Chapter 4: Interviewing Architects, Builders, and Homeowners

December 29, 2017

Passive House consultant Bronwyn Barry has noted that “passive house is a team sport” of architects, engineers, and consultants. At the beginning of Chapter 4 in the Midori Haus book we knew we needed a team of people, but we didn’t know how to choose them, how long it would take, or how much it would cost. We asked a lot of questions to reduce uncertainty and gain confidence in choosing team members. The most important questions, however, were directed at ourselves.

Q: Is this your forever house?

A: Yes.

Q: What are you goals and priorities?

A: 1) Very green remodel focused on energy efficiency with Passive House; 2) Honor the look and feel of classic Arts and Crafts style; 3) Keep cost within our budget.

Q: What are you willing to do and what skills do you have?

A: See excerpt from Midori Haus book below.

We could have gone with a design-build firm and left it up to them to pick the people from their network. This choice makes the design-build firm the single point of contact accountable for the results. While it means paying more for project management services, we would only have one neck to choke if something went wrong. Had we been short on time due to demanding careers while raising a family, this approach would have been very attractive. Or if we had the hard core do-it-yourself streak in us, then we could have gone down the owner-builder route and become our own general contractor and done everything ourselves.

We happen to fall in the middle of this spectrum. We knew our own strengths and limitations. We would actually be miser­able swinging hammers and using power tools. We have neither the talent nor the experience, so we’d make unnecessary mistakes and it would take longer and the outcome would be questionable. On the other hand, we are quite good at doing research and ask­ing questions. We knew that we could apply our respective career experiences in hiring people, team building, and managing proj­ects to our home-building project.

When we met with architects and contractors, we asked questions from a list we had prepared to see if we wanted to hire them. Their responses, and more importantly how we felt during the conversation, answered the main questions we asked ourselves: “Is he or she a good fit with our goals and priorities?” and “Is the chemistry right?” After all, we know there will be problems and challenges during the project. When it happens, we wanted to be partnered with someone who could rationally solve a problem rather than increase our stress.

Some of the most useful conversations took place with homeowners who were the reference clients of the architects and builders.

The best person to give information about the performance of a house is the person who lives in it. We found homeowners to be more than willing to share their experience and lessons from their house projects. They understood the value of the reference visit. The homeowners we visited were the beneficiaries of helpful others in their journey. They were now paying it forward by sharing their experience to those of us who were starting the renovation journey.

As with the architect interviews, we went in with a list of pre­pared questions. Our intent with the homeowner interviews was to build rapport with the homeowners in the first few minutes so that they would volunteer information as if they were talking to a friend. This was the closest we would get to test driving the con­struction experience, and we wanted to know what it really was like. We wanted to be exposed to things we hadn’t thought about. We weren’t trying to ferret out dirt about the builder or the archi­tect, but we wanted to know what “gotchas” were lurking around the corner in a recent construction project and maybe avoid mak­ing that mistake.

Building rapport is key to shifting the homeowner from the place of representing the work of a certain builder or architect to helping a fellow homeowner by sharing their lessons learned. Before getting into the “Where did you get those lovely tiles?” types of questions, I like to find out the context behind the remodel to understand why they did the remodel in the first place. I can easily judge a house or a feature based on assumptions in my head, but my interpretation could be completely off base. Plus, asking questions like, “What problems were you trying to solve?” or “What drove you to do the remodel?” opens the conversation in a way that allows the homeowner to tell their story. After asking such questions, we we practiced active listening and then asked clari­fying questions.

We talked to many people: architects, builders, and homeowners. We gathered information on products and materials used in their projects. We also gathered information on the process they went through and the lessons learned. After a while, I ended up with more ideas than we could practically implement. At these moments, it is just as important to release a dissonant idea as it is to embrace a brilliant one.

While interviewing architects and builders, we tested some of our pet ideas. We soon learned that a brilliant feature we saw at someone else’s house could not be incorporated into Midori out of context. It is just as important to release a dissonant feature as it is to embrace an unfamiliar logical concept. We needed to do both to move forward. So we thanked the architects and builders for the interesting exploration and moved on.

An example of a dissonant feature we released was a Trombe wall we saw at a friend’s house. It’s a passive solar design feature that uses an internal wall (our friend used brick) to collect heat from the sun during the winter day to release them into the living space at night. Several people coaxed us out of this idea saying it wouldn't work well in our coastal marine climate. We're glad they did because it would have been aesthetically awkward and it would have been expensive to beef up the foundation and floor to support the extra weight.

In a previous post, I mentioned the importance of asking questions and shared our list of questions we asked architects, builders, and homeowners. You’ll find the same set of questions at the end of chapter 4 in the Midori Haus book.

About the Author

Chie Kawahara

Chie is one of the co-creator of Midori Haus. When she is not sharing her stories of transforming an old house and giving tours, she enjoys trail running and hiking.