lessons on selling

There is much to learn as a builder and designer when building your own house. One good lesson is about being a consumer; being on the buying end of the transaction; wanting and needing various products and services.

I'm used to the role of provider. I and my co-workers provide a wide variety of services, like design, engineering, building and installing, for a myriad of products like timber frames, flooring, fine woodworking, even screen porches and wine cellars. 25 or so years of so many items, linked by their connection to shelter and to craft.

Now I'm the buyer, and the view from this side is fascinating. So far I know that 1) I am glad when sales people call me back. I'm even more so when they call me back again, and ask for the order. I need to work with people who have confidence and desire. 2) Sales people who aren't very bright, or who don't REALLY know their trade annoy the heck out of me. Last week I asked a foam insulation guy what the permeability rating on his product was, per inch installed and cured. He looked blank, thumbed through his literature, and said no one had asked him that before. To put this into perspective, it would be like your car mechanic not knowing how many cylinders your engine had. Or your hair dresser not caring whether your hair was full bodied or not.

3) It surprises me when a salesperson, or anyone, from the supplying company tries to put me on the defensive when asked questions of performance or quality.

4) And I like it a lot if the sales guy stays in touch after the project has started. This isn't easy, as there is typically a project manager now rocking with it. But he didin't make the deal. I hired the most expensive electrical contractors because Aaron the sales guy was good, thorough and yes, he's stayed right with it. Noel and Josh, the plasterers, certainly aren't inexpensive, and frankly, I didn't even bid them out, as I knew right away they were who I wanted to work with, and have not been disappointed. I actually paid Jonathan Cohen, the heating and solar guy as a consultant prior to them awarding him a large percentage of the work. Same with Gary Douglas, the lighting consultant. Both knew their trades, and I was willing to hire them by the hour first, to test my instincts and to feel like I wasn't taking unfair advantage.

Here's the confession: I have been guilty of not meeting my own standards on all of the above. at various times over the last 25 years. In particularly brutal exchanges with my mirror, I think that it's a wonder we're still in business. I have a twist on that old saying "the trouble with labor is management." I take it another important step: "...and the trouble with management is ownership." And one even further: "I have to own the place, otherwise I'd have gotten fired long ago!" No doubt, though, that this exercise has taught me much about sales and service.

The siding continues, with its mix of clear redwood reclaimed from wine vats and resawn barn boards in a reverse board and batten.



Young Cameron from the McMinnville shop recently looked at me with a bright smile face when I answered question about my weekend and said, "Hey, last year was my first Portland summer. What I learned was, they go quick. Better stop and enjoy it now!" Lordy, why is it that so much of the best advice I get is from the mouths of ... younger people?

No question about the potential for burnout in this year-of-building-and-little-else. Even my cell phone was laughing at me on Friday when the appointment bell went off and I looked down to see "Seattle to Vancouver", the 200 mile bike ride that as of March I had still planned on doing. THERE'S BEEN NO TIME OR ENERGY FOR TRAINING, I yell at the darn overrated little iphone. Doesn't it know how hard it is to build a home and help run a business in a recession? Isn't it supposed to be Apple Corporation sensitive, maybe offering condolensces, even a massage, rather than this naked unemotional pre=progammed reminder?

But... all is not lost and by golly we live by the Willamette River, near the confluence of the Columbia. We've taken to heading toward Astoria at the Pacific, never getting there, but instead pulling over at one or more forever stretches of soft sand to pick berries, swim, watch the boats.. er, ships, go by.
I love that Portland is a working port. My understanding is that much of the wheat in the west goes through here, coming down the Columbia on barges and trains. Don't think that these bad boy ship captains will yield, or that they are going slow. They won't and they aren't.

Went tubing with Brian and Penny of Cedar CreekTimber last week. His boat is very fast. We had fun, although we flipped once and poor Maxine bruised a rib. 35mph makes the water surface seem hard indeed. Ah, the risk of the wild side. She'll be moving slow for a bit, with a game face and a painful grimace.
The flip was about ten seconds after this clip. I asked for a re-take.

Monday we're spraying the Enjarre clay plaster wall coating. There's been a pleasant response to blog announcements and eblasts. It's exciting, honestly, to be the first project in Oregon with this new application method of a great and natural wall coating, and the first we know of the whole house, ceilings and all, finished in American Clay. We''ll be continuing the spray and then the hand work for the next two weeks, if you want to stop in. These shots are from Friday, when Josh and Noel from The Traditional Natural Plaster Company, with help from our own Michael, all got into the rhythm of the first day of the project.


talking trash

I've been a bit obsessed by the construction waste from this project. The LEED for Homes criteria and the city of Portland both require careful monitoring and full recycling. But unlike the build-and-get-it-inspected documentation of most of what happens, there isn't any teeth to this mandate, as it would be easy to fake it, or at least underestimate your junk quotient. Yet most people are sincere, I think. I've been fascinated to see just how much C&D (construction and demolition) waste we'd make, and have taken pictures of everything that has left the site and where it went. So far it breaks down into a few manageable categories: dirt, wood, drywall scraps, household-style recyclable materials, and landfill-bound.

Each weekend I load up the trash and recycling and bring it back to our rental home and put it on the curb. It has pretty much not even been more than an average household makes anyway, with cardboard from packaging and plastic and cans from drinking taking up most of the additional recycling. (Yes I admit it, I pull out the refundables and turn them in for my nickel... curse you Mother!) Plastic wrapping from construction products and simple trash make up the consistently small amount of landfill trash I bring.

The wood scraps have been a personal hurdle, as I had toyed too long with the idea of eventually burning them in our sealed-combustion Rais wood stove after we move in. We' re discussing small, more unusable pieces than you'd guess here: scraps of dirty sheathing, 8" trimmed ends of sidng, over-nailed window corner packaging. But I've broken down and yesterday the little nuclear and I began the first of multiple pick-up trips to the grinder place, where they'll charge me a scant ten spot and make mulch. The visuals were getting too much.

Drywall scraps go back to the supplier (they, too, charging to take them) where they'll end up supplying needed lime to farmers' fields. Boy was I tempted to turn them over in the back yard.

The details count, too. Jake River gets two cents for every nail or screw he finds, and we use a magnet to comb through saw dust prior to throwing it out the window. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The nails, along with hard plastic items that won't go into the household recycling, paint cans and other trickier stuff go to one of a variety of recycling places that can be found through the amazing services and staff at Metro, if you're here in Portland.
Of course, if you're still smoking plastic filter cigarettes, there's no good place for those filters. Try googling cigarette filters in the ocean. My suggestion is this: you're gonna die sooner anyway, so at least roll your own non-filters or smoke a good cigar with me, I'm always game!


the right stuff

The new cellulose gang finished, and the drywallers are hanging 'rock. It's dusty.

I love cellulose. Our installer, JW Geothermal, did a decent job, and used quality product. I say that there is a reasonable pallet of insulations that can do a good job, but none of them can come to the table of low embodied energy, breathability, and cost the way that chewed up recycled newspaper can. Add a bit of wheat starch and some misting water, and it's paper mache' fun.
We got carried away and did quite a bit of sound deadening in the interior walls and floor joists. The sound transmittance between rooms can be lessenned tremendously, and the time to do it seems like now.
The outside of the stud walls is covered with an unbroken layer of 1 1/2" polyisocyanurate rigid insulation, to break the thermal bridge created by the wall studs. This is covered by a house wrap and vertical strapping to create a rain screen and let the siding dry from both sides.

We call this our "matrix wall" because there are a variety of integrated systems and materials coalescing to do the thing an enclosure is supposed to do: keep out the elements, minimize the need for additional heating or cooling, allow a building to stand a very long time.


Color Crazy (Maxine)

Color and texture really affects me; simply walking down the street or through the woods often feels like listening to a symphony. I know it sounds kind of crazy but hey, I have a rich and satisfying inner life and it probably explains a lot about my quiet nature.

When choosing colors for interiors it's not hard to pick a color that's discordant with the rest of the scene inside. Color changes from the cool early light to the warm afternoon glow and all over again as we enter the world of artificial light. I typically look at many hundreds of colors before I approach clients with a select and controlled palette. Of the thousands of colors offered it's not unusual for me to further tweak a color to adjust its nuance. Sometimes it has a balancing effect - you don't really notice the change until it's pointed out. In our Rochester house there were 23 different colors in 2000 square feet and you'd be hard pressed to find them all.

I'd always assumed we'd paint at Vermont Street and was pretty excited that Benjamin Moore had launched a new no VOC line that was still loved by painters and available in every single wonderful color. I'd hoped it would wear as well as the matte and pearl sheens I'd become such a devout fan of - talk about paint you can scrub!.

A funny thing happened though as we became more and more committed to creating a greener home - we decided to not paint and instead use an earth plaster from American Clay. Walls that breathe, that maintain a constant humidity level by absorbing excesses and releasing it back when dry (important attributes in a home with such a tight building envelope). Walls that lessen the heating and cooling loads, walls that emit negative ions thereby cancelling out the positive ions created by electronics etc and best of all, wall that aren't a monochromatic mass because its a living finish with subtle texture and color variation. We initially thought earth plaster was out of our reach until the rather recent launch of Enjarre. I won't go into the application differences here but basically it can become its own primer and finish in one or become a primer for the other finishes offered like Loma, Porcelina and Marittimo. It's all good news that makes both processes more affordable. Suddenly we were able to use Enjarre as the lower level finish and able to use some of the other finishes for the more special spaces on the main floor. Downsides? It's a solid body product being applied in the not too distant future so decision time is now on color.

We picked up samples at Portland's Ecohaus, an amazing store every city should have because it's Home Depot(ette) for the conscientious. I knew my choices would be limited and I was right - 42 stock colors. 42 quickly distilled down to 16 and then to 12. Only one matched up to the colors I'd been imagining for months. You know, expectation and preconceived notions are dangerous things and can easily leave you clinging to the one speck of disappointment set adrift in an ocean of opportunity. I admit I needed some adjustment time. Part of me was afraid it would look and feel boring. Every room in our current rental home is the same off white and it's become painful to look at the walls after 10 months. I'm afraid of making an error in judgment and then being stuck with it - after all, I can't just paint over it. This is a side of sustainability I'd never considered on such a large scale before. Everything takes the long view, not just the structural and mechanical. I passionately believe in this but it's daunting to be accountable for such lasting decisions.

We met with Noah of Traditional Natural Plaster Co recently to talk about colors and I was comforted to know that they can do custom coloring though it does take some extra time. He's working on a custom blend for the common space and I'm excited about color again. We start in two weeks.