The Spokesman-Review: Builder Actively Promotes 'Passive' Home Technology

April 2018 | Press

North Idaho's Andy Smith favors high-quality construction features over more square footage

By Michael Guilfoil | Photo Credit Kathy Plonka
For The Spokesman-Review

COEUR D’ALENE – Imagine shopping for a car today and having to choose between a Ford Pinto and a Chevy Vega.

People shopping for new homes aren’t much better off, says builder Andy Smith.

“If you take today’s standard construction techniques,” he said, “they really haven’t evolved much in the last 40 years.”

And new tract homes aren’t built to last, Smith said.

“A National Association of Home Builders study concluded today’s typical entry-level home has a 10-year lifespan.

“To begin with, workers with the least amount of knowledge and experience are building them,” Smith said. “And the products going into those homes – plumbing fixtures, furnaces, hot-water tanks, floor coverings, cabinets – are not designed to last much beyond 10 years.”

Smith, a partner at Edwards Smith Construction, encourages clients to put quality ahead of quantity – a philosophy that led him to earn certification with the Passive House Institute US in 2015.

“The passive home is a complete paradigm shift. It emphasizes super energy efficiency, greater human comfort and construction techniques that last for generations,” he said.

During a recent interview, Smith discussed music, mold and the role of building inspectors.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Smith: Northern California. My stepfather was on the fast track to becoming an Albertson’s store manager, which meant we moved 17 times in 10 years, from San Jose to Sacramento to Grass Valley. I went to three different high schools.

S-R: How did you adapt to change?

Smith: Music was the common thread that kept me interested in school. I played trumpet and was drum major. I enrolled in college intending to become a music teacher. But after two years, I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do. When I tried to change my major, I encountered strong walls of resistance, so I dropped out.

S-R: How did you end up in North Idaho?

Smith: I was working as a laborer with a Grass Valley landscape company, not making enough to pay rent, when some friends from Sandpoint said, “If you like Grass Valley, you’ll like Coeur d’Alene.” So I drove up here, got a job in construction, discovered I was a natural at it, and the rest is history.

S-R: You started at the bottom. How long before you launched your own company?

Smith: Not that long. When I was 22, a builder I worked for laid off his other carpenters and said he’d sub out the next job to me. That pushed me into going into business for myself in 1991.

S-R: What was that like?

Smith: I’ll never forget driving to work at 4 a.m. when this weird commercial came on the radio. It said, “Ah, you’ve gone into business for yourself. Congratulations! You now get to work half days. Just pick which 12 hours of the day you want to work.” And I thought, yep, that’s the reality. When you run a business, you never leave it.

S-R: But you persevered.

Smith: Oh, yeah. Failure was not an option. To my detriment, I probably worked harder, when I should have been thinking harder. If I misquoted a project, I’d work Saturdays and Sundays to get it done so I could move on to something where I’d make money. At the school of hard knocks, you pay for your education through mistakes.

S-R: When did you join forces with Jim Edwards?

Smith: I started working with Jim in 1997, and we became partners in 2008.

S-R: Have you ever had any formal training as a builder?

Smith: Other than the certified passive training, no. Builders typically learn on the job. And when you do mostly upper-end work like we do, you’re learning from architects and engineers. It’s not a repetitive process, like tract homes. Every project stretches us.

S-R: Earlier this year, you sent the Kootenai County commissioners a four-page letter arguing against loosening building code requirements. What was their response?

Smith: One of the commissioners and the chief community development officer thanked me for the letter, and said they couldn’t agree more. They tried to explain what is driving the other two commissioners’ efforts to reduce government regulation of the building industry.

S-R: What’s their rationale?

Smith: The far right, libertarian mindset that government is out of control – that if you own property, the government shouldn’t be able to tell you what you can or can’t do with it.

S-R: What are the potential consequences of less oversight?

Smith: More poorly built houses. We’re hired as construction defect experts a couple of times a year. The general public believes if a house has been inspected, everything is good. But the code doesn’t begin to address everything that goes into a house, let alone take into account the limited resources of a building department to inspect everything in the code. So inspectors narrow it down to life-safety and structural issues, for the most part. They don’t inspect if roofing is put on right, if the windows are installed properly, if the siding is going to leak. They don’t inspect quality.

S-R: How would you fix the system?

Smith: First, I’d educate the public. The market says, “It’s been inspected. Good enough.” But the market doesn’t understand the inspectors’ role – what they aren’t responsible for. Most builders are building to the minimum, and they know how to get around the code, because they know what the inspectors are going to inspect and not inspect. I would define very clearly what things are important to inspect, starting with structures, soil, water management from underground through the roof, insulation, air sealing and life safety.

S-R: What advice would you offer new-home buyers?

Smith: The first thing they should do is go to the mechanical room, where the heater and the hot-water tank are, and see whether it looked like somebody cared. That’s the window into the soul of a home, because that’s where the rough-in stuff is still exposed. I once walked into a $2 million home-show home, opened the door to the mechanical room and couldn’t believe the mess. The furnace and hot-water tank were tilting, and the wiring and plumbing looked like pickup sticks. That told me nobody cared.

S-R: How about buyers considering, say, a 10-year-old house?

Smith: Check for drywall cracks, settling cracks, and look for evidence of moisture problems: mold, leaks around drains.

S-R: What’s a common misperception you hear about the building industry?

Smith: People assume quality doesn’t vary – for instance, that all licensed plumbers are the same. That couldn’t be further from the truth. And most clients don’t know enough to ask the right questions. Part of a general contractor’s job is to know which subs do quality work.

S-R: Your company’s niche is high-end homes. If someone came to you with a $250,000 budget, would you build their home?

Smith: It depends on the quality level they want. We’re about to build a 1,400-square-foot house for $350,000. But most people are more focused on quantity – square footage – when they should pay more attention to quality.

S-R: BUILD Magazine, a British publication, recently named your company Idaho’s best passive homebuilder, yet only 5 percent of the homes you build are passive. Do you try to sell clients on the merits of passive construction?

Smith: I talk to every client about it.

S-R: What’s their first question?

Smith: How much more is it going to cost, because they’re American.

S-R: What’s your answer?

Smith: Depending on the features, passive construction can add as much as 10 percent, or save 2 percent.

S-R: Which features are clients most receptive to?

Smith: When I describe super-insulated, triple-pane European windows, they’re intrigued. The problem is they have to experience the greater comfort to understand it. Until we have more passive homes, that’s a challenge.

S-R: What about clients who associate energy-efficient homes with boring architecture?

Smith: I recommend they talk to Spokane architect Sam Rodell, who’s a certified passive-home architect. His goal is to prove that great design is not compromised by passive technology.

S-R: If a client brought you a design for their dream home, could you make it passive?

Smith: Absolutely. Maybe not 100 percent of their original design, but probably 90 percent.

S-R: Who builds the best homes today?

Smith: Scandinavian countries, because most of their codes require passive construction. The typical Scandinavian home is smaller than ours and better insulated, with super-efficient windows, so the energy demand is much lower.

S-R: What’s a good business lesson you’ve learned?

Smith: No matter how painful, be honest.

S-R: What qualities make for a good contractor?

Smith: A thirst for knowledge, business acumen and people skills.

S-R: What’s the outlook for the building trade?

Smith: Today it’s fine, but I’m cautious. We’ve been in a long economic cycle, and we know they don’t last forever. There are telltale signs that suggest the end of this run is near.

S-R: Does that worry you?

Smith: We’re very well positioned to survive a downturn. But someone starting out may not have the relationships to carry them through a downturn, unless they have really a thick wallet.

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at mguilfoil@comcast.net.