Better Buildings conference 2019 - The path forward - file under musings
Last winter it looked like I was in for an un-busy spring. That turned out not to be the case. I'll turn this blog entry into a bit of a diary for the past 6 months or so. SEON - Sustainable Energy Outreach Network is a Brattleboro organization that I'm involved with. You can read more about what they do here and I encourage anyone within a reasonable distance to check them out and become involved. They are currently working on setting up a program to provide training in green building practices for people interested in a career in carpentry and building. This spring my wife Rachelle became involved with SEON as part of her Capstone project at Marlboro Graduate School. - she has also been very busy with getting her Masters degree. As one of SEON's public programs, Chad Mathrani of Vermont Natural Homes and I put together a public presentation on high performance homes. Chad and I held an open house at the Greenfield project for Greening Greenfield which was well attended and I will be doing another open house there on October 14th as part of a green homes tour put on by SEON. (come see!)/I dug into producing a set of plans based on the Greenfield house (see image above) to sell directly as stock plans. I hope to develop a new and improved business model with this. The purchase of the plans will include some consulting time via phone or email or in person if local. Additional time will be at an hourly rate. The plans currently include a sketchup model and a sales sheet if someone is interested in building this as a spec house. The sales sheet is already for sale elsewhere on this website. Future goals are to have an ala-cart menu of add-ons such as lighting design/consultation with a lighting professional, energy modeling for the specific location, standard additions such as an ell or a garage, perhaps a pre-configured and pre-priced product package with foursevenfive.com, Help with window ordering, etc. The basic plans have simplified high performance detailing on the level of “Pretty Good House” but are easily upgradable to Passive House Level. I am realizing that this is a major undertaking in terms of time and money so I have been a bit slow in pulling this off. I should re-purchase VermontSimpleHouse.com and set this business up independently of the Vermont Architect / Robert Swinburne / Bluetime Collaborative Website. Long term goals include a series of similar designs. I have spent years studying the stock plan market and I think this design and format will tap into an unaddressed market. I became distracted from this project when several interesting projects landed on my lap which I have been working intensely all spring and summer (no summer vacation for me)
Super insulated timber frame with Vermont Natural Homes:
A new High Performance Home for and with Dylan Kinsey of Kinsey Construction up in Northern Vermont (I hope to do more work up there in coming years)
A complete renovation of an old barn that was turned into a summer house at some point but is currently undergoing a complete gut remodel with Webster Construction and Helm Construction Solutions.
A complete renovation of a cottage on the Rock River with Mindel and Morse Builders
there are a couple cottages under construction as well
There are assorted smaller projects and consulting as well. I only went swimming once this summer for about 10 minutes.
And I’m spending time upping my Vectorworks CAD skills Plus I’m Learning Revit. I’m also learning video editing
Outside of work, I have been doing assorted small projects on my home, getting back into trail running and cycling - I hope to ride and compete in "gravel grinder" events next year and, as usual, failing at gardening. I'm also preparing to turn 50 in a week or so.
Also in the way of distractions I developed a nasty sinus infection earlier this summer and now I have Lyme Disease! Yes I’m taking antibiotics. It’s been a bit of a rough summer health wise but at least I’m getting some bike riding and trail running in.
One last bit: Here is the flyer for the open house at which I will be holding forth at the Greenfield House on October 14th.
I am finally getting around to offering stock plans from my own website including Vermont Simple House (VSH) 1, 2 and 3. These have been for sale for a few years now on HousePlans.com and, by contract I can sell them on my own website for an increased price. I have been getting many inquiries about other plans I might have for sale so I’m going to focus for a while on increasing my offerings. My simple traditional aesthetic with clean modern lines and plans seem to have hit a chord with many people and I rarely get to keep things so simple with my custom work. I have been digging through stock plan offerings on the web since 2008 and I have found little competition for this sort of house. These plans all have shells and detailing bumped up to “Pretty Good House” levels which is also unusual in stock plans. These are the plans that are for sale currently:
I am now working on a variation of the Greenfield house which will have a footprint of 22’x 32’ + bump-out and offer two full bathrooms and up to three bedrooms in about 1452 square feet. I will strip out of few of the more custom elements from the Greenfield house such as the very large (and expensive) corner window and the steel staircase – it’s easy enough to add those back in.
My plan is to continually add more plans here including variations on these plans (most of them are quite flexible) Credit card processing is taken care of through Gumroad and you are immediately able to download all associated files. Of course all work is copyrighted and good for the construction of one house, stair, whatever. I will need to figure out how to make discounts available for multiple purchases. I will also develop a resource page for materials, products and useful information. Feed back is most welcome and I hope that people send photos!
By the way, I am about to purge my user roles quite a bit. There are over 8000 registered users and when I ran this list through a spammer check, it showed me that half of this number are spammers. If you want to get regular updates please register via the slide out are on the upper right side of any page in case I accidentally purge you. One would dislike being purged.
The current state of things. In rather wordy format. It was late.Sometimes it is good practice to write down a general summary of the state of my business to help myself put things into perspective. I have several projects under construction. The Greenfield MA house for my in-laws is being framed currently by Chad and company with Vermont Natural Homes and Mel of Baiser Construction Management. I have spent and have yet to spend an inordinate amount of time on this project. I am using lessons learned here to bring my services to a higher level than ever before but it is tough. Sometimes I wish I had stuck with the design-build route so I would have more control. This project didn’t have quite enough money in the budget to go the Passive house route although the insulation levels etc may actually end up performing at Passive house levels but without the added cost of certification. It’ll be close. I learned (deja-vu) that trusses (like SIPs) are not perfect. I’m second guessing myself about the TJI’s outside the structural shell to hold insulation. (would it have been cheaper to do double stud?) I may do some tiling there myself and I need to schedule a trip with Mom-in-Law to IKEA for the Kitchen cabinets. And the whole family is pre-priming the trim on the old logging landing at my house. The AH house is on a similar schedule for construction but with a higher level of finish work and a higher budget. This project got a bit crunched in terms of my work when it disappeared for a few months and then started back up after I had filled the gap. It has been a bit tough getting everything out to the builders and clients on a fast track schedule. Especially when I am only working part time. Which brings me to my own project. I live in a small house with a cat, three dogs, an 8 year old girl, a 3 year old boy and my lovely wife. We have one bathroom. Which was rapidly disintegrating into goopy piles of mold. I really needed to do something about it so this year, with a little ($) help from mom, I performed a gut remodel job. I had to rebuild the entire exterior wall down to the foundation and remove and rebuild the entire wall between the bedroom and the bathroom. I even ripped up half the subfloor. The only thing that stayed was the exhaust fan in the ceiling and the door. The plumber arrived yesterday and I took an extremely luxurious shower (and other things) last night. This project has taken a fair amount of time (I’ve been keeping track of this as I would a regular job) So I’m a bit under the gun with this personal job and the jobs I have under construction which isn’t that much work except that don’t forget, I’m only a part time architect. I have, for the most part, been successful at getting meals on the table, keeping the house clean, keeping up with the laundry etc. but I’ve had to pretty much give up cycling this summer as I have to try to make all my time every day productive. I’m also a bit behind on the winter’s wood supply and some other home maintenance jobs. This week I started back working on a long term project that will start construction next summer – the house for slow living. It is more expensive than the client’s original number and I have been pointing that out to the point of getting told to “shut it” because they like it so much. Which is fine but I have been a bit paranoid about digging into the CAD work in case it is all for naught. The biggest $$ savings would have come from putting the house on a floating slab ala Bygghouse and Chris Corson. (check out his system here). This is fairly standard in Sweden and Scandinavia as well as other cold parts of the world and the detailing is certainly well vetted and has stood the test of time but is a bit too “different” for the more conservative local contractors. So “no go” on that sales job. They want a full basement. Interestingly, some friends are doing a floating slab for a project in the neighboring town. More hip contractors I guess. I need to write a blog post comparing different types of foundations. I’m starting this project in full-on BIM mode. There will definitely be some unbillable hours there as I learn things. BIM or Building Information Modeling is using the full potential of my very expensive software to create a project in full 3-D as opposed to “drafting” The benefits are more accurate and more efficient construction documents as well as being able to perform more accurate lighting, shading, and energy modeling studies. This is standard practice for larger firms and the more geeky and technically oriented small firm practitioners (of which, I am not one of) But I’m always pushing myself on these things. I also didn’t get a rather large job that I was a bit nervous about as it would have taken a huge amount of time and the budget was fairly unrealistic as was the time frame. I didn’t get the job because my portfolio of commercial work is quite thin. I have been doing almost exclusively residential for the past decade. In retrospect, I should have sought out a partnership to do this job. There are several really excellent firms that have expressed interest in working with me and I would love to do that sometime but I’m sort of glad I didn’t get the job. It would have been too stressy and I probably would have lost money. Last week I met with a couple who want to renovate an old farmhouse/cape that hasn’t even been lived in for decades (no asbestos, no 70’s kitchen to tear out, no insulation) That sounds potentially very cool – I LOVE working on old New England houses. There are also a few smaller projects that may materialize plus I need to spend some time on my stock plan portfolio and finish building this website. I’ve been thinking about the future of my business as well. It seems that it will remain part time for the foreseeable future. My wife works ¾ time and is in grad school as well. Perhaps, in a few years she will get a regular job with a salary and a 401k and I’ll remain part time or perhaps I’ll be forced into more full time work and she will reduce her hours. It’s all too unknown to make plans so I’m just taking it one day and one job at a time with no plans for growing my business. I think that if I were to ever take on a partner, that person would have to be in a similar situation time-wise. Plus they should have an MBA and be really good at hanging out at brewpubs and schmoozing.
The business card at the top is by EM Letterpress
Bob has been asking me for some time to write a guest blog entry and since he has happily been to busy of late to write much himself, I thought this was a good time to finally make good on my promise to do so. Last year, I had a visit with an old friend who had recently moved back to the area. I hadn't seen her for a while, and it was the first time I'd seen her new house since it was just a partially-erected timber frame. It was lovely to see my friend after such a long gap, and also fodder for pondering and a blog entry.
The house was nice—open, tasteful, bright and spacious (huge by our standards) and it fulfilled their goal of functioning as somewhat of a community gathering place as well as a home. For example, they were holding a weekly meditation group in a specially designed meditation/yoga area. But I couldn't help thinking that if Bob had designed it, it could have met their needs so much more simply, elegantly and with much less square footage.
Of course I said nothing (how can you say something like that and what would be the point?) as I had said nothing during their design process. It seems rather self-serving to say to a friend who's designing their own dream house, “you know, you should really consider hiring my husband.”
But what I learned next makes me question whether that was really the best approach. When somebody builds a house, you expect them to be excited, even jubilant with the result. Instead, my friend told me that she felt like she had PTSD. There wasn't a single corner of the house she could look at without dredging up the stressful arguments with contractors over that bit of construction. She wished she could be rid of the house, but they were sunk in it for so much more than market value, that wasn't an option.
The biggest mistake they had made was to get sweet-talked by the GC into inadequate planning and problem-solving. One thing Bob stresses to all his clients is how much easier it is and how much cheaper it is to work out problems on paper. My friend believed her charismatic contractor that they could figure it all out as they went. What she figured out is that it's very expensive to pay for an entire crew to stand around and wait while hasty compromises are made.
I could go on, but you get the point. My friend's unfortunate house-building experience is a classic example of why it pays to pay for someone good to be on your side. Of course, that's no guarantee of satisfaction either, I suppose. I'm thinking of some clients who fired Bob a few years back after he showed them a rendering of what the addition floor plan they loved would look like in elevation. Not at all what they'd expected. You'd think they might have been appreciative to discover that after a few hours of design time rather than mid-construction. No accounting for people. It's now once again been a while since I caught up with that friend. I hope she's come to peace with her process by now, and that she's enjoying her home. And if another friend embarks on the process of building a home? I wonder if I'll serve them by being self-serving. I'll probably just give them some generic advice about working all the kinks out that they can on paper, and leave it at that. After all, my friends all know I'm married to an architect.
When I finally finished college (at age 25 and after 7 years) I didn't feel like I knew everything. In fact, I felt like I knew nothing. I still do actually. In reality, I have spent the last 19 years learning like crazy. After a year or so of internship, I went to work for Mindel and Morse Builders where I spent 5 years building houses, doing innumerable additions and renovations and generally learning like crazy. I learned a lot of practical stuff such as how to handle bituthene on a warm day but I also learned a lot about what I'm good at – and what I'm not good at. I'm not such a good finish carpenter - I don't have the patience. I can do it but it is “not me”. I am, however, a good framer. What I'm best at on the building end of things is understanding the flow, the dance of a project and I'm good at figuring out better ways of doing things. I'm good foreman material. But what I'm really best at is design, pure and simple. Since I decided to return my focus on the architecty side of things, I have continued to feel like I know nothing. Perhaps this is because my tendency to need to know something about everything, architecture and otherwise and the realization that no matter how much I know about a thing, there is always someone who knows more.
Lately my interest (of the month) is energy modeling and Passive houses. I am currently evaluating whether to do Passive House Training which would result in me becoming a Passive House Consultant. I may never actually do a Passive House but the immersion in state of the art building science plus the practical aspect of learning the ins and outs of very powerful energy modeling software definitely has appeal. The cost of the program and spending 9 days away from home, perhaps not so much. The cost means I have to have some sense of return on investment which I have not come to terms with. Are there consulting opportunities? Is there a need? It would certainly help on my regular projects.
Longer term I am really interested in doing the Master of Science in Historic Preservation program at UMass Amherst. Again, I have to look at cost and return on investment. New England architecural history is a fascinating subject to me and the idea of immersing myself in the subject rather than just occasionally reading a book or poking around in an old house has enourmous appeal and the program is very rich in hands-on learning. How would it affect my practice? Would it mean I would then be able to market a specialty in historic preservation? Many architects around here do that but without any real credentials. Or would it mean that I was very employable by a larger firm either as an employee or a consultant? Or would it mean little at all and really just be an intellectual detour?
An M.S. in H.P. in combination with being a Passive House consultant would uniquely position me to deal with the “greening” of existing houses from all eras. A definite “growth industry” in the Northeast.
I'm also signing up for an adult ed. class in welding – I have SO many super-cool furniture ideas involving steel.
Of course, any insight from readers of my blog would be welcome.
The idea of architect billing for their services as a percentage of construction cost has, in the past, struck me as inherently unfair but increasingly, I am seeing the merit in that method of compensation. In my own experience, when building hourly, this leaves the opportunity open to pick and choose from my services as one would a drafting service. I run into the situation where the design has a lot of refinement necessary to make it great and the client doesn't want to spend the money on more design and more meetings. It becomes a matter of standards and, being a perfectionist, my standards are normally higher than my client's. I look back on past built work and feel disappointment when I see things that could have been so much better or situations when I “gave away” time to make something right because the client was not willing to pay to do so. I think this is where architects who bill for their services as a percentage of construction cost often screw themselves. Being perfectionists, when billing a fixed fee, the longer we spend on a project “getting it right”, the lower the equivalent hourly rate becomes. Soon, the architect is down around $20 or $30 an hour which is completely unsustainable and leaves us trying to explain to our families on April 15th how we worked our asses off all year and only made $25k. But, at least, when billing based on a percentage of construction costs, the end result is likely to be a lot better.
Bob Borson in his blog “Life of an Architect” touched on the Red Flags subject recently which put me in a grumpy architect mood. I would like to elaborate on his list of red flags. Beware clients who want a very limited set of drawings. I am often approached by potential clients wanting incomplete plans. They usually want just basic floor plans and elevations and if they know what a section is they probably want that too. Just enough for a permit. I am hereby taking the stance that I will not accept these types of projects. Let it be known and henceforth and all that sort of thing. It is true that I have been talked into doing these limited service projects in the past. I just spent some time in my files looking over past projects of all sorts and remembering past rants, usually endured by my wife. Let me elaborate on why I won't do a half-assed job now. 1. They cost me money. Inevitably, the contractor will call me and ask for clarification on details or framing which results in my doing the drawings anyway and not getting paid for doing them, or spending way too much time on the phone or email dealing with issues that should have been in the construction documents in the first place. Or worse, the project gets built with my name on it as the architect and it ends up ugly and poorly detailed. Which leads to point number... 2. I have to be very careful what my name gets associated with. This is a small town and one poorly designed, underdesigned, poorly sited or poorly detailed building can really hurt a reputation. In this business reputation is very important. I was less careful with this in my early years and had the attitude: “whatever - it's their project” but the result of this is that there are a number of projects that are just plain ugly and my name gets mentioned in association with them. Ouch! 3. It is part of my job to ensure that the whole process goes smoothly and providing incomplete services would be counter to this. 4. There are Liability issues with providing incomplete services which frighten me as well although I have been lucky in that I have never experienced them directly. Perhaps I should have a lawyer write up a special contract that would protect me by scaring off any potential clients who fall into this camp.
In the past most of these projects have morphed into full services as the client begins to understand just what it is that I do. Most people seem to think architects are overpaid drafters but I, for one, actually do very little drafting. Systems are in place to minimize the actual drafting for a project as a percentage of the whole. Figuring out what to draft takes a whole lot more time and effort than the actual drafting. If I am unable to communicate this up front, that is a red flag for me and I will have to consider carefully whether I will take on the project.
I've started a new Bluetime Collaborative page on facebook. Haven't figured it all out yet but it seems like a slightly less formal place to foster dialogue than this blog where you have to sign in to post comments or send an email to ask a question.
File this under “Education of an Architect”People hire me for my professional advice. This may take the form of helping them design a house or do some master planning or a simple addition. It all boils down to advice. Some people try to hire me for drafting but I try to make it clear that if I see something that isn't working or is unnecessarily complicated or un-buildable or even just plain stupid, I'm not going to ignore it. There are often times in the process when the client and I disagree and depending on how important the issue is, I'll push back. If the issue is not so important such as a siding material or color I'll say my piece for the record and then lay off. If the issue is a bigger one and involves the client basically shooting themselves in the foot in terms of budget or previously stated design/function goals or sustainability issues or if it would result in something so ugly that I wouldn't want my name associated then I'll push harder but only up to a point – I'm not much of one for a fight and I'm not the sort who comes into a project with a slick attitude of “I know what's best”. There are times when I've gotten kicked off a job or removed myself because of such issues. Things that had I caved in on would have come back to haunt me later. The architect is an easy entity to blame for design decisions when all is said and done even if there is a good paper trail showing the architect's protestations. Sometimes clients state a set of expectations up front involving budget, design goals, functional requirements and time frame that represent an unsolvable equation. This is where a slick architect or builder has the initial advantage over me. If I am unsuccessful at helping the client re-define these parameters, (sales and education) then I walk. In the past I may have been naïve enough to go forward with the project anyway but when proven right, I got the blame. Sometimes, I see completed projects that I turned down and another architect was hired where it is obvious that the other architect was a better salesman and educator than I and the compromises that I recognized would be necessary are apparent in the final product. Sometimes, I don't take a job and hear later though the grapevine about how the clients fought with the architect and everyone came out with sore feelings and tarnished reputations. The projects pictured on my website (I really need to get out and photograph a bunch of recent projects) never represent what I would have done on a given site and with a similar set of design parameters but instead represent advice – some taken, some not.
People often tell me they took a drafting class in high school and thought about becoming an architect. I took a drafting class in high school and thought about becoming an architect. I suspect that few people have in idea of what it takes in terms of the whole process. First there is admission to a school of architecture. These tend to be highly competitive. My school accepted fewer than one in seven applicants the year I was accepted with admission to the rest of the school being much easier. Artistic talent, leadership skills and life experience were important. High school drafting class counted for nothing. The first year of architecture school is a bit like hazing and typically, about half drop out. Then you are in school (think massive debt) for 5 years at a minimum. Five years gets you a professional degree called a Barch which is a bit more than a regular bachelors but less than a masters. This degree is being phased out because it is becoming impractical to cram all the course work into five years. ( graduated with 181 credits) The new norm seems to be a 4 year degree resulting in a liberal arts type bachelors degree and an additional 2 to 3 years for a Masters degree in architecture.
Then comes post graduation internship (if you are lucky enough to get a position with an architecture firm) Working full time, the requirements for this can theoretically be met in about three years. I have heard that the average internship lasts 7 years but this seems to be a dirty little secret in the industry. My own internship was about 5 years worth of time spread over a much longer period of time because I spent so much time working as a carpenter. It took five years of actual internship because there are a specific set of criteria that must be met to satisfy the internship requirements which are often hard to accomplish without spending some time working in a large urban firm where a regular internship program is in place. Many graduates who go to work in larger firms with salaried positions never get around to taking the qualification exams to become licensed architects. They may not need the license for their job and it can be hard to study when you go home in the evening to a busy family and life.
The Exam(s) - Nine of them when I was becoming an architect. Nine exams which represented over $1000 in fees plus all the study materials which is a whole separate industry. In the old days the exams took place all at once over a 4 day period where you were locked in a room with a drafting table. Now you stare at a computer screen at a cubicle in a small room with flickering florescent lights overhead. (headache)
So, the whole process takes a minimum of 8 years but averages a lot longer. Probably not worth it from an accountant's point of view when looking at the yearly salary data that comes out courtesy of the American Institute of Architects. Then when you finally have license in hand and can legally call yourself an architect there are all the yearly fees and continuing education requirements that must be met to maintain the license. If you lapse on any of these you are not allowed to cannot continue to call yourself an architect.
I thought I'd write a post, mostly for myself but also for those of you who are interested in the what-it's-like-to-run-a-small-rural-architecture-firm aspect of my blog. Well, to start with, I have just had my best year yet despite the economy. I think I have achieved a “teachers salary” this year which doesn't always happen. Around here, outside the medical profession, teachers make good money in comparison to the local average. Oh wait, there are also the aspects of being self-employed relating to health insurance, vacation time (none), higher taxes, 401k's and stuff like that. In most past years there have been several months during which I am under-employed – time to get the firewood in and work on the barn. But this year I was right out straight with projects. I completed three new houses, one of which is finishing up construction and one just starting, four substantial addition-renovation projects, and assorted small consulting projects. I suspect that I turn out as much “work” as a 5 person firm and really should charge accordingly. I did not manage to make any progress on my dream of creating an internet home plan business (VermontSimpleHouse.com) although with another year of research under my belt, I still see a niche waiting for me to fill it. I also had some very good press. I have tried to maintain my integrity as a small-house “green” architect although in a parallel argument to the S.U.V. issue, most people think it doesn't apply to them “How could I possibly live in a two thousand square foot house? I have two kids!” - architect rolls eyeballs. I am also trying to become a better businessman. I have done much networking with other architects, many of whom I went to school with and attended some seminars on the business of running an architecture firm. I have gained greater understanding of my strengths and weaknesses and what I can do about them. New issues have cropped up that need addressing now that so much of my initial contact with people comes via the internet. I have had some issues with clients owing me money and “disappearing” which is something I've heard about from other architects but something I had rarely experienced before this year. A risk one takes when working with non-local clients I suppose. I get myself into situations where I put a lot of time and effort into a problem to arrive at a solution that looks simple and obvious – then the client doesn't believe I did anything more than sit down for ½ hour and sketch it up. Also, many times this year I spent too many hours and given out too much free consulting and design advice on projects that never materialized. On one hand I know that people really appreciate this and I enjoy doing it but on the other hand when I look up at the clock and realize that I just spent 3 hours on an email then look over at the stack of bills next to the desk, well.... For this coming year, goals include getting Vermont Simple House up and running, hiring someone to deal with my website (which really needs some work), Photographing recent projects to pursue publishing and submission to competitions, getting melons and squash started indoors in early April, racing my bicycle up Mt. Washington in July being an amazing father to my daughter and dog, husband to my wife and taking a real vacation (with the above). Anyone have a place on a quiet lake in Maine?
This may come off sounding like more of a personal diary entry but oh well. I have an intern arriving in a few weeks to work for me for the summer. (woot!) I am both exited by and nervous about the whole prospect. I need to write down a plan of action including my expectations. I have never before been an employer so to a great extent this is new territory for me. I have been in a supervisory role both in an office setting and as a carpenter and those situations always went well. (insert the usual grumbling about having to train someone who is relatively clueless but earning much more than me) I am hoping that the experience will be not only fun and profitable but force me to introduce more rigor into my working habits. If I have to be more organized for him then I will have to be more organized myself and I could always use more of that. I tend to be highly productive but disorganized in my workflow plans. I have lots of work but of course I am worried about it all drying up instantly. I would love to get another whole house commision or super cool, green and mod addition/renovation right now but will be fine if I don't. That's all, I have go to hang up all my awards and distinctions and diplomas etc. to properly impress and intimidate the intern when he arrives.
On a side note, I have been reading lots of case studies about architectural firm startups and have discovered that I am doing it all wrong!