Beware the internet of things! Words that echo discussions I’ve been having with colleagues, customers and vendors. Appliance manufacturers, High Tech equipment manufacturers, and the media would have us all believe that amazing benefits await us if we’d simply connect everything we use to the internet so we can be monitored, watched, notified, and updated about everything from airline schedules to how much broccoli is in the refrigerator. However, as my high school econ teacher used to drill into us-There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. The cost of all these wonders of the modern world isn’t only money. Truthfully, the money to add a wifi chip to any appliance is immaterial today. Every appliance has a circuit-board, and adding a wifi chip adds a few pennies to that. But, every appliance then has to have a unique address for the wifi router to communicate with it. Without getting into the technical weeds, keeping multiple wireless pieces in stable communication with the router, each other, and the the internet isn’t all that easy-and the more pieces you add to a wireless network the harder it gets to keep each one in it’s proper lane. Some companies that specialize in having such pieces spread thru an installed ecosystem are very good at designing the protocols that keep them straight, but typically these companies sell their wares thru specialized dealers. Our AV vendor – www.k-integration.com – is one such dealer specializing in deploying systems like this designed and built by Crestron Electronics. Many firms are leaping into this space creating products that are priced for the public to deploy. Good luck with that. I can’t think of anything likely to be more frustrating than trying to troubleshoot wifi lightbulbs. Worse, companies like Maytag or Whirlpool that have leapt into the space have no real expertise in networking, internet protocols, online security etc., and have created hardware and firmware that ports into our phones via wifi networks without really considering the need or the security of doing so. Now, for sure, no Chinese operatives care what I have in my refrigerator or if I’m a glutton for microwave popcorn, but they MAY be interested in what’s on my computer or tablet, and an easy way into those is via my home network. One tiny chip inserted onto a circuit-board makes a convenient backdoor for such exploits. Lest you think such a thing is absurd- Apple, the US Government, Major US banks and others found exactly such a tiny chip installed into boards that were sold as part of server systems deployed by these organizations!! So aside from the added hassle of now having to do network troubleshooting for dishwashers and stoves, and the added nervousness of waiting to hear from one’s dryer or microwave, one has to consider that all the boards installed on these appliances come from overseas- and we have no idea what’s on them-
After Hurricane Katrina Brad Pitt (yes, the actor) decided that he would rebuild part of New Orleans. He created a company that would build Eco-friendly homes using state-of-the-art construction materials that would be affordable and hurricane proof. A recent NBC story details the problems that buyers of these homes have had since. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/brad-pitt-built-dozens-homes-new-orleans-after-katrina-now-n908651 Mr. Pitt fell under the spell of Bad Home Builder Mistake Number 1- professional builders make building look easy- it’s not!!
I’m sure Mr. Pitt had consultants and architects helping him. But the hubris of a newbie is apparent in the ensuing problems- there’s reasons why people built using tried and true techniques-and not because they were lazy or stupid or scared of using newer products. Nope. Mr. Pitt fell into the trap that non-builders often fall into-newer isn’t necessarily better. Building any home anywhere is a localized conglomeration of assembling aggregated knowledge of what’s necessary for that location into an actual finished product. What? All homes are local! What works in Anchorage isn’t going to be great in Honolulu. And now, these homes which were the subject of so much fanfare and self-congratulatory Hollywood back-slapping, are falling apart. Basic blocking and tackling-flashing and caulking- have failed. Designs failed. Brad Pitt, as a home builder backing up his product, has failed. No one is returning calls of these buyers, and the office is evidently closed-Mr. Pitt having jetted off to his next save-someone-because-he’s-so-great-campaign.
Why do I care? Because I’ve spent 30+ years honing a craft-learning the science behind my projects, assembling teams of qualified and skilled craftspeople, working on creating an exemplary customer experience for my clients, and here’s another national story about a rip-and-skip builder (sure, a Hollywood fancy one) that tarnishes my industry by being an amateur unable to either build or fix his products properly and absolutely willing to leave his clients hanging. So people that were devastated by Katrina-a natural disaster-were again smacked down by a well-meaning but colossally inadequate and self-serving actor.
As many of my customers know, I distill building processes to really being simple water control. It starts with design, then material selection, construction techniques, finishing skill, quality control and, ultimately, after we’re done, basic maintenance. If the design doesn’t take this into account, the water will go where you don’t want it and make mold. That’s game over. Right from the start. And no amount of editing can make that picture any better.
I’ve been watching the last few years as Elon Musk has been working steadily towards disrupting the automotive market with his Tesla vehicles. More specifically, I drove a Tesla, and started watching what Musk was doing with the company-moves he was making. First of all, if you haven’t driven a Tesla, do yourself a favor, go drive one. While the fit and finish, at least a year ago, was B at best, the ride was A+! But the real magic is-there’s nearly no maintenance. No oil. No fuel injection (no fuel!) No camshafts, pistons, rings, heads, exhaust, radiator, hoses, or any of the other million parts that typically require maintenance in a regular vehicle. In fact, except for a few brackets for the bumpers, there’s no ferrous metals at all in the vehicle. No rust. The electric motors should run for an owner’s lifetime, and then some. The battery is the one part that will be expensive to replace, but brake pads every 80k miles and that’s it. To me, that’s a game changer- you could buy one car and own it your whole life. IF! If you only need to drive under 100mi a day. Today. In the future that will go up, I’m sure. Why is this a Game Changer on a builder’s blog, you should ask? Well, along with the car, Musk has created a start-to-finish electrical ecosystem that these vehicles will be a part of. This summer Home Depot will be selling Tesla’s Powerwall battery storage units. The Powerwall is a big, stationary battery that mounts on your wall and sucks in electricity, and lets it out when you plug something into it. Like a car. Or, here’s the game changer, your house. Now, 1 Powerwall can’t run a whole house for very long, but they can be purchased and mounted in series, and act as a battery back-up for your house in case of utility system failures during storms etc. So, that’s cool and all, but there’ve been battery back-ups before. Here’s where the Tesla ecosystem gets interesting-Tesla is coming out with roof shingles that are actually solar cells! These are also going to sell thru Home Depot. They aren’t cheap, but they can cover your whole roof, last for decades, and generate the electricity that powers your Powerwall array, and, thus, your car(s) and in an emergency, your house. Today, you buy your car, you run it by buying fuel, you take it to the shop every 6000 miles, and after about 3 years you’re ready to buy a new car.Musk’s vision is you buy your car, your roof charges it, excess electricity is stored until you need it, and you maybe never buy a new car. One word of warning- all of this is pricey, and none of it can be installed by a do-it-youself-er. Licensed electricians that have some facility with converting DC to AC power, backup generation, transfer switches, etc. need to be employed. Yes, we can help with all that if you want to get a jump on the cutting edge of this. However, Musk may run out of capital to accomplish these goals. Or the pricing may just be too darned high. But if he’s successful, these things, together, could be a real Game Changer.
Last night we had the fortune to be named a finalist in the 2017 Cleveland Choice Awards competition in the Custom Home of the Year/Best Outdoor Living Space category for a custom pool and poolhouse environment project we finished in 2016. In talking to some of my colleagues regarding this, I reflected that, while the competition is for builders and is sponsored by the HBA of Greater Cleveland, there really should be recognition that without customers that want us to perform to these high levels, and want our creativity and expertise to be used on their behalf above and beyond the norm, none of the projects submitted would exist. It is these customers- a select few from the hundreds, if not thousands, that hired an HBA member-that wanted a project unique in design, complexity, difficulty, beauty, and, yes, cost that inspired their builder to excellence. It is the existence of these people that we rely on to energize us, to keep us engaged in an industry that is at times trying and unrelenting in its frustrations. So, for every category winner, there is a family, grinning ear to ear, that THEY received a builder’s best efforts and work. That they requested expertise be brought to bear, that training be utilized, and, in exchange, they were willing to reward those efforts. So, while an award may recognize the beauty of an end result, it fails miserably to recognize the family for granting the initial inspiration to reach, and the permission to excel. And, while the winner of each category sent one person up to claim the plaque, each plaque represents an industry-wide wealth of people and knowledge, spanning the generations, that sweated their way through these challenging projects. People unsung in daily life, underestimated by their white collar peers, that exhibit rare expertise in using materials and their hands to craft unique, one-of-a-kind projects that will be cherished for generations both by the people that hired them, and, later, by people that have no knowledge of who these craftsmen even were.
The project we submitted was a very difficult, large scale reworking of about 4 acres of a 6 acre parcel. My team and I were challenged by our clients to create privacy where there was none, and to create a resort-style oasis where there was a windswept hillside. From the initial design to the final touch up and caulking by our staff we, over about 8 months worked through ground issues, weather, logistical issues and the overall complexity of the project to bring it to completion. It’s a guess, but I believe over 200 people worked on this project over the 8 month period. Each phase of the project was orchestrated to dovetail with the phase before and the phase after. For just one example, the well was completed just in time to turn on the irrigation system to water in the transplanted trees, which otherwise would have died. A symphony of dirt, mud, greenery, and carpentry, culminating in a sculptural plastering of the pool. Finally, after all that, filling the pool with water was acceptance that we had completed things, and another family was soon to be grinning about their finished project. Topping it off was a literal symphony of sound-as a concert quality system sent music all around the new environment-bringing smiles to all our faces.
These projects are rare. Not only because of the cost, but also because of the rarity of those people that want to hire great people to perform a great work of lasting art for their families. Too often I hear about how expensive something is, or we are, and that there is someone less expensive that gets hired. That’s ok. For many, ok is good enough. For a few, they want excellence, and, for them, we pour ourselves into these projects and brave the challenges of our challenging industry to produce that awesome finished project. For them, ok is just a starting point, and for us, that’s the green light. The signal, to get the bit between our teeth and to craft something that will be unique and wonderful for this rare family. And, much later, when we’re far past done, if we’re lucky, as a collective pat on the back, our industry will possibly recognize our effort and reward us, 1 night each year. Oh, by the way, yes, we won.
We forget, today, that most things are still made by people, in one way or another. Most experiences we share are good or bad because of the people we are interacting with. Sure, many things are stamped out by automated robotic machines-maybe most things are. But, at some point in the stream from raw materials to your hand, people had to perform some action to change sand grains into an iPhone-it doesn’t happen all by machines. I’m fortunate enough to work in an industry where most of my finished product is hand crafted. Yes, many components may be milled or stamped by machines, but the preparation, construction, installation, finishing of everything is done by hand. By people. People we know, we talk to , we learn about. People with specific skillsets that make the difference between a customer bragging about their Myers Homes product/creation and not. These people are irreplaceable. Their skillsets may be mimicked by someone else, but not replaced. For those that read my last post in October (sorry, I’ve been distracted and haven’t written since then), you might remember that our architect Bob M. was fighting toe to toe with cancer. Today, devastatingly, he lost his fight. Well, he didn’t really lose -he finished his fight. He finished his fight, after giving every last ounce of effort and courage, every last ounce of everything he had to give, to see his children grow into great kids. He finished, undefeated.
I am now building (you can see our progress on our current projects page) his last home design. Someday his children will know the brilliant and wonderful designs he created for all of us to build or appreciate. Soaring, wild staircases (annoyingly impossible to build- well, almost impossible), swooping ceiling lines, window arrangements that created wondrous interplays of light and shadow, mundane but perfect arrangements of hallways and rooms to create living spaces that you never want to leave. Solutions to design problems that are elegant, simple, practical and buildable. Plansets that are dead nuts right on perfect. That make every one of his designs unique, special, wondrous and beautiful. That make them of a lasting value. That make them impossible not to want to keep living in for forever. His children, who already know how hard he fought to be with them, will someday know how people like me also appreciated his beauty as a person, and his genius in his chosen craft. We appreciate that we benefited from his fight to stay here for them, to be here for them, because he was still here for us too.. And we, like they, are devastated by his loss.
Bob is irreplaceable.
For anyone interested, I am fighting back against Cancer. Not only for Bob, but for everyone I know that is fighting this fight, which is too many people. I ride in the Velosano bike event to raise money to fund research to find cures. Every week I train so on the day of the event I can ride 100 miles as hard as I can, to fight through, in a small way, as hard as Bob fought. If you want, you can fight too (here’s a link: http://ccf.convio.net/goto/robertmyers )
The process of building has evolved into an elaborate scavenger hunt. Having a family say “Let’s go!” begins a process that can take upwards of a year or more of time chasing around approvals, permits, labor, materials, and so on.At the very first, we need to have a plan to build from, so we turn to architects and engineers to collaborate with. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have been able to collaborate with great professionals. My architect, Bob M, is an artist with pen and paper. He’s one of the last of the hand drawing architects. Everyone in the industry now uses CAD, while Bob meticulously crafts his drawings by hand, just as our framers and trim carpenters will measure out each of their cuts when it’s their turn on the project. Recently, we submitted one of Bob’s projects to an Architectural Review Board in a local town. They were blown away at the weight of the lines, the thoughtful layouts, the attention to detail and the quality of the work. Known for typically being hard to get along with, one reviewer commented “Well, I can’t find a single thing wrong with this”. In my world, that’s about as high a praise as we get!
What you don’t see in his plans is Bob is sick. Bob’s been fighting cancer toe to toe for over a decade. Cancer’s taken internal body parts, his ability to eat, swallow, sleep, travel, meet people, or most of the normal parts of life we take for granted as casualties in his fight. Ground that Bob’s won in this fight, though, is he’s seen his kids grow up, his daughter go to college, lived a life with his family. While his body’s been whittled away to about half it’s optimal weight, his work, his mind, his artfulness remain in full force, and his drawings show those in full bloom. I don’t know if that review board will have the opportunity to review another set of plans drawn by Bob. I don’t know if I’ll get to collaborate on another house, show his plans to another family anxiously awaiting the start of their new home. Tomorrow isn’t promised to us in life, and Bob’s fought hard to make tomorrow possible. Tomorrow, though, is populated by the things we crafted, the people enjoying them, and the lives we’ve touched. Tomorrow is populated by our dreams, and, in the case of Bob and me, the homes we collaborated on for almost 2 decades. Today, I’m just happy he’s still here.