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Green Building Curmudgeon

Time for Some Respect

Some old curmudgeon operating a blower door for a client.
Image Credit: Robert Soens

I had a discussion several months ago with a designer I know regarding energy efficiency in a project she is working on. She recently took the initiative to become a licensed residential contractor and is now managing entire projects. I applaud her for making this transition and for working hard to maintain her professionalism in an industry where there are a lot of fly-by-night operators. The homeowner is interested in making the house more efficient, and our conversations focused on those aspects of the project. I offered my services as a consultant to evaluate the house and make a set of recommendations for improvements to consider.

Well, I ran into her recently and asked about the project, which is just underway. She asked me about coming in to do blower door and duct blaster tests when the project is finished, to see how it turned out. Since I don’t find running test equipment that much fun, and I believe that my particular talents are better applied earlier in the job, I declined the invitation. During this discussion, it occurred to me that here was a residential designer with little, if any, training or experience in building performance making decisions on insulation, air sealing, HVAC systems, and other critical details. Any wrong choices in products or installation methods on this project would very likely create long-term problems that could be avoided with proper advice up front.

Expertise worth paying for goes both ways

This designer is very professional, places a value on her expertise, and expects to be paid for it. She is very experienced in kitchens, baths, and interiors, and, in fact, I hired her to assist in the new house I was attempting to build. I trusted that she has the proper knowledge in her area of expertise and engaged her to take advantage of her abilities. It appears that she was not as respectful of my expertise, and assumed that she could make appropriate building performance decisions by herself, with assistance from the insulation, HVAC, and other trade contractors on the project, then bring me in to confirm her decisions after the fact.

In my curmudgeonly style, I pointed out to her that if she thought that she was qualified to make those decisions, what would keep me from thinking I am qualified to design a kitchen or bath, without any training or experience? If she didn’t use qualified professionals for their expertise, why should she expect anyone to use hers? This seemed to get her attention, and I expect that I may be hearing from her soon about some consulting work.

The implications of insanity

What occurred to me through this interaction was that there is a general attitude in the marketplace that residential construction isn’t very difficult, and pretty much anyone can do anything. Homeowners build and renovate their own homes. Trade contractors make decisions about products and methods without consideration of their impact on the entire project. Mechanical systems are installed without taking into account the overall building performance. This behavior perpetuates inferior buildings, and must change. Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Unless we change the way we build and renovate, we are insane and will continue to get the same result: poorly performing buildings.

8 Comments

  1. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #1

    I'm not sure I entirely agree
    As a home owner who intends to build his own green home, I believe I am making the right decision to do it myself. Granted, I will have consulted with an experienced professional during the design process but I'm not convinced a professional builder can be found in my area that would be willing or able to produce a home to my specifications. Not to say there wouldn't be those willing to try but I would worry about the final result. I live in an isolated region with few professional builders to chosee from, none of whom are in the business of taking the time to learn "radical" departures from their normal routine. There are people in my area who understand energy-efficient design and construction, but none of them are in the business of building houses (though they may have built their own). What's a guy to do except take some time off work and do the best job you can?

  2. Expert Member
    Carl Seville | | #2

    I see your point
    I suppose that there are some areas where qualified contractors are in short supply. And there are certainly some owners who are capable of building a quality house, some even better than professionals can do. My point was more related to various professionals who expect to be paid for their expertise but aren't willing to pay for others - they think they know everything, when very often they don't.

  3. Danny Kelly | | #3

    Rodney Dangerfield must have been a contractor
    Great article Carl - It really is amazing how little people respect the time of contractors in general. When we do not get a job - I would say there are more people that never call to tell us they are using someone else than there are that actually call and this after numerous meetings, house visits, proposals, value engineering ideas, etc. No other industry does so much free work for a potential client. I really thuoght being educated on green building would change that now that we actually have clients asking about green building and actually wanting to do it but it has made it worse. They now purposely use us for information and then go with the low bidder and try to implement the ideas we came up with.

    Unfortunately I do not see this changing any time soon - but it will. I predict a lot of unqualified contractors (or decorators, etc) getting into the green building and weatherization field. This inexperience is going to lead to rotting buildings and even worse major problems like CO poisoning, etc. Only after there are a few major castastrophies will people "get it" and realize it is worth using the person that knows what he is talking about. Hopefully forums like this will educate the masses and change the way our customer go about the bidding process.

  4. Daniel Morrison | | #4

    A couple of DIY home videos
    Lucas,
    I don't know if you've seen these couple of videos yet: Regular people building high performance homes with the help of a builder. The builder, Al Rosetto, is really more of an enabler who goes around the country convincing perfectly normal people that they can build their own houses.

    https://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/green-home-tour-diy-icf-house-energy-star-rating
    https://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/green-home-tour-diy-house-sips-ct

    Al uses a system that is well thought-out though and as he puts it, "Indoor air quality begins with the footings." If you don't think about the end result at the very beginning, and at every step along the way, then you may not end up with what you expect or want.

    If you decide to blog about the house as you build it, please let us know and we'll add you to our JobBlog list.
    Dan

  5. Jill D. Weber, CR | | #5

    Time For Some Respect
    As the "designer" mentioned in Carl's post or decorator mentioned in a later post I want to set the record straight.
    I have spent the last 8 years as a nationally recognized designer.
    "More importantly" I have spent the entire time project managing my designs to completion in a variety of settings each with their unique challenges and contractors with varying levels of expertise.

    At this point I am a NARI CR, taken and passed the Georgia State Contractor exam, attended LEED classes and obtained a Blue card so I could work on Ga. State Water systems.
    In addition I regularly attend professional development seminars and meetings involving both design and construction services.

    I presently serve on the NARI CR technical committee tasked with the review and revision of the CR Study Guide that helps candidates prepare for the Certified Remodeler Exam.
    I am also President of the National Advisory Board for Builders and Remodelelers with NKBA.

    In response to Danny Kelly I have worked hard to become a qualified contractor as well as a nationally recognized kitchen and bath designer. I advise my clients to seek out professionals like Carl but as they hire low ball bidders, they likewise will not shell out $1000+ for professional advise design or other. In this case the client decided although he wanted to improve the energy efficiency and comfort of his home (icynene, new heating & air, new windows with blow in insulation,
    etc.) he did not want to pursue either Earthcraft or LEED certification for the home and thus declined the services of a Green Building Consultant.

    Since I ran into Carl last week I have decided to hire him to offer advise to my company about this particular home and pay him out of my own funds.
    I have tremendous respect for his knowledge and expect to learn a great deal about this home from his input.
    I also lose projects to unqualified, underpriced individuals both contractors and designers. In a few cases I have been the company that turned a bad project around, fixed the mess and gave the homeowner back a beautiful home.

    I am very proud that I am recognized as a professional designer.
    I look forward to the day that I do not have to defend my role as a professional, credentialed contractor as well.

  6. Brett Moyer | | #6

    Silly, by James Moyer, PHD, MD, LEED AP, CGBP, CGP
    I wouldn't pay much attention to the alphabet soup at the end of one's name. You either know what you're talking about or you don't.
    Remodeling kitchens has nothing to do with performance testing or energy efficient home building...
    I swear, the home building industry is in need of a slap in the face. Builders cannot be everything!! Hiring an expert to do performance testing, modeling, energy analysis, or just to give good green building advise is a GOOD idea.
    Lets all stop pretending to be maestros at everything related to home building.

  7. Joan Schiff | | #7

    We don't move forward by insulting each other
    Wow. I'm new to this blog, but it seems to me that many of your readers don't understand or respect the role of a good designer. Early in my career I made the mistake of calling an interior designer, a decorator and she quickly reminded me that she didn't spend four years in graduate school to be a decorator. A good designer, whether trained as an architect or interior design, has the right combination of aethetics and knowledge to help create buildings that serve the occupants, which includes the issues of safety, comfort and resource efficiency that is at the heart of the green building movement. Sounds to me that Jill Weber has the right combination of training, experience and good intentions to coordinate the project you described.

    Is this just the age old conflict between the trades and the design community? The contractor thinks the lady with the nice shoes never gets dirty so she can't understand how buildings really work. And the "professional" thinks contractors can't understand higher math. And lets not even start to talk about the stubborness of the established trades (HVAC, carpenters, insulation companies, etc).

    If it was easy, it wouldn't be called market transformation!

    It also sounds to me that all concerned could use some more support and training in transforming the sales and marketing process to help avoid the expense and frustration that comes from serving as an "unpaid consultant". How many people chose their doctor or college (or blower door) based on price?

    P.S. cant help but notice the perhaps unintended sexism in the reaction to the designer in the replies to the original blog. Jeez guys, there is more to design than kitchen remodeling although there are few things more enjoyable than a well designed kitchen!!!

  8. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #8

    Thanks.
    Daniel, thanks for the links. I had not yet watched those videos. I will let you know if I decide to chronicle my adventure. I'd like to try to keep up with a blog but I'm not sure if I'll have the energy ;)

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