Behind the drywall

Drywall hangers work in the great room of a new home under construction. While house wrap is a home's exterior skin, drywall is its interior skin. The generic term encompasses many products. Behind the drywall is the house's skeleton or frame. (Blooomberg Photo)

"Whether you're building a 2,500- or 6,000-square-foot house, get the best insulation you can afford to keep the house warm and prevent huge utility bills," says Steve Buonsante, president of Mondo Builders Inc. in Elmhurst. Insulation also softens sound.

Fiberglass batting is the insulation norm among entry-level housing. But most custom-home builders prefer insulation that gives the walls better R-values, though it can cost more.

"We use spray foam insulation," says Neil Fortunato of Green Building Technologies Inc. in Highland Park. "It completely fills every space in a way fiberglass can't. Unlike more complicated and expensive approaches like geothermal, wind or solar systems, this simply reduces heating and cooling demands."

Buonsante likes cellulose, which is made of recycled newsprint, and can be blown in wet or dry. "Many of my buyers use what I call the ‘Mondo hybrid' — cellulose in the walls and foam in hard-to-reach cavities," he says.

Not every builder insulates interior walls, but the buyer who adds this to his must-have list thanks his builder when the teen in the next bedroom cranks up his music.

Another feature that makes the house "not your father's first new home," adds Benach, is blown-in attic insulation. Even builders at modest price points now include this amenity to prevent heat from literally going out the roof.

The circulation system

Inside the walls is a complicated tangle of pipes that deliver electricity and water to rooms. Unanchored by a short-cut builder, the latter can result in banging when water flows.

One of the greatest variables here, say the builders, is the ductwork, which sends heated and cooled air to rooms and returns unheated and uncooled air to the HVAC system. "It's common that 30 percent of the air leaks before it reaches your rooms," says Kubiak. There are no "duct police," he says, so you should choose a builder who seals the ductwork well to achieve a better percentage. "We seal ours with a brushed-on mastic, then test it to make sure no more than three percent (air) leaks," says Kubiak.

Also tucked into the walls of many of today's new houses is home automation wiring. "There's a main brain, usually in the basement, which connects with the security system, lighting, blinds, HVAC, music and TV," says Shaver. By thinking ahead, the homeowner can add features later without tearing out walls.

Automation varies widely, depending on the buyer's budget, adds Shaver. "Some homeowners just want a lighting-control system," he says. "But others want everything automated and integrated, so they can, for example, get an e-mail at work if one of the kids gets home or see a picture on their bedroom TV of who is pulling into the driveway."

Not to be omitted is a passive radon vent that extends from below the basement through the attic, adds Styczynski. "It's required in some counties, not in others," he says. "But radon is prevalent in this area and causes lung cancer. So it's important. It adds to your cost, but it costs a lot more to mitigate the radon problem when you try to sell the house later."

Caveat emptor

How does the home buyer know if his intended house has good bones? Grab your hard hat, say the builders.

Many production builders host "pre-drywall walks" for their buyers. Custom builders are less formal, meeting their clients at the construction site often to inspect the house's progress.

"Ask the builder about (professional) inspections," adds Kubiak. "The more sets of eyes, the better. We have three levels of management inspect the house pre-drywall, plus a third-party energy auditor, plus the village inspector."

One of your greatest resources, adds Perlman, is the builder's previous clients. "Get gobs of references," he says. "Ask them about their houses. Are they drafty or comfortable? Are they quiet or do the pipes clank when the heat comes on? They'll tell you."

Finally, there's more to "good bones" than quality building materials. As Sarah Susanka details in her "Not So Big House" books, a house should be in proportion to human scale. If it is, is "feels right" even when empty. If it isn't, no amount of decorating will fix it.