Tag Archives: contracting


(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.

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.

Descriptions of Myself

10:30am July 26, 2012. Candid, while blowing cellulose insulation.

I’ve noticed lately when I introduce myself, I rarely offer a simple description- it usually goes something like this.

“I’m a mechanical engineer doing project management for residential and small commercial projects interested in energy efficiency and sustainability.”

Tonight, the fatigue from 4 overtime days strips away any confusion.  I look at myself in the mirror and humbly accept what I am doing with my time:

“I am a contractor.

We do heating, cooling, and insulation.”

A short exchange at a social event this evening reminds me: I should offer new acquaintances the opportunity to get to know me better on the merit of their own questions and interest rather than imposing my descriptions on them.  For those who seek depth, they won’t come up shallow.  For those that don’t, I won’t be distracted.

The results of my direct efforts for one day. What did you actually *do* today?

Hard Knocks

I answered a call from the office this morning in the cold, damp crawlspace that I’ve spent most of this week in.  My colleague asked how it was going- I replied, “if you had told me how much stuff I would screw up on this job before I started, I wouldn’t have believed you.”  I realized over lunch- I must be attending the school of hard knocks.

If it looks like a maze...

When you are 6’1″ tall and working long days installing ductwork in a 4′ tall, 4,000 s.f. crawlspace, knocking your head into a floor joist every once in a while is to be expected.  Along the way, this project also managed to knock out my design skills, planning ability, and a good portion of my self-esteem.

My position is as a project manager, responsible for everything that it takes to make a job happen (including making a profit!).  In this case (and with a lot of help!), I met the client, wrote the proposal, designed the system, ordered the material, scheduled the job, and installed the system (with the install team).  The process is far more integrated than most other firms, but we believe that leads to higher quality, better performance, and greater profit.  I’m new to the job, and new to contracting, and none of the above really has all that much to do with my past experience, which involved managing very different types of engineering projects.

22" diameter ductwork is all custom. Don't forget anything, because it's 55 miles back to Missoula.

We aren’t quite done yet, but we are almost all the way there.  Fair being fair, I made no truly major, work stopping mistakes, but every day there have been significant errors that have come to light- some piece of gear I didn’t order, some task I didn’t follow through on. When you are actually trying to build a functional system, every error is glaring.  Day 1, we ran into all sorts of issues- shipping delays, forgotten plans, miscommunicated orders.  On my first day of my first big job, I figured I could shrug it off and keep going.  Day 2, missing fittings and layout changes, ok nothing fatal, but that’s low style Skander…  Day 3, order of operation, co-ordination failure, error tracking nightmares.  The mistakes kept coming, almost to the point of humor and pretty much my worst nightmare from a project management standpoint.  Suffice to say, it has been a valuable education in hard knocks.

For everything though that went wrong, none of it seemed to impact the amount of satisfaction I got out of getting to install something that I designed.  It reminds me of one of my favorite NY Times pieces.  I have an incredibly forgiving and good natured boss working with me (but letting me take responsibility for the mistakes) and helping look in the mirror at my work.  We joked about the fact that I have a degree in science from an expensive private university, and yet the real bread and butter of business and design still involves getting down in an unfinished crawlspace and knocking your head around.  It’s been a hard week so far, but also supremely satisfying.  I’m taking tomorrow off, but back again on Friday to wrap things up, stay tuned.

Humbled, with checklist in hand.

“The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling, and (insofar as it involves love), pleasing and rewarding. Its jobs will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous.” (Wendell Berry)

Do the humble work.