Category Archives: Work


(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 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.


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.



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.



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

Learning to Sell

I spent yesterday manipulating an overly aggressive chainsaw against a sisyphean task. Doing this left me with a lot of spare mental capacity. Thoughts drifted from the jobsite to Alaska, my damaged left foot, the woman I’m crazy about, and finally to engineering sales. Yes, engineering sales.

I’ve always poo pooed sales, particularly engineering sales- but it’s fast becoming what I am most excited to do. My boss agrees with me that this is what we need most at work, and is probably the fastest way to shift my employment away from operating agro chainsaws.

If we vote with our dollar, sales is how you campaign. After 9/11, the nation looked to the White House for leadership and George W. Bush could have said anything. In a gross statement of American consumerism- he told us to go to the mall and shop. “Bolster the economy.” The socio-economic/political consequences aside, the moment highlighted the point that one of the most consequential actions we take is how we spend our money. If I really want to change the world, I’m not going to do it by inventing some new design- I’m going to do it by educating people about the value of design and technology available to us right now.

Sustainble building design is interesting- I really believe that “the trick” to sustainable buildings is to find satisfaction and elegance in practical, elegant, designs that maximize use of basic materials and simple technology. Part of the challenge is that these most important elements aren’t particularly new and it’s hard to evoke intense emotion . The things we need most already exist.

If I learn the design of something, I can only effect that thing. If I learn to sell- I can affect everything I touch, and I can change the way people act on their beliefs. Sometimes “the goal is to keep the goal the goal”*- and sometimes the goal is to figure out what the real goal is. I don’t know if this is the birth of my career as a salesman, or maybe just a new awareness in my business interactions, but moving forward the topic of sales is going to be big on the horizon.


*quote by Dan John.

Speak Out

Someone told me today that they wanted to get better at public speaking and asked for my advice.  I thought what I had to say was worth sharing here:

“Connect with your passion in whatever you are talking about. Bring whatever you have to say back to your passion- if its invasive species, or vegan gourmet, or energy efficiency, connect to that. If you are talking about something really esoteric or far from your passions, find a way to joke about it, or something about it that you genuinely want to learn more about.  If you find yourself in the unfortunate place of talking about something you really don’t know anything about, own that too- get vulnerable and admit your ignorance, there are few better ways to make friends.

People connect via authenticity, vulnerability, and humor- if you can use one of these, you win. Also, practice. It sucks and it’s hard, but speaking is really one of those things that only happens when you put yourself on the spot and do it. Take every chance you can get to speak in front of people (it’s scary), and make a deal with yourself that you won’t back down from an opportunity.  It gets worse, then better, and then- it gets fun.”

Next Friday I’m looking forward to giving a presentation about my professional work to a group of architects in Helena.  I am a little nervous about it.  The vulnerability tactic is definitely my plan, but I also respect what I have to say, so I hope I can speak authentically.  I mildly expect my audience to eat me alive (architects and contractors in the construction industry tend to be at odds with one another).  I can’t hide the fact that I’ve only been at this contracting gig for a year (holy crap, it’s been a year)- so I intend to own it, and while usually presenters are on the spot to teach something, I’m thankful that I tend to walk away having learned something.

Boulder, Colorado

My mind is not on getting this posted tonight, but more on that towards the bottom.  Participating in the PassiveHouse conference last week left no time for writing.  My trip was sponsored by the fine folks at Zola European Windows, and I had a very good time both at the conference (in downtown Denver), and romping around more colorful places, like Boulder.

Zola- the only folks I know that can make a R-10, triple pane, 19′ wide sliding glass door (thanks to my boss for modeling).

Surprisingly, I’ve never spent much time there, but Boulder is kinda hilarious.  The outskirts feel more like most little western mountain towns- copious outdoor recreation, lots of very fit people and fancy bicycles, and a Walmart here and there.   But downtown is more unique- trust fund hippies play guitar next to the Gucci storefront, and the smell of gourmet, organic, fresh ground coffee is overwhelming.  There is public bike sharing, and an amazing vintage theater.  Half of me wants to move there, and the rest of me knows to stay away- but probably just because I wouldn’t feel unique anymore.

Classic (damn street lamp ruins my photo).

The theater architecture was nice, but the line-up was unbelievable…

There is something about being in an unfamiliar place that allows me to step away from myself.  My view of things around me becomes more detached, and more objective- my normal introspective investments drop away in pursuit of new-ness.  Seeing new people in new places, reminds me that we are just people- doing whatever it is that we do.  Our individual heartbreak or triumph becomes far less important in a crowd of strangers.  Part of this blog is about the search for the most authentic version of ourselves, and when no one around you knows (or particularly cares) who you are- its fun to take the opportunity to be exactly who you want.

In between professional responsibilities, I enjoyed a session with some like minded outdoor folk at the Alpine Training Center, and caught dinner with my friend Jen, who drove all the way from Greeley just to make it happen.

Home away from home.

The conference was certainly valuable- lots of practice talking about what I do, seeing some really cool projects (the Marshall project), learning new stuff, and making new connections.  It was also hilarious to realize my own cousin was also presenting- we had a very good time catching up on the past 5 or 6 years since I’ve seen him, and I really appreciated his presentation on the Thousand Homes Challenge.  It always takes a while to see what shakes out of these sort of things, but the vibes were good, and some of the interactions were… unique.

5 people debating the merits of a window detail. Only at a PassiveHouse conference.

Stand and deliver. My cousin gets it done.

By Sunday afternoon I had as much PassiveHouse as I could actively take-on and was grateful to meet a good friend and former co-worker from Portland for dinner and a local jazz jam.  It’s been a while since I put my name on a list and sat in on bebop tunes, but it’s amazing how the changes still come back.

The previous commentary about feeling detached is at odds with my mood tonight.  I went to invite some friends together for this weekend on facebook, only to notice that one of them seemed to evaporate.  Just like anything else, the social utility is just as good at taking people apart as putting them back together.  With all the traveling and dedication to task at hand, it’s pretty obvious I’ve got a fair amount of work to do at home as well.


(the next few posts are going to be a bit out of order, wrote this on the plane and wanted to get it posted)

The flight from Salt Lake to Denver was full of a high school girls soccer team from Australia.  They had been traveling for 27 hours, and Denver was their final destination.  Listening to their accents I started to think about all of the planes I’ve been on since I quit my job in Portland.  I’m traveling for work this week, but my work at Energetechs has never had the same rote tedium that working at Glumac did.  I still feel like I’m on the journey.  I remember sitting on the plane on Monday morning, November 15, 2010 on my way to the GreenBuild conference to represent Glumac.  That was when I decided to quit the job and see what else the world had to offer- it’s fun to think that the journey that has been my life since then has pretty much been perfect, with just enough low points to make it real.

En route, via SLC.

I’m in Denver to give a presentation to the Passive House Institute US National Conference.  I’m a little scared that being the nerdiest construction company in Montana isn’t quite enough to hang with the other folks here, but we’ll give it our best.  We’ve got an authentic story to tell, and I think we tell it well- the success is going to lie in owning that.

It is said that the world is like a book, and that those who don’t travel only read one page.  I’ll be here until Monday and expect to work my tail off, learning, networking, training, and growing- and I’m really looking forward to it.  I’m curious to see what coming back to Missoula feels like, particularly in comparison to returning there after Yosemite a few weeks ago.  Stay tuned.