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Green Building Blog

Work-Life Integration

If you love the work you do, thank your lucky stars — and feed that passion on whatever schedule works for you

Image 1 of 3
Recharging with a cold beer and lemonade. Planning the next backyard building project with my twelve-year-old daughter. Note the art work on the ceiling.
Image Credit: Beth Williams
Recharging with a cold beer and lemonade. Planning the next backyard building project with my twelve-year-old daughter. Note the art work on the ceiling.
Image Credit: Beth Williams
Green tile siding was everywhere in this city — as well as amazing plumbing vents, drum traps, and water heaters.
Image Credit: Michael Chandler
Vacation reading? Not a novel but a thought-provoking book, Drive, by Daniel Pink. The author looks into what really motivates us to get out of bed and live well: autonomy, mastery, and community (not reward and punishment).
Image Credit: Beth Williams

We all know people who hate their jobs and count the days until Friday or retirement. And we know folks who live for expensive hobbies and passions that consume their paychecks, or who count their worth by the size of their compensation package.

When I think about being a builder, I like to look back on the farmer I worked for as a teenager. He was defined by his job, and he really ran a tight ship with a small herd of carefully bred cows that gave his life a rhythm that had nothing to do with 9-to-5. Rather than counting the days to retirement, he was counting the days until his son was mature enough to become a partner and eventually to take over the farm.

When I think about sustainable business, I look back in time for inspiration.

I want to be a builder the way that man was a farmer, or perhaps the way Paul Revere was a silversmith, riding around shouting “peak oil is coming!”

I don’t turn my cell phone off at five. Today I’m on vacation in England, photographing plumbing and electrical connections and awesome metal and stone details. Next month I’ll be at Joe Lstiburek’s building science summer camp.

My sister worries that I work too much — but the reality is that my hobby pays my bills.

Passing the lottery test

The test I use for work-life balance is how little my life would change if I suddenly had an extra five million in my checking account. Like the farmer who won the lottery and said he’d just keep farming until it’s gone, my retirement dream is to build ever-wilder stuff until they put me in a box.

While getting the designs out and maintaining work flow and my clients’ budgets can be a chore, I find at the end of the year that I’m doing what I love and making a go of it. I do track my hours per week and days spent away from the job. My Builder 20 Club competes to see who can run a well-managed business with the fewest hours per week and the most days away from work.

I really agree with Michael Strong’s recommendation to leave your crew in charge of the business for extended periods, to build their leadership skills and self-reliance and to empower them to eventually take over the business. I also love Beverly Koehn’s concept of “living your brand,” where you strive to embody the core principles of your business in your day-to-day life.

So here I am at 1:00 pm in the Heart and Hand pub in Brighton, England with pen and paper, a camera full of construction photos, a Dark Star Sunburst Ale in front of me with my twelve-year-old daughter drawing plans for our next project beside me. Nothing wrong with that at all. I say to hell with work-life separation — replace it with work-life integration and inspiration!

Drink plenty of water

If you love the work you do, thank your lucky stars and feed that passion on whatever schedule works for you.

Chase excellence with all you’ve got. But hold family and mental health first — for you as well as for your employees. Take time off for the school recital or vacation trip or just to drive your teenager to the mall with the cell phone and the I-pod turned off. Track your hours and days-off as a self-check so you know actually how crazy or sane you’re treating yourself.

Work safely, too — drink plenty of water and remember there is no nobility in working through the pain of injuries or sickness.

Integrate work and life deliberately and with integrity

This business is a bit like alchemy. We may not turn lead into gold but we do turn sticks and earth into beautiful homes that perform economically and elegantly — and there is magic in that beyond the nine to five.


  1. benjamin oliver | | #1

    inspiring and educational.
    inspiring and educational. sounds like a refreshing person to have a coffee with and learn something from someone who pays attention to things.
    very cool

  2. Armando Cobo | | #2

    So true, and so do I...
    Oh, what a wonderful story and so true. I too, I knew I wanted to build homes and a fire station since I was seven years old, and how privileged and blessed I feel to have the opportunity to do so. I didn’t realized how good I had it until about 10 years a go when I designed a 3,500 sf house for some clients who were born and raised in Mexico from very humble beginnings, but through hard work and education they worked themselves up to have the American Dream. The day I hand them a set of their finished plans, the wife began to cry and shake uncontrollably. Since I didn’t know what I had done or said, the husband started to narrate what they had to do in life to get to that point. They were so grateful and appreciative, that still today; their family treats me like a rock star every time I go to their home.
    Shortly after that “incident”, I designed two mansions for two families that gave me the same wonderful experience. Then I realized how blessed and lucky I am to work in a field that I can bring such happiness to any family for the rest of their lives, regardless of their income or social status, and then I get paid for it.
    Maybe one of these days before they “put me in a box” I have the opportunity to build the fire station.

  3. Sue | | #3

    Well Said Michael!
    Absolutely. I'm glad you enjoyed our architectural details. If you have longer next time I can fire up and show you so much your brain will turn to mush :~) And don't forget the lime.

    To work for yourself, in your own space and by your own rules is the best thing possible. Don't swap your life for drudge and mundane. Make it happen for yourself.

  4. Edward Palma | | #4

    Michael that was a very
    Michael that was a very comforting story to read. I was left with a sense of calmness. I would hope that many young people read your blog because your lesson is extremely valuable to understanding personal growth. Most people essentially want to enjoy what they do. As you made clear it only comes from knowing yourself, what you can handle, and from a craftsmans' point of view what your passions are. Sometimes it takes time to find your path because you have not really listened to yourself, or have been distracted by life issues that can cloud things. No matter whether you know from the start or you evolve through time, all of your experiences are valuable and contribute to who you are and what you end up being. Pride in ones personal craft creates a product that is pleasing to you and to those that you have created it for. Working with people that feel the same way is inspirational and highly motivating. From personal experience that really contributes to the positive feeling and a final product that performs well and pleases everyone in the process.

  5. Expert Member
    Carl Seville | | #5

    Yeah, whatever
    I think you are just another delusional contractor looking to explain away why he works too many hours for too little money.

    Actually, Michael, I don't think that of you, but I have a reputation to maintain. I am somewhat jealous of the joy you get out of your business. While I did get a lot of pleasure out of being a contractor for 25 years, ultimately it took too much out of me and fortunately I was able to get out and into a new career with my finances intact. Being a curmudgeon is much more enjoyable and like yourself, I really don't have any hobbies, my phone isn't ever turned off, and I generally enjoy what I do every day. Too bad for all those other suckers who have to work at things they don't love. See you at Camp, buddy.

  6. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #6

    Carl, you old curmudgeon
    If I didn't know you I'd almost think you were dissing Michael.

    Curmudgeons always assume that anyone who's enjoying himself must be delusional.

    See you next week, Carl.

  7. Michael Chandler | | #7

    You say delusional as if that's a bad thing...
    I've been pretty well bowled over by all the comments here. Armondo's gave me goose bumps. Sue's made me grin deeply, remembering our conversation about lime washes in England. Thanks to all and yes, Martin and Carl, I'll see you at camp very soon.

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