Category Archives: Missoula

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.




The first sunrise of 2015. SF Bay Bridge, California

The first sunrise of 2015. SF Bay Bridge, California

New Years has always been a really special one for me. I love the way the calendar resets, and the fresh feeling on life that I get around this time of year. More daylight and good skiing don’t hurt either. This blog will be a less active project this year as I focus on other things. Follow me on instagram (skanderspies) or facebook for more casual followings. I will update with adventures as I’m able. Best wishes for all big things!


“Do not ask what the world needs. Rather, ask what makes you feel alive, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” (Howard Thurman)

The stage is set. (Photo: Nick Triolo)

The stage is set. (Photo: Nick Triolo)

One of my early mentors was a storyteller, but it took me much longer than the time I had with him to understand why his profession was just so important. I think I’m starting to get it now. Stories engage us and inspire us. They remind us that the world is not limited to what we see, but that it extends to include the our hopes and dreams and sorrows and failures. They remind us of the experiences that make us feel alive.

Just before I left for Vegas I got an email from my friend Trevien. A talented poet and beautiful human- he had an idea and needed a cellist. The gig was this past Thursday, so as soon as I got home, we sat down for a few hours and matched a few of my improvisations to some of his delicious prose. We shared it live at the Wild Mercy reading series at the UM FLAT. The crowd it seems, enjoyed it thoroughly. You can listen below:

I start playing at 43:30. Thanks to Simon for making a stellar recording. Thanks to Trevien for the idea, and amazing words. Thanks to the UM FLAT for hosting, and Mel & Caroline for being overall event masterminds.

November 2013 Finley Creek Missoula Ice Conditions

This is a summary of current ice climbing conditions in the Finley Creek drainage. I didn’t expect to climb anything, but wanted to get a look around. Photos were taken with my iPhone around 1030am in the morning. I’ve uploaded them at max resolution so you can click and zoom.


The first good look. Graineater should be center right. Not much there yet.

The first good look. Graineater should be center right. Not much there yet.

Looking from the main overlook towards Weedeater.

Looking from the main overlook towards Weedeater. Also not much there.

Upon closer inspection…

Weedeater, from the belay.  Good drips and starts, but no climbing.

Weedeater, from the belay. Good drips and starts, but no climbing.

Looking up Foxes Corner. Suppose it is a mixed climb, so... drytooling? Pretty slimy though.

Looking up Foxes Corner. Suppose it is a mixed climb, so… drytooling? Pretty slimy though.

Looking up the main flow of Graineater.  Starts, but nothing to climb on (and please don't knock it down).

Looking up the main flow of Graineater. Starts, but nothing to climb on (and please don’t knock it down).


From the belay at The Thing In Between/MuleSkinner. Forming, but not there yet.

From the belay at The Thing In Between/MuleSkinner. Forming, but not there yet.

Up the gully at the Fang. I'd do well to get on this if it forms this year.

Up the gully at the Fang. I’d do well to get on this if it forms this year.







This is the rebuttal to my last post. I’ve been in Missoula almost exactly 2 years now, and there is a lot to respect about that time.

I love living in a city that has local food and culture and unbelievable access to wilderness.

I love working for a small, well run company that lives it’s values. That gives back to the community, that provides unusually great benefits to employees, and does high quality work to really change our built environment.

I love that my life does not fit neatly into the consumerist corporate America that defines success by the size of my bank account.

I love working with my hands, connecting with other people that work with their hands, to make small but deep impacts in our local community.

I love the friends that I have made here and the fact that I can’t list them because there are simply too many.

Not admitting that I love this place seems like a rebuke to all of the above, and that’s just not going to fly. I could probably figure out how to live my values anywhere, but doing it here simply reflects their priority.

November 2, I took the train north from San Jose to spend a little time with Dustin. He remains one of the most important and incredible people in my life, and always reminds me how to get back in touch with the priorities that I sometimes lose sight of. We talked about living with a smaller footprint, embracing how little we really need, and chasing passions to the end of our wits. All things that I can see myself doing here.

If my priority were to make as much money as possible (or become as powerful as possible, because the ego is probably what’s really under the desire to have “impact”) I wouldn’t work for my boss or do what I do. I would have stayed in Portland, or moved someplace just as disconnect from wilderness. I’ve been there, done that, and moved forward with my life choosing otherwise. 

“A willow can grow and bend, lose leaves, grow them back, reach for the sun, change its appearance or its focus with the seasons. It can become scarred, burned or bent. But it’s still a willow, and still a tree. And at every step, it is beautiful.”

My life is it’s own definition. Like the willow, for whatever form it takes, I get to define who Skander is and what that means.