This “Dumb” House is Actually Pretty Smart

Hunter 3Photo by Michael Wallace

Paul Dowsett, principal in the Toronto firm of Sustainable. TO Architecture + Building, is no Luddite, but he thinks the current “smart house” mania is more than a bit overblown. His motto is “Dumb is the new smart.” Why? As he told the Toronto Globe & Mail recently,

“Smart means a lot of technology, usually expensive to buy in the first place and expensive to maintain and operate,” he said. “So our thinking is that … the dumber we can make things, the easier they are to maintain and operate, the less expensive they are to buy. That’s the gist of it.”

One of his best known low tech homes is a 2,500 square foot structure near Peterborough, Ontario that he designed a decade ago known as the Hunter House. It is constructed of straw bales on top of a concrete slab. Amazingly enough, the so-called dumb house has no central furnace — a rarity in any Canadian home. Instead it uses a small propane heater to supply radiant heating coils embedded in the slab.

Sunshine pouring in the 50 foot long glass wall on the southern side of the house provides all the heat the house requires except on the coldest days. The genius of Dowsett’s dumb house is the incorporation of core passive principles into the structure. The concrete absorbs heat from the sun all day long and gives it up slowly overnight. But in summer, the overhanging roof blocks the sun’s rays, keeping the house cool and comfortable.

“The client’s brief to us,” he says, “was for an off-grid, passive-solar, straw-bale house that had a mid-century modern image. I missed the day in school when they told us that all straw-bale houses were supposed to look like hobbit houses. The wall system has a very high insulation value, and it’s all natural – straw, and clay-based plaster inside and out, When the house has finished its life, mother nature will take all these materials back. There are no plastics, polymers, petroleum-based products in here.”

Dowsett is a believer in the principles of the Passivhaus movement that began in Germany and Scandinavia 20 years ago, although he gives those ideas his own interpretation. Mostly, it is a way of architectural thinking that believes a properly design building shouldn’t need a lot of heating and cooling to stay comfortable. Here’s what he has to say about modern, hi-tech doodads like “smart” thermostats:

“A smart thermostat uses technology and energy to adjust a changing interior environment,” Mr. Dowsett told me. “If you installed one in a properly built passive house, it would be bored stupid, because nothing ever changes in a passive house. It’s that inert. It doesn’t have wild temperature swings. Those smart thermostats are great for making a poorly built building more energy-efficient. But in my mind, we should put the smarts into the design of the building in the first place. Then we wouldn’t need smart technology to cover up all our mistakes.”

Sounds like a dumb house is a pretty smart idea.

Hunter 1

Photo by Glen Hunter

More Inexpensive Ways Property Managers Attract Good Residents



In the world of investing there’s an old adage: “Money goes where it’s treated best”.  The same could be said for the best residents.

As the world of rental properties become more competitive a new adage is “Good residents move to where they are treated best”.

A “good resident” is one that has an outstanding credit history, takes good care of the places they rent, and tends to stay put for an extended period of time. Property managers want to find and keep them.

One inexpensive way to do this is to reward their good track record. This is an effective method to reinforce positive behavior as well.

Offer an end-of-the-year “rebate” to residents who have an excellent record of paying rent on-time. You might also consider a “thank you incentive” at the end of their annual lease or start date.

More owners are willing to consider offering an at least a 3% annual discount to prospects who either pay a year’s worth of rent or pay on a semi-annual basis. That’s better than the yield of a 10-year bond!

Also make it a policy to discourage your owner-clients from renting to relatives or friends. Unless you don’t need the rent or the relationship reconsider such decisions which invariably backfire.

One of my readers reminded me of this important, prudent policy when she wrote, “Five years ago I made a mistake letting my daughter move in to one of my rental units.

“Half the time I am pulling and fighting for her to pay the $1000.00 rent for a two bedroom apt. I am planning to evict through a court order.” A no-cost preventive policy would have saved a small fortune.

Here are some other ways to attract good renters to fill any vacancies you have.

  1. Make the bathrooms look sparkling clean, sanitized, updated. Replace discolored caulking, grouting, rust, and deteriorating plumbing. Be sure the lighting is more than adequate.
  2. One manager suggested tile backsplash be installed in kitchens and bathrooms. She said, “It looks awesome, cleans easily, protects walls, adds color/interest, reduces painting.”
  3. Old English scratch cover and polish make wood cabinets, wood floors look new again. Replace damaged areas, burns, stains, or other unsightly areas of the kitchen counters. You’ll recoup the cost with a justifiable rental rate plus attract more of the good residents.
  4. Units that smell naturally pleasant are more inviting. A reader shared that they like to use subtle air fresheners/deodorizers with neutral smells like “clean laundry”, a very subtle pine, cinnamon, or gingerbread to make it feel homey. The key is to always keep the scent subtle. An overwhelming scent can be just as offensive as an unpleasant one.
  5. Paint the unit numbers on designated parking spots. Make certain the parking area has good security lighting which also pertains to halls, landings, and all common areas.

Outstanding residents will want to live where they are treated best. If you want to attract and keep them go out of your way as property managers to make them feel appreciated.


The Dark Side of Condo Property Management: The Secrets to Handling Negative People in Your Board of Directors

If you are currently on the board of directors for your condo association, you are probably familiar with the various personalities you have to deal with on a regular basis. As a condo property management company in Toronto, ICC is familiar with these individuals as well.

All-in-all, many board members are people who simply care about the community in which they live and who sincerely want to do what is right for the condominium residents. They are often fairly well organized and willing to help out and take on any issues that they are equipped to deal with. The proof is in the statistics:

  • 92% of residents of condo communities have indicated they have had a positive or neutral experience.
  • 88% of residents of condo communities say that they feel their elected governing boards do the best they can to serve the best interests of their communities.
  • 81% feel that their association assessment provides them with a great or good return.
  • 76% feel that the rules put in place and enforced by their associations serve to enhance their property values.

Sometimes, however, you get board members who do not show up to meetings, which can create problems when voting or trying to decide certain important issues. Other times, meetings drag on for hours due to a dispute with a disruptive board member who refuses to cooperate with others. There may also be a pessimist on your board who simply wants to cause trouble and arguments for the sake of being negative.If you are contending with any of these types of personalities, don’t worry: you are not alone.We here at ICC Property Management have been helping boards of directors operate for many years, and are experts at condominium management in Toronto. Through our extensive experience, we have developed some effective strategies for dealing with difficult board members.

Note that helping a board of directors run smoothly is not necessarily the purview of a typical condo management company, but ICC focuses on assisting these board members for the benefit of our resident customers, as a better board often means a better community overall.

Know your position and your board rules

One of the first things you can do to help manage a difficult situation is to be aware of your condo board’s policies and procedures as detailed in the bylaws and the rules and regulations. Knowing the rules is half of the battle when it comes to this side of condo property management.

You may find that your position contains some inherent power to settle a dispute without requiring approval of other board members, or you may find the answer to a question about policies and enforcement right there in the rules, which would save you and your association a great deal of debate if the issue is already settled.

Recruit nay-sayers

You may find that a newcomer enters the association arena with an agenda and a list of complaints to deal with. Some of them you may disagree with. Others you might find appealing. However, theseindividuals may often become abrasive if they feel they are coming up against resistance, and they may also be unfamiliar with what they can and can’t do as part of condominium management in Toronto.Rather than trying to fight these individuals head-on, you might try redirecting their energy, and even taking advantage of it to get things done that you do agree with. If this individual wants to undertake the monumental task of restructuring the association’s budget, then perhaps they should work with the property management company to see if it can be done.

Turning these individuals’ complaints about your community’s condo property managementinto action and having them go from “someone should do something” to “you will be the one to do something” can have one of two effects:

  • The member gets to address their own concerns, or
  • The member starts to understand the complexity surrounding certain issues and becomes more willing to compromise.

Learn the art of handling difficult people

If procedure, policy or a proactive approach all do not seem to help, you may simply be in a situation where you must learn to cope with a difficult individual.

Unfortunately, condominium management in Toronto is not immune to having these types of individuals on the board, and it can become highly frustrating. For your own sanity, you need to come up with strategies for handling this person.

Try being understanding at first. The individual in question may have a long-standing concern that he or she is simply frustrated about. These issues may get resolved with time if it is something over which there is a major disagreement and no easy answer.

If the person has a tendency to become angry and temperamental, try making it clear that such behavior is not appropriate at an association meeting. Maintaining a professional atmosphere may help deter this kind of behavior, and you can help by indicating to the person that you empathize with their concerns but would prefer to talk about them in a more reasonable and rational manner once they have calmed down.

There are other techniques you might try for diffusing difficult situations, such as humor and empathy. If these techniques are still ineffective, you may want to enlist the help of someone inToronto property management or someone skilled at mediation in order to get things done. Ongoing issues may be addressed at election time as well, and you may be able to enlist the help of your community if you truly feel that someone is being disruptive as a board member.

Are you the member of the board of directors for your condo community? How do you deal with negative individuals on your board? Post this article on your Facebook page or with your condo group and start a discussion to get even more ideas.

This is LEED

Written by Nora Knox

Better buildings are our legacy.

Every day LEED is pushing the green building industry to go further.

Developed in a transparent, consensus-based process that includes several rounds of public comments and approval from USGBC members, LEED ensures that leaders can demand more from our buildings, creating healthy experiences, conserving precious resources and benefitting the business bottom line.

LEED is Global

More than 60,000 projects are participating in LEED across 150+ countries and territories, comprising over 11 billion square feet. You’ve seen a LEED plaque before—USGBC estimates that nearly 5 million people experience a LEED building every day. Many of the world’s most well-known buildings have earned LEED certification.

LEED works with top building professionals around the world to deliver a system that is applicable at the global, regional and local levels. That means that LEED works no matter where you live—from Seattle, Washington to Taipei, Taiwan.

Still curious about what LEED is, or why you should use it? Visit our new LEED microsite to learn more.

BIRDS: The New Building Performance Tool

Evaluate long-term cost, energy, and environmental performance

A new software tool lets FMs more easily gauge the tradeoffs between higher first costs and long-term savings.

When it comes to designing or renovating buildings, exceeding code requirements for energy efficiency can pay for itself – sometimes. But the uncertainty of whether the extra performance advantage is worth it can discourage any additional upfront investment in sustainability.

A new tool from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) could make the tradeoffs between long-term savings and upfront costs a little clearer.

Dubbed BIRDS (for Building Industry Reporting and Design for Sustainability), the new software gauges energy usage and materials sustainability, judges a dozen indicators of environmental performance (including carbon footprints), and determines costs over nine investment horizons. Users can assess their building’s estimated operating energy use against five building industry standards – four successive version of ASHRAE 90.1, as well as the 2009 ASHRAE standard for high-performance green buildings. This lets viewers easily determine whether the cost savings from exceeding code requirements are substantial enough to justify an investment in energy upgrades.

It can be used with NIST’s other popular tool, BEES (Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability), which measures the economic and environmental impacts of a wide range of building products.

The current version of BIRDS covers 11 building prototypes, NIST notes. Future versions will include energy retrofits for existing commercial buildings, as well as additional flexibility that lets users further customize the analysis to fit their specific needs.

Sense and Survivability: How evolution shapes design decisions

 by Sam Pobst –

This excerpt below was originally published in a research paper on Jan. 7, 2015. Read the complete paper.

The 3.8 billion years of evolution of the DNA strand that uniquely identifies the human genome has invested in humanity a host of sensory inputs that are essential to our survival. This distinctive combination of skills has made Homo sapiens the single most efficient predator on the planet. We possess an exceptional set of sensors from which we extract many subtle cues from our environment, providing us with constant reassurance of our safety. If our building designs do not satisfy our innate security interests, then we feel disconnected.

Various theories and hypotheses about the interaction between man, nature, and the built environment have been proposed. Biophilia references the spiritual aspect of a visual contact with nature. Eco-psychology submits that contact with nature extends a bond that provides sensations of harmony, balance, and stability. Environmental psychology addresses the psychological responses we have to environmental stresses, and proponents have performed studies on the effect of the built environment on human behavior.

Humans thrive in many harsh environments from the desert to the arctic. We have designed and built protective shelters unique to each of these environments to facilitate our survival. From these shelters we obtain security, comfort, convenience, and efficiency. The scientific community lists as many as 21 acquired sensory traits in humans, with many appearing to be subsets of the five senses of taste, touch, smell, hearing, and vision. In addition to these five familiar traits, breathing is relevant as a sixth sense as it relates to how we design our buildings.

The need to satisfy these elemental instincts is no more a discussion of nature vs. nurture than learning to cry or breathe is a response to a sharp whack by an obstetrician. Removing your hand from a heat source is not a learned response. The smell of bread baking in the oven is not a learned response. Tastes of bitter, sweet, salty, and sour are not learned, but serve to sharpen our survival skills. Addressing these most basic instincts in our building designs provides for our sense of security.

Each of these six sensory inputs has an impact on how we design and operate our buildings on an elemental level that exceeds what can be derived from a spiritual or psychological influence. As we think of these senses, they are so primal that we are unconscious of their origin and impact. We taste because we have taste receptors, we feel the touch of heat and cold because we have a neuro-chemical response to those influences. We see, hear, and breathe from the moment we are born with no thought to the implications. We have responses to each of these sensory inputs that affect our survival and are hardwired into our essence.

The confluence of building design and our sensory inputs can be dissected to determine how we must consider building design in light of our primal security needs.



Once again the State of California is taking the lead toward cleaner, renewable and, hopefully less expensive, energy sources with the passage of Assembly Bill (“AB”) 2188 (which amends Civil Code §714). The purpose of this Bill is to expedite the process for approval of solar energy systems within California’s common interest communities by further limiting associations’ ability to restrict or ban the installation of such systems.

Civil Code §714 had permitted associations to impose reasonable restrictions which do not significantly increase the cost or significantly decrease the efficiency of solar energy systems. The law will now prohibit restrictions which increase the cost or decrease the efficiency of domestic water heating or solar swimming pool heating systems by more than 10%. With regard to photovoltaic systems, Civil Code §714 provides that an association’s restrictions may not increase costs by more than exceed $1,000.00 or decrease efficiency by greater than 10%. Boards should take note that in accordance with the amendment, any application to install a solar energy system which is not denied within forty five (45) days shall be deemed approved.

We all must do our part to decrease reliance on foreign oil, improve the air we breathe and find ways to incorporate renewably energy sources into our lives.

The Right Way to Handle A Move-In Checklist

The Wrong Way is “Not Handling It At All.”

A picture of cracked drywallIf you’re not familiar with property management paperwork, rest assured there’s a lot of it — so much, in fact, that many landlords are tempted to not deal with it whenever the opportunity presents itself. One classic example: the Move-In Checklist.

For the renter, a move-in checklist is probably all about moving in their stuff, paying utility connections, and so on. For landlords, it’s all about making sure that a property is ready for the tenant, and there are a few different elements we have to deal with. The most fundamental aspect is simply to make sure that the question “is this property a safe and healthy place to live?” is “yes.” Until you can do that, you’re not a landlord, you’re probably a slumlord!

Assuming that you actually have a livable location and an erstwhile tenant, the question at hand changes to, “Is the tenant willing to move into this place in its current condition, and will they leave it in that condition (or better) when they leave?”

In order to answer that question, you have to record the details about the condition of the property. Are you leasing it to them with no washer or dryer? With a small hole in one closet door? With scratched paint in the living room? These kinds of things are commonplace to rentals; no home is perfect.

There are two common, accepted ways to handle the process of recording details. The first school of thought says “leave it up to the tenant.” Basically, send the tenant a form that asks them to record everything they can find wrong with the property and mail it back. They’re then supposed to go through the property, take notes, and mail the form back to you – often weeks after they’ve moved in. Many landlords prefer this method because if the tenant doesn’t return the form most states make the tenant liable for ALL damages to the property – even pre-existing ones. This is a sneaky way to make it easier for a landlord to keep a tenant’s security deposit.

That’s the ‘let’s not deal with the paperwork’ attitude, and it will come back to bite you in the rear. There are a few different ways it can:

1. If the tenant simply fails to return the form and a landlord charges them for repairs upon move-out, many tenants will get into a tizzy. The odds increase that the tenant will do further damage to the property, take you to court, post negative comments on social media, make a complaint to the city rental department, etc.
2. If the tenant lies on the paperwork — which happens close enough to ‘always’ as to make little difference, you can end up making repairs on your dime that should rightfully have been paid out of the security deposit.
3. Even if the tenant is completely faithful and punctual about doing the checklist, you’re still only left with subjective notes on paper — words that, in a year or three when they move out, won’t have any reference point. They won’t help you estimate how much the damage has changed, which means they won’t help you figure out how much of a given problem the tenant might have added to what was already there when they moved in.

It’s a 100% better idea to use 21st century technology to supplement your Move-In Checklist – and it’s not that hard! What landlord doesn’t have a cell phone with a camera these days? If you don’t, you’re a fool! Get together with tenants on move-ins and do the Move-In Checklist with them — bring your camera (if your cell phone doesn’t have one), your video camera (again, if your cell phone doesn’t have one) and a tape measure. Go through the property and record everything. Take pictures with the tape measure that show the size of holes and stains, note the cleanliness of the property and appliances, do the same with the landscaping, and so on — because the more you know what’s different upon the move out, the more accurately you can decide how much to withhold from the tenant’s security deposit. Also, get the tenant in the pictures and videos – what better way to have undeniable proof of the condition?

Remember the old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”? Taking control of the Move-In Checklist procedure will make it easier for a landlord to charge a tenant for damages when they move out – and defend those charges. When a tenant moves out, we send them a list of written damages with links to their Move-In and Move-Out videos we uploaded to our private YouTube channel. Since we started doing this we rarely have tenants seriously challenge our charges against their security deposit and we’ve never had a tenant take us to court. For us, a little extra work upfront is well worth it to avoid major headaches later.

A House Fire Cut One Family’s Energy Bills in Half


When an electrical fire struck their home in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, Keith and Jan Giezentanner never expected the repairs they made afterwards would save them over $1000 a year on their heating and energy bills! But, with the help of Garfield Clean Energy, they were able to learn about modern, energy efficient windows and doors and state of the art heating and cooling systems. Garfield Clean Energy even showed them how to qualify for (and get!) rebates totaling almost $1500 on the products they purchased.

Here’s what happened. While they were away on vacation, the couple’s electric baseboard heating element in their living room overheated and caught fire. It smoldered for two days until a neighbor smelled smoke and called the fire department. The Giezentanners came home to a mess of broken glass and water damage in their living room. There was smoke damage throughout the house.

With help from energy coach Erica Sparhawk, the couple chose to replace all the windows in their home with high efficiency units. They also installed two Fujitsu heat pumps. Each unit has two parts, an outside condenser and ventilation unit mounted on a wall – one in the living room and one in the upstairs bedroom. The heat pumps can supply heat from outside air down to 15 degrees and cool the rooms in the summer. They are far more efficient than the old electric baseboard heat and window air conditioners the couple used to use.

They also installed a second pellet stove in the basement to heat the guest bed room and Jan’s craft room when needed. When all the work was done, the couple was pleasantly surprised to learn their 3000 sq ft home was now much less expensive to heat and cool. They also replaced all the light fixtures in the home with high efficiency LED products. “We’re very happy with the way things turned out,” Jan says.

Previously, their energy bills ran about $150 per month and they burned 3 tons of pellets each year. Now, their electric bill is averaging $60 a month and they need only 1 ton of pellets. They have cut utility bills in half, which saves them about a $1000 a year. And those savings will go on each and every year they live in the house.

No one would wish the tragedy of a house fire on anyone, but the results in this case prove that energy upgrades can literally pay for themselves while making a home a more comfortable and cozy place to be.

Green Buildings Save Small Businesses Big Money


Mike Schoenecker, vice president at Winkelman Building Corp, says green buildings, defined as those that reduce their impact on the environment by being more energy efficient and using fewer natural resources while reducing waste and pollution, save money for business owners three ways.

Increased Efficiency Means Lower Energy Bills

Green buildings cost about 2% more initially, but will save building owners about 30% on their energy bills for heating, cooling and water usage every year for the life of the building. That can add up to a lot of money, which can be used to pay for the initial costs of going green. Once those costs are recaptured, the savings will add to the building owner’s bottom line for the entire useful life of the building.

Government Incentives Can Put More Money In Building Owner’s Pockets

The United States government offers rebates, tax credits, and other incentives for businesses who commit to building green and installing sustainable forms of energy like solar, wind, and geothermal technologies. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) maintains a public databasecalled DSIRE that is organized by state and lists all of that state’s current incentives and programs.

State and local incentives may also be available, so check with your accountant or state resource sites, as well.

Long Term Cost Savings

Benefits from using green energy technology like solar and geothermal technology and solar are magnified when a building owner opts for green materials such as energy efficient windows and roofing materials. Those materials also provide an economic advantage because they cost less to maintain and repair. For example, bamboo is a sustainable alternative to hardwoods for floors and interior trim that offers superior durability without sacrificing style.


Making a $4 per square foot investment in green now will yield savings of $58 per square foot over a twenty year period. By using recycled glass, drywall, and steel, the savings could be even greater and the benefit to the environment enhanced.

There are other economic benefits to building green, too. A green building will command a higher price when sold. More importantly,  a businesses that shows it cares for the environment will appeal to clients and customers who are looking to do business with responsible companies. Put it all together and going green makes for smart business in more way than just saving money.