These days all your friends, it seems, are building brand-new houses or adding half a house onto the one they already own. For months now the cocktail party chatter has focused on these preoccupations. You always nod your head knowingly, but, truth be told, much of the time you have no idea what anyone is talking about, and you’re too embarrassed to admit it. What you need is a crib sheet.

Feng Shui is the ancient Chinese art of placement. It is predicated on the belief that everything in your life will be better when every aspect of your home environment is arranged according to the feng shui principles of harmony and energy flow. Twenty-five years ago, feng shui was decidedly obscure and esoteric, but with a pitch like this, it quickly went mainstream after it was introduced in America.

How does feng shui come into play when planning a new house and what do you end up with? Another layer of analysis is added to the standard architectural considerations of site, room arrangement, furniture placement, and the location of functions, stairs, doors, windows and the front door, and adjustments are made accordingly. To the uninitiated, it can all sound like so much hocus pocus, but in fact a house that incorporates feng shui principles will have a sensible floor plan, a comfortable feel, and a demure character that gradually unfolds as you pass from room to room. You’re not likely to have a lot of large scale, eye-popping features. If that’s what you want–say, a grand foyer with a view out the back that blows your visitors away–feng shui may not be for you. A feng shui master would nix this drama because it would allow all the positive chi energy that you and your visitors bring into the house to go straight out the back and be lost to the great outdoors. 

Feng Shui remains an intriguing curiosity in most housing markets, but in areas where a significant number of buyers take it seriously–in California’s Silicon Valley, for example–it can affect the resale value of your house. In these situations, it’s to your advantage to learn the basics.

Building Green is an approach to home-building that puts environmental concerns front stage center. A good green house is one that has good indoor air quality and requires less energy to build, heat and cool. When possible, recycled materials are used. Waste is minimized, both during the initial construction and down the line. A material that can be recycled at the end of its useful life in your house is preferable to one that ends up in a landfill. Stylistically, a “green” house can be anything.

Compared to 25 years ago, every new house is more energy efficient, but green builders and architects take this further, designing and building houses that are some to vastly more energy efficient than ones built to a local building code standard. Green builders generally combine sophisticated technology, such as super efficient heating and air conditioning equipment, with ancient, low-tech strategies such as passive solar, which captures the sun’s warmth in winter and uses it to heat the house.

Embodied energy, a term frequently heard in the context of green building, has the vaguely familiar ring of high school physics, but, in fact, it refers to the total amount of energy expended in bringing a finished product to your building site. This calculation includes the energy used to mine, extract, cut or otherwise remove the raw material from its “habitat,” the energy used to transport the raw material to the manufacturing plant, the energy used to convert the raw material into the product, the energy to transport it to your building site, and the energy required to install it. Such a calculation will be only approximate, but clearly it’s greater for marble that is quarried in a remote Italian village and eventually ends up in your kitchen in Denver than it is for marble quarried in Pennsylvania. 

IAQ or Indoor air quality: Forty years ago, nobody worried about getting enough fresh air in his or her house. During the warm season, windows were open. During the colder months the windows were shut, but the occupants still enjoyed plenty of fresh air because it came in through numerous cracks and crevices in the building envelope. One air change an hour for the entire house was not unusual (in the course of one hour, all the air in the house was replaced).New houses today are much tighter. All those cracks and crevices have been plugged up to reduce the energy required for heating and cooling. A house may have as few as one-third air change an hour (it takes three hours instead of one to change the air in the entire house). To provide the occupants with sufficient fresh air, a mechanical means, such as one or two continuously running bathroom exhaust fans, should be installed, though this is not yet mandated by building codes.

VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds are used in the manufacture of the many synthetic materials used in conventional residential construction, and they can affect IAQ. The compounds are unstable, and for some period of time after the manufacturing process is completed, they give off gas from the finished materials. This phenomenon accounts for the “new house smell” commonly encountered when construction is completed and you’re ready to move in. The rate of off-gassing is very high initially. It gradually tapers off, though it can continue at a slow and steady pace for months or even years. Hundreds of compounds have been identified, but the one of greatest concern is formaldehyde, a potent eye and nose irritant and, for some individuals, a cause of respiratory problems. It has been classified as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Responding to this concern, many manufacturers have altered their chemical formulations and significantly reduced the amount of VOCs that off-gas from their products. Some manufacturers make products that do not off-gas at all. Since the highest concentration of VOCs in a house occurs when it is brand new, the best defense is maximum ventilation with all windows open and all exhaust fans running full blast when you first move in. Continuing to keep the windows open for several days to several weeks, weather permitting, is also beneficial.

The list of materials that contain VOCs is startling. Not only are they in the wood that is used in the framing, they are also in cabinets, paints, carpets and carpet pads, vinyl flooring, drapery, and the fabric on upholstered furniture.

Great kitchens and gorgeous kitchens are used interchangeably and most people don’t know the difference.

A great kitchen is a great place to work in. All the major appliances are within easy reach so that you don’t criss-cross the kitchen 20 times from the refrigerator to the sink and back again to prepare a meal. It has sufficient workspace so that one or two or however many in your household participate in meal preparation can work at the same time. The dishwasher is close to the wall cabinets where you keep your dishes and glassware, so that you can unload it efficiently. The base cabinets have pull out trays so you can easily reach items at the rear without having to take everything in front out first. The finishes will be great looking; more importantly, they will be easy to maintain with colors and textures to match your cooking style–darker and mottled if you’re messy and light and bright if you’re neat.

A gorgeous kitchen is drop-dead fabulous looking, with every bell and whistle imaginable on display. There is so much eye candy, the deficiencies become apparent only after you move in and start to fix your first meal. And then, unfortunately, it’s too late to realize that you’ve been snookered.

If you want more than a crib sheet, more information can be found in:

  • “Feng Shui for Dummies,” by David Daniel Kennedy, Hungry Minds, 2001

  • “Green Remodeling: Changing the World One Room at a Time,” by David Johnston and Kim Master, New society Publishers, 2004. Though the focus here is remodeling, this book has a ton of useful information for anyone who is building a house or anyone who wants to become conversant on the subject. 

Questions? Queries? A homebuilding experience you would like to share? Katherine Salant can be reached at www.katherinesalant.com.

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