Category Archives: Business

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):

nrelrsf

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!

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

The Next Big Thing

Slowly, the word has spread and I’d like to get ahead of it here. It’s time that Skander started getting after the next big thing.

Well. This is unusual.

Well. This is unusual.

It’s been a while since I’ve worn my suit for anything serious. I like to think I still look pretty good in it. On January 15th I tendered my resignation and drove to Seattle for back to back job interviews. It was the sort of affair that you would want to look good in a suit for.

I’ve limited some of the details that I have shared on this blog, but it became clear at the end of 2014 that my professional life needed to move in a different direction. Over the holidays, my family gave me another good nudge. I’m very grateful for the experience I’ve had working in Missoula, and hope to depart without burning any bridges.

I’ve wanted a Professional Engineers license for over 10 years. Since becoming a contractor, I’ve developed a much better sense of where I want to take my career, and the time-honored craft of professional engineering. I’ve also learned that the most fundamental tenant in all of business is trust- at the end of the day, when the client experiences what they thought they bought from you, you’ve built trust. That’s the key to success. I’m eager to fill out the holes in my professional skill set, and take my game to the next level.

The immediate hole is design. Design gives me the power and confidence that I can deliver on the vision of how I think buildings should work. I have a long term plan to make a big impact on the sustainability of our built environment- the sales and analysis work I’ve done in the past are only parts of the whole. I’m past the point now where I’m debating switching careers or “exploring”. It’s time to  plug the rest of the holes and get moving in a big way. That means letting go of the comfortable things. It means chasing the skills I don’t have, and finding next set of smart people to work with and learn from.

It was a rough drive to those first few interviews. Ellensburg, WA, 01.15.15.

It was not a comfortable trip to those first few interviews. Ellensburg, WA, 01.15.15.

Specifically, that means I am moving to Seattle. This past weekend I felt fortunate to accept an offer of employment from a firm that seems to value who I am, my somewhat non-traditional experience, and my intense drive towards sustainable design. The position is in mechanical design and I’m genuinely excited to get after it. I’ll have more to say once I actually start work on April 6.

I will miss the ever-loving shit out of Missoula, and Montana as a whole. While that won’t be fun, it is also worth mentioning that that my landing in Seattle will be significantly softer due to a really incredible woman I’ve gotten to know in the past few months. More on both of these items later.

The best cheap date in Seattle is on a ferry.

The best cheap date in Seattle is on a ferry.

 

Mine

After nearly two weeks of amazing sunshine in January, the weather gods dumped 18 beautiful inches of powder on western Montana this week. Somehow, it even managed to come in wet and heavy, and end dry and light (the preferred configuration to avoid avalanches). After a challenging week of work, I was eager to shred hard.

We go up....

We go up….

Saturday was busy at the G-Spot off Lolo Pass. We were one of the first in, and the last out. Despite our big group, we made 5 laps under bluebird skies. The powder was every bit as good as hoped. Maybe even better. It was the first time I should have legitimately considered a snorkel as part of my kit. Anna, Molly, Larry, and Paul- thank you, ’cause that was a damn good time.

Larry gets the hang of his new Legend XXLs...

Larry gets the hang of his new Legend XXLs… note the powder contrail.

I know I’ve got the right friends when Super Bowl Sunday makes us all think that the ski resort will probably be empty. The snow report pushed us to Lost Trail (4/4 on excellent days there this year), and after Simon missed out on Saturday, he was determined to get it all. With 7 people, our mixed abilities spread us across the mountain. Simon, Trevien and I enjoyed some of the best steep powder I’ve ever had the privilege of skiing. These men make me ski better, and I’m thankful for it. We all re-grouped after lunch for a full afternoon of playing in the trees and coasting packed powder groomers. All smiles, all day.

Despite the great ski turns, I was still turning work stuff over in my head. I don’t like taking work home with me, and don’t like some of what’s looming on my professional horizon (while some other things are very exciting). Interestingly enough, the things that have nothing to do with work have been the most calming. It’s fun to realize that my skiing as important to me as anything else that I do- not because I bask in the glory of being a great skier, but simply because it fills me with pure, authentic joy. Dreading my week, I look back on the things that have stood out over the years. The places I’ve been and people I’ve shared them with seem far stronger than the immediate concerns about sales numbers or workflow planning.

Skiing.

Working with Dustin at the Commons.

The Muldrow Glacier.

Castleton Tower.

Running on the Chicago lakefront.

Playing great music.

I don’t mean to slam work, but when things aren’t going well I usually end up feeling like the world is going to end. It won’t. These experiences remind me why my life outside of work is just as important as my life at my desk. They are mine, and reflect a life that I am proud of. They remind me how capable I am. Of how rich my life is. I’m not sure why that’s so hard for me to keep in perspective, but it’s a perspective I’m determined to keep fighting for.

Saturday's perspective was bright.

Saturday’s perspective was bright.

The Power of Less

Minor break in the alpine climbing action: yesterday evening I was honored to have the microphone on Montana Public Radio on behalf of AERO Montana and Energetechs Construction.  Writing this piece took quite a bit of time and thought.  While it’s not perfect, I feel like it’s pretty spot on, and a nice reflection on where my career in Montana has taken me.  You can listen on the MTPR evening edition podcast for September 12 (get it here). The text is below, and I would welcome comments and feedback in the comments.

2013 09 12 MTPR AERO Commentary

The Power of Less

This past May I attended two meetings full of contractors, architects, and planners. One was a “listening” session for the public to provide commentary on the adoption of a new energy code for all buildings in the State of Montana. The other was a public meeting of a group called the Northern Rockies Passive House Alliance. Both meetings were about energy conservation in buildings, but the tone between the two couldn’t have been more different. At the listening session, I heard a lot about why any energy code improvements at all will cause reckless damage to a fragile industry. Energy efficiency was seen as a threat, and I left feeling hopeless.

At the second meeting, I listened to two hours of healthy dialogue about the future of the building industry. About how a more aggressive voluntary standard can increase comfort and value for building owners, while drastically reducing energy use and innovating the marketplace. Here, energy efficiency was an opportunity, and I left feeling ready to get back to work. The new state code updates aim for a 15 percent reduction in energy use, the voluntary standard aims for 85 percent. While “green building” is all the rage, meeting these standards while maintaining the budget can be a daunting task that many contractors feel uncertain taking on.

I serve as the secretary of the board for the second group, the Northern Rockies Passive House Alliance. We are a collection of contractors and architects dedicated to promoting an aggressive building energy consumption standard called “PassiveHouse.” I also work full time as a project manager for Energetechs Construction, a small Missoula company that specializes in creating exceptionally comfortable and energy efficient buildings.

Construction wasn’t where I expected my career to take me. I finished university with a degree in mechanical engineering and got a job creating computer models of low energy use buildings. After a few years though, it seemed my models and recommendations never really hit home. There was a lot more to reducing energy use than computer simulations and consulting reports so I started looking for the missing pieces. I came to Montana by chance to attend an AERO annual meeting. I found Energetechs because they knew a lot about PassiveHouse, and I wanted more hands on experience. I joined their team and have gotten to work on some of the most energy efficient buildings in Montana.It has also brought me face to face with the gritty challenges facing the green building community.

If you lived in the 70s you probably remember some popularity around the term “passive solar design.” The idea caught on big in Germany, and scientists there formalized the design and construction principles into a rigorous standard that aims to reduce building energy use by 75-90% compared to the current American codes. PassiveHouse represents the practical limit as to how far it is possible to reduce energy use and represents the future of where our industry can go. In Montana, energy bills cost families and businesses $1.8 Billion each year. If we built every residential and small commercial building to the German standard, we would have $1.4 Billion to invest back into our communities.

Beyond the bottom line, the Montana landscape is one of the best parts of living here. The biggest environmental impact of a building comes from the energy it uses over the course of its lifetime. Delivering major reductions in energy use requires innovative design, more involved communication, and new methods and materials that can seem unnecessary or unfamiliar to many contractors. Cutting edge standards like PassiveHouse pave the way for new methods and materials in the marketplace- that’s why the team I work with practices our PassiveHouse knowledge on almost every project we do, even though we haven’t built a whole certified building yet. The practice has taught us how to meet other standards, like the newly proposed code, more easily and with less incremental cost. This practice has also shown us that every time we improve the energy efficiency of a building, we also improve the comfort, indoor air quality, and overall durability for the building owner.

The construction industry has always been required to adapt to new standards. The proposed energy code isn’t nearly so drastic as PassiveHouse, and it is a good step in the right direction. Better energy codes ensure better buildings for owners and investors, and a better future for our kids. Urge your representative to support the new code in the next legislative session- I am certain that more efficient buildings are an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.

In Missoula, I’m Skander Spies for the Alternative Energy / Resources Organization.  AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit us online at a-e-r-o-m-t.org.

Reaching for Home

I went to my first ever city council public hearing tonight, because it mattered. I’m pleased to say that I was there to witness the Missoula City Council adopting a 10 year plan that targets the end of homelessness. I didn’t bring prepared comments, but found myself at the podium anyways.  While I enjoy public speaking, tonight was not one of my better performances.  I came home and organized my thoughts more coherently.

To the Missoula City Councilmen&Women

“As we talk about long-lasting affordable housing, I feel compelled to talk about long-lasting affordable buildings. Worthy visions of affordable housing solutions have time and time again been implemented as low-cost construction projects resulting in housing that is of low value to both the occupants and the surrounding community.

Montana state codes are deficient in addressing ventilation standards that support occupant health, these codes do not reflect the modern state of energy efficient design and construction (leading to high energy bills for occupants), and these codes do not encourage the use of sustainable, durable materials.

As a contractor, I am certain that we can do better.  I urge you to forego many of the often repeated assumptions in building design.  Challenge your working group, design teams, and fundraising teams to strive for more than code minimum construction. Consult with design experts that truly believe in your goal of sustainable housing, and have demonstrated it in their own work. Developing cost effective, durable, and low energy use buildings demands rigorous dedication to these goals, from the beginning of the fundraising process to the moment we hand keys to a tenant. I believe that sustainable buildings are instrumental in providing sustainable housing. I am proud to be part of the the community that is willing to take this on, and eager to help see this vision through.”

There it is.  Let’s get to work.

Rent

(the views below are my own, and are no way professional opinions or necessarily the views of my employer)

Yesterday I signed a lease on a new place to rent for the next year. 2013-2014 will be another year that owning the space I live in eludes me. Several friends though, have made this the year and know that I have opinions about their position. I haven’t bought a house. There’s a huge amount on the internet that covers this topic. Several friends have requested this post repeatedly of late. I wanted to share the top three things I’ve thought about digging into their questions from the perspective of a contractor, engineer, and fiscal tightwad.

Track Your Money.

Use Mint.com. If you can’t say exactly how cash positive you were in the last 6-12 months, you’re probably not ready to buy a home.

Learn About Mortgage Finance

Make sure you understand exactly how much money a bank is about to extract from you. Spend an hour on the Wolfram Alpha Mortgage Calculator and write down what you learn.  This is going to determine how much house you can actually afford. The number one headache I see clients struggle with is being unrealistic about what they can afford for both new buildings and additions. Don’t buy more house than you can afford.

Look Around Carefully

People will tell you all kinds of things, and NOT tell you all kinds of things. There are three things that are a barrier to doing other (more fun) energy efficiency improvements down the line. Here’s what I look for:

  1. Look for white PVC pipes sticking out of the furnace and hot water heater- this is the sign of a “sealed combustion” appliance.  These are more efficient than code minimum systems, but more importantly they are much, much safer. The first step in doing any other energy efficiency work is having sealed combustion systems. Learn more about the relationship between energy efficiency and combustion appliances here. Even in brand new houses, speculative builders will still prioritize granite counter tops over seal combustion appliances.
  2. Look around the crawlspace. Crawlspaces are prime sources of mold, mildew, and radon, as well as energy loss.  They are expensive to retrofit, and again are more pressing than doing other sexier improvements. You are looking for plastic on the floor that is sealed to the foundation wall.  Look at the foundation wall and make sure that it is solid, smooth concrete.  I would not buy a house with a rubble foundation, or a crawlspace that I wouldn’t be willing to crawl to the outer extents of.
  3. Look (and listen) for a dedicated kitchen range vent, and a functional bathfan in each bathroom (be prepared to negotiate several thousand dollars out of the purchase price). If the fans whine like your 1985 Corolla driving up the mountain, it’s probably not working right. Dedicated ventilation does increase your energy bills, but it reduces the risk of ending up with a mold or mildew problem in your house. Even better, look for a house with a heat recovery ventilator. Again, having a functional ventilation system in the house will give you more options down the line to make other improvements.

The Energy Vanguard blog is one of the best contractor perspectives on the internet.  While it does focus on energy use, Dr. Bailes covers a wealth of knowledge and experience. Set aside a Tuesday night and just start reading.

I hate to bang this post out, but it’s the weekend in the spring and people are shopping.  Happy hunting.