Friday, December 20, 2013

Collecting Design Ideas

Have you ever tried to recall a wonderful place or thing, but had a difficult time communicating it to others? The adjectives don’t do it justice or you just can’t put a finger on what was so spectacular when recollecting. You aren't alone. Even architects and designers who generally have strong visual memories can struggle with this. When starting a new design project it is important to clearly communicate these favorite ideas, memories, places, or things, etc. with your design team.

Even for those with eidetic (photographic) memories, we recommend scrapbooking. For years, we’ve had magazine clippings galore from numerous clients. Today, we recommend using the better technological resources available and stepping it up to Pinterest. This is a free online service that allows you to quickly save any picture you see on the internet or upload any picture you snap with your own camera/phone. It displays all of your pinned pictures on one screen so they are easy to sort and organize. It enables improved communication between you and your design team.

At the commencement of a new project this is a gold mine to your design team. It gives all parties an impression of your taste, your goals, and what ideas may be considered successful to you. Do yourself and your design team a favor and start collecting.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Room Outside

I have a fascination with Japanese architecture. Each room is laid out with great thought and intention. Outdoor space is no exception. It is treated the same as any other room.

Japan’s winters and summers are relatively mild with only brief sessions of harsh weather. Fall and spring consume most of the year with warm days and cool brisk nights. Does any of that sound familiar to our local North Carolinians? We share a relatively comfortable climate. With a little shelter from sun, rain, wind and possibly insects the unconditioned outdoor room becomes the best in the home, office, or restaurant.

A successful outdoor space is one that has an intimate connection to the interior space. It has a delightful view of something calming such as a small garden, water, or a series of natural materials. It is large enough for the functions of the users such as working, eating, or playing but not so large that it feels expansive. Ever wonder why everyone crams into a tight room at Thanksgiving when there is an open room available? The presence of others provides a comfort and coziness. Why do the customers at a large restaurant choose the booth seating along the outer wall before the open seating in the center? The boundary or the edge often provides a psychological comfort and safety.

Always consider porches, patios, courtyards, and decks when designing space. They need to be laid out with as much intention as the interior spaces. They should be seamlessly connected to the conditioned interior rooms with flexible and enjoyable space. You’ll find they are a great source of comfort and, when defined by the bounds of constructed area, can often have little additional cost. Before you know it your least expensive room will be your favorite.

Friday, November 22, 2013

In Keeping With Our Values

Recently, an initial contact note from a potential client said: "We want a modest, but beautiful, light filled home that is functional, energy efficient, and in keeping with our values and budget." The values statement caught my eye. Values are defined as the ideals, customs, institutions, etc., of a society toward which the people of the group have an affective regard. These values may be positive, as cleanliness, freedom, or education, or negative, as cruelty, crime, or blasphemy. We design and build buildings that align with our client's positive values every day but we have never articulated the process in these terms. There is even alignment with the positive value examples from the definition above. We build consistently well-ventilated homes using fewer toxins. It yields a cleaner and healthier space. How about enjoying the freedom from heavy weekend maintenance or excessive energy and water bills? We can build that into your home as well. In terms of education, we have made and kept a commitment at our recently designed and built office in Downtown Durham to use the building and its tested performance to educate the community on how this positive example can be repeated. Come to one of our regular tours and learn how a 12,000 square foot fully occupied and conditioned building have average energy bills of $350 per month. Learn how a building can use rainwater instead of city water to irrigate landscape and flush toilets. Learn how the building inhabitants can be more comfortable and productive due to their light-filled and well-designed workspace.

We’ve just recently met the folks who contacted us, so we do not know their values. Well, not yet. They have not hired us. Again, and hopefully, not yet. We look forward to the challenge of matching the design of their home to their values.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Do you change your oil every 3000 miles? What home maintenance schedule do you keep?

Everyone seems to be on a schedule these days, and it’s for a good reason. It’s simply hard to keep track of everything we have to do. Go to work and take care of this, pick up the kids and drive them to that, go to the gym to keep the heart pumping, bring the car for service to keep the engine running, but what’s the schedule for your home and its care? For most people, their home is the most expensive investment they ever make. Isn’t it smart to care for that investment? Did you know that your water heater should be flushed annually or your HVAC filters replaced every three months? In addition there are numerous items to be handled on a monthly, seasonally, or annual schedule to increase the longevity of your home. Here at BuildSense, we’d prefer to design you a home intent on reducing that maintenance to a bare minimum, but it is a wise decision for all homeowners to follow some type of Home Maintenance Schedule Checklist in order to maintain their home at peak performance and to assure they avoid more costly major problems. We issue a customized home maintenance checklist to all of our clients, but finding your own is easy to do. Search the web and you’ll find numerous types. Insurance companies like Allstate now offer their own for home and vehicles that keep your information in one convenient place. Lowes offers a program to keep you notified, track work you performed at your home, and log critical information about your home that you may need in the future. I’m sure there’s an app for that too. Whatever your method, it’s simply a good idea to tend to your home maintenance. You’ll be happier and healthier in the long run.
A portion of the BuildSense Home Maintenance Checklist

Friday, November 8, 2013

Asking for help: Sometimes the Best Thing to do

Asking for help is one of the hardest things for a human being to do. We often view it as admitting weakness, especially when we feel we should already know the answer. Over the past two weeks I have probably asked for helped more times than I have in the past three years of my life. It is the desire at BuildSense for the employees to have skills and understanding across both design and build. As such, I have been gaining field experience by recently spending about three days out of the week working on site with my fellow employees to finish building a home instead of tucked away behind a computer. Besides being sore in places I never even knew had muscles, I have learned all kinds of new skills involving various tools and new methods of thinking. This new knowledge came directly from asking for help. When a more experienced field worker would give me a list of things to accomplish for the day and walk through a tutorial on how to do it, I often stood there bewildered just from the terms they were using. Instead of acknowledging these instructions and attempting to complete a task on my own, I assumed it was wiser to ask for more help instead of potentially messing up expensive materials. The motto “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” rings especially true here. Though it may take a bit more time, the additional explanation was greatly beneficial to me, the project, and, at times, even to the instructor. While I felt a little silly asking for help for stuff these folks could do in their sleep, I knew this was the more mature way to handle the situation. Setting an ego aside is not always the easiest thing to do but I would have never started my path to becoming a knowledgeable builder without asking for help.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Designing and Building the home for YOU

A few weekends ago BuildSense was thrilled to host the Spring Residence on the 2013 AIA Triangle Residential Home Tour. Working as a tour volunteer at the home entrance, I was able to greet visitors when they entered the home as well as hear their feedback on their way out. The reception was great. I noticed one pattern. Visitors loved the home, with many making small talk about how it must be great if you have the money.

When speaking with one individual I could see that the house really struck his interest. We had a chat about the overall design noting that this particular house was larger than the typical scale of BuildSense’s work. We do not focus in any certain scale, but rather on quality of design construction and how a home will meet the needs of the specific client. We discussed how we have worked on homes from 600 square feet to 11,000 square feet but most fall in the 2000 to 3500 square foot range. As a full service architecture firm and a general contracting firm, we design and build homes that cater to our client’s aesthetic, budget, and size. Once we had that conversation, the individual got right on the phone with his significant other to discuss our company and what we could do for them.

The main reason I write this is to let all of our wonderful tour visitors know that we can create something beautiful for you that fits within your means. Take a look at the projects on our website for more on the wide range of work we do.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Window & Door Installation Tips

I recently attended a great window and door installation workshop put on by Restoration Woodworks and sponsored the Green Home Builders of the Triangle. The vendor shared some installation tricks for leak free and successful installations. Among the many recommendations, using a self-leveling cross-line laser level rather than a manual level jumped out as one of the most important. While these are little pricey, the efficiency of installation and the smooth operation of the windows/doors will be worth it. Another suggestion is to stop the house wrap at the exterior corner intersection of the jamb and wall (or just inside of the jamb), and complete the job with a full butyl wrap from interior to exterior. This will prevent any water that gets behind the housewrap from being directed to the interior of the home. Interestingly enough, while this does not follow most homewrap manufacturer recommendations, it allocates better additional resources to mitigate water infiltration. Last, your metal door pans should be bent with a hand brake as one continuous piece (yes, it is possible). If the installer cuts a slit to bend up the metal for the sidewall, then this defeats the purpose of a sill pan, even if that slit is caulked well. The pan should then be siliconed to the framing after the sill is leveled with no more than a 1/16" variance.  Before the door is set, place a generous 1/2" bead of silicone (toward the interior side of the pan) plus some short beads applied perpendicularly to fully glue and seal the threshold into place. These are a few tips offered by Restoration Woodworks that I found useful and interesting. Hopefully you will too.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Some Simple Considerations make for Better Site Safety

I’m big on safety whether it is in the field, in the shop, or in the home. My kids love to play and, as kids, tend not to want to take responsibility. If something breaks or someone gets hurt, the first thing I hear is, “I didn’t do it.” By that time it’s too late. Either his brother is crying, the dog is limping, or my wife’s favorite something is in pieces on the floor. So I talk to them about having awareness of their surroundings and considering the consequences of their actions. Amazingly, this is an ever-constant reminder to me for safety on the jobsite. We can’t have any “I didn’t do it” moments on the site. Granted, we are adults, so we can’t have any “oh my, what have I done” moments. We all know we are constantly and ultimately responsible for our own safety as well as the safety of everyone else on the jobsite. As such, I can take away two important items from my discussions with my children. It is no different. For consistent job safety one must always have job site awareness and consider the consequences of his/her actions. Keeping these two thoughts in mind at all times helps assure a safer site for everyone.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Naturally Entertained

I recently spent a few days with my family vacationing on a National Seashore. Our cabins were the only structures around. There were no roads, no huge beach houses stacked on top of each other, and no tacky beach shops. It was just the sand and the sea. We brought a few things to pass the time: books, cards, a few beach toys, (and sure, we did take our phones). We found ourselves not needing any of that. The natural beauty of the place was enough to keep us “entertained”. Between swimming in the ocean, looking for shells, and just sitting on the beach taking in our surroundings, there was no need for anything else. Initially I was afraid we had not brought enough to keep the kids entertained, but they too kept very busy and had a great time.

Its amazing how we can be “entertained” by so little, how sensory pleasing the natural environment can be, and even kids recognize this in their own way. Even with all of available forms of entertainment these days, sometimes it’s the simple things that can grasp our attention and leave a lasting impression. There are just some places and experiences that will never be able to be replicated or manufactured. These beautiful places are one of the many reasons why building and living sustainably is important to me. Obviously through the process of building we will consume resources. That is why we strive to tread as lightly as possible when we build. Also we have the science to build smarter and more efficiently, both during construction and for the life of the home. So a new building that is constructed using the proper techniques and systems will conserve resources now and through the future, be better for the environment, and save the owners money over the lifetime of the home.

I realize that we all can’t afford to build new energy efficient homes, walk to work, or drive a Tesla, but we can all take steps no matter how small to make a difference. The benefits of taking these steps will be felt, not only by us, but for the generations to follow. Protecting beautiful natural places, whether across the ocean or in our backyard is something we must do for now and the future. And the next time you are at the beach, or in the mountains, or just in your backyard take a moment and be “entertained” by your surroundings.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Pocket Neighborhoods - Stronger Communities

Not long ago I attended an inspiring lecture by Architect Ross Chapin who is widely known for his work regarding pocket neighborhoods. He’s made a career from providing meaningful, close-knit communities for people that seek a common interest in what they call home. Ross Chapin’s pocket neighborhood designs are typically clustered groups of houses centered around “shared” spaces such as gardens and courtyards with pedestrian streets and paths that link the development together. The emphasis of these designs is to bring “community” and connectivity to neighbors.

There is a surreal simplicity to the village like design. The images he shared conveyed cozy neighborhoods with vibrant landscapes. Low fences disappear into lush gardens and meandering walkways reveal an inviting chair on the porch of a bungalow. One consistent and pleasing theme that resonated throughout each planned development was to create a neighborhood inside a neighborhood that all people share and call home.

These are the type of design principles that can strengthen the existing fabric of our local communities, especially in predetermined neighborhoods. Some of our local neighborhoods have community gardens, dog parks, playgrounds and even farmers’ markets. Chapin would say these are ideal communal places around which to focus our residential planning. This kind of development ideology can certainly help to better our neighborhoods, which in turn strengthens our communities. These strategies should be part of our local zoning. Get involved with your local officials to discuss creating small intimate neighborhoods. Begin this conversation and subsequently communities will emerge.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Best Project Results

Early one morning a few weeks ago, I drove to one of our projects that was nearing completion. While we had a hot summer, this particular morning was delightfully cool and refreshing. We had built a considerable addition and performed thorough renovation to this 1874 home and our clients had recently moved in. Approaching the rural setting, I began to see subtle changes. Our job site sign and marketing box were gone and a new mailbox was installed. Turning into the driveway, I first noticed final gravel had been applied and fresh grass was growing from a centered strip. I then realized the monster steel storage container had been removed. I drove the length of the drive and delightfully the dumpster and porta-potty were gone too. No building materials in the yard, no piles of soil or mulch. Everywhere I looked I just saw a spring like setting of tall oaks and freshly planted everything. And of course the house looked beautiful. Everything was complete and the bright new paint beckoned you to stop and admire the results. On the wrap around porch I spotted our client and her young toddler lounging in a porch swing. It nearly brought tears to my eyes. Well ok, it did. My first thought was, "this is why we do this".  I mean we don't often see the way our clients live in their homes. But if you wanted to see a best use of one of our projects, this was it. I asked if I could take a photo and was granted permission. As I sat down on the deck, I joked that they must be happy we were down to a couple of punch list items and she would be rid of us. Sweetly and sentimentally she suggested that in fact they might miss us a bit. I knew we were going to miss this home and their family. We grow attached to our clients. This was a fun project and somewhat surprising for the folks who toured it during the recent green home builders tour. BuildSense is well known for our modern designs. Yet every so often we get to restore life to a grand old home and prepare it for the next hundred years and the next generations of occupants. I think I will keep my eye on this one.
A peaceful morning on the porch swing for our client and their toddler. Real satisfaction comes when we know our clients truly enjoy their homes.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Design Build Client Empathy

For most of my adult life I have designed and built residential projects (I would prefer not to mention the total number of years at this endeavor). We have watched our clients struggle with design decisions, with appraisals, with banks, with schedules, and with compromises. We've witnessed our client's exhilaration with a completed project, a beautifully executed detail, or a space that feels just right. We've shared the joy and helped smooth the rough spots.

I thought I completely understood these feelings. Right up until my wife and I started to design and build our own home. Right up until we tried to settle on design decisions. Right up until we were completely baffled in our effort to compare financing packages. Right up until we watched our start date move down the road. Right up until we experienced the inevitable holy cow, how much is that?  (Note: not the actual words used.) Right up until we heard that the engineer requires this assembly (and then back to the prior question). And then there is the other side. The part where we realize that we really love this house and we have not even built it yet. The part where we mentally move in to the spaces (and it is a perfect fit). The part where we realize that we simply could not go out and buy a house for us, but only buy a marginally constructed house for a market segment. A segment that is not us. A house that would not satisfy our zero energy (and costs) goal. A house that would not make us happy.

To be fair, I have to say that I should have known. I should have fully understood the required effort, the frustration, and the joy. Well, I do now. Viscerally. And do you know what? It is worth it.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Seventh Generation

“In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation... (…even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.)” – Iroquois Law

Well, the quote comes from my quick internet searches, but the concept is a fact of Iroquois Law. And what a concept it is. It may have been one of the first sustainability policies ever enacted. There was a voice at every council that represented the future generations. How does your decision today affect the world in which our children and our children’s children will live? It seems like a fairly reasonable request, but is a far cry from the attitude of, “Well, who cares ‘cause I’ll be long gone by that time.”

Thomas Jefferson had great reverence for the Iroquois system of representational democracy. How would a seventh generation clause have influenced our current environment had it been part of our country’s founding principles? Though it was not a prevalent part of discussions at that time, I am glad the sustainability question is part of public debate and awareness everyday today.

So, whether or not you are a believer in global warming or want to drive a prius doesn’t really matter to me. I pose one question to you. Don’t you think we can do better?  We’ve dumped so much into our water and air, we’ve stripped the landscape of trees and mountains, we’ve watched natural habitats decrease, and seen the extinction of tens of thousands of species. I want to think that evolution means we grow smarter and we realize where we have failed. This isn’t about blame for those in the past, but about responsibly moving forward. We have the technologies to help turn back the clock on the ill effects of the past, but we need the collective will. Let’s make decisions from today forward that benefit those of the seventh generation.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Design-Build Benefits

There are many differences between a conventional architecture firm and an architecture-construction (what we offer at BuildSense) or design-build firm. I suppose the main distinction is fairly evident; the design-build firm builds their own designs rather than handing them off to another construction company. I just wrapped up my summer as one of two interns at BuildSense and have come to learn of many other advantages to the structure of a design-build firm.

Design-build provides the opportunity for much better quality control. When the architect is the general contractor or the two are team members working on the project together from design inception to construction completion, there is no lack of communication or understanding of the construction documents and specifications as may happen in the traditional separation of roles. By working alongside each other, possible problems can be caught earlier and resolved before they affect other aspects of the project. This increased channel of communication also helps with the progression of the project. Avoiding problems or resolving them more quickly results in a better project pace.

If quality control, communication, and project progression are high priorities for a project, design-build is a very good option. All three benefits depend on design-build teamwork. Having both skills in-house removes the gaps in the process and leads to a better project and a happy client.

Friday, August 9, 2013

A View from the Crawlspace

Is your crawlspace the murky underbelly of your home? If it is, you likely avoid it and ignore it. However, sometimes it can be one of the most important spaces in a home containing the mechanical systems providing you with the conditioned air you breath, the plumbing systems carrying your water and waste, and critical electrical and communications wiring. If you consider the importance of the equipment and how it affects your life and health, it seems important that it would be efficiently organized and well installed. I’ve learned this is usually not the case. I just wrapped up my summer interning with BuildSense and, fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, spent a good amount of time in crawlspaces. The first time I entered a crawlspace I was intrigued by the maze of joists, insulation, and hardware, and interested in how this jumble of things corresponded with the floor plan above. This fascination quickly faded when I realized that apart from the existence of a crawlspace, there was no logical design layout to it at all. It was an afterthought to the house plan; just leave 24’’ of clearance between the building and the earth and let someone else figure out how to make the systems fit.

Although I’m not personally in the market for a new home, I think I’m right in saying that an “accessible and organized crawlspace” is not first on the checklist for many buyers. It’s an afterthought, an added plus to a good home or a deal breaker on an average one. But if something so crucial to the function of a building is an afterthought, what else are you missing when you consider a future home? The façade of a beautifully renovated house or a well-designed interior can easily lure one into thinking that internal issues can be “fix-its” to deal with in a few years once you’re settled. Before getting swept away, remember that even a beautiful house can be dysfunctional, and when things do start to go amiss, the culprit may be in the crawlspace.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Keep it clean

Keeping my truck clean and organized is hard to do. It’s not easy making time at the end of a tiring day. If you let it get away from you, you’ll lose some things buried in clutter and then find things you didn’t know you even had. Taking some daily time to clean and organize our trucks and tools results in better work productivity. Additionally, we fully inventory our trucks and tools each quarter. If we keep up with daily organization this goes much smoother, but still usually yields a couple of “oh, that’s where that went moments”. This organization applies to the job site too. Daily cleanup and organization is even more important as it provides a safer work environment in addition to a more productive one. So if your truck or tools or jobsite are a reflection of the quality of the work you do, keep it clean and organized. It will result in a safer environment, better productivity, a better final product, and a job well done.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Home Maintenance - Go Ahead and Do it!

Recently, my husband and I have been pouring over realty listings and visiting intriguing properties in our hunt for a new home. We felt a real love pang for a quirky custom built home that had sadly braved the world without caretakers for a few years. How bittersweet to fall in love with a run down house full of potential when we were intent on finding something ‘move in ready.’

You always hear those nagging reminders for repainting after X number of years, or changing that filter every X months, blah, blah, blah. Maybe sometimes you do it and maybe sometimes you don’t. Well, I have now seen a once beautiful home fall into disrepair due to simple neglect. It was such a stark contrast to the similarly aged well-maintained home we’d visited earlier that week. Every house needs some TLC on regular basis, no matter how superbly built.

Our visit to this deteriorated home created one of those moments where it clicks: this is why it is so important that homeowners follow those recommended maintenance schedules (even for a vacated house)...because otherwise, the splendor of the once new and smoothly functioning house slowly slips away.

On one hand, I feel bad for the owners trying to sell this ‘as-is’. What may have driven them to abandon this once lovely home? Will they lose money on the sale due to the simple fact they didn’t maintain the house while it sat empty? On the other hand, I’m feeling fairly excited, because my husband and I (both in the construction industry and fully aware of what it will take for some rehab) might soon be closing on this discounted quirky custom built house that needs a lot of TLC to reach its fullest potential.  One thing I know for sure is that we WILL complete the required but pesky home maintenance to keep it at its best!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Communities and Design Pride

I was one of two members of the BuildSense team that attended the 2013 AIA Convention in Denver. The event was packed with educational sessions and fantastic speakers but there was a whole lot to Denver outside of the Colorado Convention Center worth talking about.

During my stay, a close family friend played tour guide. A graduate of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, he moved to Denver for three reasons: relatively affordable land, a growing urban condition, and a nationally renowned appreciation for architecture. These ingredients make a recipe for paradise in the eyes of modern architects, and relocating to the “Mile-High City” is mighty tempting to young designers.

I’m staying put. The first two reasons I listed are apparent right here in Durham. The third is evident in pockets and I see tremendous potential for growth. An appreciation for designed spaces doesn’t develop overnight. It demands an intimate relationship between the population and designers. The population must observe and feel an increase in standard of living or quality of life due to the sophistication of successful planning and designing. To produce truly successful work, designers must live and breathe the needs of the population. This is by no means a call for everyone to hug their local design folk. This is a call to be critical--critical of the new as well as critical of the old. The most common criticism of a new project I hear is that it doesn’t look like everything else around it. I encourage far deeper considerations. Does it serve the population by bringing new life and a greater pride to one’s community? Does it make responsible use of materials that are less harmful and longer lasting? Will it require less fuel consumption? Will it require less maintenance? The list goes on and I encourage you to dig deep.

We must let go of an asphalt-shingle mindset where fifteen years is the required foresight. Don’t accept work designed and built to the minimum standard. Don’t permit negative contributions to the built environment. Live for the long haul. We must take pride in who we are, how we live together, and what we are making. A client last week told me, “If I’m going to invest in a new home, I’m going to make it something special-- something I can get excited about.” Fan that flame. Stoke that fire. Let it spread. Take pride in design and the designed.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Preventing Crashes

I was sitting at a stop light the other day. I was making the best of my honey do list running errands by motorcycle on a beautiful day. The light changed for traffic crossing my path and the cars took off. The first car pulled out at a reasonable speed, the second seemed to be tailgating a bit, and the third was apparently in a hurry or marching to another drummer. It accelerated rapidly and plowed into the second car, which in turn ran into the first. Sometimes, the building process can be like this. No, I’m not saying it’s a car wreck, but there are a lot of parties involved in the process. Not unlike many processes, each party observes the same information, but does not always interpret it the same way.

The process of Architecture is an effort to define and communicate an intended result essentially from drawings and written directions. The construction process is the effort to create this drawn item. It is necessary to provide the proper information and direction to prevent any crashes. The greater the communication and understanding between parties, the better they see and perceive the same information, the less likely there are any nicks, dings, or crashes. An integrated Design/Build process fosters that communication resulting in a smoother process and mitigates the likelihood of mistakes.

Oh yeah, the second two cars stopped, but the first drove off with its bumper dragging. I'm not sure it ever stopped.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Giving Back

Some of the BuildSense team recently attended the annual AIA (American Institute of Architects) Conference in Denver. The focus of many of the lectures was on community focused design. The question arises as to how architects use their training and solution based thinking to give back to their community and beyond?

It makes me proud to know that this is nothing new to BuildSense. Our recently updated website includes a new “community” page ( that highlights work that we do to give back to our local community, students, and non-profits, as well as globally to impoverished areas in Nicaragua. These successful projects demonstrate how providing more thoughtful design and execution benefits the users as well as the designers and builders. A day, a week, or a summer semester of time proves to be an investment with great return. Perhaps our work for others in addition to our regular work flow was a reason we were recently voted INDY Week’s Best Green Builder and runner up Best Green Architect for the Triangle.

While recognition is nice and appreciated, it falls short of the feeling of accomplishment from helping those in need by doing what we do best. We are currently teaching the Summer Design/Build Studio for NC State’s School of Architecture. The students are working on a floating classroom for the HUB Farm; a teaching farm underway for the Durham Public Schools behind Eno Valley Elementary School. There is nothing better than leading a project for students by students. The learning on the front end will forever result in continued learning for younger students upon completion. Please stay tuned for more on this as the HUB Farm, Durham Public Schools, NCSU, our collaborative team are depending on donations to help support our work efforts.

Current rendering of the student project for Durham Public Schools' HUB Farm. If you have any interest in providing financial support to this project and the HUB Farm in general, please contact us and we will put you in touch with the proper contacts at Durham Public Schools. Thanks for your support.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Consequences of Design Decisions

If you make what you design, you receive the most brutally direct feedback about your design decisions. This is true from cooking to ceramics to furniture making to the construction of buildings. Sometimes the feedback is immediate. Such is the case when throwing a pot or making soup for example. Sometimes the feedback is longer term, as was the case for building a masonry cathedral without buttresses.

I’ve had the experience of throwing a pot (incorrectly) and literally wearing my mistake. Fortunately, I have not built an unreinforced masonry gothic cathedral without buttresses. People did, though, and learned (in a catastrophic and quite memorable way) about their mistake. From these failures and this feedback, designers and builders learned about lateral forces and wind loads. From successes and failures, ceramicists learn how to improve their craft. From successes and failures, cooks create tastier recipes. From successes and failures, designers and builders learn to make much better buildings.

There are two keys to this process. One: jump into the design-make-design loop. Two: listen to the feedback. There is no better way to learn. This is the second week of a design-build studio at the NCSU College of Design that we have taught for several years. This is our way of introducing the design-make-design loop to students at a critical time in their development as designers and/or builders. It is a step that is too often passed by in architectural education. The difficulty with a designed connection becomes clear with the execution of that connection. The information may be intellectually clear, but it does not stick until the designer directly experiences the ramifications of construction. They take the “make” information back to the “design” loop and will never design that same construction difficulty again. During the next week of design intensity, dozens of full-scale details will be constructed in order that the design-make-design loop can be complete before final design decisions are made. Without fail, the students find these studios to be intense, difficult, stressful, sweaty (building in August in North Carolina), and incredibly valuable.

This summer the studio is building a floating outdoor classroom for the Durham Public School’s Hub Farm. If you have any interest in supporting this studio and this project, please contact me, Randall Lanou, at

Monday, May 27, 2013

Take a Lesson from Durham on Moving Forward Through the Power of Compromise

Last week, Preservation Durham, The Durham City Council, Greenfire Development, and East-West Partners came to a mutually agreeable determination for the future of the Liberty Warehouse. In a day and age where lack of compromise has resulted in stagnation, I wish to commend all parties on working together to achieve what is a win/win for Durham, Preservationists, and the blossoming Central Park District.

I am a devoted Preservationist who has processed dozens of the Secretary of Interior’s applications and produced projects recognized with Capital Area Preservation’s Anthemion Award and Preservation Durham’s Pyne Award. I am an enthusiastic modernist who believes we should not build replicas of 200-year-old structures with modern technology that begs to be used in new and different ways (potentially of its own historic significance in 200 years). I am an environmentalist that believes in the use of regionally appropriate design and materials to best prepare a building for a long and healthy lifespan. I am a Durham Resident and Building Owner in Durham Central Park. I firmly believe that “old” does not define “contributing historic significance” and think they often get confused. I believe that bringing together smart and experienced individuals on a case-by-case basis yields far better results than blanket statements of what is allowed and disallowed.

That’s the interesting dilemma of Liberty Warehouse. There’s more significance to its former use and interior structure than to its exterior appeal and interaction with the adjacent properties. Without compromise, it would likely have sat stagnant, financially prohibitive from development. With the stipulations as laid out among the participants (see, it is possible that we can have the best of all worlds. With thoughtful design and execution, it is possible to integrate the greatest strengths of its history with the greatest strengths of our blossoming Durham. If East-West Partners see these parameters as guidelines to excellence and not hindrances to be worked around, that should be the case. Let’s keep an eye on the progress to help make it so.

What's HERS and why is important to your home?

“HERS,” usually a word we use as a pronoun, is a prominent acronym in the green home world. HERS stands for Home Energy Rating System, a scoring system where a score of 0 represents a net zero energy home and score of 100 represents a standard code minimum new home. A HERS score is essentially the miles per gallon of your home. Most existing homes have a HERS score around 130 or more. Each point is a 1% difference in energy consumption from the new home baseline, so most existing homes are 30% less energy efficient than new homes. A score of 70-80 is not hard to achieve, so that means your new home could easily be up to 50% more energy efficient than your existing home! The difference would show in your energy bills. BuildSense homes typically have a HERS score of somewhere from 50-70 based on our clients choices. A typical BuildSense home of 2000 square feet has average monthly energy bills of less than $70. Where do your energy bills stand?

A HERS Rater will usually determine the score of a home using the plans, a software program called REM/Rate, and a few diagnostic tests. REM/Rate is an energy analysis program that calculates the energy consumption and costs of a home. A test called duct blasting uses pressure to determine any air leakage in the duct system and a blower door test helps identify air filtration issues of the house. The Rater will use all this information to form the HERS score. As more homes are scored, HERS will be an important part of directly comparing homes.

A HERS score is a basic requirement of most green building certifications. BuildSense’s corporate commitment is certify all homes by both the National Green Building Standard and ENERGY STAR. Besides using the HERS, a quality builder utilizing the National Green Building Standard will assure that the other systems in your home are coordinated with the air tightness and limited energy use to ensure you have a healthy and comfortable indoor environment, limit use of additional resources, and reduce the demand for long term home maintenance.

You should insist on a HERS score if you are looking at purchasing a home. In the coming years it will likely be a requirement in the real estate industry in order to clearly understand the costs associated with ownership of a particular home.

HERS Index Chart
A blower door test pressurizes your home to reveal how much air is "leaking" through the various "cracks" and "holes" in your home.
A duct blast test pressurizes your duct work to reveal if it is "leaking"and providing conditioned air to areas like your attic or crawlspace.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Overhangs Not Overrated

I've been a potential homebuyer for a while now and I must admit that I love house hunting. My wife and I find delight in seeking out a potential new home and partaking in a short-lived design charrette with each home we tour. Upon entering the home-for-sale we both begin mental demolition of spaces that seem unappealing. 70’s wood paneling – gone! Canary yellow linoleum - gone! Like all potential homebuyers, we begin mentally moving in and making the space our own. In the search for new homes, we both have our quirks, our wishes, and our deal breakers. The first thing my wife looks at are the rational things like cost, location, and amenities. Good thinking. I tend to focus on the “bones” of the home. How well was it built? How’s it going to last? What kind of maintenance will it require? And, of course, is there ample space for a man room dedicated to sporting events, beer, and company? Along the exterior, my eyes immediately seek the roofline in search of generous overhangs with character. With a good roofline, the house has potential. It may be a dog on the inside with bad flooring and poorly colored walls, but at least the outside structure is correct. 

In my current neighborhood, overhangs are hard to come by. And like most new developments, the neighborhood and newly constructed homes don’t seem to have many of the desirable characteristics of homes from our past (i.e. overhangs, inviting front porches, established trees, signs of hope). The typical roof in my neighborhood provides a 12" overhang, which makes the home appear bare and banal. In the world of Residential Architecture and fine home building, correctly sized and proportioned overhangs are one element that Architects, Designers, and Craftsmen all understand to convey quality and craftsmanship. Although a roof with deep overhangs can increase material and labor costs, these costs are typically minor as compared to the total budget, and the benefits of good roof details are a wise investment. Beyond delivering aesthetics and curb appeal to a home, their main purpose is to protect the entire home, which after all is your single biggest financial asset. Overhangs keep water away from your siding, windows, and building foundation, and keep you from dealing with numerous moisture issues over the long term. They are shading devices, which can block out unwanted solar heat gain during the hot summer. They will also assist your mechanical systems by reducing the need for cooling, resulting in lowering your utility costs.

Good overhangs are simply good affordable fundamentals of architecture. They’re a sign of design and purpose. They should be valued and upheld, not overlooked and certainly never traded for a home with stainless steel appliances or trendy granite surfaces.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Triangle Clean Cities Coalition

BuildSense has been participating as an active member of the Triangle Clean Cities Coalition for about one year. Your reaction to this may be, "What's that?". Triangle Clean Cities Coalition works with stakeholders across the Triangle area to reduce the use of petroleum based fuel. There are over 100 similar "Clean Cities" groups across the country. They are also the group from whom we won a grant for assistance to convert the majority of our fleet to run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG).

The Department of Energy requires that Clean Cities programs be re-designated every three years. Essentially they have to prove they are making a difference. The evaluation took place in March. In order to achieve re-designation, coalition staff completed a six-month evaluation process, culminating with a presentation to Department of Energy officials and representatives from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the National Energy Technology Laboratory. Triangle Clean Cities Coalition Coordinator Lacey Jane Wolfe made the presentation, along with Chairperson Jeff Barghout, Vice Chairperson Jeff Andre (of BuildSense), and Advanced Energy.

"Triangle Clean Cities Coalition has a tremendous impact not just in the Research Triangle area but also as a state leader encouraging fleets to adopt alternative fuels, electric vehicles and other petroleum displacement strategies," Barghout stated during the presentation. As part of the re-designation process, more than 40 stakeholders agreed to speak with Department of Energy representatives. Those contacted were asked about the coalition's strengths and weaknesses, and that information will be incorporated into the coalition's operating plans moving forward.

Preliminary data from the annual report suggest that our coalition displaced more than 3.3 million gallons of gasoline equivalent in 2012. This is a 28 percent increase in offset fuels from the previous year. The recent re-designation will allow Triangle Clean Cities Coalition to continue their efforts to reduce petroleum dependence in the Greater Triangle Area for years to come.

The BuildSense CNG operation, while small, is a measurable part of that effort. We undertook this project to align our vehicle use with our overall corporate philosophy, reducing our environmental impact whenever the opportunity arises. I expect that BuildSense will continue to be an active participant in the Triangle Clean Cities Coalition for many years.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Durham is Happening and Making

We are fortunate to sit in what is now one of the most recognizable buildings in downtown, gazing through our windows at a city that is “happening”. Last weekend I visited The Parlour which serves up some incredible ice cream. As of April 3 their food truck spawned a permanent downtown storefront as Durham’s population has grown to fuel abundant non-chain business. I’ve also been enjoying a regular caffeine boost from Cocoa Cinnamon who has a similar story. With downtown booming and the surrounding areas feeding off the energy, the city is glistening.

Two weeks ago at the Rock & Shop Market, it was reassuring to see the talent available among North Carolina residents. People still know how to make things. If you ever come to question it, go visit Elijah Leed in Liberty Arts. From American Tobacco to the Hosiery Mills to the packaging plant at Golden Belt, Durham has a history of making things.

Our city is shining in the national spotlight. We just won the South’s Tastiest Town award from Southern Living magazine and were featured in the New York Times’ 36 Hours series. Both point out we are talented people with great taste and a drive to support each other's endeavors.

Just yesterday after originally typing this blog, we learned that the Durham Chamber won Best Unconventional Project in the world (yes, in the world) from the International Chamber of Commerce World Chambers Federation Competition for the Smoffice – World’s Smallest Office concept.

There are questions of whether Durham will keep its small town quirkiness as it continues to grow. How do we manage it? We show up. We frequent downtown and surrounding venues, we go to a show at Motorco and a movie at the Carolina Theatre, we depend on the Farmers’ Market frequently. We challenge everything that isn’t serving the community and we support everything that does.

Where will BuildSense be? You’ll find us right here under our turbines on Rigsbee, encouraging the growth, the creativity, the making of things, and the support of our local community.

What's "Happening":

Friday, April 19, 2013

Green Homes and Baseball?? Huh??

I was recently at a Durham Bulls game and got wrapped up in a discussion of the statistics that dominate the sport. Armed with all that information, one still cannot predict the outcome of the game. There are too many variables. A consistent hitter may have an off night. Some nobody jacks a grand slam. Who would have known the flu went through the clubhouse and all the stars are sick? We often get the question, “How much does a green house cost?” Like the baseball game, armed with the statistics from all the world’s green design and build, one may provide the cost of “a green house.” However, what about all the variables that your team, your family, brings to the game? How does one put a price on “your green home?” That can only be achieved once the plethora of variables has been qualified with you. Where is the site? What’s the program? What are the most important spaces for you and your family? Is there a basement or garage? Are you interested in energy efficiency, water efficiency, or resource efficiency? Do you wish to pursue clean energy generation? This list goes on for quite a while. Designing and building your custom home can be overwhelming and exhausting at times, but the result and reward of personal comfort is worth the effort. The great thing about custom building is just that: it is custom. We help to craft a custom home that is a reflection of you and your values. We can provide you with a wealth of design options and input to make your home all that you want and need. Something to ponder at your next baseball game. Enjoy the Spring!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Little Helpers

During a recent home improvement project I was impressed by my children’s interest in helping. They were highly motivated and very helpful, which is not always the case when it comes to helping out around the house. Their interest did not fade after the first 30 minutes; they stuck to it for days and are still involved. 

This got me thinking about the importance of children working with their hands and being involved in projects. In this digital era, being involved in producing something three- dimensional by hand is becoming a rare experience. Obviously, as a builder, I am a little biased on the value of working with your hands. There are many benefits to getting your hands dirty. First and most important, it can be fun. Children and adults can benefit by learning a new skill and completing a project. The experience of working on a specific task can help them become better problem solvers. They may be able to use some of the skills they learn to apply to other projects. Instant gratification is often associated with digital entertainment. It is also prevalent in many building projects. Children get immediate results and can see the progress of their hard work. There are many more benefits of building and working on projects, and almost all of them boost self- confidence, yet another reason for children to get their hands dirty.

So the next time you have to work in the garden, put down a new kitchen floor, or some other project around the house, don’t hesitate to invite your children to help. They may just find an exciting alternative to the tablet, computer, or TV. They will have a great time completing a project with their grown-up, and gain skills, self-confidence and a sense of pride and accomplishment in a job well done.

Always make sure that the project is safe and appropriate for the age of the child.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Home That Grows

When building or buying a home, you probably have a wish list. Whether you are drawn to the home due to its overall aesthetic or location you may fall short of some of the items listed. As your family and finances grow, why not allow for your house to grow alongside. When buying or building a house there are a few things that you can look for to assure you that your design can adapt with you.

During the search or design of your new home the floor plan plays a key role in the future ability for growth. Unfinished basements and attics with connections to the outside with comfortable overhead clearance are perfect for later adding space. This approach is the easiest and most cost effective as it allows you to grow your space without building new space outside the envelope of your existing home.

When remodeling or adding on it is best to maintain the integrity of your existing home, making sure that the work enhances the overall plan rather than detracting from what is there. The floor plan’s adjacencies to other rooms as well as to the outside can make for a seamless expansion of space. Floor plans and sites that allow for clear circulation to the addition are key. For example a bathroom, closet or laundry room at the end of a hallway on an exterior wall would be a great place to add onto. This will maintain a clear circulation path to the new addition.

So remember when you are out on the hunt for your next home do not get discouraged if it does not meet every criteria on your list. Simply select a design that can grow alongside you and your family.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Generators: Another Source of Comfort and Security

Generators! I love generators. They can really make life simple when life gets difficult due to adverse weather, local earthwork, a vehicle running into a power pole, or even routine service. Very hot days and very cold days may cause a power utility to “brown out” a neighborhood. I have lived in many climate zones and have lost power for many reasons. Some of my homes had provisions for temporary power but most did not.

Recently a client called. “John, I hate to be a bother, but the power in our new home is acting weird. Only about half of our electrical fixtures are working. I have walked the entire home and it is weird.” This had happen to my home just a few weeks earlier, but I thought there was no way it could have been the same problem of an old underground line being corroded. This was a brand new home we recently completed. I had supervised the install of all the utilities at their home. I asked if they had had any other underground work done since moving in and the answer was no. Almost as an afterthought she added: “It seems everything we need is running but a lot of circuits are not.”

Ah hah! My old gray mind finally clicked. Was the generator running, I asked? She could not hear it. I asked that she check and, sure enough, it was quietly purring away. Sweet!

Because the home network and computers were on the generator powered circuits, she was able to bring up the website for the power utility and discovered an outage had been reported. She was amazed that it was so simple. The security system did not issue a peep. The switch over was so quick and seamless that she had not noticed the change. This was a comfort for her and she was able to go back to work, telecommuting.

While recently attending the International Builders Show, I spoke to Generac, a leading manufacture of generators, to learn about whole house generator coverage. It’s a challenge, because you want strike a balance between cost, complexity and benefit. Generac has a new Nexus breaker panel that does the trick. It can handle up to 6 large 220 circuits. In effect, it manages large loads and the starting of big motors  such as heating elements, air conditioning, well pumps, septic pumps, electric stoves, or water heaters. It allows only one or two of these to start or operate at the same time, essentially managing the house loads and telling the generator how hard to work. In the homes we design and build, the remaining electrical loads are generally light. CFL and LED lighting use tiny amounts of energy. Energy star appliances sip energy. WaterSense fixtures use less water allowing well and septic pumps to work less. What that means is that the same generator that is usually specified for partial home coverage may service an entire BuildSense or other energy efficient home.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

What Does the Builder Want?

That is the most important thing, isn’t it? Or, wait, maybe not. Shouldn’t your choices drive your project? A loosely designed and defined and unspecified project delivers what the builder wants. A thoughtfully and thoroughly designed and fully specified project delivers what you want. It’s as simple as that. Odds are there will not be full alignment of goals between you and your builder. Some cases may be closer than others, but the likelihood of perfect alignment is slim to none.

I’ve heard people say many times that specifications drive up cost. This is absolutely true. Here, the old adage you get what you pay for applies. Take windows, for example. There are a vast array of choices that cover the gamut of finishes, color, performance, durability, glazing, cost, and materials. If performance (sun-tempered house), exterior color (red), and materials (wood interior) are most important to you and durability (limited warranty effort) and cost (keep the bid low) are most important to the builder, you have a discrepancy and a problem if your choice is not specified. Just as it is your choice whether you spend your money on a BMW or a Ford Fiesta, it is your choice whether you buy high-end clad wood windows or vinyl windows. A high performance BMW costs about 500% (yup) more than a Ford Fiesta. The range for window cost is just as extreme.

When price shopping, it is impossible to have apples-to-apples cost information without thorough plans and full specifications - Period. How can you place a price tag on a project if you don’t know what you are pricing? I’ve heard countless times from owners and builders that a basic plan and elevations (schematic level design) are sufficient for pricing, permitting, and building. This is absolutely not true. One of my many favorite examples of this desperate and unfortunate process is pricing without a power and lighting plan. We find that our clients are quite particular (and rightly so) about lighting locations and fixtures, switching, power locations, data locations, media locations, security systems, and audio systems. To include the cheapest code standard power and lighting plan and Home Depot chic fixtures in a custom house is generally a fundamental misunderstanding of your wishes. If what you want (not what the builder wants) is three times the work and three times the cost of a code standard plan and a code standard plan is included in the contract, you have a discrepancy and a big cost problem during construction. Again, the solution is to design and specify what you want.

Your choices may very well cost more than the code standard and they will likely cost more than the builder’s choices. This is one part of the significant value of design. Your project. Your choices. Your money.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Building Exteriors General Rule: Don’t Transition Materials or Colors at Outside Corners

I encourage all designers to make use of three-dimensional modeling tools (electronic or physical) because we happen to live in a three-dimensional world. We build volumes and inhabit space. It is unfortunate that architectural “elevations” are drawn as flat planes representing one face of a building without perspective. This among other factors, such as an emphasis on the building “Front” and reduction of the other elevations to only sides and back, has resulted in some basic neglect of how a building should be finished. Along the line, there was a loss in translation when a set of construction drawings of a building that was not a perfect square or rectangle became only four elevations and a plan. Where a builder saw brick, he placed brick. Where he saw wood, he placed wood. However, since the drawings did not convey every face of the three-dimensional building, he elected to use the less expensive wood material where there was no indication. The brick transitioned to wood around an outside corner. So what was intended to be a solid brick volume became a plane of brick on the front of a volume. Eventually, this became an acceptable norm of the building industry. Now we have entire neighborhoods showcasing brick and stone veneers along the “front” or streetside elevation, but nowhere else. Sometimes there will even be an extruded bay or gable area faced in a different brick or stone or other material which also does not turn the corner for a few feet. Does that look better? Did it even save any money? Look at the building in three-dimensions. Show the hidden elevations in the drawings so all materials are clearly annotated. Clearly indicate that no materials should transition at an outside corner. Many of these buildings would look better without brick or stone, but simply with a good paint scheme that displays them as volumes and not planes. As such, it is also good to indicate that paint colors should not transition at an outside corner. Happy designing and building!
Random location for material transition plainly looks bad

Even higher quality homes exhibit the "front" elevation syndrome.
These extruded bays with full material wrap appear as solid volumes and look complete.
Here, stone transitions to siding along the same flat plan. Increasing the plan area by extruding the stone faced wall 24" or so and returning the stone material on both sides would have provided a complete volume feeling as indicated in the photo above.