Your Home Should Be Paying You

A few years ago, we remodeled a large home on a pretty spectacular site. As on most of our projects, we became friends with the neighbors through the course of the construction, and they in turn became friends with the homeowners - that's how it should be instead of fences everywhere keeping everyone out. The two women would come over frequently and watch us work, asking questions, bringing coffee, and on a few days we walked over to their house and fixed a few things for them. But they watched the progression of our remodel almost firsthand for the entire time, and they loved it.

At the end-of-work celebration party, which has become a bit of a mainstay in most of our projects, while standing on the deck overlooking the water one of them said to me "You must just love this place. It's absolutely gorgeous.", and my response was to just laugh a bit, shuffle my feet, look around, and mumble "yeah...". In turn, her partner looked at me and laughed, kind of shook her finger a bit in a good way, and said "I know exactly what you're thinking about right now, Mike." And it turned out, she did.

She was a film-maker by profession, but not just any film-maker - not like a horror-movie film-maker, or an action-movie film-maker. No. Instead, it turns out, she made NOVA science movies for PBS, which are arguably (but barely, really...because they are) the best movies ever made. And she told me about the process she goes through in making a film, usually a year or two long, and the endless days and nights spent creating this magical product, and the time spent tweaking and fixing, and going back and editing and cutting and editing and cutting and editing and cutting.... And then at the end, she presents this movie to the world, and it makes them cry, it makes them laugh, it makes them think - I mean, come on, NOVA movies are pretty intense both message-wise and cinematography-wise. And she wins awards for them too. Lots of awards. And then she told me about how when she gets called up to accept an award for this movie that she's spent two years making, this movie that may change the world, this movie that definitely changes how we all look at the world, she'll be giving her speech thanking everyone for the years of work spent making this magical piece of cinema....and all she can think about is how she can't even watch the movie because all she sees now, after years of being immersed in this one wonderful project, are the tiniest, most minute, not-even-recognizable-to-the-normal-eye little blips and blurs and mistakes that are in the two hours of film. And she laughed at me and said, "That's what you're thinking right now, isn't it?"

And she was dead-on right. It's a beautiful home - all of our projects are pretty beautiful in their own rights - but this one has some pretty cool stuff in it. And when you are inside, yes, there are more than a few made-for-tv moments of "wow....". But after working on this home daily and nightly for so long, instead of reaching a crescendo and looking at the big picture as a project winds down, what happens is you start looking at the tiniest, littlest, most-minute, not-even-recognizable-to-the-normal-eye little blips and blurs and mistakes that are in the six months of work. It can be painful, actually. These are things that no one will ever see, and they are truly things that matter not-at-all to how the home functions. We're talking about, for instance, how you pick up that if that one piece of flooring had just been used in that spot, it would have been even more amazing; how the nail-hole filler is rolling in 1/32" in one spot on a baseboard and leaving a tiny tiny dimple as you walk around the hallway corner into the kitchen; how a piece of decking is lined up just a 1/4" or so too close to the previous piece of decking. She called this "The Perfectionist's Eye", and she said it's one of her strongest strengths and at the same time her biggest fault. She makes amazing movies that people love, and at the end of the day, yes, she loves the movie, and yes, she thinks it's gorgeous; but all she can see anymore are it's faults.

Sometimes - actually no, most times - this is what it's like being a conscientious builder. It's incredibly frustrating. You want to build the best home - or rather, we want to to build the best home - i.e. we don't care about the home that has the biggest price-point advantage for us; we don't care about developing a system that convinces people we're building a nice home but is putting more money on our bottom line. That's not our interest. (Yes, of course, we have to make money. It's insanely expensive for us just to be allowed to do what we do in Massachusetts, so we must must must make a profit to keep going. That's part and parcel of what we do.) We want to build the best home for you. And in my opinion, the best home is one that is going to last, at the minimum, 50 years before you have to do any major maintenance to it. If you think about the world - and not in any particular way, but just merely think about the world, at all - you can see trends. It's expensive to build a home, any home, good or bad. The biggest lump-expense upfront in building a home right now is the labor involved. It's just expensive. (And if you want my opinion - and opinions are like cowboy hats; every asshole has one - from what we've learned firsthand, the same people complaining about immigrants coming into the states and working illegally for lower prices are the first people to be bottom-dollar shoppers looking for that exact type of crew...nothing against the immigrants because they absolutely work their asses off and then also work a second shift at night somewhere too, sleep four hours, and do it again - and the last time I saw that on the Cape, two or three years ago.) I know it's hard to believe, but the parts of your home are put together by actual working hands, and just like you those hands have mouths to feed and those hands have the right to be compensated accordingly. They are putting a roof over your head. Not every home is built like Extreme Home Makeover, with everything donated including labor, and everything being put together seemingly overnight. Yes, I agree, that would be awesome, but in the real world, it's real working, sausage-finger, blue-collar, sandpaper hands that put your home together, and those hands have to be looked after or they can't continue doing what they do, and are trying to do, for you.

Now, if you're going to be building the best home, you need to be thinking about how the home is going to operate after you've put it all together. Your home is not built and paid for and then self-sustaining. This is now going to be your biggest expense in life moving forward, and this should be your NUMBER ONE concern - and the biggest expense in the future affecting the operation of a home is going to be energy. (Despite what the people making PVC trim tell you, your biggest cost will not be maintenance if you build it right the first time). It is possible to build a home completely off-grid, and when we build one for ourselves that is likely how it will be done (if the town allows us....), but I'm guessing most people for whom we'll potentially build are not going to be comfortable with the lifestyle change required for an off-grid home. I can't picture my parent's living off-grid, that's for sure, at least not right now. I think mum would give it a great shot, but my step-father...not so much.

But, I can picture my parent's living in a Net-Zero-Energy Home. I can picture everyone living in a ZEH (Zero Energy Home). In fact, I can picture everyone living in a ZEH without even having any idea that they are, in fact, living in a home that uses what amounts to zero energy to operate on a yearly basis. It's really so easy. Passivehaus, Zero-Energy Home, The Pretty Good House, Passive-Solar House, whatever you want to call it. It's really easy. And we know how to do it - as in Horgan Design-Build - and now we're going ahead and actually getting certified in designing and building Zero Energy Homes.

If my parent's could live in a Zero-Energy Home without major changes to lifestyle - or without any changes to their lifestyle, really - then anyone can do it. And everyone should be doing it. And yet here's why it's so incredibly frustrating to be a conscientious builder right now: It's not because of the Perfectionist's Eye at the end of the project, but in fact is because of what we keep seeing at the beginning of most projects.

Everyday I drive by homes that are being built and I can tell just from the quickest glance that it is not a smart home. Either the homeowners don't care, the architect doesn't care, the builder doesn't care, or none of them even know - which is likely the culprit. I see houses every single day, here, all over the Cape, that are just not smart houses. And it's so frustrating. I know a builder who has absolutely blown-up with work in the last few years - now with a cabinetry shop, hired architect on staff, a massive warehouse complex in another town - and the houses they've built to get to that point are just....god-awful. They are horrible. They are going to do nothing for the homeowners in five years, let alone 50 years. I guess they might look nice at first...but even that...even that isn't true. But they've hit a price-point, obviously, that allows them to make a lot of money on these homes somehow. But the people they are building them for?? They are screwed. It's horrible to see. And that's just one example. Good guys, nice guys, normal guys...yeah. They are, for sure. Guys I'd have a beer with in two seconds. But the homes are just future-money-vacuums. And I see this everywhere. Homes being built left-and-right with no exterior insulation air-barrier; Homes being built left-and-right with the wrong windows in the wrong places; Homes being designed from the get-go that just make no sense at all apart from "well, I like the look of doghouse dormers, so I want them." and then boom...a house with doghouse dormers everywhere. (And yes, I like doghouse dormers. They're very Cape Cod, and that's always a good thing, but there is a reason for them as well as a reason not for them, and a place for them and vice versa.) I mean, people are still building - daily it seems - the same way the were building 30 years ago. Imagine any industry in the world that doesn't have a change in 30 years. It doesn't exist! But here people are, designing and banging nails the same way we did 30 years ago. It's so frustrating to see.

Come on... Build something smarter. Build something smaller. Build something better. Build something more awesome-er. It can totally be done. It's not hard. You can have a home right on 6A, have it look like it's been there for the prerequisite 100 years, and have that home be a Zero-Energy Home....and no one but you needs to be the wiser!

Now, if this doesn't appeal to the environmentalists out there (and we already know it does, of course), it is an absolute no-brainer to appeal to even the most right-leaning, wallet-watching, hold-a-flame-to-the-iceberg, still-driving-a-Hummer person you could ever find:

Your home should be making you money.

There. If you don't want to save the trees, save your greenbacks.

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