Thursday, November 19, 2009

Builders Aren't To Blame?

“But builders aren’t entirely to blame for this scenario. Antiquated zoning laws (and planning boards that uphold them) also play a part. When builders find themselves handcuffed to standard lot sizes, minimum square footage requirements, and high land costs, the tradeoff is often building to a lower specification to arrive at a pro forma that pencils. The solution ends up being a lumbering stock plan with a brick front, vinyl siding, and little to no side yard.” – Jenny Sullivan in “Is The McMansion Dead?” Builder Magazine - November 2009.

The title of the article caught my eye. “I sure hope so” was my immediate response. Obviously there’s much more to the article than this single paragraph. But it seems to me that this is an excellent example of where we’ve gone wrong. If more of us paid attention to the
Triple Bottom Line instead of just the Bottom Line, we wouldn’t have to suffer through statements like this one. Just do the right thing.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

You Don't Have A Clue!

Are you sure that you're comparing apples to apples? I'll be honest, it's not easy for contractors to put together bids for projects. If you're not working with an Architect's comprehensive plans and specifications, contractors have to make guesses and assumptions; provide allowances and alternates. In the end, that makes it very hard for you to know what you're getting.

I recently worked with a couple that was convinced that the two bids they were looking at were comparable. But were they? The first red flag was the $25k difference on the bottom line. So I took a look.

Neither company's quote was completely clear. Both had presented their scopes in seemingly exhaustive detail. But by digging a little deeper, I could see that one had included drawings and well defined allowances that amounted to a project that was roughly twice that of the other. In the end, the pricing from each of the contractors was fair and in line. The difference was that one had included a quality and scale of project that should command a much larger price tag.

And that's the key. If you don't have detailed plans and specifications; clear expectations, you won't have a clue.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

It's Time to Stop Talking about Green

Are you tired of hearing people talk about Green this and Sustainable that? Have you heard enough about Petrol companies' commitment to the environment? I have.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't believe in protecting the Earth for future generations. Or that I think we should give up on designing responsible products and building smart homes. But the truth is if we're still talking about it we're not there yet.

A recent article in ecohome magazine tells the story of a public-private partnership that has committed $4 billion for the construction of affordable new green homes and renovations. Why? Because through an extensive study of affordable housing developments, they've realized that affordable green homes actually have a Return on Investment (ROI); they pay for themselves.

Yet just two weeks ago I reviewed a Request For Qualifications (RFQ) from a local Community Development Corporation (CDC) that didn't include any sort of efficiency requirements in homes designed and built for the people who could benefit most from low utility bills and a healthy place to live.

Make no mistake about it, there are plenty of individuals and organizations out there that are doing the things that make sense. They are conserving and striving to change the way they do things; to operate with a focus on the triple bottom line not just the bottom line. But we are still in an era where Green is largely about marketing and a derisive political talking point.

Only when we stop hearing about it on the Sunday morning talk show circuit and marketers move on to some other way of giving us the warm and fuzzies will we know that we've made any progress.

If you ask me, it's time quit talking about it and move on.

Friday, October 23, 2009

What you Like and what you Don't

What's your biggest complaint about your about your home? What do you love most about your home? These are two questions that I recently posted on my Twitter feed and on my Facebook page. The responses that came back were perfect. Every one was different.

That's the point.

Some talked about maintenance, some their attached garage, one even traveled the philosophical road opining about house versus home. Just as no two of us are alike, none of us will answer these questions exactly the same. So think about the questions. They may not mean much to you now. But one day, when it's time to Renovate your home or Design and Build a new home or Buy another existing home, you'll be better prepared for task than you might imagine.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Ready or Not, Here I Come

I don’t know about you but I’m not ready for winter. I was standing out on a jobsite yesterday in the rain … it was 43 degrees and the wind was sweeping across the planes at a brisk 15 miles per hour. To add insult to injury Billy, the sprinkler guy, was blowing the water out of the lines and, thanks to Mr. Murphy and his law, there just happened to be a head two feet to my left and aimed right in my direction. My jacket wasn’t heavy enough or dry enough, I really could have used a hat and a pair of gloves, and my shoes are still drying out. Ok, I should have been better prepared.

So what about your home? Is it ready for winter? It will go through everything that we experience outside (and complain about) this winter. The wind, the rain, the snow and ice; we don’t like standing out there exposed and under-dressed. But that’s all your house ever does. It just stands there and takes all of the abuse that Mother Nature dishes out and keeps you warm and safe and dry.

It’s time to take care of all the painting and caulking and insulating that you’ve been putting off all summer. It’s a great time to get a full Energy Audit. You’d better fix those cracked window panes make sure your storm windows are in. The good news is that there’s a lot of money out there right now in the form of Tax Credits and Stimulus money to help us with weatherization and energy efficiency. Many of the projects that you need to take on can qualify but you’ll have to ask around because some of the programs vary from State to State. But don’t delay, there’s limited time and money.

Remember when your Mom used to tell you to zip your coat and don’t walk out that door without a hat on your head? That’s exactly what you need to do to your home right now. You’re running out of time because ready or not here comes Old Man Winter.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Keep Your Eye on The Prize

I spend a lot of time talking with people about the tangled web that is Renovation, building, design, investing, real estate and business. Usually, especially with homeowners, I take the conservative road and discuss wants versus needs, resale value versus lifestyle, even master plan versus piecemeal.

Today though, the thing that I chose to take from a somewhat painful conversation was the reminder to keep your eye on the prize. Be uncompromising in the achievement of your goals. Now I’m not advocating the reckless pursuit of senseless waste or the wanton abandonment of common sense. Instead, I’m referring specifically to your project objectives.

Why did you start the project in the first place? When you first sat down with your Architect to talk about what you wanted to achieve through this project and why, what were your goals? Before you started talking with your Architect and Builder about real costs and maybe budget versus reality, what was the end game?

In many cases, our budgets don’t quite align with the reality of what our dreams really cost. Often we make design changes and reductions; we talk about “big ticket items” and “bang for your buck.” At some point in time some spinster erroneously dubbed this activity “value engineering.” It’s all part of the design and building process.

As you enter this phase of the process though, remember the key things that made this project worth it to you. Hold onto the essence that first excited you … and don’t let that go. On the flip side, consciously decide what you are willing to compromise on. It may mean that you have to increase your budget. It may even mean that you have to delay the project until next year. You may have to give some things up. But in the end, keep your eye on the prize and don’t give that up.

Friday, February 6, 2009

And I Knew Better!

Yes, I knew better. It's just another example of how human we all are. The toilet had been running intermittently on its own for a while. I knew what was wrong. I had even stopped by the local hardware store sometime back and bought the new parts that I needed. But I was busy and I never got around to fixing it.

Well, the water bill finally came. Here's a lesson in simple water conservation methods. All those "little" drips and intermittent running and old fixtures and general laziness adds up. In one month our water billed DOUBLED! Here's the next lesson: for less than $20 in new parts and half an hour of my time, the problem is now fixed.

Often we discuss seemingly heroic conservation methods. But next time you're at your local hardware store, check out the simple water conservation products that they carry. They'll range from aerator screens for your faucet to new, more efficient fixtures.

Then we'll move on to talking about rain barrels, rain gardens and cisterns.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Want a Bailout? Here's a Bucket.

I won’t pretend to have any answers but I do know this; if our country’s economy is going to recover and regain its once great status, it’s going to take a change in attitude and a lot of effort from each and every one of us.

No matter your politics, I think most would agree that our government is not going to be able to just fire up the mint and throw unfathomable amounts of money at our problems and watch them all disappear. After all, where has this 700 billion dollar bailout gotten us so far? Car moguls have flown to Washington without a plan, returned home and then driven back with little more. Banks have taken their piece of the pie and purchased posh, corporate jets and foreign banks. And now, home building associations around the country (of which I belong to three) want Washington to “Fix Housing First” through a variety of means including negligible interest rates, tax rebates and model home write-offs.

I think that it’s obvious to the most casual observer that at some point, we as a collective whole, threw common sense out the window. Two different discussions that I heard today stand out in my mind. The first was that some economists fear that Americans will save too much and, therefore by not spending, deepen or even extend the newly discovered recession that we’ve been mired in for the past few years. The second centered on the opinion that the wide ranging proposals to Green our infrastructure and effect climate change are too expensive and long-sighted.

I’m no political or economic expert and rarely do I even publicly engage in such conversations but I do like to talk about sustainability. So here’s what I think:

This economic turmoil that we’re experiencing didn’t happen overnight. We’ve worked hard at speculating and loosening and deregulating and all those other “ings” that translate into a lack of good judgment. We should not expect to come out of it tomorrow or next week or next month or even next year. Anyone with kids will understand that it always takes longer to clean up the mess than it did to make it.

The way forward is through common sense and sustainability. On a personal level, live within your means. Invest in your home, your family, your future and your community. Do things right. Renovate, repair and maintain and progress with quality and the future as your top priorities. At the National level we must do the same.

Sustainability means “to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UN Brundtland Commission – Our Common Future). I think by now it ought to be obvious that we cannot afford to lose sight of this definition.