My colleagues and fellow owners Deirdre, Rob, Siobhán and I just returned from a conference in Boston called Local Sustainable Economies. It was a national gathering, hosted by the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts, of people and organizations working to localize economic activity and encourage the long haul shift from the extractive economy of the present to a generative economy of the future.
For the Earth Day campaign mentioned in the last post, SunPower created two videos and three blog posts. This link will take you to their second video and second blog post. Please take the journey to explore the SunPower/South Mountain relationship further. This one is about the connection between our devotion to craft and our passion for solar. The two go hand in hand.
We’ll send out another reminder when the 3rd SunPower blog post is up. Thanks for listening!
Architect Ryan Bushey, one of my co-owners and co-manager of our design department, recently designed and built a house for he and his family in Oak Bluffs. Building a house shouldn’t be much of a trick for a talented and experienced architect like Ryan, right?
Hmm. Let’s see. Last week Ryan shared with us, at a company meeting, “Ten Lessons I Learned Building My House”. Here you go:
In 1980 a woman named Madeline Blakeley asked me to look at a piece of land with her. She was a librarian in her early sixties whose husband had recently died. They had no children and had always lived in rented apartments. Her dream was to own a piece of property.
She had $7,000 in cash. A realtor showed her a lot priced at exactly that, but her friends advised her against buying it. The lot fell steeply south to a sweet little valley, a perfectly matched solar exposure and view, but it was right beside the main road from Vineyard Haven to Edgartown, which was very loud. Except for that proximity and the fact that the whole lot was a hillside, it was lovely. There was nothing else on Martha’s Vineyard even close to her price range.
I suggested that we could cut and fill and build an earth-bermed, partially underground house. “The southern orientation aims away from the road just enough, and the berming would dull the noise as long as the house doesn’t open to that side. We can design the traffic right out of this scene!” She was excited. Even though she didn’t imagine she could afford to build anything at all, the idea that the land could eventually be sensibly used was appealing. I didn’t tell her that we didn’t – at the time – actually know how to properly build an earth-integrated house.
She bought the property.
We began our recent year-end company meeting by reviewing finances, work completed, work ahead, affordable housing projects in the pipeline, solar sales and installations, and a variety of compelling and not-so-compelling metrics and indicators.
It has been a very good year, as were the two that came before. A robust trifecta. One of our younger employees, Ian Gumpel, asked why we’re doing so well. Great question. I mumbled a few dis-jointed explanations that didn’t quite add up. Later I thought more and the next day I wrote a brief addendum to everyone that said in part, about Ian’s question, “As a friend of ours, Devon Hartman, once said, ‘The key to making a company work is getting all the wood behind one arrow.’ We are making great strides toward doing just that. Sometimes it doesn’t seem so; the alignment can be obscured by the drama and upheaval of constant change. But it becomes clear through the lens of our triple bottom line performance.”
I walk into a just-completed house to have a look around. I’m alone, it’s quiet, I move slowly. It’s the only way to really see. Stand in one place and look at everything visible from that spot. Move to another. Gaze at every nook and cranny.
Look for beauty. Look for alignment. Look for flaws.
Examine each intersection of wall, ceiling, and roof planes. Look at every window – the trim around them, the feel of the sills, the views through them. Interior views too; what do we see at the end of the hall?
Check the daylight in the room. Is it balanced, is there too much glare or contrast? Should there have been a window in that corner?
How are things positioned? Why is that fixture just a smidge off center over the dining room table? That’s an unusual place for a doorstop, but I guess it’s okay.
Our clients will move in two days later. I try to imagine them experiencing the results of a year of decisions. Some were easy. Some were agonizing. What will the space feel like all clean and shiny and complete? I remember conversations with them standing here months ago when it was dusty and raw and partial.
It’s a small, carefully detailed, highly crafted house. Our clients are observant, discerning, strong-willed. The place looks pretty good. Houses are never perfect, of course, never even close. But I don’t see anything seriously wrong at first, except the kitchen faucet. It’s a tall gooseneck, and it’s noticeably crooked. Too crooked. I fool around with it, mess with the nut that holds it tight, wonder why it’s like that, and wonder how to fix it.
I have no idea how to do it.
Back in the office, I write a glowing e-mail to our project architects, our foreman, and our carpenters. I mention the faucet (I put that part in parentheses). Greg, the architect, writes back, ” That’s no problem. We’ll take care of it.” Nice. That’s just what I would say to a client if they were to see it and bring it to my attention. Just what I would say, not knowing how to fix it, but knowing that someone will know. Not knowing, either, if it would be a big problem or a little problem. Just knowing it needs to get done.
At times like this it’s pleasing to be part of a company that consists of a large group of people who know how to do stuff, who know how to solve problems, who know about remedies and fixes and tricks and adjustments. I may not know who knows, but I know that someone in the company knows – whatever it is – or somebody knows how to find out. It’s almost like The Company Knows.
It could be a question about wood, or codes, or building science, or ventilation, or cleaning, or design, or color, or doorstops, or just about anything – the topics are endless.
We look for answers. We try to find solutions. We try things out.
Picasso once said, “God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat. He has no real style. He just goes on trying other things.” That’s what we do. We just keep trying other ways to make better houses. Other ways to make a better company.
We do things. We make things. We change things.
As I walked out of that sweet little house that day, I spotted a particularly nice joint on the porch where the reclaimed fir post meets the plate. As I looked at it, I stumbled clumsily on the threshold and tore the screen in the screen door ever so slightly. I mentioned that in the e-mail too.
We break things. We fix things.