Framing the present

Over the last few months my coworkers and I have been delving into the innards of a lovely 100-something heritage home in North Vancouver. The process of renovation (vs. new construction) is, as anyone who has ever had the opportunity knows, a journey all its own. Surprises and head-scratchers abound, the handiwork of ancestors (and all of the decades of well-intended homeowner patches along the way) offering us so much from which to learn.

The formal dining room, the fireside nook, the ample porch: these, the elements we celebrate as gems pre-dating the open-concept of today. And then there are others: the lack of insulation, the single-pane windows, a foundation with no footing placed on non-bearing materials, the lack of structural redundancy that leads to sagging, sloped floors, out-of-plumb walls. These, the elements that remind us how cheap oil must have been (!) and of the true infancy of our regional method of building.

Think of how long it took for the ancient Greeks to hone their art to the point of the Parthenon, the Norwegians their stave churches, the Egyptians their pyramids. Though wood has been used in Post and Beam construction for thousands of years throughout the world, Balloon Framing (which eventually gave rise to modern Platform Framing) has been used only since the 1830’s in North America.

Framing 101. A frame is the skeleton of a building onto which outside and inside walls are attached, and on top of which the roof structure is placed. Briefly, there are 3 types of construction framing: Post and Beam, Balloon and Platform.

Post and Beam (or Timber) Framing relies on big, beautiful, heavy spans of timber (in other words, often times whole trees) carved and joined in beautiful and complex ways (called dovetails, mortises and tenons, et.al.) by highly skilled craftsmen (or, these days, by highly specialized machines). No nails are needed in this marvel of (heavy frame) construction.

Balloon Framing utilizes thinner, lengthy continuous spans of wood (studs) running vertically all the way from the very bottom to the very top of the structure. From the early 1800s until the 1950s Balloon Framing was the go-to method for building homes in North America quickly and inexpensively, because although lumber abounded, skilled labour (the kind needed for complex Post and Beam joinery) did not. With the advent of Balloon Framing and the nearly simultaneous invention of inexpensive machine-made nails and water-powered sawmills, any settler or farmer could build his own buildings. Hence, the quick construction of the boomtowns on which our great land was built.

So, in Balloon Framing, the vertical studs run all the way from bottom to top, with the floors actually hung into and nailed to them. This means scaffolding (extremely tall depending on the desired building height) is used for workers to stand on in order to build in each subsequent next floor.

The second type of light frame construction (Balloon being the first) is Platform (or often “Stick”) Framing. As with Balloon, thinner spans of dimensional lumber (most often 2x4s) are utilized to frame the wall and floor structures; however, in Platform Framing one complete storey (1st storey walls with 2nd storey floor joists hung into the top of them) is built at a time, hence creating a platform on which to stand for each subsequent storey upward. The rise in popularity of this more convenient framing method has translated to safer, speedier construction (with less structural vulnerability for sagging and fire spread).

Through the convergence of regulated environmental consciousness and stricter safety/seismic requirements, present day construction methodologies are being forced to evolve more quickly than their traditionally laggard tendencies. And as evolution develops, so do prices: climbing at first, but then leveling out as demand grows. We’re now on the cusp of large changes in the energy efficiency of building, and it’s toward this subject matter I will turn in two weeks time.

Article penned by Econ Group’s Dalit Holzman and originally published in North Shore News.

Adaptation key to affordability

Written by Econ’s Dalit Holzman and originally published by North Shore News June 2013.

Vancouver and our beautiful North Shore are expensive. Not really news right? We’re all fully aware of the ranking that puts our lifestyle-rich region almost at the top of the world’s least affordable in which to own a home, of the trade-offs we make in order to wake up each day in this most special of spots. But really how do all the stats and figures translate into relatable bits across the generations who constitute our community? Well, let’s bring out the apples and compare them shall we?

When my parents were my age (almost 40 in 1986), the price of a bungalow in Vancouver was $117,100 and the median total income for a family of 2 or more was $30,660. Simply put, the 1986 bungalow cost 3.8 times the annual income of the average family. Fast forward to 2013. The same bungalow now costs $786,200 and the median total income for the 2+ person family hovers around $57,000. This constitutes a whopping factor of 13.8 (up from the 3.8 back when I was dreaming sweet dreams of Expo ’86).

Simply put, either the price of a detached bungalow in our area needs to drop to $216,600 or me and my partner need to get more than hefty raises to make a combined $206,895 per year in order for things to be akin to how my dear parents had it. Adaptation has now become key and though some do contort themselves to fit within the financial strain our present in-affordability creates, at some point, many just give up trying for blood from stones. Many downsize (think Surrey’s newest micro-lofts at 297 square feet for $109K), many move ($220,400 buys that same detached bungalow on Canada’s other beautiful coast), many rent (opting for greater liquidity, private education, retirement savings). And then there’s a surprisingly growing number who are “moving back to Mom’s”.

Now, when I say intergenerational cohabitation, don’t think couch surfing, joblessness, and a nutritional regimen centered on cereal and instant noodles. Imagine instead sunny backyard afternoons with the grandkids, gaining an onsite handyman, sharing some meals, many stories and laughs together. Zoning varies depending on where you live on the North Shore; however, in every area, a secondary suite for family members is allowed. The details on the shape it all takes from there, of course, vary widely depending on the family members’ needs. A home may mean the young family of 4 downstairs with full and easy access to the backyard and all its opportunities. Or it may mean Grandma and Grandpa downstairs with no more stairs to climb and less space to maintain. Regardless of the iteration (and there are so many to explore), one thing is indisputable: 2 families contributing within a big house makes living a whole lot cheaper for everyone.

The financial model the new relationship creates also is a point of consideration, fully customizable to your family’s unique needs. Will it be a straight “standard rent” arrangement? Will there be an element of “rent to own” or perhaps an element of barter for property upkeep and maintenance? Might it constitute part of an early inheritance? As stated, the specifics will make themselves known as your family’s conversation evolves over the course of time, and it is time you should give it. The move toward living under one roof is not to be taken lightly; sharing space (even if the spaces are fully self-contained) can create challenges after having lived separately for a decade or more.

But homes are usually incredibly adaptable to the desires we all share. Even hundred-year-old Heritage Homes can be lifted to accommodate full-height, light-filled suites and soundproofed to keep conversations contained. Even across our generations, in a culture that holds “self-made” so high, we can lift ourselves toward sharing space and embracing community.

Cliffhanger Construction

Change orders: understanding budget-creep

Few of us are wholly at home with the unknown, even fewer with the financial unknown. When we embark on our single largest lifetime investment (building a home), the idea of not really knowing how much we’ll actually spend does not sound at all appealing. The homeowner and all of her financing vehicles rely on the expertise of her builder (and, often, their associated Quantity Surveyor) to generate a thorough and accurate budget at the outset of the project.

Does a project budget equal a fixed price?

In production homebuilding (i.e., subdivisions of endless cookie-cutter houses on level lots) building at a fixed price is possible, but the entire concept of building a custom home is based on unknowns. Each custom home is a one-off prototype never again to be produced, whose level of complexity cannot be appreciated or anticipated by fixed pricing. There are changes of heart, unforeseen site conditions, and myriad other real-world impacts that cause anticipated costs and timelines inevitably to shift. This is why custom homebuilding must rely on change orders and healthy, well-considered contingency funds to prepare for the unknowns.

Client/architect change orders

On the Cliffhanger House, the project’s talented designer, Kevin Vallely, had called for the use of custom, kiln-dried, clear cedar siding. However, after the initial round of budgeting, he and the homeowners opted for a more finance-friendly Hardie lap siding.

As the project began to take shape, it became clear aesthetically, that Hardie would not suffice and that the siding matter must be revisited. After much consideration, a mock-up of a third siding system (called Resysta) was done for the client. The fibre reinforced hybrid material is produced of 60% rice husks, 22% common salt and 18% mineral oil and makes for a low-maintenance, waterfront friendly siding.

It also costs more in terms of materials, and more in terms of labour to install. In fact, it more than doubled the budget line-item. And so was born a change order.

Site-driven/engineer change orders

After months of blasting and excavation on the granite-heavy Cliffhanger site, the engineer determined the structural need to reinforce the foundation through the construction of additional buttress walls which would tie the foundation to the rock faces at the edges of the excavation and retain backfill. This change order impacted costs not only though additional material and labour needs, but also through the resulting impact on job-site access.

Contributor: Dalit Holzman, Econ Group Ltd.

 
intgen_house_1

The New RS-1 Housing Type: How deeper consideration equates to innovation and sustainability

It’s a new approach on an old theme: build a property for the long-term. Incorporate the family’s needs now, the kids’ future needs as they attend University in 10 years. Build it for the grandparents now and the homeowners as they age. By incorporating three livable units, the architecture evolves with the people who inhabit it.
- Kenneth Chooi, DSK Architecture

 

GENERAL PROBLEM DESCRIPTION

In the second-least affordable major city worldwide in which to buy a house, Vancouver homeowners and homeowner-hopefuls are faced with the very real question of if and how they can afford a home. In 2011 Mr. and Mrs. Average Vancouverite paid $678,500 for their home with their annual income of $63,800 (that’s a factor of 10.6%, second only to Hong Kong’s staggering 12.6%), so it’s no wonder that inhabitants are constantly on the lookout for novel ways to make homeownership financially feasible. Generally speaking, the hot housing climate has forced Vancouverites either up or out. Housing “flips” have increased the cost of housing (while funding many a Vancouver homeowner up the financial ladder), and sales to foreign wealth (by those leaving the Vancouver market) have done much the same. So what happens to a family who is growing out of their dilapidated teardown of inflated value within the neighbourhood they have always lived, have always loved? Especially when their zoning says no to stratifying in order to sell off a chunk? What happens when the family considers fully the future impact of the home in which they live, both environmentally and sociologically? When they are aware of life cycles of not only the building materials but also the building inhabitants: grandparents, parents and children alike?

SOLUTION

With greater housing density and affordability a key component of any vital city within our modern day, the City of Vancouver shifted RS1 zoning in 2009 to allow for legal basement rental suites and legal laneway rental houses. For our case study Point Grey family, this change in zoning translated to positive potential in the way of cash flow and made staying in their neighbourhood financially feasible. “The zoning changes inspired a new housing type for the Vancouver area,” says Kenneth Chooi of DSK Architecture and designer of the home. “In the short term, the couple and their children will inhabit the main floors of the main home and rent out both the basement suite and laneway house. In the long term, all three spaces within the open, flexible plan will evolve as its occupants grow and change. The suites can accommodate any family member at any stage of life: from retired grandparents to growing children in need of future habitation. In this sense, the property becomes inter-generational.” Within the award-winning micro-community (Built Green’s Most Innovative Home 2012) outdoor garden spaces and courtyards are shared by all occupants, serving as centerpieces to the community. Healthy spaces (the children’s garden, playroom, under the stair nook) inspire discovery and imaginative play, while the main house’s top floor relaxation room and deck garden afford privacy away from others. Furthermore, the inter-generational house is designed to respond to the climate, site and needs of the occupants. Based on passive concepts of energy use, its form was borne of the need to maximize incoming solar energy, utilize natural ventilation and capture mountain views through the orientation of windows, rooms and livable cool rooftop areas. Natural and stack effect ventilation provide passive cooling throughout the house, window openings allow summer breezes to enter the garden and houses but are protected by overhangs to minimize summer sun / maximize winter sun, south facing concrete floors serve as thermal mass, and cool/green roofs harvest rainwater for irrigation use. “Before even considering all its modern environmental bells and whistles (from its state of the art HRV to its LEED certification underway), the Inter-Generational Home is ecologically remarkable due to the optimized way it was constructed,” offers Marcel Studer of Econ Group Construction and Development Ltd., builder of the home. “Instead of erecting the property’s wall, floor and roof systems over a six week period, we were able to do it in 4 extremely rainy days. By prefabricating panels offsite we were able to build to a higher quality, more quickly and with less waste; this translated to less carrying costs and financing charges for the homeowners during the building process.” In one of the most beautiful cities in the world, constrained geographically by the mountains and ocean, this new, environmental spin on an old theme of living together as families, may very well be just the solution to typify Vancouver’s future.

TECHNICAL DETAILS

Econ Group Construction and Development Ltd. is a Vancouver-based, medium sized design-build firm in its 13th year of business, positioned as the only explicitly modern residential contractor in the Lower Mainland. By executing minimalist details of modern architecture through a lens of environmental responsibility Econ Group actualizes low-impact, simple beauty. Its core commitment to sustainability and balance extends to the atmosphere of its workspaces.

finished home sign

Affordability in Passive Housing

In 1977 the Saskatchewan Conservation House was built in Regina as a demonstration project. According to the Canadian Passive House Institute, this (right here in Canada) was the birthplace of Passive House science. Yet it was not until 1986 that the Passivhaus movement began to gain momentum within Germany.

Since then, the German building community has honed its methods over time and, at this point, there are over 20,000 Passive Houses in the world (source: CanPHI).

In its 2010 economic analysis of Quebec’s Montebello Passive House, CanPHI reports that the total incremental costs required to reach the Passive House standard within a new 1550 sq. ft. single-storey detached house were $26,000. However, due to cost-savings resulting from its remarkable energy performance (80-90% more efficient that a home built to code), $26,000 was saved in heating costs within a mere 16.5 years (assuming a modest annual fuel price increase of 3%).

Merging the Greens: looking longer at Vancouver housing affordability

It’s no news that Vancouver’s average monthly carrying costs for a new home far exceed the 30% of household income mark of housing affordability. As RBC’s Economics Research arm reported in March 2012 owning a home at current prices would still take up a huge chunk (86% in the case of a bungalow) of a typical household budget. And while it is astonishing that Canada is still the only G-8 country with neither a National Housing Strategy nor a coordinated strategy on affordable housing, we are pleased at our City’s recent reinvigorated efforts to tackle housing affordability.

As a modern residential contractor doing business in Vancouver, Econ Group is well aware of the financial challenges in not only owning a home, but also in the underlying process of its construction. We live and work in a place where labour is not cheap, construction regulations are time-consuming and climate constraints are structurally demanding. In a nut-shell, and as elementary as it may seem, what is inexpensive to build in Regina might never be inexpensive to build here in Vancouver.

However, thanks to Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan we now all have a shared mandate which we must meet in order to even move forward with homebuilding. From 2020 onward all new buildings constructed in Vancouver will be required to be carbon neutral in operations. With 55% of Vancouver’s greenhouse gas emissions caused by the electricity and natural gas that buildings use, this requirement will be of enormous positive impact. What’s more is that while some may see this (“yet another”) requirement by the City as a further financial burden negatively impacting the bottom-line of affordability, Econ Group sees it all as an incredible opportunity to merge the two greens: dollars and ecology.

As with all other building materials, the costs associated with the wares of environmentally responsible construction are determined by the laws of supply and demand. The quicker that early adopters (both home-owners and home-builders alike) of the carbon-neutral mandate fully embrace utilizing materials standard to Passive House and Net-Zero building methodologies, the quicker the costs will come down to light the way to a future we all can truly afford.

Pinterest Screenshot

New website, new social media in Econ’s marketing mix

Econ Group is excited to announce the launch of its newly designed website www.econgroup.ca.

Now utilizing WordPress coding the site incorporates a Blog space, a Twitter feed and many updated project photos. “The Deep Focus (from Elegant Themes) template we’ve adapted really conveys the look that we often achieve in the modern homes we build. Our previous website’s designer (and owner of one of Econ’s Design-Built homes), Edmund Arceo at Spiderplus Graphics worked his magic and it was just a perfect fit,” says Dalit Holzman, Econ Group’s Manager of Communication and Marketing.

What’s more is that with the further functionality programmed by Vancouver’s own awesome team at SplitMango the site now will stay up-to-date more continuously, with fresh photo galleries and links to Econ’s multiple social media platforms.

Pinterest is taking social media by storm, to be sure. The virtual Mecca of digital curation is providing us and our clients an invaluable resource for cataloguing visual design and building resources. Says Michael Dutson, Principal of Econ Group, “Pinterest means that when a client says they want a set of modern stairs, for example, we can just click to our ‘Staircases’ board to help them convey to us exactly the kind of look they are after. It is an intensely powerful tool for anyone doing business with anything having a visual component.”

In addition to Econ’s new presence on Pinterest, we also have a growing number of followers on Twitter (@econgroupltd) and Facebook (at Econ Group Construction and Development Ltd.)

“Econ feels so fortunate to be involved in conversation spanning from green city planning to cutting-edge architecture to construction management software,” says Econ’s Dalit Holzman. “The goal for our next stage of Marketing growth is to facilitate even more dialogue between the design world and homeowners embarking on the home-building process. Econ Group understands that at the heart of any beautifully designed and built home lies a construction process based on a spirit of open-communication and an ability to listen. When a homeowner feels that one of the largest undertakings of their personal life (i.e., the building of their home) has been a joy-filled experience…well, just think of how that rubs off on their subsequent day-today life within that home.”

corecon2

Construction Management enters the modern age

We at Econ Group are excited to share great news regarding the Corecon software we’ve been using for estimating, project management and job cost control.

The developer of the software has just released its newest, and most exciting collaboration tool: TeamLink.

Corecon’s TeamLink Portal connects fully the internal efforts of employees and gives project owners and other outside team members secure, real-time access to important project information. The portal, when utilized properly, aids communication, thereby reducing changes in the field and shortening schedules.

Via our computers and SmartPhones this portal gives the right Econ member or supplier/sub-trade the right information at the right time. In an industry where volumes of information are exchanged among project team members throughout the course of a project, streamlining communication is a crucial aspect to maximizing productivity, mitigating risk and increasing project success.

In a nutshell, with TeamLink, all communications run through a consolidated network, so that documents, changes and all other notes are stored in one place. As with other software of this type, permissions are granted so that the owner, architect, sub-trades, etc. will see data meant only for their respective eyes, while full access will be granted to our internal Econ team.

Corecon Construction Management Software


Corecon Technologies Construction Software affords Econ Group complete visibility into every facet of construction project management. The comprehensive program is a web-based suite used for estimating, project management, job cost control, and scheduling that incorporates industry best practices and improves productivity from the office to the job-site.

Econ Group is the first local construction company of our size to have implemented this technology.

Estimating: As a Corecon user, Econ Group offers timely estimates, with the ability to quickly revise the budget based on alternate client choices or through the change order process.

Project Budget: Corecon software offers an integrated Job Cost Control solution that continuously assists Econ’s project team and accounting staff. With a centralized, single point of data entry, Corecon’s Financial Dashboards provide management a clear, real-time overview on active projects.

Time tracking: For companies that self-perform work, tracking employee labor and/or equipment on a daily or weekly basis is crucial to keeping projects in line with budgets. Corecon’s Time and Expenses module allows Econ Group employees to enter their own time remotely via Smart Phone and supervisors to review and approve.

Scheduling: Corecon’s technology provides a cutting edge solution for scheduling. No longer needing to designate an individual in our office to manage and print schedules Econ now uses this web-based solution to provide distributed teams the ability to view and update task information anytime, anywhere.

Econ Group Construction gets ready to grow

Really, it’s no secret that neither Vancouver’s economy nor its housing market is in any sort of the same rough shape as is being experienced south of the 49th. Just last month the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) reported that there were 1,555 housing starts in the Vancouver Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) in January 2012, compared to 1,436 starts in January 2011. Truly, as the only explicitly modern residential contractor in the Lower Mainland, Econ Group can attest that single-family home construction just isn’t hurting here in Vancouver.

“In 2010, we began to realize that the work wasn’t slowing and that we just had to get ready to grow from small to truly medium-sized in a relatively short time frame,” says Michael Dutson, one of Econ Group’s Principals. “In an industry where unforeseen schedule and cost impacts often occur as par-for-the-course, we at Econ Group have always expected more of ourselves.”

As prerequisite to any further, well-organized growth Econ Group identified its core back-end Project Management process to be in need of a major overhaul. After a period of product testing, the team finally settled on Corecon Technologies’ Construction Management software for all its Project Management, estimating and scheduling needs.

Internal office structure

“Both internally and externally, we have always strived for easy, honest and well-informed communication. Implementing Project Management software was one thing, but as our business has grown over the past 10 years, the responsibilities of myself and my business partner, Mike, became cumbersome,” says Marcel Studer, the other of Econ’s Principals. “We found ourselves needing support staff to carry and direct our growth.”

To that end, Econ Group brought on both an Operations Manager to control the Corecon-maintained backend and a Manager of Communications and Marketing to keep the team busy with exactly the kinds of modern, forward-thinking home construction on which they have built their strong reputation.

With a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of Vienna, Patricia Lubensky, Operations Manager, brings to Econ Group 13 years of experience within the fields of technical account management and controlling, software development and IT system administration. A passionate yogi and mother of two, Patricia’s attention to detail and thorough communication style makes her the perfect fit within the Econ team.

Dalit Holzman, Econ’s new Manager of Communications and Marketing, comes to us freshly returned from a five-year stint on Vancouver Island. Through her 2 years as Manager of Operations, Customer Service and Marketing at Natural Pod (Canada’s leading manufacturer/online-retailer of natural toys) and founding of the Vancouver Mommy Map and Co-op Radio’s It Takes a Village, Dalit’s foundation within her job-description is solid.

Continuing Professional Development

In a field where staying current on the latest innovations and certifications is essential, Econ Group has been hard at work keeping up to date and in the know.