Category Archives: Work

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.

 

Portland #8

My legs were stiff as they turned over the bikes cranks, 9 hours of driving back from Portland will do that. Portland was much warmer- after the long drive, the evening air had a bite that reminded me I was back in Montana. It felt good on my face.

driving west, clouds

I never mind the drive west.

I went to Portland to represent Energetechs at the PHnw5 conference, geeking out with other building professionals on insulation, window, and energy modeling details for the most efficient buildings in the world. The usual highlights were not to be missed- solving the hardest design criteria in the world and watching my friend David present one of the first PassiveHouse apartment buildings in Portland.

window installation details

Nerdy… window flashing and install details.

speculative passive house

The first speculatively built Passive Houses. The two units sold in 3 days. Props.

This was the 8th time I’ve been back since I left in 2011. I still miss it (this song always runs through my head). There is a strength in my adulthood now that was developed while I lived there. As my ties to that place whither, I’m afraid that strength will also. Driving into inner northeast on Thursday night, the old ties swelled. Music with the band, a few favorite restaurants, and a late night at Stormbreaker Brewing (formerly Amnesia…) completed the feeling. It felt good to show Mark my old haunts, and make new friends in the Passive House community.

portland coffee

Coffee in little tiny cups.

Mark at Multnomah Falls. The spring runoff is big.

Mark at Multnomah Falls. The spring runoff is big.

I’m not sure why my history with that place still feels so important to me. Maybe because I remember having life a little better under control there. Maybe things felt more certain, or just less confusing. It wouldn’t be the same if I moved back, and I don’t really want to, but sometimes the decisions we make are never as cut and dry as they might seem.

“Allow. That’s most of what we have to do. Just allow it. We might not understand now, or ever.  But we will feel it. We will feel our lives. ” (Andrew Given)

 

ps. the title isn’t wrong. Portland #7 didn’t get it’s own post, but you can read about it here.

 

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.

Try!

“Sometimes, you just gotta jump in with both feet and try your best.”

I was in over my head at work again today.  Fortunately when I got home, I saw this from my friend Tom (spoiler- contains adult language, but will make your day). Click the link, it’s the point of the post…

Planning and organizing and teaching people about 700lb windows from Poland is hard, especially when you are 200 miles from home.

unload Zola windows

So difficult it was comic.

Huge props to the Dave and the crew at Chase Skogan Homes. Back to adventures soon.

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.