Understanding Home Construction: Introduction

Home | Fire Safety | Skyscrapers

Home Emergencies | Glossary

Almost nothing in the world is done the way it used to be done. However, if you think about it, many things these days are actually done better than before.

Take the typical new home. It’s a far cry from the one your grandparents grew up in. Try finding enough receptacles in a 50-year-old kitchen to plug in a modern refrigerator, micro wave oven, coffeemaker, television set for the morning news, and the toaster oven for that rushed morning breakfast. Then you better have some extra fuses around for the antique fuse box if you plug in all these appliances at the same time!

Today’s new homes are designed to balance amenities with maximum affordability, and they contain features and fixtures planned for the convenience of the modern, often two-wage-earner family. Most are better insulated than ever before and , particularly in the southern states, have air conditioning.

The labor of dozens of skilled artisans, tradespeople, and professionals contribute to the construction of a new home. From the engineers to the designers or architects who may shape or create the house plans, from the workers who clear the site and lay the foundation to the framers and roofers, from the plumbers and electricians to the painters and landscapers, all have important roles to play in constructing a home.

A new home also requires materials produced by many specialized suppliers and many behind-the-scenes activities like construction lending. However, the person who can make it all come together through careful coordination is the experienced professional home builder.

Fifty years ago, skilled artisans constructed a home from raw lumber, shipped to the job and assembled on site. If the weather was rainy or cold or the suppliers couldn’t get materials to the site that day, then the skilled artisans went somewhere else. Today, many components of a new home are constructed off site with the latest manufacturing techniques and technology.

Weather, utility delays, and even nighttime darkness are now much less apt to slow down the construction process. There is little or no wastage. The materials stay dry and protected in shops or warehouses until needed, and not much detail work is done on the job site. The components of the home are packed on a truck, shipped to the site, arid assembled in the shortest possible time. Onsite portable electric generators are widely used to provide power for such construction tools as saws, air compressors, and nail guns.

Photo I.1 shows a flatbed trailer that contains all of the panelized components needed to frame the walls of a three- bedroom, two-bath home. The roof truss components lying next to the trailer complete the framing package. Photo I.2 shows a home that a carpentry crew has just roughed in from materials shipped on a flatbed trailer.

Modular and Panelized Construction

Component- or systems-built housing uses various forms of factory-produced items that range from simple components like roof trusses to completely pre-built modular units. The two major types of systems-built housing are modular and panelized. Log and dome homes are also subcategories of systems-built housing.

Modular homes consist of one or more three-dimensional modules or preassembled boxes that are about 90 % complete when the manufacturer ships them from the factory. Once the modules arrive on site, builders place two or more sections on the foundation to create the finished home. Builders can even stack the modules to make two- and three-story homes.

I.1 Delivery of Framing Components to a House Site

I.2 Recently Constructed Component Home

Panelized components look like the unassembled parts of a box and consist of panels about 8 feet high and from 4 to 40 feet long. Roof and floor trusses, pre-hung doors and windows, siding, and interior trim are often sold with wall panels as complete house packages. Log home manufacturers mill and precut logs for specific house plans, and dome home manufacturers make panels that builders can assemble into domes.

Although modular and panelized construction is gaining popularity, this section focuses on stick-built construction techniques because they include all of the steps required in building a house. As this guide explains house construction, it also defines some of the terms in the process and allows you to peek behind the scenes into the way things are done. However, this guide is not intended to substitute for the services of an experienced professional home builder. it's also not in tended as a short course on building your own home or as a guide to the specifics of the construction of your home. Out of necessity, building conditions, materials, techniques, and codes vary among regions of the country.

In fact, because of varying regional conditions, building codes regulate construction at the local level in most areas. These code requirements depend on such local factors as climate, wind, geological features, soil conditions, and even the availability of certain resources. As one example, certain building features, such as basements, that are common in some parts of the country are impractical to build in others.

I.3 Regions of Model Code Influence

Building Codes

Generally, local building codes govern building, plumbing, heating and air conditioning, electrical systems, and fire safety. While a few municipalities (mostly major cities) write their own codes, most state, county, and local jurisdictions adopt model codes prepared by one of three major model code service organizations:

• Building Officials and Code Administrators International (BOCA)

• International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO)

• Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI)

BOCA’s code is called the National Building Code; ICBO’s, the Uniform Building Code; and SBCCI’s, the Standard Building Code. Each group’s codes influence a different region of the country: BOCA in the Northeast and Midwest; ICBO in the West; and SBCCI in the Southeast.

(See drawing I.3.)

The Council of American Building Officials (CABO) is a federation of BOCA, ICBO, and SBCCI, which publishes the One- and Two-Family Dwelling Code. The CABO code influences the entire United States because it's recognized by BOCA, ICBO, and SBCCI. Building officials and others with firsthand knowledge of construction practices develop all these codes. However, for building codes to become law, they must be adopted by a local legislative body.

Health codes, which are established and maintained at the county or municipal level in most parts of the country, govern wells and septic systems. County or municipal building or engineering departments usually control public water and sewer. In addition, for electrical work, all localities must follow the National Electrical Code (NEC) established and administered by the National Fire Protection Association.

At the beginning of the process, the builder obtains permits from various authorities to proceed with construction. As the house is built, the local building and health departments inspect the process to ensure that the house meets code requirements. The primary concern of the local authorities is to assure the health and safety of the public—in this case, the future occupants of the home. You should be aware, however, that inspections don't evaluate the quality of construction—only compliance with applicable codes.


After building permits have been issued and construction begins, inspections are required at specified stages of completion. The builder informs the appropriate municipal department when the house is ready for inspection. The inspector then conducts the inspection and any failed items must be corrected and re-inspected.

While inspection requirements vary from community to community, the following inspections are typical:

• The local municipal sewer and water authority or engineering department inspects the municipal water service and sewer connections, unless the builder installs a well and septic tank system, in which case the health department conducts the inspection.

• The building department inspects footings, open trenches, and formwork before the concrete is poured. If the builder uses steel reinforcement, it's inspected at the same time. Footing depth and soil conditions are checked to ensure that the footings can provide adequate support for the house.

• The building department then inspects the completed foundation before waterproofing and backfilling.

• The building department inspects roughed-in framing, plumbing, electrical wiring, heating and air conditioning ducts, insulation, and other items before the builder closes in the walls. Often specialized inspectors inspect building, plumbing, and electrical systems separately.

• The building department performs a final inspection to check plumbing, electrical, and mechanical systems; interior and exterior finish; and landscaping. If everything is in order, a certificate of occupancy is issued.

As you can see, the process of obtaining permits and meeting code requirements is as complicated as building the house itself. In fact, an experienced professional home builder is needed to sort through the maze of techniques, requirements, and specifications for taking a ‘house from prints to closing. As the guide describes the steps involved in building a home, it can become your guide to the construction process and translate the language of homebuilding into something you can easily understand.

Next: Site Preparation

top of page    Home