We’re building a (green?) house, ed. 5: Demolish or deconstruct?

July 21, 2009

NOTE: Updates of this post can be found at EcoMajority, my web-based forum focused on sustainable home building.

This decision, it seems to me, is increasingly coming down to three things, in descending order. 1. Philosophy. 2. Timing. 3. Cost.

Essentially, if you’re going to take a house down, you need to decide how important it is to you that as much of those materials are reused and diverted from landfills.  That’s a value question, no doubt, but probably an easy one for most people dependent upon the next two issues, timing and cost.  Timing is a big factor because there’s no doubt that deconstructing will take more time if the deconstruction contractor really takes the time to preserve as much material as possible.

By way of example, here’s what happened on our project.  Ironically (and unfortunately for our neighbors), our house began deconstruction the same day that the house across the street began demolition. By the time I got home from work, the house across the street was gone. Nothing. On our house they were still busy removing windows and case work.While our neighbors were done in a day, our project was in the deconstruction phase for between two and three weeks. (In all fairness, though, there was no pressure on them to move faster because we were going to be delayed with the other sitework and foundation work that needed to happen — so deconstruction was slower than it probably needed to be.)

Time is money — that’s certainly true in construction. But in this particular phase, there are more things to consider than just straight estimates between the two options. In demolition, the cost of labor is low because the track hoe is doing all the heavy lifting, literally. You probably have one, maybe two days of equipment rental — so that’s cheaper. But you have the considerable expense of disposal fees.

On the deconstruction side, the house is literally taken apart piece by piece and either sold, or donated for reuse. If something is sold, you get the funds (or at least that’s how it worked with our contractor). And for everything that is donated, you get a tax write-off. (This can be tricky, make sure to check with your accountant or tax adviser — and make sure your donation is to through a charitable organization.)

BenninkFor us, the costs weren’t exactly a wash between the two choices — but it was pretty close. And at that stage we weren’t in a big hurry to move things along. So for us it was a clear choice that we should reuse and recycle as much as possible. For the most part, all that went into the landfill was old drywall, insulation, and old bug-infested logs that were used as part of the foundation.

Side note: I was talking to Dave Bennink of Re-Use Consulting when they were a couple of days into taking down our house. He mentioned that he needed to get to the store the current issue of Forbes Magazine had an article on him and his deconstruction practice in it.  Here’s the article.

We’re building a (green?) house, ed.4: To LEED or not?

July 14, 2009

NOTE: Updates of this post can be found at EcoMajority, my web-based forum focused on sustainable home building.

If you are going to build a green house, seems like you’d want some sort of gold star for the effort, right? That’s where I was coming from when we started our project. Of course — why not?

LEED, developed by the US Green Building Council, is the gold standard. What started out as a means of encouraging, measuring and verifying commercial building projects, it has since moved into residential construction projects as well. I won’t go into all of the details about LEED, but it’s a checklist-based system that offers guidance, consulting, and how to lessen you building’s impact on the environment and create a healthier home in the long term. You, your architect, your contractor and a LEED consultant work from checklists that guide you to better choices. And then an independent verification and your home becomes certified at whatever level it meets — I believe the levels are silver, gold and platinum.

Bottom line is I wasn’t big on going after gold stars in school, and evidently I haven’t changed much. We didn’t go down this road. Looking at it, LEED accreditation seemed expensive and cumbersome.  There was fees to pay, consultants to hire, and considerable extra time in project management that would be needed by our contractor in order to be in compliance. In the end, it seemed to me and my wife that what was important was our intention. We figured that with every decision along the way, we could look at our options, always ask the sustainability questions about the proposed materials, look at alternatives, and make the best decision we could, all things considered.

At the end of the project, I’m not sure we’ll be able to look back and defintitvely answer the question, “how green is your home?” But who cares? Building a green home is a thousand shades of gray. We’ve learned that, if nothing else. Some people could look at our project and be impressed with the decisions we made and the lengths we’ve gone to. Others could look at it and decide that we didn’t go far enough. (I suppose that’s why there’s a question mark after the “green” in the headline — ultimately this is subjective.)

If we were planning to turn around and sell the house, we might have made a different call so that we could have the LEED tools and certification to help us sell the house. But for us, all that really matters is that we’re satisfied with the decisions we made along the way. And we are.

We’re building a (green?) house, ed. 3: home site and design

July 9, 2009

NOTE: Updates of this post can be found at EcoMajority, my web-based forum focused on sustainable home building.

Once you decide you’re going to build a new house, the next question you face is multi-faceted, with long-term, far-reaching ramifications.  What kind of house are you going to build? How big should it be? Remodel, or all new construction? How should it sit on the site?

Big questions because if you don’t tear a building down, less goes into the landfill. And the bigger the house you build, the more materials that will be needed to go into it, and the more resources necessary to service it.  Where it’s located and how it’s positioned on the site will either allow you to make good use of the sun’s energy … or not.

The trend, of course, has been going in the wrong direction for the last couple of decades. I recently read a statistic that the average size for new home construction has grown by 20% over the last twenty years or so. I was shocked at that number — mostly because I couldn’t believe that the number wasn’t larger.  I walked through a home under construction recently that was probably just shy of 10,000 square feet. As I toured the home, I literally couldn’t imagine the purpose for the various rooms. Given the generosity of space, it was clear that Jon & Kate+8 (or Kate+8) weren’t moving in. I couldn’t help wondering how much the home would cost to heat in the winter, how much to repaint when the time came, and how much stuff you would need to fill a house of that size.  Eeesh.

Just to jump to the punchline, the house we are building adds up to just about 4000 square feet. It breaks down like this: our 4-bedroom house is 3100 square feet. Our art studio space and office space above and next to the garage add about another 900 square feet.  (It looks bigger in the wide angle pano shot).

A good sized house, no question about it. And a minor bone of contention as we worked with Lane Williams and Zeke Busch of Coop15 Architects. Lane is a big proponent economical and efficient use of space (check out the Coop15 blog posts on sustainable building). If I recall correctly, most of the home he designs are between 4000-5000 square feet — and trending downward. Given the technology boom in the NW and Microsoft wealth in our area, keeping custom-home sizes down has probably been a tough sell at times.

One of the question we lobbed back and forth was whether we really needed a guest room or not. We thought we did, and Lane politely questioned that. His solid reasoning was given the number of nights per year that you actually have guests, they could sleep in one of the kids’ bedrooms and our kids could double-up. Given that we’re on an island with ferry service, we wanted our guests not to feel rushed — and if they wanted to spend the night, that they would feel well accommodated. Though that may have added a 200+/- square feet, we felt strongly. So we have a guest room. But as we walk through the house (at this writing, nearly a month before move-in) a lot of the rooms seem on the small side. We are trusting our architect and believe that when we move in, we’ll have a Goldilocks moment and everything will feel just right. Lane has said that he’s never had a client come back to him 10 years later and tell him they wished the home were bigger — but he has had a number of clients who wish they’d been more restrained and built a smaller house.

Though we reused the existing foundation (for the part of the house that had a foundation) and the existing garage, there wasn’t much else that was usable for us. So we had to think about demolition and the filling of landfills — or deconstruction which takes significantly more time and, perhaps, more money. More on that in the next post.

Because we used the existing foundation, there were no choices to be made in regards to siting the house. It was what it was, which is one of the main reasons we bought where we did. Because of the western exposure, sun will help to warm the house significantly. And in the summer when the sun really beats through the windows, blinds and cross ventilization will help to keep things cool. Also critical to us was the fact that our site has unobstructed access to the southern sky — which means solar can be an option for us as well. More on that in another post as well.

We’re building a (green?) house, ed. 2

July 8, 2009

NOTE: Updates of this post can be found at EcoMajority, my web-based forum focused on sustainable home building.

The house project is going well. We’re just less than a month from move-in.  As things wind down, and most (if not all) of our material choices have been made, I’m having a chance to reflect a little bit on our goals from the very beginning of the project and where we find ourselves now.

There were a number of things that caused us to up-root from Queen Anne and move to Bainbridge Island, but I’ll save most of those reasons for another post. One of our main goals was to build as sustainable a house as we could manage. To do that, we knew we would need to balance aesthetics, costs and practicality.

What I hope to do over the next several weeks/months, is to review how we did. But the bottom line is it was a ridiculously hard process. I kept thinking to myself how hard it is to be green. There are few, if any, decisions that are clear and simple.  And finding products and information — even with the amazing power of the Web — often fell between futile and simply a waste of time. Admittedly, I am not a green-building expert. I’m just someone who has built or remodeled a few homes. My wife was an architectural designer for more than a decade. We like this stuff, but that didn’t make it any easier.  (By the way, I have some ideas for how making green choices could be made easier in the future but I’ll save that, too, for a future post.)

Purists may say we copped out on some of our choices. Pragmatists may say that we were highly idealistic, and overspent in some areas and in some ways.  Both are probably true.  I’m hoping that others might learn something based on our decisions — not because they were the “right” decisions from a green perspective (because certainly many weren’t), but because of how and why we arrived where we did.

Stay tuned. I’ll probably tackle decisions in roughly the order they came up in the design and development process.

A tale of Zappos, Twitter and the Future

April 1, 2009

Let me tell you a story, and it all starts with me needing to replace an old pair of my favorite boots that were literally falling apart. And if you squint your eyes even a little bit, I think you might just see a big part of the future of marketing.

Given what’s happening in this country right now, it’s only reasonable to be purposeful about any purchase decision. So, as I was headed out the door one morning, I said to my wife, “Hey, I think I’m going to order a new pair of Blundstones from Zappos today.” My wife, Ann, who orders a good percentage of our kids’ shoes from Zappos, informed me that if I ordered by 10am, I’d have them the next day. So I ordered … hopeful. And five days later, my boots had still not arrived.

Though this order was my first with Zappos, I was disappointed. I wanted my boots. So on my way to work one morning, I Tweeted this (by the way, follow me on Twitter):


I had heard that Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos was active on Twitter and I wrote this as much as a test to see if they would respond, how quickly and in what way. The threat of Endless, Amazon’s shoe store, was an extra worm on the hook. Well, within about an hour, I got a notice that I’m being “followed” on Twitter by Tony. Yes, the CEO.

By the way, to “follow” someone on Twitter is something akin to “friending” someone on Facebook. If you aren’t familiar with Facebook, the rest of this post is going to read like total nonsense. I forgive you if you quit reading now. Some of you may ask why I’m being so basic about these technologies. Reality is Facebook has about 175 million users and I know a lot of smart friends — and marketers — who are not among those 175 million.  And I think I just heard that Twitter is at something like 7 million. That means a lot of people who could use the background info. Pardon this aside if you are not one of them).

Within an hour, I got a message from Tony telling me my boots should arrive that day. To make a long story short, we exchanged “tweets” that day and eventually emails about the source of my frustration and ways I thought they might improve their customer experience.

Zappos has built a reputation as a service company that just happens to sell shoes. How did that happen? I think that’s the moral of the story. Tony and his team monitor in real time what people are saying about them on Twitter and in the blogosphere (it probably won’t take long for them to find this post). Is that marketing? Certainly not in the traditional sense, but it’s working.

Direct Marketers have spent the better part of the last two decades talking about “1to1” marketing, and “customer relationship marketing” (CRM), but it always seemed to me that it was still essentially one way dialogue. Yes, marketers have access to a lot of rich data and laser/digital technology allows marketers to do some amazing “personalization.” But in the end, it is still essentially a company talking at a customer or prospect and only becomes two way if the customer/prospect chooses to respond to the query — usually to buy something.

Well, with the advent of newer digital technologies (like Twitter, for example) the customer really is in the driver’s seat.  They’re starting these conversations every minute of every day.  The smartest, most progressive companies are finding ways to engage and respond — and win the hearts and minds of people along the way.

Which path are you on?

Trying to get a little perspective

March 25, 2009

Since Grace was born just over 10 years ago, I’ve been writing letters to her.  And when her brother, Owen, was born, I began writing letters to him, too.  At first it was about every four months or so — then about every six months.  I don’t actually send the letters, I save them in a book for when they are adults.  I suppose it’s like keeping a journal about both of them, but the idea of writing in it all the time is daunting.  But this way, I can look back over the most recent months and muse about Halloween costumes, lost teeth, and the crazy drawing only kids can come up with.

But here we are in the midst of economic turbulance (catastrophe?) unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.  So I find it strange that in those 12 months, I haven’t written any letters to my kids.

Intellectually, I realize it’s probably amazing material.  If I were Grace or Owen reading these letters 20 years from now, I’d really want to know what we were coping with in these times and how it touched us as a family, as well as our community.  But somehow I fear that I don’t have enough perspective.  My mood swings with the news of the day.  I listen to Kai Risdal sparingly on NPR because he bums me out.  I feel good when the market is up (like yesterday) and morose when in drops (which it did today, yet somehow I don’t feel too bad because it was up so much yesterday).  The implications of monthly unemployment numbers weigh heavily on me.

I want to chronicle this interesting, scary, daunting — and hopefully reformative — time for my kids, but I’m afraid I’d look back on anything I write as being overly melodramatic.

And maybe I should just get over it.

Cool wine widget

March 19, 2009

If you like wine, check out this widget from for American Winery. It was developed by Qponix — run by a couple of friends of mine from Whitman College and operating right out of our favorite rock in the middle of the Puget Sound … Bainbridge Island.

Curious to hear what you think.

[clearspring_widget title=”AmericanWinery.com Wine Finder” wid=”497971f19d8c68ba” pid=”49c152fdc5c5ff8f” width=”160″ height=”320″ domain=”widgets.clearspring.com”]