How to Build Better Homes with Emily Mottram
Episode 5719th October 2022 • Construction Disruption • Isaiah Industries
00:00:00 01:02:16

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Architect Emily Mottram has made it her goal to educate Maine homeowners on the potential for healthier, tighter, more efficient homes. Through her architecture practice and recently released book, Pretty Good House, Emily shares her expertise, aiming to level the playing field between homeowners and trade professionals.

Building better homes helps everyone. It improves each homeowner’s quality of life, puts less strain on the environment, and minimizes callbacks for contractors. In this interview, Emily shares spots for improvement, like affordable housing, oversized and chemically saturated lawns, and the importance of HVAC.

For more tips on building science, contact Emily through her website, mottramarch.com, find her on the E3 Podcast and B.S. and Beer Show, or message her on LinkedIn or Instagram.


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Transcripts

Emily Mottram:

:

Part of the reason why we wrote the Pretty Good House book is because the market doesn't necessarily know what they're getting, what they care about, right? They sort of have this idea of what the expectation is in their houses, but they don't know how to ask for those things. They don't know how those things translate to both a budget that they're building to or environmental health and indoor air quality.

Todd Miller:

:

Welcome to the Construction Disruption podcast, where we uncover the future of building and remodeling. I'm Todd Miller of Isaiah Industries, a manufacturer of specialty metal roofing and other building materials. Today, my co-host is Ryan Bell, our creative director. How are you doing, Ryan?

Ryan Bell:

:

I'm doing great, Todd. How are you?

Todd Miller:

:

I'm doing well also, although the day we're recording this, of course, is right after Hurricane Ian has struck down in Florida and headed into the Carolinas now. So certainly our hearts are heavy and thoughts and prayers go out to those folks. It's been interesting, though. So, you know, for the last several years whenever a hurricane hits, I'm always kind of looking at the buildings and the structures and have had the opportunity of after a couple of storms to be at ground zero fairly soon after the storm. Yeah, it's been interesting. Once again, as I've looked at images online from Ian, you know, you see what always happens. Newer structures and structures that have been built to code tend to do dramatically better than older structures and structures that would have been built under older codes. And, you know, I guess that goes without saying, that's what you would expect, obviously. But it's still interesting because you just always see it. And one of the things I had seen on Facebook, someone was talking about roofing materials and, you know, some roofing materials have 120 mile an hour wind warranties. It's not uncommon with some of the better roofing materials these days. And, you know, someone said, well, 120 isn't high enough anymore. It needs to be 180 or roofs need to be completely wind proof and indestructible. And, you know, that got me to thinking, though. I mean, yeah, everyone's not going to argue that and that's what we are always testing and designing for. I know the metal roofing industry in particular, we have to pass a wind uplift test that are simulating wind speeds typically of 200, 210 miles an hour. But, you know, the problem is if you put that on a structure that starts moving at 115 miles an hour or if you put that on a structure that doesn't have proper attic ventilation. So the roof decking is taking a lot of pressure and buffeting and movement, the roof system isn't going to survive. And so I think about that a lot in the roofing industry and that, you know, we go out and promote wind resistant roofing systems, but yet it's still going to be limited by the performance of that structure in general as well. So I just think that's been interesting to think about and and certainly thought-provoking to look at some of the images we're seeing coming out of the destruction of of this particular storm. So that kind of leads us into our guest today, who is an architect and really looking forward to talking with her. I had the pleasure of meeting her a couple of months ago when I was on her show, and it was a great pleasure and really enjoyed her. So today our guest is Emily Mottram. She is principal of Mottram Architecture based in Cumberland, Maine. She's also a coauthor of Taunton Press' Pretty Good House Book: A Guide to Creating Better Homes. Working with both custom homes and tailored renovations, Mottram Architecture wants to make every home safe, comfortable, beautiful, efficient, healthy and special, as they say. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, Emily is also host of the E3 podcast, E3 Standing for Energy and Efficiency with Emily. Emily, welcome to Construction Disruption. It's great to have you on the show today.

Emily Mottram:

:

Hi. Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be here and hear what you guys are up to.

Todd Miller:

:

Well, thank you. And I really enjoyed being on your show. I've listened to a number of episodes. You do a great job, so we'll certainly encourage everyone to check out the E3 podcast Energy and Efficiency with Emily. So you have a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Penn State University. You're very active with organizations such as the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, Maine Indoor Air Quality Council, and the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Love to have you kind of kick things off today by telling us a little bit about how you came to study and practice architecture. Was this a childhood dream of watching Mr. Brady on The Brady Bunch or something bigger or what what really led you down this path?

Emily Mottram:

:

I did watch The Brady Bunch when I was a kid, but no, that wasn't really how I got into it. My grandfather was a contractor. Heavy construction, bigger buildings and bridges and that kind of stuff. But he was a contractor my whole life. My dad is actually a dairy farmer, and so I sort of lived the whole farm to table lifestyle that I didn't even know was a thing when I was a kid. But I grew up in this very handy, you know, environment. And our high school luckily was a rural high school with an agricultural program and a tech program, so I actually took a lot of tech classes, including drafting, which was my favorite class. I had a phenomenal teacher, Mr. Oatman, who was wonderful. And he said, architecture school is hard. And I said, okay, sign me up. And that was how I went to architecture school. I was always really interested in art, I was interested in construction. Had my dad let me do anything that I wanted to do and be totally impractical, I probably would have gone to art school, but architecture was a nice balance between something that was both practical and also applied to the art part of me. So then he also said, You can't go out of state, you have to stay in-state. So I lucked out, I grew up in Pennsylvania. There are five architecture schools in Pennsylvania so I had a choice. As you said, I went to Penn State. And the number one reason that I went to Penn State, great campus, really loved it, phenomenal architecture program, but was because they had study abroad as part of their program. So I don't know if you guys know anything about architecture school. They're usually either five years or four and two where you do internship while you're going to school, and they're very sequential. You have to take your classes in order. And I knew I wanted to study abroad, I knew I wanted to travel. And Penn State makes it part of their program, not just something that you could do. You know, lots of people can study abroad when they're in college, but at the other schools, if I wanted to do that, I would actually have to spend yet another year in architecture school and five years is already a lot. So I knew I wanted to do it. We got to study abroad. We lived in downtown Rome. It was an amazing semester. I'm so glad that I did it, but that was sort of the driving factor between what I did that. But at 18 you sort of sign up to go to architecture school and you either love it or you get out of architecture school because at that point you've just kind of you've decided to commit your life to doing these things. And so then you do five years of architecture school and at least three years of internship before you can sit for your license. So you're ten plus years into your career before you're at a point where you could do something different. So at that point, you're committed.

Ryan Bell:

:

Funny story, so I initially wanted to go into architecture when I applied to Kent State, which is where I ended up going. They have a great architecture program there, but I didn't get accepted and they said, Well, just pick something to start out and then you can transfer into the program if your grades are good enough. But I ended up sticking with what I went with, but I shared a dorm with a lot of the architecture students, and I saw the the amount of time they spent in the studio and the hard work. So when you kind of giggled when you said, you know, it's going to be very hard, like I completely get that. And then my sister went into interior design at Kent State as well, and she did the travel abroad thing and spent time living over there. And I know that that was a huge part of, you know, her education and feels very similar about it and and the role that it played in her life and that part of her life. So what sort of projects does your firm work with and is there a certain type of category of those projects that you enjoy working with the most?

Emily Mottram:

:

Yeah. So my firm is primarily single-family residential for a couple of reasons. One, when I started out, it was just me and it's really hard to do larger scale projects than that. So before I was on my own, I did a lot of multifamily projects, other energy engineering projects. When the market got terrible in the 2008, 2009 timeframe, I decided that I needed to either learn what was going to be really important for Maine or stop being an architect. That was the point in my career where I had gotten a license and could do something else. And so I was always really interested in I mean, I mentioned my grandfather was a contractor. He had a solar panel on his roof to make hot water when I was a kid. So like well before the curve, really thinking about it. I grew up in a farming family. You know, you use everything, you repurpose everything. You know, you grow up growing what you eat and freezing it and stuff. And so I think I always was really interested in better performance, durability, longevity, keeping things from the landfill. So I started doing a lot of energy consulting, which really pushed my practice. Even when I first got into the field, I thought, there has to be a better way. Like first we weren't doing anything efficient, then we were trying to apply efficiency to a design we already designed. And I was like, This doesn't make sense to me. And so I started doing a lot more energy consulting, learning about buildings and how the science relates to the buildings. And so now I specifically only do high-performance residential building, kind of moving the needle forward on both healthy indoor air quality building for your climate zone. So, you know, here in Maine, it's cold. So we want to build so you stay warm in the wintertime and just using materials that, you know, you guys were talking about Florida. Like how cool would it be if the materials that came down during these storms were either fully recyclable or could just go back to the land because they got taken down or pulled apart? Right. So thinking a lot more about the materials that we use in a product, what happens to it when we take it off the structure or how much embodied energy is there in what we're putting onto the structure to begin with? And so that's kind of where my practice has gone and what we do because we're still small, kind of sticking in the single-family residential, which isn't going to solve the climate crisis, but at least gives us, you know, a forward way to kind of move forward and evaluate things. And then part of what I do with my other part of my life is, you know, the podcast and the book that we wrote and, you know, the B.S. and Beer show is just talking about the bigger avenues that have an impact on all of this. So the projects, I like, you asked about the projects I like the best. It's easier to build a new house, but it's maybe the architect in me that finds it fun and challenging to work with an existing structure to figure out what you can do. So do we need more buildings? The most sustainable building is the one you don't build, right.

Todd Miller:

:

Good point. Well, you talked a little bit about how your passion has been high-performance design and also building into or leading into more environmental benefits as well. I'm just curious, is that something that you generally find Maine homeowners are also caring about, or do you have to go through an education process with them? Or do you find just that the ones who care about it find you? Which is awesome. I'm just curious how that works.

Emily Mottram:

:

So I think that's a multi-part answer to that. And people ask me that a lot, like, how do you get your clients to care about these things? And there's certainly different answers to it. The first thing is I talk about it a lot, so generally people who come to me sort of already know that. But part of the reason why we wrote the Pretty Good House book is because the market doesn't necessarily know what they're getting and what they care about, right. They sort of have this idea of, you know, what the expectation is in their houses, but they don't know how to ask for those things. They don't know how those things translate to both a budget that they're building to or environmental health and indoor air quality. We've had some chemically sensitive clients in the last couple of years, which requires you to do things a little bit different than mainstream. And that, I think is something like 85% of houses or more in the United States are built without an advocate for homeowners to understand what they're getting and what they're asking for. So part of that was to write the book so that we could, you know, say to other homeowners like this is this is the way we practice. This is why it's important, this is what you're asking for and this is kind of our response to it. So because I've been talking about it for a long time, generally my clients kind of already know that till they get to me. But when I started out, I just started talking about the things that I thought were important. And, you know, kind of put up a bar that said, you know, this is the minimum standard we're willing to practice to and these are the reasons why. And so I actually do a ton of education, both with new people who come to us at the different symposiums that we've been to, just people who have talked to me on the podcast so that other people, both professionals and homeowners, can kind of hear that thought process, I guess. And then the other answer is, that this isn't always the right answer for everybody. You know, there's different tasks that like Passive House is a phenomenal program, but we have to have it be this crowdsourced thing so that there is something for more people to work towards, right? Like if Passive House was code, then what would be the next thing? So, so there's all these kind of interesting dialog to, you know, what we're doing. Although I do think that if we really improved the standard and everybody was made to follow the standard and it meant that we didn't build as many single-family homes, we'd have to think about housing in a different way, which I find truly exciting. And so it's yeah, I don't know that that was actually an answer to your question.

Todd Miller:

:

No, that was that was good. Very good. Well, you've talked a little bit about your book, Pretty Good House. And I know you wrote it with some others. That was just released very recently, correct?

Emily Mottram:

:

Yeah, technically, I think the official release date was like July of 2022, but we had preorders available beforehand and they sold out of all the preorders in the first three days. So even though it came out on July 26th, there were a lot of people who didn't get it and still don't have it. But they're back in stock now, I think. So, people who have been waiting for the book hopefully you'll get one soon. But yeah, just released this year.

Todd Miller:

:

So, you know, that's kind of described as putting forth sort of an open source framework and guidelines for building and renovating in a way that focuses on the environment and also the inhabitants. What can people expect? What's the layout of the book? What can they expect as they go through it?

Emily Mottram:

:

So the layout of the book. So this first, the Pretty Good House book is, we touch a little bit on renovations, but anybody who's in the building world knows that renovations are super complicated. It depends on so many different factors with an existing building. So the book is probably a little bit more specifically about new construction, but the ideas behind it are applicable to a lot of what you do. Which is these are the things that you should think about when you're getting ready to or planning to design or renovate an existing structure. It goes from everything to the beginning chapter, which is it's almost terrible that you have to start with this chapter, the beginning of the book. But there are regulatory constraints, right? Like, you can't do whatever you want on your property. Like, that's a surprise to a lot of people. So you can't just do whatever you want. So when you get past that, you can't do whatever you want. You go into things like, you know, what's a good design? And, you know, windows and doors have so much impact on design. Not just like this is the style of the house, this is the operation of the window, but this is how much daylight you're going to get into a space. And, you know, this is how much less heating or lighting that you'll have to offset if you do a good job planning this in the beginning. But it also goes into materials, right? You guys are in a building product industry. And, you know, another architect, Steve Baczek, who probably most people have heard of, said there's no such thing as bad products. I think there are probably a couple of bad products out there. But he said there's just bad installations, right. And so part of the book is also about knowing how all of your products go together, right? Like, what's the sandwich that you have created and do all of these materials do what you're anticipating them to do? So it's not just say we've been putting up two by fours for 20 years and this is how it works. It's like no, new building products require us to think a little bit more about what's happening with our buildings. And the book is meant to kind of encourage you to both build a design team to help you get through that. You know, whether it's you, whether it's the builder, whether it's a building scientist, you know, whoever is part of your team, they'll get through all of these materials, play well together, and we know what we're doing. But also there's an entire chapter on materials which says, Oh, by the way, make sure your building materials don't have any of these things in it, because now that you've sealed it all in, you've sealed in all these things with you as well. So knowing what's in that. And then the very last chapter of the book is about verification and client education, which is things that we'd like to push the industry towards, is if you don't know what you're building towards, you don't know what you built, right? Like if you put in a mechanical system but you don't test the mechanical system, do you know if it works? You know, if you built a house and you're like, yeah, we made it really tight and we did all these tapes, but you don't do a blower door test. Do you know if you built it tight? Do you know if you missed a hole somewhere, you know, during construction that's now going to become a place where water can get into a material that shouldn't get wet? Those kinds of things, and so. And that you've built this house and you've given it to a client who now has no idea how to live in it or operate it. Right? Like you got to teach people how to use their structures and when to do maintenance and when to do these things. And so the book is more of a why you should care about these things, than this is exactly how you do it. It's not meant to be a how to, it's meant to get you to think about these are the critical things that we think about when we're doing these structures and that they're directly related both to the climate in which you're building and the microclimate on your site. You guys, we're talking about wind. If you are on the side of a hill and it's super windy, you might have to change some of your details. Or we also talked a little bit about Florida. If you're building in Florida somewhere near a hurricane zone, what have you built in to the resiliency of your building to either let you stay during a hurricane, make the building survive, or that if it doesn't survive, what happens to all the stuff? So that's kind of the what you should expect from the book. If you want a deep dive like water and buildings or buildings don't lie or super building science technical book because that's the level you're at. That's not the book. This isn't the book for you. This is a book about all the things we think about and how to, we hope, get the market to understand what we're doing.

Todd Miller:

:

Well, no, it sounds like a fantastic resource for, you know, both property owners and also for contractors to make sure that they are thinking about the right things. And, you know, I think anyone when they go about building a new home as a homeowner or a property owner, you know, they're they're putting a lot of dependance on that contractor or that designer or whoever they're working with. And certainly be nice to know the questions to ask and things to be looking for. So I'm kind of curious, what are some areas where you feel that both contractors and designers should be better serving property owners, homeowners right now? Are there any particular areas where you think, gee whiz, if if we could start doing this on a regular basis, it would really serve our clients better?

Emily Mottram:

:

Yeah, there's probably two things that I hope that and I say this a lot, I think everybody should have a blower door and an infrared camera, right? So that we can verify the structures because building tighter homes that are better is going to be really important. I mean, if you think we're talking resiliency, the West Coast is burning, right? We're building tighter structures. So you're not breathing in quite so much of that wildfire smoke, right. That's going to be important. So I think that we should be doing a better job on actually monitoring whether or not we're building tighter structures. You know, blower door testing is not new. It's not you know, it's a series of details. It might be hard to do the first one, but after that it gets significantly easier. So houses don't need to breathe, people need to breathe, houses need to dry. Like that's the thing there. So I think that we could be doing better on that and understanding the materials that we put together so that when we're building it tighter, we're also allowing it to dry. And you kind of have to know what your building materials do in order to make that happen. And then the second thing is, and has probably always been HVAC. We have a real tendency in the single-family world to just kind of ignore HVAC. Ventilation is critically important. I think these last two years and the pandemic has made that the forefront of a lot of people's minds. And so ventilation is potentially getting better. But if you're building a new house, it's probably the most money you're ever going to spend on one single thing. And so, like, make sure that you put ventilation in. So if your house is leaky, that's not fresh air. The fresh air is only if you have mechanical ventilation that's also filtering it. Even if you have your windows open, that's still not necessarily fresh air. That's just outside air. So could be fresher than what's in your house, but it may not be. It's just outside air. So thinking about, you know, we don't breathe through our skin. We breathe through our lungs. Our lungs filter things, like that is the same in our houses. We have these systems. They need to filter the air for us for a number of different reasons. That's fresh air and so HVAC because the other part of that is heating and cooling, which is oftentimes super oversized. And so now we have all this equipment that's oversized that doesn't run efficiently. You know, maybe it won't get a callback, but it's not helping, you know, environmentally budget for people who are doing stuff. So I think that unfortunately, we don't spend enough time with our mechanical friends and to get this part right. And so I really love to encourage builders and architects to if you're not interested in it, that's okay. But make sure that you have somebody on your team who is interested in it who can give that to your homeowners. Like I was at a conference recently and one of the mechanical people said, Are you willing to give an air quality monitor to your clients afterwards and feel confident that if they call you up because there's an issue that like, you know, and I don't know that everybody would feel that way. You know, we take a lot of time going through and trying to figure out what's in it. So if I give one to one of my clients and they call me, I'm one, I don't want them to call me because that means there's an issue. But I'm glad they call me because there's an issue that hopefully we can help them to resolve. So those are the two things I think our industry could be doing better.

Todd Miller:

:

Well, and it occurred to me that both of those have a lot to do with things folks who have multiple chemical sensitivity are going to be concerned about. And you mentioned earlier you've worked with some folks with I guess I'll just say MCS. I'm just kind of curious because I think that's an important topic. And it's interesting, as a roofing manufacturer, we have had lots of folks come to us with MCS who are, you know, trying to spec a roofing system that they will not react to. What does that process look like when someone comes to you and says, hey, you know, I've got these issues and help me figure out how to build a home or remodel my home in a way that I can live in it?

Emily Mottram:

:

I mean, I think some of it comes down to depends on what they've been tested for. So some of our clients know that they have a reaction to petroleum-based products, which unfortunately there's petroleum in like everything, right? And if you don't have an unlimited budget, it means that you can't eliminate every part of it. But like we've done things where now in the Northeast, this is a little bit easier for us. So I'm not sure this would work everywhere, but we have access to a lot of wood here. So instead of using plywood, we used board sheathing. Like that allowed us to just eliminate a lot of glue. Instead of using typical petroleum release agents on our concrete forms, we used a soy-based release agent instead of using insulation that might have something else in it, like a spray foam or some fiberglass still has formaldehyde in it or something like that. We use cellulose because we know what's in the cellulose materials. If we could go even farther, we probably would have done either a wood fiber, potentially a hemp bat, straw panels like things that are naturally occurring in the world. But then we also too gave material to our client to have them sort of test out, right. And this isn't an exact science. And maybe there are, I don't have a Ph.D. in all the chemical sensitivities. I fully admit that's what we did was give our client some stuff. We actually had some some things that were like, get in your car and sit in your car with some of these materials where you're kind of stuck in a very small environment and see if you have a lot of reaction to any of these things. So we did we sent her, as I termed it, a box of trash to test. We took job material from a bunch of our different job sites and just said, hey, do you have a reaction to any of these things? You know, we used some older materials, right? So things that potentially could have off gassed for 25 years, right. They're kind of past that. Reminded them that, you know, new furniture is also going to have something. Anything that's got stain guard on it is like you're asking that material to do something that's not inherent to the material. So clearly it's got some kind of chemical in it that makes it do that or work that way. And then we just the one nice thing about the Living Building Challenge is that they've created a red list of materials and products, and the more Living Building Challenge projects that people do, the easier you can see what's in it or the environmental product data sheets to that. You know, a lot of product manufacturers are doing start to talk about what's in materials and if you can kind of eliminate some of the big trigger things, that helps. I mean, low-VOC paints are available everywhere. What you need to know about low-VOC paints is if you painted a dark color, they can give you a base that's no, not low-VOC to use with a low-VOC paint. So they don't always happen to be low-VOC or if they use it in a paint sprayer, they can mix additives to it. So you just need to make sure your painter knows that your client has chemical sensitivities. Again, like you said, metal roofing, right? Getting rid of asphalt shingles, going to metal roofing. There are all kinds of things that you can do when you're evaluating your materials to try to help people who have those chemical sensitivities as like just the more natural your material is. The same thing with like the grocery store, the fewer ingredients it has in it, the less harmful it probably is.

Todd Miller:

:

Sure. Well, and I think that's interesting. I can really relate to your comment about the box of trash and because we often do that with folks, too, I mean, well, I feel a little guilty, but we'll send them samples to see if they react. And, you know, their comment is always, yeah, don't feel bad. That's what we've got to do. That's the only way I can know for sure. And so you always hope that, you know, you don't send someone something they have a problem with, but unfortunately that's kind of where it starts. So very interesting. Well, I guess in general, how does your relationship look like with your clients or is there anything you feel that you do different in that initial getting to know each other, getting to understand their goals phase that you really think benefits that relationship throughout the project?

Emily Mottram:

:

I would say a couple of things. One, it's very traditional for the architect to get value-engineered out during a project. So we really try to talk to them in the beginning that we're here to be your advocate during construction. So when the contractor asks you something or wants to do something else that you know, they don't want to stand on the jobsite and figure it out in the field and do all of that stuff, right? They want our help with that. So we try to get them to understand that we're there, to advocate for them to make the process better through the flow. And in the reverse of that, we ask that they pick a builder during design. So the builder knows going into it too, like what are the critically important things? So one of the chemically-sensitive house projects that we did, the builder was involved from the very beginning, so he knew and he sat down with all of his subcontractors and said, Before you just do something that's industry standard, like just give it a second thought, right? And so if you can build a team that's really respectful to each other, you have a much better project. So I do a lot of that education with my clients in the beginning that, I am here for you the whole time, will always be here. You can always call me, will always pick up the phone, answer it, try to be an advocate for you, try to be there for you. And I think that translates really well because people don't know what they don't know before they start doing it. So education is probably my number one priority. And then I also tell people in the beginning, you can't really hurt my feelings because I don't have to live here. You have to live here in the end, you know. And so if I've done a good job listening to you, that means that we've translated your idea into something that's practical and buildable, and that will tell you if it's just bad practice, right? Like if there's just something that's just, you know, we can't have a structure with, you know, no walls at all, right? Like you have to hold it up somehow. They can't defy the laws of physics. But like, I don't have to live here, you have to live here. So speak up. Like, feel free to tell me whatever it is, tell me the things you like, but also tell me the things you don't like. So I think that helps us to really communicate well with our clients in the beginning. I mean, it's just like any time anybody talks about business or any field, it's 80% personality and 20% your actual skill in knowing everybody else and so.

Todd Miller:

:

I like that. So as you look out at the horizon and see what's happening and directions we're heading in construction design. Is there anything in particular that really excites you that you see coming down the pike?

Emily Mottram:

:

Oh, I mean, I am a technology person. I love great technology. And like, are we there yet with batteries and electric cars and all-electric houses? Absolutely not. But it is exciting to kind of be thinking about those things. Like our grid isn't set up for people to be all electric yet. I mean, getting batteries and the performance of batteries probably isn't where we want it to be. We're still mining materials to do that. But seeing that and seeing the solar power and seeing resilient structures where you've kind of created your own little microclimate on your site, to me, that's really exciting. And I love kind of seeing that. I love seeing how some of these higher standards are transitioning into our multifamily. Like it's actually way easier to build a passive house multifamily structure than it is to build a small single-family passive house. So seeing that and how we're transitioning to some of those projects, having better indoor air quality, better thermal envelopes, and better performance is exciting to me. So I would say, and maybe seeing more of our natural materials making it into the code. So like there's a section on straw bales in the code now, right. Like it took a long time to get there, but that's exciting. Making it more accessible for people to do that.

Todd Miller:

:

Very neat. One of our recent guests was Greg Lindsay. I had mentioned him earlier, he's sort of a futurist. And, you know, one of the things that we talked about was tech and we talked specifically about artificial intelligence and the role that that can even play in creative design and things. But he said, you know, the one thing that AI seemingly can never replace is human empathy and human emotion. And he was talking so much about how we may be able to utilize AI for some of the design and things and then have the human come in that can bring in that human element to enhance and and make it even better. And I thought that was pretty interesting as well.

Emily Mottram:

:

Yeah, that's cool.

Todd Miller:

:

So what challenges as a homeowner starts to think about, okay, I want to make my home more energy efficient. What are some of the challenges they encounter in that? I suppose part of it's probably cost, but what are some of the other challenges they may run into?

Emily Mottram:

:

Yeah, unfortunately, homeownership, whether you own a home that you want to renovate or whether you want to build is not a one-time fee sort of thing, right. You have to maintain that structure. There's no such thing as a zero-maintenance house. As much as we would love that to be the case, it does not exist. Another thing that I'm passionate about that I don't think I talked about at all is getting back to pollinator species and getting rid of the grass industry. So there's a multibillion dollar industry of mowing grass, between mowers and lawn seed and monoculture mono crop stuff. And so, but like, you know, I don't know that people always think about that when they buy a house and you're going to spend every Saturday for your entire summer mowing the grass and how much grass do you have and all that stuff. And so I'm super excited about seeing where that's going to go with it. But one of the most challenging things and the way you worded the question makes me think about renovation, is right now, I think that as building practitioners, it's important for us to start thinking about the embodied carbon emissions on day one. So adding a product to your structure, whether it's new or whether it's a renovation, has to be extracted, turned into a material transported to the job site. It has a lot of carbon emissions when it just shows up on day one. And with climate change and everything, we're seeing the increase in hurricanes, increase in wildfires, increase in all this stuff is these next ten years are really important, which means that carbon emissions from products showing up on day one is more important than the 100 year span of carbon emissions once it's in your house. So on existing houses, sometimes the right answer isn't to take out stuff that was okay in the nineties but wouldn't be the way that we do it now. Just because it already has its carbon emissions, because it's already there then to get more materials to add on top of it. And so it's this fine balance between when have you spent your carbon budget, how can you operate? Sometimes things that you wouldn't do if you were building new make sense when you're renovating and how much do you put into it? Can you take it off? I mean, existing houses will have asbestos, right, or lead. There's so many more things in existing houses that you have to think about. And then depending on how old it is, if your house is 100 years old, it's probably neither square or plumb any anymore. And then that just requires a lot of labor, which is cost to work with that. And you may only have a two by four and then spray foaming a two by four to try to get to a current energy level is neither good for your health or the environment, right? So it's like all of these things that come into play when you're doing stuff. Now, if you have something on your house that's at the end of life, should you replace it with something that is better? Absolutely. That's your opportunity to do it. And should you think about all the things you know, unfortunately with existing houses, it tends to always go the wrong way, like your heating system will die and you need to put in a new heating system. But if you had improved the air sealing and insulation, you could put in a smaller heating system or a different one. But it never works that way for homeowners, right? Like it's almost like something broke. And now I have to handle this. And this is going to be an unpopular opinion. But the window manufacturers have a grasp on the market that I just don't understand. But replacing your windows is generally one of the last things that I would do in a renovation. So unless it's physically falling out of your structure or cracked and broken. Generally, if a window replacement saves you a ton of money, it's only because we're better at how we install them now.

Todd Miller:

:

Yeah. No, I think that's interesting.

Ryan Bell:

:

Can we go back to the grass thing just briefly? I want to hear a little bit more about this. Can you just elaborate on a little more on like what would replace our lawns or grass in the scenario where like that.

Emily Mottram:

:

Yeah. So in all fairness, my office partner is a landscape architect who is absolutely brilliant and she talks a lot about using native plant species. So in some cases, if you look at the drought that they're having out west where people have lawns and they have to water their lawns in order to get their lawns to show up, like as great as it is, how many people need a soccer field in the backyard for their kids? Right. You could go to the soccer field. So like in drought areas, you want drought-tolerant plants. You know, you may not have a lawn or grass, that may not make sense. In other areas, I lived in upstate New York for a couple of years and my husband and I, when we moved there, were moving from a half an acre plot and we thought, Oh, we're going to get more acreage thinking like Maine, most of it would be wooded and you'd have a small lawn. No, they mow like eight acres of lawn. Like, what you even need eight acres of lawn for is beyond me. But that is a lot of, you know, gas and whatever because a lot of people want the super lush looking, whatever grass. If you plant a clover yard, you may not have to mow it like more than once or twice. Like, it just doesn't grow that tall. It's still green. Looks green. Like, if you really want to have a lawn, where's the right place to have a lawn? Can you have a wildfire buffer? Because the one thing that we don't talk about a lot when we talk about lawns is generally people don't like the things that pop up in their lawn that they don't want, like dandelions or clover or other things. But that creates a rich environment for the other animals that exist on this planet with us. And so, you know, we're getting rid of pollinator species for birds and bees and butterflies and all of those things, so. Plant the yard you need and no more than that, and then use the rest of it with different, different species of plants that you know. And unfortunately, everybody loves the beautiful wildflower meadow. That doesn't look good unless you maintain it, so you have to do things with that, too. But you're generally not mowing it and you're usually hopefully not putting harmful chemicals on it. That was another, I did a podcast with an architect from Florida. I'm going to say last year, could have been two years ago I lose track of time. And she was talking about everybody who sprays stuff on their lawns down in Florida, right. So to get rid of the bugs. But then that all gets washed into the Everglades. And now the Everglades are having difficulty with their species because there's a whole lot of Roundup in the Everglades. Or I use Roundup, it could be a number of other chemicals. So anyway, that's a whole diatribe on.

Ryan Bell:

:

Very interesting.

Emily Mottram:

:

And yeah, thinking about our yards, thinking about beyond our houses.

Ryan Bell:

:

It all makes a ton of sense. And I'm guilty of, you know, I'm a yard guy. I love my grass. I love having the nicest yard on our street. I put chemicals on it, but I'm increasingly becoming aware and not liking when I'm putting the chemicals down of, you know one, exposing myself to it, two my kids, to it, three, the environment, to it. You know, so very interesting. Thank you for elaborating on that.

Emily Mottram:

:

Yeah, well, we've been kind of as a learned culture to love the grass idea, right? Yeah, that's a learned behavior. So you're not alone in being somebody. And there are some people who just like to mow the grass, be outside for two hours, that's their thing. I think a lot of us, though, are like I would say I selectively mowed my grass this year, one, because it was pretty dry, and two, because environmentally I was into the whole like no mow May until more flowers kind of popped up. And so I mowed my grass like four times this year and that felt good environmentally. It didn't look good probably to my neighbors, but it worked for me.

Todd Miller:

:

I'm going to say, you plant the right stuff, Ryan, you can go out and push your mower all day long and not put any gas in it and actually run it. You can pretend mow.

Ryan Bell:

:

I am actually ready for a new lawnmower and I'm pretty sure I'm going to get an electric one.

Emily Mottram:

:

So see, so you've already thought about it. One step forward.

Todd Miller:

:

So, Emily, I think it's interesting that as an architect, you love remodeling projects and it's kind of interesting. I mean, I was probably 20 years into my career before I first ran into a roofing project where just for roofing, an architect had been called in. And yet I'm seeing that increasingly be the trend. You know, on the other hand, I look at most remodeling contractors and they're kind of independent. Lots tend to, you know, work a lot off of gut and experience. Kind of curious, what that relationship, I mean how do you keep from looking like the architect who is, I am the samurai here to save the day, step by the side contractor. Listen to me. How do you encourage that good relationship between you and the contractor?

Emily Mottram:

:

Well, I think I'm really lucky. Here in Maine, we just have a handful of phenomenal contractors, probably more than a handful. But generally when a client reaches out, they often will go to the builder first. And a lot of our builders, they'll just say, hey, you got to go talk to so-and-so first, because we don't want to chase bad with bad, right? So you can do lots of things in the renovation world that doesn't solve other issues, right? So if you're going to do a project or maybe you're just using currently available building products and you make a house tighter than it was before, but you don't. In the Northeast, you have a lot of dirt basements. You don't deal with the dirt basement. You created another issue. And so I don't know if it's just some of the mentality up here. We've been getting together at our local building science showroom for, you know, 12 plus years more people thinking about it or whatever, that we've settled ourselves into the roles of things that we want to do and things that we don't want to do to have collaborative projects. So the builder who's going to totally ignore anything I have to say doesn't call me and doesn't send clients my way. So there's still plenty of that going on. And there are some builders who like to and do well with sort of a design build situation. They like to think through it. That's also another avenue and there's nothing wrong with that as long as you're, you know, kind of answering all of the questions and not creating a worse situation out of something. It's the flippers that worry me a little bit. But that's its own other topic.

Todd Miller:

:

Yeah.

Emily Mottram:

:

It's like a whole nother show.

Todd Miller:

:

It is, it is. You know, something I did want to touch on in my own community and I'm hearing this from a lot of other folks. It's just a real shortage these days of more modest, lower-end, affordable housing. Any thoughts on how we can better address that and be able to provide some better, more affordable options for folks?

Emily Mottram:

:

Well, so I think that there, this is another multi-part answer. One of the things is single family housing is never going to be cost-effective. It's just not. To build a single family house on a plot of land that doesn't have something else on it already is just, it's just not a cost-effective solution. But unfortunately, that's the American dream, right? And so even as building products and labor gets more expensive, that makes that more out of touch. It doesn't mean that there aren't any ways to do it. One thing that I would love, love, love to see happen is for developers and modular home companies to start building some building science into their stuff, not waiting for people to ask for it, but to just start building it in because they can have a massive impact. Because their electrician is onsite in the factory. They're not paying an electrician $200 an hour to come to a job site, right. So there's a cost-effective arc to building the same house over and over again, right. Because developers get great at that. They can put them up quickly. The guys build the same thing over and over. Guys, gals, sorry. That's gender, gender specific. So development and modular housing could have a massive impact on building better houses because they have ways to make it cost-effective. The other thing that I do as a program through rural development and one of our local community action agencies, we've been building some version of the same ranch plan since the nineties. The homeowners get together and they build their own houses. So what happens is they get a group of six homeowners together. Nobody can move in until all six houses are done, and they spend every weekend for an entire year building each other's houses. They erect their own walls. They put up their own framing. Obviously, we hire out things that they can't do. So we have an electrician and a plumber who come in to do the things that legally they can't do. And I do believe that we actually have it sheetrocked by somebody else, because if you do a bad sheetrock job, you see that forever. So sheetrock's kind of one of those things where you should just have somebody who's good at sheetrock do that for you. You know, if they mud and tape it, you can paint it and do all those things. But a good sheetrock job cannot go under-utilized for sure. But this is a really specific program that they do through rural development. So they have access to better funding opportunities and they also, because they are their own labor force, generally move into their homes with a mortgage but with like $60,000 worth of equity in their homes, which is really important. And I've been working with this program for, gosh, I think 12 years or more. And when I first started before I was the architect on record who was kind of helping out with the plans, I did blower door testing, and these homeowners ten years ago can get these blower door tests down, you know, to one or below. And so it's clearly not hard for professionals in the industry to be able to figure out how to do it. If homeowners with zero experience and a site supervisor can get their houses down to this level. And we actually had a bigger problem that I had to jump up and down and say, you got to get rid of these oil boilers because they're back drafting into the house. And no, you can't just blow a hole through the side of this house we spent so much time air sealing to make sure that we have the right indoor air quality. So we're obviously creating an issue with carbon monoxide inside people's houses. Clearly, that's number one. Like don't harm the people inside the house, but.

Todd Miller:

:

Oh, absolutely.

Emily Mottram:

:

So we moved to a different heating system, which is great, but yeah. So I mean, it takes dedication. Obviously, you have to have people who are willing to do it. It is every weekend, rain or shine. We just read an article about it in our local magazine highlighting because this is their 30th year doing this program and there's a picture in there of the homeowners out there shoveling snow and standing walls. So like that is part of part of it. I don't know. I should go back to the article. I don't know if any of the homeowners ever decide to get into trades afterwards, but it also to me brings up the value of trade programs like this, because the other thing that we've done with this particular housing program is we have a couple of local high school and college trade tech programs where we've built a house with them in the past as well. In fact, in Taylorville, Illinois, as a shout out to Matt Bloomquist, doing a ton with his tech students and posting it online and building high performance houses and like teaching these kids, you know, all kinds of incredible skills and why to care about those things. And I mean, they make it a competition. They're like, can we get our blower door better than, you know, Emily's blower door test or something like that? And that to me I find really exciting. But I think that's going to be one of the ways that we can try to help or try to transition to slightly more affordable ways to build better houses.

Todd Miller:

:

I love that everything you said there from the fact that single family housing is never going to be cost-effective and the rural development program is cool. And the tech school program reminded me, our local tech school, we have a whole street in our town that is full of houses that have been built one year at a time by the local tech school and very, very neat programs. Well, speaking of schools and things, a lot of our audience members, we believe are younger folks in construction design. Any particular advice you'd have for them as they start out their careers?

Emily Mottram:

:

I think it depends on whether or not you're in construction or design. If you're young and in architecture, go work for a builder for the summer. It is absolutely invaluable experience. Either work for a builder or follow around an energy professional, someone like a HERS rater or a passive house consultant. Somebody who's going out getting into houses so that you can see how they're built or physically building houses. So you can see how they're built because the devil is in the details. That quote is incredibly important, right? That's really building science. Good details. And so learning those things and seeing how things go together. So if you're in the design world, I can't stress enough, spend some time on some job sites, work for a contractor, work for an energy professional, get into new or existing houses and job sites and see how things are physically built and what things are hard. Because most of those people are really kind to you on a job site and they'll explain to you because they're proud of their trade. Some things are hard. It might be easy for us to draw on the computer, but not easy to execute in the field. And that's maybe some of the pushback as to why architects and contractors are designers. And contractors don't have the best relationship in the field, right. Talk to each other, find out what's hard. If you're young and in the trades, I mean because I'm a designer, I maybe don't have as much advice on that, but talk to your design team in the reverse. Like you have to tell us if it was hard or if it didn't make sense or if she didn't read our plans or, you know, the communication stream goes back the other way, or I want to try X, Y or Z. Do you think this will work? Or to call your team member and say, Can I swap this product for that product? Because we don't want to find out the hard way that you put up a product that you thought was equal, but it's not. You know, there's. So I would say, you know, that's how we grow. And for young trades women in the trades, women who want to get into the trades, some of the best advice I've gotten from other women who work in the trades is, you know, generally people want to share the information with you, so don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't ask to do things and not get paid for it. Everybody has to learn and to reach out to companies to see what their policies are. You know, involved around that is, you know, generally my experience has been with a lot of really phenomenal builders, but I think that I've been lucky in my career because I know there are some people who haven't had that experience and just keep at it because there are great people out there in this industry.

Todd Miller:

:

Amen. Good to hear that. So we're close to the end of our business end of things here on the show. Been a real pleasure and a lot of fun. Thank you. Anything we haven't covered today that you'd like to share?

Emily Mottram:

:

Nothing is better than a good jobsite dog or office dog that you can roughhouse with.

Todd Miller:

:

Amen. We love that, roughhousing with dogs.

Emily Mottram:

:

No, I really mean that though, jobsite dogs are the best.

Todd Miller:

:

But, you know, I'd really love to have one here in the office, but we never have gone quite that route. My dogs are both probably too hyper to be hanging around an office. Well, so before we close out, I have to ask you if you'd like to participate in our rapid-fire questions. So these are seven questions that may range from silly to maybe some more serious, mainly silly. All you have to do is provide a quick answer. Our audience needs to understand if Emily agrees to this, she has no idea what we're going to ask.

Emily Mottram:

:

Why not?

Todd Miller:

:

Okay. Up to the challenge of Rapid Fire, awesome. Let's go, I'll let Ryan I'll let you lead off.

Ryan Bell:

:

All righty. First question, what is your favorite breakfast food?

Emily Mottram:

:

Ooh, I love avocado toast.

Ryan Bell:

:

Pretty good.

Todd Miller:

:

Very good. I have a feeling I may know what this is, but we'll see. What is the first job you ever had, and did you like it?

Emily Mottram:

:

The first job I ever had. Ooh. The very, very first job I ever had. My dad's sister is a produce farmer, so I picked strawberries when I was, like, 14.

Todd Miller:

:

I figured it had something to do with farming. Okay. Did you enjoy the strawberry picking?

Emily Mottram:

:

Strawberry picking is not too bad. There are way worse vegetables and fruits to pick.

Ryan Bell:

:

I'm sure.

Todd Miller:

:

Hard on the back after a while. Yeah, no doubt.

Ryan Bell:

:

All righty. Other than a relative, so relatives excluded. Who is the person regularly in your life that you have known the longest?

Emily Mottram:

:

Ooh. I have some, my best friend from kindergarten I still consider a friend of mine. Phenomenal person. Don't live in the same state. We don't spend much time together. But we always try to make sure that when we're both home and in the same area to get together.

Todd Miller:

:

Very cool. That's a long time. That's one of the longest responses I've heard.

Emily Mottram:

:

I mean, she's almost like a sister, so that maybe doesn't count as like a relative. She's not actually related to me.

Todd Miller:

:

No, that counts, that counts. Next question. Which do you prefer, the top or bottom half of a bagel?

Emily Mottram:

:

Ooh, that depends on how it's cut. I like the part that is fatter. So if that's the top or the bottom, depending on how they slice the bagel.

Todd Miller:

:

Very interesting.

Ryan Bell:

:

What if there's toppings on one half? Like, if it's an everything bagel, does that change your.

Emily Mottram:

:

No, not really. No, it's like a texture thing, you know, could be toasted, but it's still soft if you have the sort of fatter side of the bagel.

Ryan Bell:

:

Wow. I think that's a perspective we've never heard before.

Todd Miller:

:

Yeah, I haven't heard that one exactly. That's good. It makes perfect sense, though. I like it.

Ryan Bell:

:

Between that and the crayon question, man.

Todd Miller:

:

Yeah. I didn't give you that question.

Ryan Bell:

:

What's the first concert you ever attended?

Emily Mottram:

:

Ooh, first concert? I wasn't a big concert kid. As, like, I didn't do music.

Todd Miller:

:

You were too busy picking strawberries. I know.

Emily Mottram:

:

Yeah, so I don't actually know the answer to that because we, like, never went to concerts. I love music, but we never went to concerts. I mean, I'm not even sure if I could tell you the last concert I went to. Oh, yeah. Ingrid Michaelson, like, way before the pandemic. That was the last one I went to. So I really count concerts as, like, five on one hand.

Todd Miller:

:

Very good. Okay, so if you had the choice between being a cat or a dog, which would you choose?

Emily Mottram:

:

Oh, I'd be a dog all day long.

Todd Miller:

:

I hear you. I hear you.

Ryan Bell:

:

We've had some interesting arguments for why it would be good to be a cat, but.

Emily Mottram:

:

I mean, yeah, I could kind of get it, but like dogs, they love to go outside, they're loyal, they love other people. They're active, they're fun. They have I mean, cats have personalities, but dogs really have personalities.

Ryan Bell:

:

The argument was, though, that the cats don't need to be let outside to use the restroom, so.

Emily Mottram:

:

Yes. But I am anti-cat because I don't want to clean the litter box, so we will only ever have animals that go outside.

Ryan Bell:

:

Yeah, we are the same way here.

Ryan Bell:

:

Alright, I'm going to throw you a dad joke question here for the last one. I'm going to go off script here a little bit Todd. What do senators order at Dairy Queen?

Emily Mottram:

:

What do senators order at Dairy Queen? I have no idea.

Ryan Bell:

:

A filibuster parfait.

Todd Miller:

:

Oh, that's a good one. I wondered how you were going to make that happen.

Emily Mottram:

:

I know. I was, too.

Todd Miller:

:

Well, speaking of which, thank you, Emily. This has been a blast, so I need to report back. We were all successful on our challenge words. Mine was samurai. Emily, yours was?

Emily Mottram:

:

Roughhouse.

Todd Miller:

:

Roughhouse. And Ryan, you, Ryan squeaking it in at the very end, his word was?

Ryan Bell:

:

Filibuster. I knew I was saving it for then I knew.

Todd Miller:

:

I was going to say you had that one Googled and planned.

Ryan Bell:

:

I did. I Googled it right before we started.

Todd Miller:

:

Good job. Well, Emily, what a pleasure, this has been great. For folks who want to get in touch with you again I highly recommend the E3 podcast, but for folks who want to get in touch with you, how can they most easily do that?

Emily Mottram:

:

Yeah, through my website, mottramarch.com. They can find me the first Thursday of every month live on the B.S. and Beer Show, which we actually didn't talk about at all. So we do a live Zoom show on building science for people who don't have local active groups in their areas and want to get more building science knowledge. The first Thursday of every month you can hop on and talk to us on the chat, it's usually lively and fun so you can connect with me there. You can find me on Instagram and LinkedIn. I'm not as good with Facebook, so if you message me on Facebook and I don't get back to you, I'm forewarning you now. Yeah, I'm all over the place. If you Google me, you'll find me.

Todd Miller:

:

Well, I'm glad you mentioned B.S and Beer because I totally missed including that earlier. And I meant to, so fantastic.

Emily Mottram:

:

Oh, no, that's okay.

Todd Miller:

:

Good stuff. Well, thank you so much, this been a real pleasure. We appreciate your time a great deal.

Emily Mottram:

:

Yeah, thank you. This has been fun and so it's always fun and exciting as well.

Emily Mottram:

:

Todd Miller: And thank you to our audience for tuning in to this episode of Construction Disruption with Emily Mottram of Mottram Architecture, the E3 podcast, and B.S. and Beer. We encourage you to please watch for future episodes of our podcast. We always have great guests on tap. Don't forget to leave a review on Apple Podcasts or YouTube. Until the next episode, change the world for someone, make them smile, encourage them, bring them happiness, two very powerful things we can do to change the world one interaction at a time. God bless, take care. This is Isaiah Industries signing off until the next episode of Construction Disruption.