Category Archives: Business

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.

I’ve been in Seattle the last few days to attend the Passive House Northwest Conference.  The German Passive House energy efficiency standard is alive and well here in the Pacific Northwest, perhaps moreso than almost anywhere else in the country.  Beyond lectures on  earthquake stabilized R-35 foundation details and vapor open assembly design, I’ve been here to represent Zola Windows– high performance European built windows.  Energetechs represents Zola because there are no windows made in the United States that absorb more radiant energy than they release in conductive heat loss (standby for an explanation) in the Missoula climate.  Only the Europeans make these things, and surprisingly, it makes sense to bring them here.

That, is a great place to put a Zola Window.

That, is a great place to put a Zola Window.

Zola is a young company run by a brilliant Swiss Architect out of Colorado who started the company at age 26. Like many of the other awesome people I’ve met through the Passive House movement, his core motivation was to maximize the sustainability of buildings and knew that high performance windows are a key part of the equation. He saw the niche, and had the guts to fill it.

I admire him for the fact that he runs a very successful company that he built, from the ground up, and still finishes his day in time to pick up his young child from day care. He figured out that selling hours as an architect limited his impact, when he could have both more personal time, and more impact by selling what he knew was really part of the problem.  I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking- “I’m in the wrong game.”  I am unimpressed with what I have accomplished in my life, and that frustrates me. This post had previously slammed my friend because I was, on a deep level, jealous of his success- and in a way, knowing him makes me question some of the hard choices I’ve made.

There are many parts to be played in fixing our buildings.  Zola fills an essential need.  Skilled and talented contractors are clutch.  An engaged populace is the foundation.  Manufacturer, builder, consumer- what part are you going to play to maximize your impact on the problem at hand?

The first Zola uPVC windows installed in the US, as of Thursday...

The first Zola uPVC windows installed in the US, as of Thursday…

Feedback

First thing today at work, I got some feedback that I had dropped the ball on a few things, and we probably lost some money, and some respect, because of it.

After work, and my weekend facilitating NLC sessions, our board for the group met and reviewed some of the feedback we had received- as I had invited most of the speakers, and facilitated most of the sessions- I felt pretty invested in it, and some of the negative feedback we got hit me hard.

After that meeting, I got some feedback from a friend that I had really let her down in a big way.  I care about my friends a lot, so I took this more seriously than all of them.

Feedback is the most important thing in the world because it’s when we find out if what we thought (or guessed) and did actually resulted in the outcome we had hope for. In short- it’s how we actually learn.

Professionally it’s pretty easy- if we reduce utility bills, make people happier, and put a little money in the bank, we win, but it usually doesn’t keep me up at night. In my personal life it tends to hit harder, maybe because the lessons feel closer to home, and maybe because it takes a long time to really change who we are. I’ve still got plenty of work to do. Everyday, most of us strive to do our best- and every day, we guess, and we get things wrong.

I have to remind myself that my best is good enough for today. If you get it mostly right, most of the time- you’re probably doing well.  Half the battle is letting go when you’re in the wrong, the other half is hanging on to the lesson.

Branding

If you’ve followed the site for a while, you might notice a few changes today- stickthefeeling.wordpress.com is now stickthefeeling.com.  You can expect to see some custom layout changes, some video content, and soon- an updated professional page for friends and small businesses.

Elke lays it out for our group.

Elke lays it out for our group.

Last year, I wrote a lot about New Leaders Council – Montana and the important relationships the group has helped me cultivate in the Western Montana community.  This year, I’m on the board and have been coordinating speakers for the seminar series and setting up mentorship for our fellows to foster some of these awesome relationships for other people.  One of the notes I took during last years seminars was to continue to build the strong personal brand that I started here in 2011.  Part of that is owning this domain, and committing to keeping the content fresh and growing.  No, building my brand does not mean slighting my work at Energetechs- if anything, my work there is only growing deeper, stronger, and more meaningful.  I think having a strong personal brand will only compliment that work.

While facilitating the NLC sessions has certainly absorbed quite a bit of my discretionary time, we’ve had a weekend full of amazing presentations with leaders from the following folks.  A huge thank you to the following people:

Stephanie from The Truman National Security Project
Bryan&Erin from AERO & WVE
Russ & Tynille from Energetechs and Monkey Bar Gym Missoula
Susan from United Way of Missoula
Gen&Josh from Garden City Harvest
Elke from MamaLode

Many people complain about the economic environment in Missoula, but I am continually blown away by the quality of leaders and entrepreneurs that we have met with.  Please check out the awesome things happening at each of the above organizations.

Earned

You hear it all the time, “he/she is a natural.”  “The kid is an expert at 22.”  “They did [insert climb/performance/activity] with excellence beyond their years.”

No doubt, the world of both climbing and music (both performance oriented activities) have seen increasingly amazing performances from a wide cast of participants in recent years.  Younger people doing harder and harder things, and this post is not to downplay their achievements.  To be transparent, their achievements make me honestly question how I have spent me time, and what I hope to accomplish in the grand terms of my life.  In the greater lens of life beyond sport and music, I believe firmly that real excellence is usually harder won than some youth would have us think.

UM Dining services greenhouse- starting plants for consumption on campus.

UM Dining services greenhouse- starting plants for consumption on campus.

This week in the home performance contracting world, once again I bit off more than I could chew.  Our belief as a company is that your home is a system, and all the parts and sub-systems have to work appropriately for the system to deliver real performance.  I estimated what it would take to insulate the thermal mass element at the UM Dining Greenhouse project- and my estimate came up well short.  As a project manager, you’re job is to know how things go- but I’ve still got a lot to learn.  Ultimately my team picked up the slack and I still have a hard time letting people people help me (something else I’m looking forward to learning).   It happens, and as our master carpenter likes to remind me- “mistakes are the fastest way to learn.”  He’s been in this business, learning systems and making mistakes for almost 40 years.  Just because it looks simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Insulated thermal mass is trickier than you think.

Insulating thermal mass is trickier than you think.

Vapor control system.

Vapor control system.

Wall prep.

Wall prep.

I have high standards for myself- most of my friends and family believe these standards are often too high, and they are probably right.  I think most of us want to believe that we are good at what we spend our time doing.  That if we are working hard, we must be working well, and that we can achieve “mastery” or “excellence” in everything, and quickly.  My experience is to say- no.  Mastery is the result of many mistakes, many failures, and many attempts.

All at once.

All at once.

Blow.

Blow.

The price of re-learning how to blow a wall.

The price of re-learning how to blow a wall.

I am willing to say that while working harder is not always an indication of progress, failing often might be- so long as you don’t miss the lesson.  Humility is a gift, mistakes are opportunities, questions are invaluable.  Don’t miss the chance to pick yourself up and keep going.

Excellence is earned.

Finished.

Finished.

“I will not make excuses, I will make corrections.” (Gym Jones)