February, 2008

Contractor licensing in Maine = more useless laws

A word or two today about a somewhat mundane topic, yet a necessary one: contractor licensing.
Recently, Jon Hinck, a local politician in my town of Portland, has chosen to create a bill that was reported in The West End News that “…would create the Maine Home Contractor Licensing Board, which would oversee the licensing and collection of fees. Under the legislation, any contractors and people who perform residential framing, roofing, siding, insulating, window work or chimney work would require licenses. It would also require the adoption of a model building code. The bill would also help make sure that contractors who take money in advance can be found and their customers reimbursed when a job is not completed in a workmanlike and reasonably skilled manner.”
Sounds good, right? Sounds like these thieving darn contractors will finally be controlled, right? Well, lets just take a look into what State Licensing will do to the contractor. First, it will require more money to do contracting work, more money up front to pay for the license, then the bonding, then the contractor liability insurance, then the lawyer fees, on top of the contractors- piles of bills for tools, permits, and transportation. Licensing narrows the players down to who has the money and the ability to deal with regulation and bureaucracy. Why is it that politicians think that more laws are going to insure our safety and security? James Fenn, a student at Brigham Young University, attempted in his thesis dissertation to examine the subject and found that: “Contractor licensing is a form of occupational regulation whose purpose it is to protect the consumer, the contractor and the industry. This is accomplished by minimum guidelines and standards for obtaining a license. It is still difficult, however, to measure the overall effect of licensing on the construction industry because of intangible benefits such as increased confidence and improved reputation. Yet, in order to have a regulatory system that benefits all of society, states must be able to measure how well licensing is serving the intended purpose for licensing.” Visit his thesis at

As a builder with a Masters Degree in Architecture, I have built homes in states with and without contractor licensing. My opinion is it is more bureaucracy and without effect. From my experience, going through the licensing to be a contractor in the state of Montana it amounts to money, paperwork, and more money to the builder. (Oh, but they do give you a sticker and a badge to show you are a good scout). I did not see a more diligent building code enforcement, but what I did see were more builders with licensing as a credential and its not like these builders were doing a whole lot differently except charging more for their services.

Perhaps one of the more abstract and less discussed topics concerning licensure is how it filters those who do the good work in a negative way. Much like the licensing to become an “Architect,” it exasperates many of those with the more creative talents. Many of those types, and I am one of them, are sick and tired of “the System” of false credentials. What I have found is the types that put up with these bureaucratic hurdles are the types that are good at studying and doing what they are told to do. They are usually not the creative types. This is why so much of the “designed?” and built world today lacks imagination. The designer and builder become rule followers; they get good at complying. This might be fine if it is routine maintenance work, but what if the project involves creative thinking, or original thought?
Please keep in mind a license doesn’t make someone more compliant, it just makes them have to charge more. I wouldn’t support the creation of this law when there is not proof that it will even work. With building code enforcement offices already maxed out and undermanned, it seems unlikely they will be able to assist in enforcing the new contractor license rules. If you want a decent builder, research the field of building and know what you are looking for. It is like going to an auto repairman- show that you know the difference between a spark plug and a radiator hose….that’s empowerment! Good old fashion knowledge.


Green Buildings?

Green Buildings?

…… Architects are
idea people.
We have concepts and
make designs that embody or implement them. We present them as clearly and openly as possible, and can only hope that others will find them useful to their ends, and build them. LEBBEUS WOODS


Green buildings …do they exist or are we playing with words and trends again? It seems since
William McDonough & Michael Braungart book Cradle to Cradle hit the book shelves there has been a wide range of mis-information about “green building”. I am not saying that McDonoughs book was off the track….actually it is dead on, what I am saying is that it started a trend of marketing the idea of “green building“. Today one can look on the web and find a bizillion sites claiming to be green builders, architects, designers….it is a catchword now for expensive construction.
To give an example of the dilemas that Green construction faces one only need to look as far as their own bathroom. The bathroom is a perfect example of a green place that only gets greener and greener without non green products. Mold and mildew are the enemies builders face as a consequences of climate on buildings. If you need varification that all mold is not always our friend see

Legionnaires’ disease Philadelphia, 1976

The first recognized outbreak occurred on July 27, 1976 at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where members of the American Legion, a United States military veterans association, had gathered for the AmericanBicentennial. Within two days of the event’s start, veterans began falling ill with a then-unidentified pneumonia. Numbers differ, but perhaps as many as 221 people were given medical treatment and 34 deaths occurred. At the time, the U.S. was debating the risk of a possible swine fluvaccinationCenters for Disease Control and Prevention mounted an unprecedented investigation and by September, the focus had shifted from outside causes, such as a disease carrier, to the hotel environment itself. In January 1977, the Legionellosis bacterium was finally identified and isolated, and found to be breeding in the cooling tower of the hotel’s air conditioning system, which then spread it through the entire building. This finding prompted new regulations worldwide for climate control systems.

In the climate of East Coastal Maine where I live there is a serious war we wage with Mold because of moisture associated with condensation. Much like the bathroom example our homes and buildings are similar, they fill with moisture. The hidden moisture that causes so many mold and mildew problems occurs in the walls and roof systems of our buildings. This is because of the temperature difference that occurs between the outside and the inside of the home. The outside in the winter is cold, the inside is warm, and vice versa in the summer. This temperature difference causes condensation much like the steam filling the bathroom during a shower. So how does a builder handle the difference in temperature….insulation…. the more the better in order to keep the condensation zone towards the outside of the building. The best way I have found to stop mold growth in the wall cavity is to use a blown closed cell foam , is this an example of a green product? a link to find out about PolyUrethane foams like Corbond pretty much gives you the idea…its not too green….but it really works in keeping the moisture out because it is closed cell foam meaning like a plastic bag it keeps moisture out. The added flame retardents are at issue as well and cause horribly caustic vapors when burned. So there you have it try to stop mold and you are up against a fence. How to do this without toxic materials has been an issue that the building world has struggled with.

I am not suggesting that it is impossible to build without toxins, what I am suggesting is that to build with longevity and human health in mind becomes very difficult. The toxins that off-gas during the curing or burning of foams and urethane sealants, VS mold, rot, mildew…..
As a builder and designer I struggle with these issues….and I can tell you in order to make a non toxic home we might have to go back to deer skin teepees. Longevity is to defy rot….to defy rot is to be toxic or expensive; a paradox of sorts.
I strive to make healthy buildings, I strive to make them affordable and lasting. I strive to not be a hypocrite and a liar…..

Sustainable design?

Just some musing this morning about sustainability….there are some fads out there right now in the design world, one is called prefabrication. The other is affordable design and build. Dwell magazine is filled with these two notions. I have thought about these notions over the years of building and designing of homes. I would like to just note some of my findings and thoughts.
The building and architectural professions have often viewed prefabrication as a way to bring innovative design to any location and in theory with economy. Most notably Ikea has exploited this notion and with huge results world wide.

“The IKEA Concept is based on offering a wide range of well designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them. Rather than selling expensive home furnishings that only a few can buy, the IKEA Concept makes it possible to serve the many by providing low-priced products that contribute to helping more people live a better life at home.

The IKEA Concept guides the way IKEA products are designed, manufactured, transported, sold and assembled. All of these factors contribute to transforming the IKEA Concept into a reality.” -IKEA Catalogue

Ikea has instilled this idea of design for the masses ( a modernist notion); however, one must look further than the glossy images in Ikea’s catalogs. One must cut through the veneer of an Ikea cabinet to begin to understand the full implication of their core material and I am not just talking about toxic, cheap, glue based particle board. The idea of affordable prefabrication is based on industrial method or factory work. I must propose a few questions as to factory work to get to the heart of the issue.
What are the implications of factory work in the modern day? What does factory work do to local economies, and do the products made in these factories fulfill sustainable standard. Lets keep with Ikea as an example to answer these questions. Ikea is able to create an affordable cabinet through using factory mass produced production method. The product is constructed not where we live but elsewhere. We never meet those who assemble these cabinets or see how they live. We never see what they use for materials, what the composite of the cabinet is made of or where any of materials come from. It probably just as well because it is not pretty process, nor are these products really happily made. China ,as we know, is primarily where most mass produced products come from. If the product does not directly come from China some part of it does like say the door hinges or the knobs or the glue. By fabricating cabinets elsewhere, the product may initially be cheaper , but they must still be transported, and transportation requires fuel. As we know, the burning of fossil fuel contributes to global warming.
The issue that the consumer is not addressing is what happens in our home town when we buy “cheap ” products from afar. Every time we buy an Ikea cabinet we are saying no to a local cabinetmaker. Every-time we say no to a local crafts-person we debase local craft and we insure that local craft dies off. Not only do we chose to lose this local craft, we are also saying no to local materials that would make this cabinet. In Maine we have woods, we have mills, and we have lumber yards, but not for long if we keep purchasing objects from afar. Our local economies depend on us to continue purchasing. When we harvest and use local materials, we are aware of two things: we see the woods being cut down and we see what the oblject is made of. In other words, we are ‘in touch’ with our resources or the diminishing of them. The problem with prefabrication is that we lose touch with the resources being consumed and the production of them.
When we use local resources we are in check with consumption, we are in check with over consumption, we are buying local or keeping our valuable economies alive, our local skill base alive. Furthermore, often these materials blend in to the surroundings, they are less likely to be alien to ‘place’ and often make sense environmentally. As an example when I built a home in Liberty Maine I had choices all along the way as to choosing local materials or materials from away.
For the beams I could have chosen para-lams which are essentially beams made out of glue and wood chip, or I could chose locally harvested and milled Hemlock. Through out the process of choosing I had to look at a variety of parameters….Strength, availability, cost, and sustainability. What I found is that Para-lam, because it is a corporally made material, has the ups and downs . Its ups are that it is engineered….or that it is rated and is consistent. It is easy for an engineer a structure or to plug numbers of loads values and get a final figure to know if the building will stand. The down side is that it is not local, the product has to be transported, and the company has a lot of overhead because of environmental standards it has to uphold….i.e. glues,glues, glues,…OSHA ,OSHA,OSHA (occupational safety and health administration), ceo’s also need to make buck too. This made this product expensive! And do I want building filled with more glue? So back to the local hemlock, I found a mill close by, and the owner would delivered the beams himself, plus it was two thirds the cost compared to the para-lam. In the end I used the Para-lam sparingly where I knew main carrying beams needed to be consistent (dimensionally,straight, without knots) and used the hemlock everywhere else. It is this sort of decision making that a designer/builder must embark on. There are products that are technological ones like thermal control units, windows, insulation which most likely are not made in ones home town and these must be ordered but there are also products that are local should be used if possible.

I think I will continue at another time with the affordable design build topic….I need to take a break
Oh yeah check out. a 20 minute video about choices …. consumer and factory

and compare this to