I recently had the opportunity to visit Nashville. First, there is nowhere with a better music scene than Nashville-nearly every watering-hole has at least 1 band if not two, and they’re all good. Really good. Good enough where it makes no difference if you like country music or not-when you’re there, you’ll like it. Driving around to visit various Country Music must-sees (including the very studio Elvis recorded about 1000 songs where one of our group played the same piano Elvis used to record with) I was struck most by the massive construction boom going on. There are new projects going up everywhere! There’s over 30 cranes in the Downtown area alone hoisting up new commercial buildings all over the place. The airport’s being rebuilt, and there’s massive numbers of hotels going up. And houses. Everywhere. Normally, I’d be appreciative of a building boom, but this is a bit much. First- there seems to have been no thought given at all to how such a massive buildup in such a short time will change traffic patterns, stress water and sewer facilities, etc. Second-there’s definitely no thought going into controlling or even influencing the architectural flavor of what’s being built. It’s obvious that the designs are coming from the same firms, drawing on the same influences, and none of them from Nashville. Most of the buildings I saw were what I’m starting to call “Box-on-Box” style…essentially the “contemporary” house that we see everywhere now. They’re typically designed with a smattering of wood on the outside, 3×6 panels of fiberboard, painted in various grays. Not only will these not hold up all that well over time, but they all look the same-charmless. The older, original homes of Nashville had clapboard siding and a kind of cool duel-pitched roof, low hung, down to a nice front porch. These have none of that at all-a lot of them are flat roofed 3 story monsters with no heart. Developers often are focused so much on the money aspect of their projects, they sometimes lose sight that what they create will be around for generations. We, in my industry, aren’t building disposable things. Our finished products last multiple lifetimes so I wish that the builders in a place like Nashville would reflect on what they’re doing a little, take a pause, and listen to a little Loretta Lynn or Willie Nelson before deciding to throw up another box-on-box monster. Nobody ever wrote a song like “Georgia on my Mind” standing on some deck of a glassed in house built to assuage the sensibilities of tourists from Rhode Island
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.