The Builder’s Journey: Rob Nicely
How I came to build Fine Homebuilding’s best new home of the year, and what it taught me.
Synopsis: Rob Nicely built FHB’s best new home of the year for 2013. In this article, he writes about how his constant desire to learn more about his chosen profession directed him toward the world of green building, which led further to his discovery of Passive House, a way of building that reduces energy demand by thoroughly detailing and constructing the building shell. He finally got the opportunity to try out the Passive House method when he was hired to build a house in Carmel, Calif., which became that town’s first Passive House. He took away from the experience four important lessons: (1) Air-sealing is hard, (2) advanced framing is easy, (3) additional standards such as Energy Star certification and EPA’s Indoor AirPlus qualification are within reach, and (4) building a supertight, energy-efficient house requires a team of people from start to finish. With this new knowledge and experience under his belt, he says that he could never again in good conscience build a “normal” house. See more award-winning homes from the 2013 HOUSES Awards.
Despite my parents’ anguished cries to stay away from the trades, I have spent the past 25 years in construction. Building is what I am good at. I enjoy the analytical and organizational aspects of my job as well as the moments of Zen when I can totally focus on making what is in front of me useful and beautiful. Because I love the craft of building, I am always looking for ways to learn more. This desire to be a better builder led me to the world of green building. After years of attending training programs and conferences; reading books and magazines; and studying air quality, resource efficiency, Energy Star, and the California Advanced Homes Program, I started to feel like I had my feet under me.
Along the way, however, something weird occurred. I realized that I wasn’t just focusing on what was happening on my sites or in my office anymore. I was thinking about where my building materials came from and where the waste from my projects would go. I wondered if my practices were supporting the viability of the resources I was using, or if I was missing an opportunity to build more sustainably. These questions started to enter into my analysis of whether I was good at my craft.
I discovered Passive House about five years ago. It is a way of building that reduces energy demand by thoroughly detailing and constructing the building shell. I was looking forward to building a Passive House, and I finally got the opportunity with what became FHB’s 2013 best new home.
Embracing change permanently
When I started getting into green building, I had years of normal building practices as a foundation. As soon as I felt like I knew enough to start making changes, I did. At my firm, we identified low-risk/high-impact changes versus high-risk/low-impact ones. In the beginning, we did small things, like making sure to sort our debris so that it could be recycled and choosing low-VOC products. We started taking a hard look at what was good enough when it came to insulation. This year, we are conducting blower-door tests on every new project or major remodel after installing windows and again at the end of the project. We are trying to establish what our standard practice should be. I will never in good conscience be able to build another “normal” house.
My point is that once you know, you can’t un-know. Once you have seen how little effort it takes to improve the energy efficiency, durability, and air quality of a house dramatically, it just doesn’t make sense to go back to the old ways. Why attach a 100,000-Btu furnace to a house that will leak heat as fast as you can pump it in when you can be more comfortable using 15% to 20% of the energy?
Our craft has always adapted to meet new demands, and that is what our industry is doing now. My hope is that this new way of building simply becomes the way to build.
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