Insulation Nerd by Josh Brincko

Yea, it’s true. I think insulation is awesome. It keeps our indoor environment comfortable, and it does this in so many ways other than just keeping the warmth inside. It also provides sound deadening, prevents air infiltration, and deals with condensation. The part I nerd-out on is how insulation can most effectively keep your home cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Insulation science has changed a lot over the years, so here’s your crash course on it.

We are all mostly familiar with the pink, fluffy, itchy stuff that you see rolled out in attics. That is called batting, or batt insulation. It is the default, cheapest insulation, and it provides an R-value of about 3 per inch. That means a 1” thick layer of batt insulation would “resist” (that’s the “R” in R-value) the flow of heat through itself by a unit of 3 BTU’s per hour. Don’t think too much about that…just know that the bigger the R-value, the better. Batts have a relatively low R-value when compared to other types of insulation. Also, batts are squishy, so they tend to slump down within a wall due to gravity over time, and this leaves parts of the top of a wall un-insulated. The top of a wall is the worst place not to have insulation since warm air rises. If you look at a thermal image of a wall in an old house (see below), you can usually see the blue areas (cold temps) are concentrated at the top of a wall where the insulation has fallen over time. This is also because fluffy batts get wet through condensation or leaks, and that extra weight pulls the batts down within the wall. Batts are like a sponge, and they don’t dry out easily. Because of this and their low R-value, I prefer other forms of insulation.

Thermal image of a stud wall

Thermal image of a stud wall

There are a bunch of other types of insulation that are fluffy like batting and have a similar R-value per inch. These include loose cellulose, roxul, wool, cotton, and denim. Some people believe they are being “green” by using recycled denim for their insulation, but in reality, the R-value is quite low, so all these insulation types don’t do the best job of keeping the heat in your home during the winter.

The higher performing insulation types are rigid - not fluffy (like a cooler...you know coolers don’t have a fluffy lining. You better believe that $300 Yeti cooler has rigid insulation). The rigid types can either be sprayed into place, or they can be purchased in panels. The rigid insulation types have higher R-values per inch and include polyicynene (R-4), expanded polystyrene known as EPS (R-4.5), extruded polystyrene known as XPS (R-5), phenolic (R-8), polyurethane (R-8), and polyisocyanurate known as polyiso (R-8). The R-values listed here can vary over the life of the product as they deteriorate over time, but they are still superior to the R-value of the fluffy insulation types. Not only do the rigid insulation types resist more heat, but they also create a tighter “envelope” around the building since the seams between rigid panels can be covered with tape and caulked. This prevents the passage of air through any cracks or weak spots known as air infiltration. Imagine wearing a puffy coat, but not zipping it up. The cold winter air will make you cold, and the coat doesn’t do much good. If you zip it up, your body heat is trapped inside the coat. Rigid insulation gives us this capability of “zipping” our home shut tight, and trapping the heat inside. Fluffy insulation is a bit more loose fitting, and it does not have the capability of continuously wrapping the house. The fluffy stuff just sits in between the studs, while rigid boards can also be used to cover the studs continuously on the interior and/or the exterior sides of the wall. See the image below, and notice how the polyiso board with its reflective coating reflects the heat into the interior space, and all of it’s seams are covered with a reflective tape to prevent air from flowing in between the panels.

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Another advantage to some of the rigid insulation types is that they can be spray applied. This means you can hire a certified installer to wear a space suit and spray every single nook and cranny with insulation, and it expands to completely fill all voids. This is tough to do with rigid boards that must be cut to fit into each and every little void. As the spray-applied foam expands, it is also filling any hole where air could infiltrate through a wall. This is yet another advantage of spraying insulation into place. The downside is it can be 2 to 3 times more expensive than batts. You get exactly what you pay for. Your can see a photo of spray foam here: https://static.diffen.com/uploadz/f/f2/spray-foam-insulation--1.jpg

The last point to address with rigid insulation is the difference between open-cell and closed-cell. They can both be spray-applied or purchased in panels. The open-cell types are a pliable type of foam and have a lower R-value and are less expensive. The closed-cell types are a more solid type of foam and have a higher R-value and are more expensive. The main selling point for closed-cell insulation is that it does not allow moisture to permeate through it since it is so dense. This includes liquid moisture and, more importantly, water vapor (which is water in gas form like when we exhale, take a steamy shower, or have equipment that puts off vapors). Preventing water vapor from passing through the insulation is very important, because we MUST allow any moisture to dry out or mold will develop. We go through a lot of effort to keep our attics and other void spaces ventilated by allowing air to flow through and evaporate or carry out any moisture in the air to prevent mold from developing. The closed-cell insulation types are so dense that they do not require us to ventilate our roofs or other spaces (when installed properly) since they simply do not allow moisture to pass through. This is a huge benefit along with its superior R-value, sound deadening, and prevention of air infiltration by creating a continuous air barrier.

Feel free to ask about different approaches to keeping your indoor environment comfortable through the use of insulation. The type of insulation to use is just part of the equation. HOW to use the insulation is the fun part and varies in each application. We can help you design the perfect construction details to keep your building performing at its best.

Specifications by Josh Brincko

Specifying materials and products for your project is a very time intensive exercise since there’s hundreds or thousands of them that must be chosen, and they must work together, meet code requirements, be available, and capable of working with the practices of the chosen craftsmen. It is very time consuming to put together a spec list for a project. We do have good templates from previous projects that help save a ton of time for many of the selections, however many products will vary as certain items are discontinued, codes change, and client preferences change. 

There’s two reasons to put together a spec list. One reason is to enable the builder to check product pricing to formulate a budget, so the builder doesn’t need to either guess at what you want or just leave an “allowance” for what you will be allowed to spend on that item during construction when you eventually select the actual product.

So why not just spec all items up front? It’s a very time consuming exercise for the architect to help you select every single product, and it’s even more time consuming for a builder to call around to source those product at the best prices. Could you imagine calling a grocery store to get prices on your grocery list before actually going in to buy the groceries? Now imagine a grocery list with thousands of items and calling several grocery stores to get competitive pricing and also because the same store doesn’t sell all the stuff you need. As you can imagine, this would be a huge task. Lump that together with waiting for busy plumbers, electricians, and concrete crews to run their numbers on their labor to get back to your builder with their quote. 

Let’s say you do spend the time (money) to price everything, and then the project must change for some permit reason, design preference, or some other budgetary factor. Then all those item totals and product prices must be updated. This requires starting over, essentially. Then, by the time you start construction,  some products will have lead times that are too long, some are discontinued, some are out of stock, and some prices have gone up due to hurricanes, wild fires, tariff wars, an electrician getting a better deal on a different product line, or whatever else may happen. This means re-specifying again. More time, more money. 

I have found it is best to specify some products ahead of time, but to leave many of the decisions for during construction when you have the most current information available for you to make the most informed decision. That way, you can choose products that are available, for an acceptable current price, at the preferred vendors of the craftsmen doing the work. This is the most efficient way of specifying products to eliminate costly administrative time. 

This does leave ambiguity though, since not all the products are chosen ahead of time. This requires leaving reasonable placeholders in the budget to serve as an allowance to keep close to the budget. This also requires trust that your design team and builder are guiding you with reasonable estimates along the way.  

The second reason we need specifications completed is simply to provide the builder with the info needed to build the project. Construction is a very fast-paced, time-sensitive process. Providing the builder with the info they need at the time they need it is essential to prevent costly delays and costly slowdowns in the work when the builders must shift gears to different parts of the project scope. This shifting while waiting on decisions is inefficient for the builder, and too much time is spent figuring out how to effectively work around other areas of the project while not hindering the areas pending decisions. 

Choosing products to create specs for your project can be fun. Many of these items are the things you can see and touch, so they have a large impact on the outcome of the project. Door knobs, drawer pulls, tile, grout color, paint color, etc are just a few of the many items that have such a big impact. 

Thrifty Clients by Josh Brincko

I get it. We all want to save money. I personally look for the best value in everything I do. I’m not afraid to DIY to save some money. Over the years, I’ve learned when DIY is actually appropriate for saving myself money. Usually it is not effective unless it’s something I can plan to DIY many more times in the future. For example, buying my own tools has helped me to take care of common maintenance issues around the house without needing to hire a handyman. 

For design work, people commonly think they can save the cost of the architect if they do this work on their own. I have had several clients attempt this on their own in different capacities, and it has never turned out as planned resulting in higher costs instead of lower costs. Some clients try to draw their own floor plans and insist we use them without changes. Then they discover their concept violates basic building codes, costs more money to build, or doesn’t take into consideration things like views, daylight exposure, privacy, etc. We end up re-planning the project in a way that actually works after we were requested/required to draw it their way which becomes an expensive exercise in showing someone why their solution doesn’t work. We could have skipped that step and saved the client a bunch of money. 

Other clients will try to coordinate the permit process on their own. This is another area where a lot of time and money gets wasted. Architects are very versed in the processes required by the building departments and know how to more quickly maneuver through. Architects also know what to say and what not to say. All too often, clients or builders shoot themselves in the foot by using the wrong terminology or mis-classifying some technical aspect, and the building department incorrectly imposes some costly construction requirements. Architects know how to more carefully design and represent the project goals to prevent costly, erroneous requirements from the building department.

The entire service provided by an architect is intended to be a cost saving investment that results in a functional, yet aesthetically pleasing building. By allowing the architect to do his or her job, this is the outcome. It is not feasible to DIY something that takes 5-6 years of professional accredited college training, 3+ years of interning, passing 7 state board exams, and staying abreast of the current land use codes, building codes, material/product capabilities, coordination with engineers, and other factors that require a lifetime of dedication to master. By ignoring this, the construction project suffers financially, the schedule slows, and the performance of the building is inferior.

Hiring an architect is a special experience, so give them (and yourself) the opportunity to benefit from their creative and technical skill set.  

Project Timeline Graphic by Josh Brincko

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Here is what most projects look like to design from start to finish, and each portion may fluctuate with the amount of time it may take to complete depending on: the economic climate, building dept workload, engineering requirements, and client decision-making time. We find that most of the time spent waiting is related to client decision-making followed by building departments queuing the project to review for permit approval. As you can see from the graphic, much of the time spent waiting is not spent on designing the project. We actually come up with the big concept quite quickly and a little more time is spent creating the more detailed construction drawings. Besides that, most of our time as the architect is spent during construction coordinating decisions to save time and money during construction.

Seattle Permit Realities by Josh Brincko

Starting a construction project is a huge undertaking, and knowing where to start is confusing. Do I need a permit? Do I need an architect? Do I need an engineer? Who do I hire first? What will the construction cost? How do I hire a builder? There’s so many things to consider. 

All projects are different, so there is not a single consistent answer to all these questions. The best place to start is to consult the person who orchestrates the entire process: the architect. Even if you just want to build a fence, chat with an architect first. Sure anyone could build a fence, but how do you ensure it will be on your side of the property line? Can it be something more special than “just a fence” and match well with your house? How high can it be? Does it need a permit? How can it be made more maintenance-free? Even for a fence, there’s no clear answers to these questions since all properties are different. I really suggest asking an architect for some advice before undertaking this or any project. 

The architect can advise whether or not you need a permit, and he or she will be able to point you in the right direction for finding a builder, choosing which materials to use, selecting a durable stain, reviewing the bid from a fence building company, etc. Even if it’s something simple like a fence, it is best to ask. Any architect that is any good would be happy to offer some advice. 

When a project requires a permit, the process keeps getting more challenging as time goes on. It is becoming more and more necessary to hire an architect who is an expert working with the building department in the jurisdiction of your project. This will save you time, and this will save you money. Since the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections recently changed their online permit platform, their has been some major glitches with their staff figuring out how to operate the new system, and this has added even more time to the lengthy process. An expert in Seattle permitting is now even more necessary as the permit process is getting more complex. This article in the Seattle Times discusses this in more detail: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/rocky-launch-of-seattles-new-construction-permit-system-causes-delays-anger/

The building departments are constantly changing their codes and administrative protocols too. An experienced architect has expertise in dealing with these requirements expeditiously. I just talked with someone who said it took him 3 years to get a permit for a similar project that took me only 7 months. Familiarity with the process pays off.  

A new requirement in the Seattle area is dealing with rain water. The building department doesn’t want your gutters to just collect the rain anymore and send it through your downspouts and eventually into the sewer. Now they want us to try to collect all of the rain water on site to allow it to infiltrate into your soil. This leads to geotechnical engineers analyzing your soil to determine how much water it can absorb. If you have too much roof area to collect rain, and not enough good, draining soil, you may need to install certain rainwater collection devices like rain gardens, green roofs, bio-infiltration swales, dispersion trenches, etc. An architect can help you jump through these hoops or consult with a civil engineer when things get more complicated. 

This is just one hoop to jump through when getting a building permit. This rainwater stuff  is only one of sometimes a dozen or more different departments within your government that reviews the drawings for things like fire suppression, zoning, structural, building code, sewer requirements, water availability, etc. Your architect is the center of the universe for coordinating all of the various drawings, forms, and consultants that are needed to get through the permit process while still designing something that will look great and work well. A good architect will know what is going to happen before it happens. 

The reality of permitting has become so complicated that you really cannot do it on your own. It’s not worth navigating this complex process by yourself. Rely on an experienced architect to “hold your hand” through the process, and to be your advocate for meeting the necessary requirements in the easiest and most effective ways possible without taking the most conservative (expensive) approach which is often “required” by the building department. We are happy to help you go through this process. It’s the price we pay for the amazing opportunity to design an awesome home for you. 

CALLIE by Josh Brincko

Who is Callie? 

If you have worked with Josh, you have worked with Callie. She plays a major role at Josh Architects, and she is a major reason why I, Josh Brincko, am somewhat sane. As a husband, dad, architect, teacher, coach, etc, I juggle a lot of things. As an architect, I have many projects in the works, I am excited about them, and therefor, I am constantly thinking about them. In a sense, my clients "rent my brain" to dedicate it to their project. This pulls my attention in their direction, and Callie plays a major role in keeping focus on all this work.

She has been my coworker for many years, and she has an integral role on all projects. She keeps things organized, moving along swiftly, and most importantly has great problem solving and creative skills. Josh Architects has been successful largely in part by her involvement. 

Callie, short for Callahan, came from a small town in Nevada and went to a small high school before moving to Seattle to go to college in a big city. This is where I met Callie. I was her professor in a residential design studio, and she clearly excelled in the course and also worked in the cafe on campus. I don’t remember if her projects were any good, but I clearly remember her positive attitude, cooperative demeanor, quickness to absorb complex information, attention to detail, and he eagerness to learn more. She eventually asked if I had any internships available, and although I did not, I figured I should try to create one, so I would not have to pass up on the opportunity to work with such a promising, talented up-and-coming designer.

At the time, I was working on a three story apartment building, with three different layouts of apartment units although each one was somewhat unique. It was a large project, so I asked her if she could quit her job at the cafe, and join me in a more serious role. It was the perfect project to jump in on since each one had components great for learning such as ADA compliance, durable materials, nicely designed kitchens and bathrooms, window and door trims, and custom designed built-ins. With each apartment unit a little different, it gave her the opportunity to receive thorough direction on one unit and to apply that direction with her own insight on the other units that were a little different. She was able to assimilate the information quickly, implement it efficiently, and be flexible as the design changed (as they repeatedly do on most projects). Also during this time, Callie played such a pivotal role when a burglar stole all our computers from the office. She stepped in, remained unphased, and helped in the process of rebuilding without complaining about redoing work that we had lost. You can read about that more here: http://www.josharch.com/blog/2017/6/17/your-architect-lives-with-great-responsibility

She learned a lot on this project and many others for a couple years working with me before she saw a great opportunity to work with a high-end hospitality firm designing hotel interiors. There she focused on over-the-top design experiences for hotel guests while also learning about a broad spectrum of material specifications. She also realized the working environment she was in was less than ideal, so after a few years of learning what she could in the hospitality space, she decided to take a breather. She slowed down and got a job as a barista where she could focus on herself, actually enjoy the great parts of living in Seattle, and charm her customers with her warm personality. 

After a year or so of Callie perfecting the perfect espresso drinks, I randomly happened to be talking with another former staff member who also happened to know Callie although I had not been in contact with her for a few years. I was talking about how my firm was really busy and needed to find someone really talented to come help. This is when I was told that Callie was taking a hiatus from design and working in a coffee shop, and she may be ready to jump back in. After a couple text messages, they setup a meeting with me, and she’s been back with Josh Architects ever since. She has truly honed her skills, continues to step up her game, and is a joy to work with. She remains calm under pressure and remains passionate and engaged with her work. 

One of the coolest parts about Callie is she doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. On a few occasions, she has stepped in and helped to do construction labor on a few of our projects. She understands that doing construction is one of the best ways to learn to properly design and draw things. She has done some light framing, decking, window install, weatherproofing, etc. 

She is also very good about focusing on her well-being. She regularly does exercise, yoga, eats healthy, goes rock climbing, and enjoys time with friends. She’s very active and also very creative. She has been doing artwork regularly and experiments with different mediums. Woodburning is one of the processes she has recently taken a liking to, and she is very talented (and patient) at it. The wood scraps from our clients’ homes are finding a new life in Callie’s artwork. She has even been commissioned to create pieces for people. 

You are in very good hands when you work with Callie, and it’s truly fortunate that she is part of our family. Feel free to reach out to her to say hi (callie@josharch.com) or to ask about commissioning her to do an art piece for yourself or as a gift. She began drawing class at age 3 when her mom noticed her special talent. Over the years, she has realized that art, to her, is less about a set style or topic and more about texture, color, and exploration and finding tension through the combination of unexpected items. She particularly enjoys working with recycled or found objects since she finds beauty in working around their imperfections (angled cuts, awkward sizes, knots, drilled holes, etc). She has collected scrap lumber from our jobsites to reclaim for art pieces as you can see in many of the wood burning below. To Callie, her art is sometimes just about making a piece that will make someone smile. She really enjoys working on commissions for people to create something unique and meaningful to them. It really pushes her out of her comfort zone and challenges her to work in scales, style and subjects which are new to her.

Here are some examples of her work:

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Josh is an "xennial." What's that, and why is it good? by Josh Brincko

Xennial refers to a generation. The Miriam-Webster Dictionary will include the word soon, and Wikipedia refers to it as a "term used to describe people born during the Generation X/Millennial cusp years."

If you're not an xennial, I'm sorry, but your generation is inferior to mine :) Let me explain why.

If a Generation X or more likely a Baby Boomer is told about a cool app to download for their phone, many of them will write down the name of the app on a piece of paper (or try to remember it and ask again 3 weeks later), then they will file the note away, then they will try to download it the next time they remember they might want to try using the new app (if they can find the note they wrote 3 weeks earlier). Once they download it, they won't know how to use the app or won't think it's beneficial, and it will remain on their phone because they don't know how to delete it. 

If a Millennial or Generation Y or Z is told about a cool app to download, they won't write it down. They will just download it, put their phone back in their pocket, and use the app the next time they need it. It is way more efficient. An Xennial would also do this because it is more efficient.

So is an Xennial like a Millennial? Yes, but only when it makes sense.

Here's another example. If a Generation X or more likely a Baby Boomer needs to say something to someone who is downstairs, they are more likely go downstairs and tell them or wait for them to come upstairs and tell them. An Xennial would likely do the same. We appreciate the face-to-face contact and the response we see when that person hears the message we told them. Generation X, Baby Boomers, and Xennials accept the responsibility of communicating the message and getting verification that the message has been delivered and understood by the other person. 

A Millennial or Generation Y or Z would likely send a text message to the person downstairs instead of just telling them directly. They generally don't value the face-to-face contact as much. Why do they do this? I believe, subconsciously, they are shifting the responsibility of dealing with the content of that message to the other person. If a text message was sent, now the person who received the text message has the ball in their court, and they are therefor now responsible for acting upon the content of the message. You see how the Millennial shifted the responsibility here? An Xennial would generally not text the message when it can be more effectively spoken in this situation because the Xennial takes on the responsibility of ensuring both parties are in agreement of the content of the message, and the Xennial also understands the efficiency of talking through it rather than texting back-and-forth dozens of times to get a simple answer.

So which is better? Sometimes it is more appropriate (for both parties) to talk in person, and other times it is more effective (for both parties) to send a text. I have found that Xennials are capable of recognizing which method is appropriate and can easily switch between both methods, whereas other generations automatically resort to only one method or another.

If the message is time critical or the other person is in close proximity, a face-to-face gets the job done better. If the message is something that would be better suited in a written format for future reference, the text message is clearly better. If someone asks for your address in person, text it to them. They will have it documented in their phone forever. If they write it down or just try to remember it, that note will get lost or memory forgotten for the next time they need it. A Generation X or Baby Boomer will verbally try to communicate directions. "OK, get on I-90, but avoid the construction at the blah blah interchange and turn when you get to the old fire station..." Just text me the address, so I can click on it and my phone automatically maps it. The Xennial and Millennial win in this scenario. To the defense of the Generation X and Baby Boomer, they do have a better chance of remembering how to get there for the next time since they paid more attention while they were driving. The Xennial and Millennial will more likely need to rely on looking up the address again, BUT they WILL be able to find it quickly without asking for the address again. If the Generation X or Baby Boomer forget the directions or can't find the note they wrote last time, they will be calling again and again to have the directions repeated.

So how does this translate into the world of working with an architect?

I have discovered there is a profound benefit to working with architects who are Xennials. Well, Xennial architects learned to be architects from Baby Boomers who only knew how to draft by hand at a time where computer drafting technology was coming on the forefront. This enabled Xennials to learn both methods simultaneously. We were able to quietly laugh at our bosses while they created drawings by hand while we were able to do the same thing in a fraction of the time by using the computer. Our bosses never got good at using the computer since they were so set in their ways of doing everything by hand. It was too hard to break the habit. Furthermore, they also do not agree that the computer can do the work faster - simply because they do not understand what the computer can (and can't) do. The Xennial learned to do it by hand AND on the computer, so the Xennial knows why and when the computer is the more efficient tool, as well as when drawing it by hand is more effective. The Xennial understands both and can choose wisely. The Xennial draws something by hand when appropriate and draws it on the computer when appropriate. We know when each method makes more sense than the other. The other generations don't (and it's amusing for us Xennials to witness the arrogance of the other generations believing that things should only be done in one way).

Then came the Millennial. Oh Millennials. They get a bad rap. The Generation X and Baby Boomers don't understand them and their gadgets. The Xennials completely understand them and their gadgets, but laugh when they use gadgets for inappropriate things. In the architecture profession, Millennials immediately resort to the computer. On a job site, a simple question could be answered by sketching a solution on a piece of plywood, but the average Millennial will wait to get back to the office and draw it on the computer, email it, wait until the builder gets access to their email (and printer), and then discuss it back and forth for several days over email. The Xennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers win in this scenario by solving the problem in person, right now, by using the appropriate media: hand sketching.

In other situations, perhaps a builder needs to see a solution created with several iterations, so they may analyse the solutions to choose the best one. The Generation X and Baby Boomer will hand draw it 3 separate times. Although they can hand draft quickly, they are still redrawing a similar thing 3 separate times (then they will scan it into their computer - 3 times - and email it). The Xennial and Millennial will draw it once on the computer, copy and paste it 3 times, then make a few quick adjustments to show the iterations. Then they just email the file (no scanning). The Xennial and Millennial win in this situation.

My biggest pet peeve on this topic is the use of Revit. Revit is a cool software in theory. You create a digital 3-dimensional model in the computer, and the computer automatically creates the 2-dimensional drawings (construction drawings) the builder needs to build the building. There's a big problem here. Revit is not so automatic. It leaves out a lot of information, it makes mistakes, and it takes a lot of time up front to get the insufficient result. AND to make matters worse, the Millennials don't know the result is wrong and incomplete. They will actually fight you when you confront them on this. When you tell them there's a hole in the wall they drew or a foundation is omitted under the wall, they will say, "no there's not - the computer drew it." Two things are happening here: 1. They assume the computer does it correctly without human intervention, and 2. They don't have the training to draw conventionally, so they don't know that something is drawn incorrectly. On 100% of the drawings I've reviewed that were created on Revit, 100% of them had major flaws, and 100% of the drafters were not aware of the errors and omissions and defended their work as if it was 100% correct. The Millennial did not get trained to draw things properly. They only learned how to operate software that is not fully developed to be automated. It is like assuming your self-driving Tesla is 100% automatic. You still need to know how to drive and to pay attention because some of the automatic driving is incorrect and requires human intervention. If you don't know how to drive or how to operate a car, you will have big problems. Similarly, if you don't know what to draw, software like Revit will not be effective because the human intervention is necessary to correct it. 

If you analyse all of these scenarios, you will see the Xennial can identify AND understand both sides. The Xennial understands analog and digital. We know which is appropriate at each moment and each situation. The Xennial wins. Someday maybe the technology will be so developed and perfected that humans don't need to think, but for now, the Xennial is capable of being the mediator.

Payment strategy to builders by Josh Brincko

We have all heard horror stories about the builder who takes a deposit and never does the work and never shows up again. This is usually preventable. 

It starts with vetting. It may seem obvious, but research your builder. Not a little. Research A LOT. Really try to unearth who this person and company is. Start with checking basic licensing with the Secretary of State to ensure they are licensed and bonded. You can search by name and company. Next check the department of labor and industries. This is where they list any previous safety infractions that were violated. Next dig deeper and look into the personal assets of the builder to see if there are any judgements or liens against them. This can be done by researching public records at the county recorder’s office. This is usually all online. All these things will disclose the accountability of the builder. Sure, do the obvious and check the website for examples of previous work and ask for referrals. Here you are sure to see prefiltered examples of the builder’s best work they have ever done. This is the best you can expect to get for your project. Lastly, do a bit of social network research on this person. Before hiring them on the biggest expense you will ever have, it makes sense to know everything you can.

Now you are equipped to interview your builder before deciding to hire them. This gives you and the builder a chance to discuss the information you found, and this is for you to decide if they pass your smell test. You will be working together on the biggest investment you’ll ever make for over a year likely. Make sure you LIKE this person. 

Next it’s time to lay the ground rules for how you will be working together. This gets complicated because most homeowners have never had to negotiate with a builder before, and the builder surely has some established protocols they use and prefer (because it benefits them). There is a lot about the construction process that most people are just not familiar with, so relying on your architect (and maybe an attorney) is crucial in reviewing the contractor’s contract and also laying out the ground rules on HOW you require them to bid your project. You do not want to be in a situation where your project is almost done except for a few unfinished (or improperly finished) areas and the builder is requiring you to pay for them - or even worse: you already paid for them. There are some typical checks and balances that you need to be aware of that your architect can help setup at the start of the project. 

Similar to dining out at a restaurant, you don’t pay for your meal (and service) first. No, first you get the service, THEN you DECIDE how much it was worth. This is somewhat similar to construction. There is a menu of items that need purchased and assembled, and there is a price tag for each. This menu is your bid and construction contract. The more detailed the bid, the more you will understand what you are ordering and should be getting. For example, there should be a line item for drywalling. The builder should not bill you for that until you have received it. This means the materials need to be ordered, delivered, and on site (stored properly according to manufacturer instructions). And it needs to be properly installed according to manufacturer’s instructions AND contract drawings prepared by the architect. If it is not done accordingly, you should not be entitled to pay for all of it. Similar to a restaurant, you have the opportunity to accept your meal to ensure it is what you ordered before you eat it and pay for it. In construction it is similar, but to keep things fair for the builder, they should be able to bill you in increments - usually monthly - for the items completed based on a percentage of completion. Again, this is where your architect comes in handy. The architect is a third party who is very versed in what is supposed to be built, how it is supposed to be successfully constructed, and has a thorough understanding of the contract language on typical construction documents.

Your builder should submit an “application for payment” to the architect every month for review. On this payment application, they should list out the items that appeared on their bid that you expected to pay. On each line item, they should list a good faith percentage of completion. Your architect should have a walkthrough with you and the builder to review the work to ensure those percentages reflect the actual work completed, so your builder can be paid for their successful efforts. Any work that is not completed according to the contract drawings should not be paid for until it is completed properly. Your architect will request you withhold certain portions of any payments that still require more work, and the architect will explain this to the builder. This often involves faulty workmanship, so a creative strategy will be needed to get things back on track. The architect is the best party to oversee this since the homeowner is typically not aware of faulty workmanship, and the builder has a financial incentive to build things cheap and fast to get their payment faster. This results in corners being cut that you hear about so often. Having a portion of the payment withheld will provide incentive for you and your architect to motivate the builder to complete any loose ends and to discuss a strategy to do it.

Establishing this protocol early in the build (like before it starts), is important to create a transparent working relationship and to clearly communicate that you expect to pay for the work that is completed according to your plans - and nothing more. 

Most of the builders out there are good, but the few bad ones make a bad name for everyone unfortunately. The good builders own up to their own mistakes usually, and they correct them without being asked. Developing a good working relationship with your builder is key to ensure mutual respect in how you work together and pay one another when there are gray areas.  

Some builders will require payment for portions of work up front. This is called a retainer. This is perfectly normal and acceptable IF executed properly. This retainer effectively guarantees that the homeowner will not stiff the builder. The builder will withdraw money from that retainer as the work is successfully completed or just hold it until the end of the project to protect themselves if a client decides not to pay an invoice. Before you pay a retainer for work not yet completed, be sure you trust your builder, be sure the terms of payment and refund of the retainer are 100% clear, and be sure the retainer amount is not exceedingly large. It really only needs to cover the operating expense of the builder, so they can pay their overhead and crew and purchase the needed materials while waiting for the next progress payment. Anything more than that is questionable.

Below are photos of a project where the builder did not complete the work according to the drawings or ordinary construction protocols. These items were found during construction, and the builder was held accountable for fixing them. Again, these are photos of new construction that a builder called “complete,” and the builder tried to make the client pay for this shoddy work  

 

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scuffed metal column wrap and gap in siding 

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new deck and new column, but nowhere near being straight

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unfinished drywall work

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Poor quality cabinetry

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poor quality cabinetry

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major gaps in construction

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door not installed with a plumb frame

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door not installed with a plumb frame (see the uneven door hardware)

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door not installed with a plumb frame

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huge gap under door

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Scratched metal detail and cut too short. No caulking

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poorly fitted metal detail

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Missing metal flashing due to poor construction sequencing

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broken siding and rough cutting

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More broken siding

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no caulking on outdoor electrical fixture

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vent not attached (my 2-year old pointed at this and said “uh oh”)

 

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No grout or baseboard

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poorly fitting panels, poor caulking, and rough cuts

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Only part of the door trim painted on right side

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Poorly fitted gasket/weatherstripping  

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missing siding 

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Huge gap in siding

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Rough cut siding and poorly fitted (this is what you see while walking to main entry) 

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that’s not pretty (again, this is a new house!)

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custom blackened steel hardware, but installed off center

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completely unsafe stair stringer attachment (the builder just threw in the towel on this one). Each is hanging by a nail.