19 Apr, 2018
The questions you should ask your project builder
Project homes can be an ideal way of achieving a more affordable home, as they are designed and built to a formula that reduces risk and allows for economies of scale for the tradespeople, construction systems and materials. Overall, they typically cost less per square meter than a custom built home, however this can mean that your choices of construction systems and materials, builder and your ability to make changes during the building process are more limited.
You can largely overcome many of these limitation by making sure that you have done thorough research and preparation, chosen a site carefully, and negotiated with your project builder on features you would like included.
Choosing a site
It is always best if you can chose the land for your home before you look at a builder or designs, as the site will inform what kind of house will work well there. Where possible, look for land that will allow a northerly facing home, and also make sure you think carefully about how close it is to the places that you need to go to regularly - your work, children’s schools, shopping centres, parks, bus and train stops, etc. A less expensive piece of land may end up costing you more overall, if it means that you are having to drive long distances each day.
Choosing a builder
Choose a builder that you are happy with - check their credentials and values, look for feedback on their work. A few questions to ask, before you choose include:
- How long they have been in business and how many homes they build.
- Inspect some finished projects to check for quality and attention to detail.
- Get references and speak to past customers.
- Check licence status and complaints history with the state building regulatory authority.
- Ensure they are experienced in your region, climate and council area.
Remember that builders often own the house designs that they build, and they tend to protect these plans actively through the court system, so the builder you chose may also influence the house designs you can select from.
Develop your own project brief
Create a list of the things you absolutely must have in your new home, and those that are negotiable. Having a project brief before you begin looking and discussing designs will help ensure you aren’t overly influenced by a design that looks beautiful but doesn’t meet your needs.
Some things to consider include:
- Number of bedrooms, and whether these are designed to be multi-functional spaces (e.g. office)
- Number and function of living areas (e.g. open plan or separate)
- Number and configuration of bathroom/s (e.g. will these have multiple doorways to function as an ensuite as well as general bathroom).
- Outdoor living areas — what activities you want to be able to do there (e.g. outdoor dining, casual seating, day beds).
- Garage — do you need a second garage, or would more garden space be useful?
- Minimum Nationwide House Energy Ratings Scheme (NatHERS) star rating
- Preferred window type and glazing
- Heating and cooling systems (type, star rating, spaces to be heated and cooled) — lock in low operating costs
- Preferred construction system
- Preferred external finishes, materials and colours
- Preferred internal finishes (e.g. paints, floor coverings, doors and joinery) — choose healthy options with low environmental impact
- Electrical fittings (e.g. ceiling fans, efficient lighting, smart switching and metering)
- Plumbing fittings and fixtures (type, star rating)
- Type of kitchen and inclusions (gas or electric oven, gas or induction cooktop, recycling facilities, well ventilated space for fridge/freezer, pantry, drawers)
- Appliances if included (dishwasher, washing machine), and space for them if not
- Your storage and cupboard requirements
- List of all furniture including sizes and preferred layout in a home, particularly if you have special pieces that you are not willing to part with
- Type of hot water service — consider solar hot water for low life cycle costs.
- Features that promote healthy indoor air quality, such as the type of paints and glues used.
- Good daylighting.
- Photovoltaic panels: now or pre-wired for simplified future installation.
- Rainwater tank: size, type, location, connections.
- Low water-use garden with reduced lawn area.
- Greywater recycling or accessible under-slab drainage to allow future addition.
Choosing and adjusting a project home design
Once you’re ready to begin looking at actual home designs and to have conversations with the builder, make sure that you ask as many questions upfront and decide on variations to the house design before you sign any contracts, as you may not be able to make any variations afterwards.
Can I swap the rooms around?
Standard house designs are unlikely to be optimised for your site, however by swapping a few rooms around you may be able to achieve a much more comfortable and energy efficient design.
Ideally, ensure that any daytime living areas such as kitchens and living rooms face north, and bedrooms face south. This is the best orientation for comfortable living and sleeping all year round.
You also want to consider having bathrooms, garages and laundries on the western side where the afternoon sun will hit, as you wont be spending as much time in these spaces and it is less critical if they are exposed to the sun’s heat.
How can I maximise my windows and ventilation?
Once you have adjusted the position of rooms for the best solar access, consider how breezes that come predominately from the south-east will come into your house. Where possible, you want to ensure that you have roughly equal sized windows on opposite sides of the house, with unobstructed flow paths allowing the breeze to pass through your home. Consider whether breeze paths are likely to be blocked by doors, fences or other physical structures.
Discuss with your builder whether you can move or add windows, adjust the size, or change the kind of window fitting to optimise breezes - for example, you may find that louvres provide better breeze access.
Can I add extra eaves, awnings and shading?
Eaves, awnings and shading will provide some of the best comfort and energy efficiency to your home all year round. These need to be sized properly and well located to ensure they work optimally.
All north facing windows should have eaves or awnings that meet the 45% rule: eave widths should be 45% of the height from the window sill to the bottom of the eaves. Aim for consistent sill heights where possible and consider extending the eaves overhang over full height doors or windows. This allows the 45% rule to be simply met with the following standard eaves overhangs:
- 450mm where height is 900â1200mm
- 600mm for a height of 1200â1350mm
- 900mm for a height of 1350â2100mm
- 1200mm for a height of 2100â2700mm.
Also, to avoid having permanently shaded glass at the top of the window, ensure that distances between the top of glazing and the eaves underside are at least 30% of the height.
On all east and west facing windows, it is better to have adjustable shading that can cover the whole window, as the sun will shine into these windows at low angles in the morning and afternoon. Vertical fins work best, but other kinds can also work well, such as blinds that can cover the whole window.
You may be able to add some of these options yourself after you move in, but some are best to include in the initial home design, so be sure to discuss this with your builder up front.
Can I add ceiling fans, and switch to LED lights?
Ceiling fans cost a fraction to run compared to air conditioners, and will make you feel many degrees cooler in a summers' day. Install ceiling fans in all bedrooms, living areas as well as verandahs to reduce the amount of time you might need to run an air conditioner for.
Making sure that all your lights are installed with LED bulbs from the beginning may cost a little more, but will save you a lot in reduced energy costs and by not having to replace them nearly as often, as the bulbs last much longer.
Can I have a white, or cool roof?
In our sub-tropical climate, a white roof or one with a specialised cool roof coating will stop your house heating up during the day. Your home can be many degrees cooler, which will make a big difference all throughout summer. Ask your builder for a white or cool roof upfront - it is unlikely to cost any more, and will save you a lot of money once you move in.
Can I have a solar hot water heater, or a heat pump?
In a new home, installing a solar hot water heater or heat pump will cost a little more than a standard electric or gas hot water heater, but it will save you hundreds of dollars each year and quickly pay for itself. Make sure that this is included in your home design - and check out what rebates you are eligible for from the federal, state and local government, including small scale renewable energy certificates.
Extra insulation please!
Make sure that your ceiling is insulated with reflective and bulk insulation, and in particular that good insulation is added to all external walls, as well as any internal walls where you might run an air conditioner. It can be particularly difficult to add insulation to walls later, and may also be difficult to retrofit this into your ceiling, so including this as part of the design upfront is critical. Insulation is one of the most important features for a comfortable home that saves you money over the many years you will be in your home.
Energy and water efficient appliances and fittings
Make sure that your new home is fitted out with the most energy and water efficient appliances and fittings possible, so that you save money throughout the life of your home. Water efficient shower heads, taps and toilets will save you on both your water and energy bills (as hot water heaters are one of the most energy consuming appliances in the home), and water and energy efficient dishwashers and other fitted appliances will serve you well. Spending a bit more upfront can save you a lot more money over time.
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