Thursday, May 29, 2008

Michael Chandler's Green Story

I come from a long line of engineers and people who work with their hands.
Collectively, my Grandfathers and Great Grandfathers invented a way to explode dynamite under water, worked on the Panama Canal, figured out how to mount naval artillery on flat beds leading a cadre of iron workers into battle during WWI, engineered earthquake resistant buildings after the San Francisco earthquake founded MIT, and climbed up the towers and out the cables of suspension bridges to test them for metal fatigue. My father sailed to the Galapagos Islands at 13, and got into computers when they ran on tape drives and took up entire rooms. He was constantly inventing stuff in the basement that became part of our lives: intercoms, burglar alarms, and a heating system for our house that still amazes me.

I still own and use his tools and tools from both grandfathers.

I didn’t have much choice in my direction: the family videos show my Dad and me (two years old) walking on the second floor joists while our house was being built. We did two additions to the house while I was growing up, designed by a family friend. When I was 16, I spent an afternoon with R. Buckminster Fuller. He was 87 at the time, I sought him out then because I was interested in affordable homes, elegant design, and excited about the future.

I still have the drawing (at right) he used to illustrate our conversation dated June 9th 1972.

In college I interned with Moore-Weinrich Architects in Rumford, Maine -- riding my bike to work each day. They were working on an architectural contest (which they won); the founder, Steven Moore, is now a green architect teaching at UT Austin. From there I went on to intern at Design Works in Carrboro NC and to co-found Space Builders which as now celebrating its thirtieth year as an employee owned business. As part of that start-up process I took a workshop with the New School for Democratic Management which was one of those little nudges that pushed me in just the right direction at just the right time.

Before that nudge, I saw the business end of building and designing as a necessary evil; afterwards, I saw business as an important part of the craft. I was enjoying the great game of business long before Jack Stack wrote the book.

I left Space Builders when I realized that consensus decision-making made me crazy. Traveling around North America in a ‘65 Dodge van, working in California and Maine helped me to build my carpentry skills and people skills. Somewhere in there I learned about the work with Thermal Photography and the air tight drywall approach that Joe Lstiburek was doing in the Canadian R-2000 program. The idea that Building Science could be a legitimate field of study made me happy.

We look back on those days now with bemusement and regret. The double envelope houses, underground air pipes for cooling, trombe walls, and solar salt boxes that were way too tight and just plain ugly.

My business thrived and faltered, but my marriage failed. I focused on the business and joined an NAHB builder 20 club. Along the way I instituted profit sharing and an employee centered way of doing business and in 2002 and 2003 our company was named one of the top 50 builders to work for in America. We went on to win the 2005 NAHB seniors housing council Best Aging in Place Design for New Custom Homes and to pick up second place at the National Green Building Awards in 2006 and 2007 for Best Green Custom Home and to win a Pacesetter Award at the 2006 NAHB Custom Builder Symposium for "sustainable business management". Somewhere in there I fell in love with a client, got married, and she is now my designer and business partner (she drew all the award winning houses). Nowadays I get to spend a lot of time writing and teaching about green building in addition to running the business with a really great crew.

In the next five years we're splitting the design and building business and giving the building business to our employees using an incentivized stock-option plan. They'll get a debt-free company, but will pay a portion of their profits over the first five years during which time I'll be their employee and mentor. The great game of business is pretty fun, if you play it right.

So how did I get into home building?
I received a degree from Dartmouth in sculpture only because they didn't have an architecture degree. Once I graduated it seemed more likely that I would draw a regular paycheck as a builder than as a sculptor.

How did I get into Green Building?
I was always drawn to architects that were pushing the envelope with passive solar design and innovative engineering. It just seemed a whole lot more fun than just throwing up boxes, and I had done some of that working in government subsidized housing for the elderly. I also come with a strong preference for egalitarian workplaces and the people who were building solar were more ideologically aligned with me.

I’m a bit of mad scientist; green building best-practices and their refinement is interesting and fun for me.

What does Green Building mean to me?
To me it's all about refining the definition of what is best practice in building homes for people to optimize comfort and health and minimize the impact on the environment. I like to also optimize value because that's a fun part of the game. It's also easier to make a profit if you can provide great value.

And I like the homes to be beautiful because life is to short to waste time building ugly homes.

--Michael Chandler owns Chandler Design/Build near Chapel Hill, North Carolina

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