Punt

I was trying to write something worthwhile about my response to the election, and Thanksgiving. Maybe those should be exclusive posts anyway.

It’s important to me to maintain this blog- one post a month feels like the bare minimum of viability. The previously mention post topic was too damn hard, so I’m punting.

Abigail had a work conference in Las Vegas, and to recover from forced time in Vegas, I flew down to go climbing in Red Rocks (right next to the city, and a convenient antidote to the affliction of being there). Bike commuting in November looks like this:

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so the desert was very nice

This trip was more about hanging out in the desert rather than climbing hard. We climbed easy, beautiful, and classic lines, ate good food, and had fun. Sometimes, that is all it needs to be.

So I’ll close with this: I’m glad to have federally protected recreation areas at my disposal. Please consider the many groups that have worked together to make that recreation possible. Trump and the GOP have been explicit in their desire to repeal environmental protections on natural resources and federally protected lands. If that happens, things like this stop happening. Take sides and speak up.

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Conferences

One part of my job I really enjoy is attending professional conferences. As an engineer, this might make me somewhat unique. I am no longer surprised at the value of thoughts and ideas I get from even unlikely conference presentations.

One fact of business: it is really expensive to have staff travel to conferences. Yet, I have regularly seen professionals at conferences who seem to have little desire to be there. Checking Facebook during conference sessions, smoking alone during networking hours, typing away on a laptop during meals are pretty clear indicators that you have more important things to do. Companies send people to conferences because they know there are untapped gold mines, and these events are often the best way to find them.

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Last week I got to represent McKinstry at the US Green Building Council Wyoming Chapter conference in Jackson, Wyoming. A quick account of the costs:

  • Airfare (rt): $460
  • Shuttle to/from airport in Seattle: $80
  • Meals & drinks with peers: $80
  • Presentation prep time: 16hrs @ $75/hr (wholesale cost rate) = $1200
  • Travel time: 12hrs @ $40 = $480 (I use a blended rate cost, because unlike McKinstry, most firms I have worked for will require you travel on your own time, rather than company time- primarily because it is cheaper for the company)
  • Participation time: 16 hrs @ $75, $1200
  • Shuttle to/from airport (in Jackson): $160

———

Total: $3,660

You could re-do the math using my “opportunity cost” hourly rate of $125/hr (assuming I would spend all of the available working hours on full rate consulting projects), add the cost of actually attending (giving a presentation waived my registration fee), the cost of the hotel (again, included for fee as a speaker), and the cost of a few more meals (because I travel cheap and had friends to see), then the total cost balloons to $7,135.

If you don’t want to be there, then don’t attend. It’s too damn expensive.

That said, conferences can be intimidating and confusing for many people. Most of the advice I have gotten, and other blog fodder has either been inauthentic or too general. I’ve been told I do a good job of “working the room” at events- generating interest and finding opportunities. This is not purely a natural talent, nor in-authentic. Below are some specific actions to make getting value out of conferences a little easier.

Think of a question that you would like to find an answer to at the event. The best questions start with “how” or “what”- they are open ended to spur conversation. In Wyoming, one great question was “how do you retrofit an existing McMansion into something a millennial actually wants to buy?”

Stay mobile. You want to walk around the room(s) and meet new people. Don’t leave your laptop at a singular seat all day, or otherwise “lock” yourself into a location. Being around new people will inspire new conversations.

Exercise escaping dead end conversations. There are a few standard ways I make a clean break from a conversation that isn’t going anywhere. “I’d like to grab a coffee before the next session”, or “I need to move up so I can see more clearly” have worked well for me. If at all possible, do not use your phone as an excuse to break away.

Listen carefully to questions that other people ask- consider how you would answer each question (if you could at all). They can be great conversation starters after the session, and take some of the awkwardness out of starting a conversation with someone new.  Protip- people that ask good questions are most often the people you want to make contact with.

Do not make up numbers in order to sound smart or retain your authority. Most smart people can tell, and you’ll lose your credibility immediately. Being vulnerable enough to admit your knowledge gap is attractive, and it gives you a great reason to ask for someone’s card and follow up with them.

Do not bother making relationships with people that you really do not enjoy interacting with. You will only do really valuable work with people that you trust. You will never build enough report with people you don’t like to get to the point that you trust them.

Even if you feel the focus of the event is outside of your scope, realize that the organizers are probably people that you want to have relationships with.

Talk to your competitors. Get to know the people that also do exactly what you do. They may compete with you sometimes, but chance are you can learn from them, and you never know when they may be able to help you…

Follow-up is king. If you follow-up on your conference contacts with something of value, you’ll instantly stand out amongst your peers.  At the very least, connect on LinkedIn, but add a note to remind someone where you met them. I usually write one interesting fact, question, or follow-up task from the conversation on each business card I receive.

Don’t get on the plane home until you’ve written down 5 things you learned or are thinking about because you went to the conference.

Conferences are great professional practice in telling your story and sharing why you care about what you do (if you really don’t care about what you do, that’s a different issue). Write down a few different ways to introduce yourself and practice them through the day.

Notice and take notes on the references and examples that people cite- they’ve often done a lot of research for you. One example I noticed: the much regarded NREL net zero energy research lab is the least energy efficient shape possible (from a heat loss standpoint):

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Arrive alert and stay engaged. Don’t work on regular work during conference sessions. Be present. Ask questions. Stay away from your phone or social media. Enthusiasm is infectious- share it freely.

If you ever have the chance to be the closer (last presenter) at a conference, make sure that you cite and highlight what you learned in your closing presentation from the previous presenters that you watched. It’s classy, shows humility, helps other people relate to you, and does a great job of actually closing the conference!

“Snow-Rut?!”

Despite my last posts, I had no clue just how short this season was about to feel. Abigail and I drove east to Big Sky on Thursday of Labor Day weekend under thick clouds- to run The Rut race. The weather was unseasonably brisk, even for Montana. While our recent adventures may allude otherwise, neither of our bodies have been in perfect running order. Her IT band, and my hamstring have been out of sorts for months. A week before the race I sprouted a nagging sinus infection that carried up to race day.

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We arrived Friday evening so Abigail could run the 28km race on Saturday, and I could rest one more day before the 50km race on Sunday. The big sky in Big Sky was pretty full of clouds, but we stayed optimistic. Abigail “just wanted to finish”, so she started at the back of the first wave, and promptly proceeded to pick off competitors one by one.

 

I hiked up to cheer on racers around mile 7 and saw the front runners come through- but when Abigail passed, I realized she was still probably in the top 20 women. Go Abigail!

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The skies cleared off, and Abigail got the full Rut vertical experience, holding her place and picking her way along the exposed ridges that makes the rut The Rut. The final results list her as the 17th overall woman- no joke for her first real mountain race, and being behind 7 or 8 pro runners from Europe and some wicked strong locals from higher elevations.

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My race was less flattering. Last year, I went out too fast and burned out early. It was not pretty. I wasn’t any fitter this year, and between sickness and injury I felt unsure of myself right up to race day- but I was determined to run a smarter race and do the best I could.

The weather system that was supposed to hit the 28km race waited for me, and I left the condo in 40 degree spitting rain. Hydration would not be a problem. They closed the upper mountain due to risks from both lightning and snow, so my 50km with 10,000ft of vertical became a 42km with 7,000ft of vertical. Much faster, lower elevation, and frankly, easier. I picked my layers carefully, and started with the 2nd wave of runners to keep away from the peer pressure to go fast. Abigail found ways to cheer me on early in the race, and I felt solid well past where things started to fall apart last year.

Mercifully, it didn’t start raining hard until 2 hours into the course. At 3 hours and at 9700ft above sea level, there was an inch of snow on the course. Moving was necessary for warmth, but careful pacing and diligent nutrition kept me in good shape. I felt a little weary on the long downhill between miles 16 and 20, but worked my plan, gave up some speed and stayed strong.

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I finished 30 places faster than last year, and in the top 25% of finishers. Plus, I wasn’t a puddly wreck of exhausted muscle fibers which makes me think my plan to run smarter worked well. We even managed to sneak away from the race and celebrate my friends Maggie and Chad getting married in Bozeman that night- cheers to them tying the knot!

Suffice to say- I’m still eager to run the full course next year, hopefully in better health, and with a better plan. Hopefully the course won’t look like this (from our drive home on Monday):

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Short Season pt 2

(part 2 of 2)

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This past weekend demanded no less commitment than the previous. Pat and I have enjoyed a lot of days outside over the years. Living in different cities has made that harder, but no less enjoyable when it happens. He introduced me to one of my first big alpine rock climbs, and we’ve cheered each other up more pitches at Smith than anyone else I’ve climbed with. IMG_3607

The North Ridge of Mt. Stuart is one of the most classic alpine rock routes in the range- and when Pat reached out to line up for a trip, we easily picked the objective. Neither of us had done it, so we (wisely) chose the more conservative “Standard” version from the notch above the Stuart Glacier. Perfect route, perfect weather, perfect partner. That didn’t stop us from suffering a bit as we began to understand just how big the effort would be.

We hiked in with bivy gear on Saturday, stopping for a dip in Ingalls Lake and scouting the landscape to get familiar. The route logistics are inconvenient- no matter how you approach it, getting to the base of the route requires +/-1500 vertical feet (or more) of scrambling, and (for us) a glacier crossing). Getting back to the car means retracing your steps and another 1500ft up and down of hiking, in addition to the +/-4000ft descent from the summit. Sunday was not a short day.

We left our bivy site just below Stuart Pass at 530am, and arrived on the Stuart Glacier around 730. Initial snow walking turned into uncomfortable step cutting across hard snow above non-trivial cravasses. Micro-spikes and Yaktrax, while being lightweight, were a pretty poor choice of footwear. Next time: aluminum crampons. After the step cutting and gulley shenanigans, we got on the actual rock climbing around 930, and proceeded to make decent time.

Pat and I have similar tolerances for risk and decision making, so we traded the lead simul-climbing almost all of the terrain up to the Gendarme, with a few belayed steps in between. Pat deployed his expert lie-backing skillz on the first pitch, and I made appropriate grunting noises on the off-width. More simul-climbing put us on top around 330pm, feeling good but hungry and low on water.

The Cascadian Couloir is the standard descent to the south side and back towards our packs. Standard does not mean enjoyable. It is safe, but long and hard on the knees. We noticed some dark clouds building as we hiked down, and by the time we landed on the Jack Creek trail at 730p, the temperature had dropped noticeably and winds were gusty. After 15 hours on the move, we found our bivy site in gale force winds just after dark. Originally we had hoped to head for the car, but the climb took the best out of us, and the weather wasn’t inspiring. We hunkered down for the night, our bivy sacks in fully wind tunnel mode until morning. Walking commenced again at 530am, with a glorious sunrise to greet us, but there was no avoiding that Skander would be a little late for work on Monday morning…

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All content Copyright Skander Spies, 2016

Short Season pt 1

(part 1 of 2)

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(Challenger Glacier)

I like to think that I can enjoy outdoor recreation in every season. Sometimes that’s a challenge- trail running in freezing rain gets old pretty quick. For high travel in the mountains, summer in the Pacific Northwest is prime time and the season suddenly feels very short. Those of us that recreate here are blessed to have the problem of too many good options. Stellar trail running or alpine climbing, deep wilderness or front country cragging- it can be hard to pick.

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(Copper Ridge lookout)

Two weeks ago, Abigail and I headed for her first trip to see the North Cascades. We got a few recommendations, and when the camping permit location didn’t overlap with some of the features we wanted to see, she didn’t complain. As we are both preparing to run versions of The Rut trail race in a few weeks, she figured that a few extra miles to link the features would be good training. The recommended 4-6 day Copper Ridge backpacking loop became a single overnight adventure, with a detour to Whatcom Pass and Tapto Lakes. All destinations recommended, but our itinerary is only recommended for the fleet of foot.

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(Burly babe at mile 25 and starting up Whatcom Pass)

We left Hannegan Pass at 730am on Saturday morning, and at 915 made the final call. We wanted to see Copper Ridge, but doing so meant committing to a 30 mile day with our (relatively light) overnight packs. Up we went- it was worth it. At mile 25 and 530pm, we started our final climb to the Lakes above Whatcom Pass. There is a decent trail to both Tapto and Middle Lakes and good camping can be found at either. The views off both are spectacular. The huckleberries we found on Sunday morning were critical to finishing the remaining 18 miles back to the car. A few more photos to whet your whistle.

Thanks to Abigail for picking a lovely loop and putting out the moxie to get it done- she is a rare girl for sure.

All content Copyright Skander Spies, 2016

A Grand Time

Over the July 4th weekend, I got to find some deep wild in Olympic National Park. I am not sure of how many major American cities have proximity to wilderness like this.

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There is little rock climbing to be had. That doesn’t matter. Bright skies, beautiful friends, and deep green glades were more than enough. The wildflowers were out in force, and the bugs were not. Bliss.

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Abigail stares at the Olympics every day from her office, so when my good friend Michael from work invited us out with his wife for a hike along “The Grand Loop”, it was easy to say yes. Not for the faint of foot, we earned the 45 miles and 12,500 vertical feet over 4 days. They don’t get much nicer than this.

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Straight Talk on House Design

Mast and Co Missoula, energy efficient building,Photo Courtesy Mast and Co. Builders. Damian and Chris are consummate, intelligent craftsmen and their work is the embodiment of style, performance, and integrity.

A few days ago, I was talking to a colleague and friend- she is working on a cabin design for her family. Knowing my background, she asked for some advice and questions to ask to get what she wanted. Energy efficiency and “not doing stupid shit” were top priorities. Our conversation boiled down to my top tips for the design of new custom homes. I was lucky to work with a handful of people in Missoula that taught me a lot*.

Off the top of my head, and not listed in order of priority or importance:

1)      Pick a budget and get your architect and contractor to agree. As the owner, do not let yourself push over that budget with last minute additions. Ultimately, the architect’s job is illustrate the dream you’ve described to them, the contractors job is to put a price on that dream. The rude awakening can derail the best of intentions.

2)      Optimize your window package. Most likely, you will only buy windows once in the time that you own the house. Some rules for getting the best window package for your dollar: no single windows larger than 25s.f., no SDLs (simulated divided lights), no double hung or single hung, and minimize the number of operable windows. Do this carefully and cut 30% of the cost out of your window package. In almost every climate zone, triple pane windows will increase the comfort of your home more than almost any other thing (see item #10).

3)      Site work is expensive. Single story footprints are generally more expensive than double story footprints for the same area of floorplan. Simple footprints are easier to construct and inherently energy efficient.

4)      I don’t like basements or crawlspaces, even though they are convenient for utilities. If you can afford it, build slab on grade or on stilts.

5)      Savvy HVAC salesmen (and everyone else) will ask you “how energy efficient” do you want to be? I used to be one of those folks, and I hated asking that question. It’s like picking a car: is this house like a Camry (25 MPG) or a Prius (50 MPG)? Getting a Prius is not all that hard, but doing much better probably is.

6)      Durability is a hard quality to estimate. Almost every component you pick for a home contributes to the overall durability (and related maintenance costs), and the durability aspect is frequently overlooked. Siding, interior trim, windows, doors, and flooring are all common materials that wear out faster than many owners appreciate.

7)      There is a fallacy that “radiant floor” heating systems are more efficient than forced air furnaces. A well designed high efficiency furnace + HRV system is the simplest, most efficient, lowest cost way to comfortably heat a house. Radiant systems can end up with cold spots, are slow to heat up (like when you come back from a weekend away) and you have no option for cooling or proper home ventilation (which is essential if you want good indoor air quality and good energy efficiency).

8)      Don’t put in a fireplace, wood stove, or even gas insert fireplace. Wood burning fireplaces release all kinda of toxic stuff in your house, actually suck warm air from your furnace out the chimney, and don’t really emit that much heat to a space. Gas insert fireplaces are somewhat better, and contractors tend to charge an arm and a leg for them.  Put in some nice landscaping around a cool outdoor fireplace. Costs half as much, is twice as safe, and gets people out of the house.

9)      Especial in maritime climates, use a liquid applied WRB and a rainscreen siding detail. Ask your general contractor questions about building science, and their experience with different types of construction (have they ever done a house with ICFs, strawbale, double stud walls?) The best ones have often tried a lot of stuff, and they can tell you what they learned. From the get-go, pick the architect and contractor that you are most willing to have hard conversations with because you will have them.

10)   Air sealing is as much about framing as it is about insulation. Poorly applied spray foam in a poorly framed house is more expensive, less efficient, and harder to fix than cellulose insulation in a properly framed house. Furthermore, air-sealing has the single biggest impact on comfort in your home, and has one of the biggest impacts on energy efficiency (especially if you are use more traditional, code minimum insulation package on the house). Insist on getting a blower door test for your home, whether or not your local code requires it.

11) Don’t be in a rush. Take the time to make a real plan that you are happy with. Especially for owners on their first custom home- it will take more discipline than is comfortable to work the plan.

12) I don’t like automotive garages directly attached to living space- too many nasty things associated with cars to have them directly connected to the house. 

13) Install a heat recovery ventilator. They will actually increase your home energy use, but they will also keep humidity reasonable, improve your air quality, and allow you to make other energy efficiency improvements as you go.

I’m sure many people will disagree or have additions. I hope to add links as citations to this piece as I am able. Feel free to post to comments, where I will feel free to moderate them.

*if you’re new here, I spent 3 years as a project manager for a residential specialty construction firm. You can read more of my pieces here (if the blog is still up)

Copyright Skander Spies, 2016