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Interviewing professionals

PETER Engle | Posted in General Questions on

This is a followup to a recent thread.  There have been many questions posted here about what to do after you’ve hired an architect or builder that turns out to know little or nothing about high-performance or “green” building.  So let’s get ahead of the game and provide guidance for people who are at the stage of interviewing architects and/or builders.  What questions should they ask?  What qualifications or experience should they be looking for?  Let’s see if the brain trust can come up with useful guidance for people who haven’t made these critical first mistakes yet….

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  1. Expert Member
    BILL WICHERS | | #1

    I think a very good place to start would be to ask about any similar projects they've completed. A simple example would be if you're interested in a "pretty good house", ask about that. If they immediately know what you're talking about, saying something like "ah, you want top energy efficiency buy don't want to go all the way to a full passivhaus", then you know they know something -- since they recognize what you meant. If they're completely clueless, then they're less likely to be able to help you. Don't entirely look at it that way though, since everyone has to have that "first project".

    I look for people willing to work with me, and willing to listen and do things the way I want them done. I suppose I have the advantage of seeing lots of projects since I work with this stuff professionally, and most people wanting a home built probably are about to do their very first project. That makes it harder. I do think once you find that first "good" person who will work with you, and understands what you're trying to do, that first person will likely know other like minded people who can also help. This is especially true with the trades, since an electrician who is good probably knows a good plumber, framer, etc., since that good electrician probably likes working with a crew with other good people.


    1. Expert Member
      NICK KEENAN | | #4

      "I look for people willing to work with me, and willing to listen and do things the way I want them done."

      That's fine if you have the expertise needed and just need someone to execute your ideas. Where it gets tricky is when you're relying on them for their expertise.

  2. Expert Member
    ARMANDO COBO | | #2

    Since I only design zero energy ready homes, the homeowners, builders and trades must be on the same page. Fortunately the DOE ZERH program guidelines allows much flexibility to achieve their goals. The cost differential to achieve a ZERH is around 1.8% more, according to the 2019 RMI study of the top 50 market in the US. All our home designs meet or exceed the 2021 IRC/IECC regardless where they are built. My clients will know that before the sign a contract.

    I’ve never had a homeowner desire a house that we could not design. Education is key. I suggest the most cost effective way to achieve their goals, with almost all building systems available to my client in their market. If by chance they prefer to use a system that is more expensive, or requires specialized labor, we can proceed as long as it’s done the right way technically.

    The builder must contract with trades that are willing to follow full plans and specs and participate in a training session, or design charrette. If a particular trade is unfamiliar with a system or method, either they learn the new way on their own, or I or a system rep. will be more than happy to help. On a handful of occasions we’ve had subs refusing to do certain work, so the Owner or Builder should’ve no problem looking for another willing sub.

    If the Owner wants a high-performing house, and would like to certify his or her house to any program, experience in designing houses to that program is a must. Ask for previous clients and builder references. Ask to be shown full sets of drawings and specifications, as most design work lacks any details and specs. Ask to provide HERS Ratings and/or Certifications. Too many Designers, Architects, Builders and trades will talk the talk, but only a small percentage can show the paperwork.

    Specifically ask for “level” of high-performance you desire. Not all certifications are equal, and some are even below the latest codes. The higher the level of certification or goals, the more experience is required.

    Value knowledge and experience. Good work is not cheap, but the cost of poor quality (COPQ) and inexperience is a lot more.

  3. walta100 | | #3

    The way I see it you are more or less getting married to both architect and your builder there will be bumps in the road. You need to get a feeling about your personalities get along when things go wrong.

    Before you talk to either you need to set your budget it is all too easy to let an architect design the home of your dreams with every bell and whistle you can imagine.

    I say go look a production build with the bells and whistle you want and add 50% to make it custom and high performance. If that number does not line up with your budget you need to get real and make hard choices before you waste time and money drawing something that can never be built. Could you pump up the budget or will you cut the square footage?


  4. user-1072251 | | #5

    I get a lot of calls from folks looking for “net zero ready” houses which I can’t build due to distance or other criteria. In my area there are too few builders who build these, and often they’re not located near where the folks will be building. Since air tightness is critical, I suggest they ask builders first about their experience with Energy Star, and about their best infiltration rate outcome. Do they understand how to manage moisture infiltration and management? Thermal bridging? And are they willing to learn? Just in my small sampling there is a huge demand for these houses and way too few builders who are interested.

  5. Expert Member
    ARMANDO COBO | | #6

    I don’t pretend to know all the reasons why folks don’t build ZER homes, and I don’t write this comment with haughtiness, but as an example or guide to some folks that want to build high-performing houses in far accessible areas.

    I’ve designed homes built in many rural areas, with limited access to materials and subs. I believe with forward planning, must lumber yards can get anything, although this darn Covid has put a monkey wrench on everything. A lack of education, or even wiliness to learn new ways is probably a major contributor in our industry.

    A few years ago, I went to one of my client’s project who lives in a rural area and one lumberyard within 30 miles, and no code enforcement whatsoever. I held a Builder and trades training the day before they started framing, and I stayed around for a few days teaching, BS*ing and good country cooking. Since then, I’ve designed three more houses for that same Builder and his subs.

    Homeowner’s determination is another thing. I’m about to start designing a ZER home in the far boondocks of TX. The owner has lined up four Builders for me to interview and assess how willing they, and their subs, are to following a different way to build homes than way they’ve “done for the last thirty years”. I’m sure I’ll be doing some training there as well.

    The point is that there is plenty of knowledgeable folks around the country to do the same, but few folks are willing to pay for it. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

    1. Expert Member
      PETER Engle | | #8

      OK, so how do people find a designer like you? How do people differentiate between the designers and architects who say, "of course, I can do that" and those who actually can.

      I like the advice above about whether they conduct training/charrettes with builders and trades, asking for past plan/spec packages & certifications, etc. Anything else?

    2. Expert Member
      ARMANDO COBO | | #9

      You can find Design and Builder folks at the ZERH Program website under the Partner Locator, and under the DOE Tour of Zero, there are hundreds of winning Builders that have certified their homes, all over the country.

      You can also find them at them at EEBA, ZERO energy project, NAHB and locals, LEED for Homes, APA, NAIMA, etc. All these organizations present free and paid education.

      When it comes to FREE EDUCATION, there are thousands of webinars from DOE, EPA, Building America Program, the above organizations, YouTube videos from Matt Risinger to the BS*+Beer Show, from FHB to Utopia, and others, webinars from lots of manufacturers, like Dorken, CertainTeed, Sub-zero, and many other organizations happening every single week, and then they post them for future views.

      Some of the best FREE stuff, you can get at Building America Solution Center, Building Science Corporation, and Energy Vanguard Blog websites.

      Look for Energy Efficiency partnerships like SPEER, NESEA, CLEAResult, Building Knowledge in Canada, ACEEE, EnergyTrust in Oregon and hundreds more resources.

      You could pay to go to conventions, symposiums, etc. I’ve done that for 25 years. You could hire companies like Building Science Corporation and Construction Instruction to come and educate your people. I’ve been a groupie of those guys for those same 25 years... I even cooked for them at Summer Camp.

      The bottom line, there is NO EXCUSES for anyone wanting to learn our business, free or otherwise... during the Covid years, I was taking 4-6 webinars a week. And just in case anyone doesn’t know it, GOOGLE is a good place to start. A little effort is required!

  6. user-1072251 | | #7

    That’s a good plan Armando!

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