct current must be transformed into a higher voltage (typically 110 volts in the USA), and converted into alternating current. The solar panels produce the current and a device called an inverter, increases the voltage and changes the current to AC. In addition, some systems have storage batteries to store electricity and release it at night. The amount of electricity produced is a function of the amount of sunshine, the size of the system, the outdoor temperature and the cleanliness of the panels.

Recommended Maintenance: 

  • Solar Panels: at least twice a year or more often in dusty areas, wash the panels just like a window or skylight. Use a green based, non-phosphate, non-ammonia detergent. At this time check all roof penetrations and mounting brackets for cracked caulking or loose brackets. Apply low VOC sealant (caulk) and tighten brackets as needed. Try to stay off the roof, particularly if it is tile. Use a long handled brush and hose to perform the cleaning. Solar panels get hot, and they should be cleaned only when they are cool, such as during the early morning.
  • Inverter: depending upon manufacturer or amount of use, an inverter should be maintenance free until it needs to be replaced. This replacement typically occurs every 5 to 7 years. However, the inverter should be inspected weekly to verify electrical output, assuming that the inverter has an LED readout.
  • Storage Batteries: while battery technology is evolving rapidly, most of the batteries at the time of this publication are deep cycle lead-acid batteries. Just like an RV or marine battery, the useful life of the battery array is dependent upon the frequency of the charge/discharge cycle. The terminals of all batteries should be inspected monthly for evidence of corrosion (white powder known as sulfates), and if present, it should be removed carefully with a stiff non-metallic brush. 

Caution! Do not touch both terminals at the same time. Do not touch either the + or – terminals with your hands or any non-insulated tool. Severe electrical shock could result. When the terminals are clean, apply an anti-corrosion spray to them (available at any automotive supply store). 

Additional Comments: 

If the solar panels are mounted on raised frames off the roof surface, they will need to be removed when it is time to replace the roofing. This is an additional cost that the Homeowner should consider. Because solar panels get hot as a normal part of their operation, they may cause the roofing, both underneath and surrounding, to deteriorate faster than the rest of the roof. Annual inspections are recommended. Also, if the system is of such capacity that all electrical demand is met “off the grid”, the utility company is likely to still charge a base fee for remaining connected to their grid. 

Stay tuned for the next maintenance item to complete on your Green Home! 

* Handy Hammer’s™  HowTo’s are guidelines to follow. Advanced prototype and limited production components are not considered. If any conflicts exist between these guidelines, and those set forth in the manufacturer’s literature, the manufacturer’s maintenance instructions shall take precedence. 

 Handy Hammer™ is a registered trademark of MacLellan Media, Inc.

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My former neighbor is a genius. Two years ago, he sold his Bay Area house for a very fat profit, and for the first time in 20 years, he and his wife became renters. His profit for owning the house for three years was tax-free, and was probably equal to the 35% that the house subsequently declined in value. This definitely fits the old expression of “having your cake and eating it.”

But wait a minute. There’s much more to the renting versus buying debate than money—particularly now since we are no long in the era of “Your house is your ATM”. Homeownership has reverted back to the warm and fuzzy “this is my castle” mentality. Conversely, a rental house (or apartment) is owned by someone else, and you as a renter, are given the limited rights of tenancy. True, someone else has to mow the lawn, fix the leaky roof, and apply paint to the peeling siding. Whether this gets done or not usually depends upon the motivation of the landlord.

Often when you drive through a neighborhood, you can spot the rental homes. They are the ones with the unkempt landscaping, cars in various states of repair in the driveway, and a few shingles missing from the roof. Persons who own their own homes tend to maintain them, while a renter has little motivation to do so. For many, renting is a short term proposition until they save enough for a down payment to buy a house. For others, it’s a lifelong perceived escape from home maintenance.

However, proper and routine home maintenance doesn’t have to fall somewhere between having a root canal and a 24/7 migraine. The key is to know what to do, and when to do it (or have it done by experts). When I wrote The National Home Maintenance Manual, I had the homeowner in mind who would rather play golf, go fishing or attend a concert. Everything in the book is laid out according to the components of the house, and the maintenance chart tells you when to do it and how difficult it is to do. And if that’s not enough, our website has a free, downloadable 10 year schedule of home maintenance tasks. This enables you, as a homeowner, to plan your time and create a budget so you don’t get hit with unpleasant surprises down the road.

One of the great strengths of America has been that the middle class has been able to afford home ownership. The decline in property values over the past 24 months can be viewed as a positive adjustment to affordability.

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