What can rule-bending alternative builders teach us about smarter shelters?

by Derek Markham (@derekmarkham)

Earthship houses in New Mexico

CC BY 2.0 littlemoresunshine

Modern building codes and zoning regulations, while helping to set safety standards that can save lives, can also serve as big barriers to building small, sensible, and affordable dwellings with alternative materials and techniques.

The quest to build, or even just live in, a low-impact house of your own can be a challenging one, especially if you’re on a budget and want to build a home with materials and techniques that are outside the norm. And if you live in an area with strict codes and zoning regulations, that challenge can be incredibly frustrating, and one which might lead you to consider moving to a less populated, and less regulated, part of the country.

Some rural areas of the U.S. still have no regulations, or very few, for building, and have attracted a number of “renegade” builders who are skirting the edges of legality while trying to build the smartest home for themselves and the environment.

In my neck of the woods here in southwestern New Mexico, I know a number of people who are living in alternative dwellings that would probably drive a city building inspector or code compliance officer absolutely nuts, but which fit their own needs perfectly. These homes range from converted school buses to adobe and cob tiny homes (casitas) to straw bale buildings and earthships and papercrete domes, most of which are not legal dwelliings approved for residency. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s perfectly fine, because those homes aren’t meant to be rented or sold or used for anything other than the people who built them, and these houses fall under what I would call ‘an acceptable risk’ in the quest to build and live in your own shelter.

This documentary from Kirsten Dirksen of *faircompanies takes a look at some of these “rule-bending builders” of alternative homes and buildings in the U.S. Southwest, and offers a number of insights for those interested in building their own tiny house or other alternative dwelling. In addition, the film presents some great food for thought about our current system of building codes and zoning regulations, which hasn’t seemed to keep up with the pace of alternative building innovations.

She titled this documentary “A Spaghetti Western on Lean Urbanism,” and it’s well worth a watch if you’re at all considering making the move to a leaner and more appropriate dwelling.

Property Managers and Problem Residents Find Solutions



The list of quandaries property managers and landlords face when dealing with difficult residents is long. The good news is that solutions exist and having them can make all the difference in the world.

Property managers and landlords need to know their rights, the laws of the state they live in, as should residents. When a rental or lease application is filled out give applicants a list of your property’s rules.

After you’ve done a careful background check, credit check and thoroughly screened the applicants, you may want to have them sign an agreement saying they’ve read the rules and agree to comply with them. Make certain this agreement is within the scope of your state’s laws.

Compile a list of possible problems that may arise with difficult residents. Think back to situations you’ve faced that may come up again in the future.

Consider a legal question-and-answer opinion on every question you can think of such like this onefrom a law firm addressing California tenant and landlord laws. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

Have rules in writing regarding pets and be specific! Problems like barking dogs or pets roaming the property without leashes can ruin the peace and solemnity of an otherwise well managed property.

What if a complex problem arises with one of your residents and a mutually agreeable solution doesn’t seem to exist? This may be the time to find a mediator who specializes in conflict resolution.

Communication is the key to avoiding and resolving problems. If you have a problem with a resident in many states it is required that the property manager or owner communicate directly to seek a solution.

The state of California’s Department of Consumer Affairs offers online information for resolving problems as part of its “Guide to Residential Tenants’ and Landlords’ Rights and Responsibilities”.

Most states publish this kind of information and property managers are encouraged to know which department has that responsibility. There are other free information resources you’ll find available.

If a problem appears to be insoluble the last ditch remedies include mediation and arbitration. The Department of Consumer Affairs in California discusses these as follows:

“Some local housing agencies refer landlord-tenant disputes to a local dispute resolution center or mediation service. The goal of these services is to resolve disputes without the burden and expense of going to court.

Mediation involves assistance from an impartial third person, called a mediator, who helps the tenant and landlord reach a voluntary agreement on how to settle the dispute. The mediator normally does not make a binding decision in the case.

Arbitration involves referral of the dispute to an impartial third person, called an arbitrator, who decides the case. If the landlord and tenant agree to submit their dispute to arbitration, they will be bound by the decision of the arbitrator, unless they agree to nonbinding arbitration.”

Residents and property owners usually consider resolving their disputes by mediation or arbitration instead of a lawsuit. Mediation is almost always faster, cheaper, and less stressful than going to court.

While arbitration is more formal and complex than mediation, arbitration is usually faster, and less burdensome than a court action.

It is almost always better to begin with mediation. Mediation services are listed in the yellow pages of the telephone book under Mediation Services.

The best way to solve problems with residents is to prevent them from the beginning. If you haven’t reviewed your rules, policies and procedures let this article serve as a reminder to do this soon.

Safeguard Your Facility from Workplace Violence

Don’t just cross your fingers – take these actions recommended by experts

No one wants to think about it, but building owners need to face reality: workplace violence is everywhere.

Every week an average of 20 employees in the U.S. are murdered and 18,000 are assaulted while at work, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The Department of Labor estimates that some 2 million people are the victims of workplace violence each year – and those are only the reported incidents.

Although many factors are involved, the uncomfortable truth is that any workplace can have a violent incident. Having plans in place can deter or mitigate the effects of such altercations.

Learn the steps you can take to prevent violence.

When people hear “workplace violence,” many picture a shooter or terrorist, but behaviors ranging from verbal abuse, harassment, stalking, bullying, and threats of physical assault are all forms of workplace violence.

Eugene Ferraro, chief ethics officer and founder of risk consulting firm Convercent, Inc., says that understanding the motivation of aggressive people and their triggers is important. Feeling out of control is the most common impetus.

“The driver in these incidents is an attempt to restore control,” he says. “Violence is a form of regaining power, and violence in the workplace is an attempt to restore that order. Individuals rationalize that force or physical intimidation will put them in control.”

J. Michael Coleman, vice president of commercial real estate at AlliedBarton Security Services in Conshohocken, PA, says, “Common triggers that might precipitate workplace violence include terminations, layoffs, bad performance evaluations, and being passed over for promotion.” He also mentions domestic violence spilling over into the workplace and civil disturbances such as demonstrations, strikes, or nearby robberies.

Building owners and managers can look for certain behavior patterns in order to prevent outbreaks of violence.

A comprehensive workplace violence prevention plan will save you – in worry, in preparedness, in liability, and, yes, in guilt. Too often, building owners with weak violence plans are left reeling in the aftermath.

The Workplace Violence Continuum

In Potential: Workplace Violence Prevention and Your Organizational Success, Bill Whitmore, CEO at AlliedBarton Security Services, discusses the range of behaviors that can often predict more severe actions. The following is an excerpt.

“Building owners need to recognize that these behaviors fall along a spectrum that, depending on their nature or severity, significantly affect the workplace, generate a concern for personal safety, and can result in physical injury or even death. All of the scenarios we and others in our industry have identified occur frequently in workplaces across the country.
Any employee with one or more of the following indicators may be in need of assistance. Managers must be alert to these indirect pleas for help and provide a positive and timely response to ensure a safe and secure work environment.

■ Unusual Behavior: Can range from uncharacteristic excessive absences or tardiness by a normally punctual employee to changes in performance, work habits, or attitude.
■ Inappropriate Acting Out: Saying highly inappropriate things to people, getting very upset at colleagues, pouting, refusing to participate in meetings or work tasks, slamming doors, throwing things, testing supervisors’ authority, etc.
■ Verbal Assault: Outbursts of anger/rage, insulting or shouting at colleagues without provocation.
■ Harassment: Saying highly inappropriate things, aggressive sexual behavior or harassment, stalking, etc.
■ Threatening Behavior: Actually making threats verbally or with hands or objects. Also includes threatening written communication and brandishing a weapon at the workplace.
■ Physical Assault: Lashing out physically or actually attacking someone.
■ Deadly Encounter: Usually manifested as an active shooter scenario, a most tragic culmination of all that has come before.

Remember that just because someone exhibits one of these behaviors does not necessarily mean they are prone to acts of violence. It is when someone has an uncharacteristic, noticeable change in demeanor, when that conduct is displayed continually, or when uncharacteristic behaviors are observed in combination, that you should consider telling someone in a position of authority about the situation.”

“Building owners and managers are often reactive, not proactive, when dealing with these types of events,” says Coleman. “They need to develop preparedness plans that encompass all areas of risk exposure and, perhaps more importantly, recovery.”

Bruce T. Blythe, chairman at Crisis Management International, details four components of a successful plan.

1) Have a policy about violence. “You need a policy that clearly states what is considered unacceptable behavior,” says Blythe. He encourages using this key statement in the policy: “Any behavior that creates a reasonable fear or intimidation response will not be tolerated.”

2) Have a threat notification system. This should be a 24/7 call service with real people answering the phone. Because most people hesitate to inform on others – for their own safety or to avoid someone’s firing – it is vital to offer confidentiality and anonymity. Employee orientation should mention the notification system.

Resources on Workplace Violence Prevention

■     BOMA’s Emergency Preparedness Guidebook includes information and checklists to manage workplace violence (www.boma.org).

■     The IFMA Foundation (www.ifma.org) offers a publication entitled Violence in the Workplace: Role of the Facility Manager.

■     OSHA (www.osha.gov) shares information on workplace violence prevention, as does the Department of Homeland Security (www.dhs.gov).

■     ASIS International (www.asisonline.org) has guidelines on prevention and response.

■     The website of the National Crime Prevention Council (www.ncpc.org) has a section devoted to workplace safety.

He also suggests using guilt as a motivator. “I’ve dealt with more murders in the workplace than I can remember, and it’s amazing the number of people who, after the incident, say, ‘I just knew this guy was going to do it.’” For the rest of their lives, these people regret not sounding an alarm.

3) Form a threat response team. “You need a multidisciplinary team that is trained and ready to respond,” says Blythe. He suggests having representatives from HR, corporate security, and legal services involved, plus back-ups for each individual. Small organizations should outsource these roles to have the right mix of knowledge and personalities on the team.

4) Have a threat response team manual. “These guidelines should be laid out sequentially,” says Blythe. “For instance, what do you do when you first hear of a threat?” Plans for every type of situation help you to assess threats, defuse situations, and know who to call and when. A manual should include appropriate responses to all threats and explain their rationale, which is important after an incident to defend the actions taken.

Building owners who have tenants face the challenge of forming violence prevention or response plans around them. James McGinty, vice president, training and safety at Covenant Security Services, Ltd., sees tenants as creating potential communication problems.

“They have their own policies, which are often not shared with the building owners. Most of the time, management finds out after the fact when something has happened.” McGinty suggests hosting awareness programs and encouraging a building-wide atmosphere of “if you see something, say something.”

Coleman agrees that facilities with multiple tenants can run into communication challenges. “The tenant may have a workplace violence prevention program, but those plans may not be consistent with property policies,” he says. “Communication is a big issue for building owners. These challenges can impact the property, other tenants, and victims alike, sometimes with fatal outcomes.”

Coleman stresses the importance of sharing information. “If a tenant reports something to the police and doesn’t report it to the building owner or property manager, management is compromised. It is crucial for building owners to encourage their tenants to share their workplace violence prevention plans and policies with them.”

He suggests training and tenant education programs as ways to foster awareness and communication.

Ferraro endorses the layering of security plans. “Building owners need their tenants to acknowledge that workplace violence is an issue and encourage them to have plans in place. Then, the building owner’s own emergency plans for the entire facility are layered on top to build an integrated plan,” he says.

If there’s a will, there’s a way. But don’t let that truth cause you to neglect physical security. Access control, security officers, and barriers like turnstiles or locked doors offer a lot of protection, says Ferraro.

He recommends channeling access through key control points and tightly managing the details. Make sure expired badges deny access to the wrong people. Encourage reporting if occupants see someone walking around without a badge or looking suspicious. Foster an atmosphere of vigilance.

“A criminal is going to choose the easiest way or the easiest target,” says Blythe. Monitor ingress and egress, and don’t let employees “piggyback” – make sure every individual enters properly. Armed guards may be controversial, but they do reduce some vulnerability. “If you have reason to worry about a shooter, you don’t want to bring a nightstick to a gun fight,” says Blythe.

Nevertheless, physical security is only a part of preventing workplace violence, and having training and a comprehensive program in place are essential – and not just for shooters. “Hostility is much more likely than a shooting, but it often goes unreported,” says Blythe. Hostility management training helps employees to defuse a dangerous person.

Assuming that workplace violence won’t happen in your building is dangerous. Don’t live in avoidance or think that the plan you’ve had in place for 15 years is still viable.

“As we enhance our protective and prevention strategies, we can anticipate that the aggressors will be evolving and should attempt to overcome them with new innovations,” says Ferraro. “Workplace violence is dynamic, and building owners need to keep pace.”

Jenna M. Aker is a contributing editor for BUILDINGS.

How Big Data Can Improve Speculative Building Plans

iStock_000007206299MediumWhat would you say if we told you that it’s possible to design a house with big data? It’s true, and these so-called “house of clicks” are definitely going to make a huge impact.

If you haven’t heard of “house of clicks” yet check out this earlier post on Smallman Construction.

A Swedish property site called Hemnet hired an architect to design a house based on consumer preferences. Thanks to big data, the company analyzed the most popular amenities in a home, such as large master suites, split floor plans and walk-in closets, and designed a floor plan using these features.

In Sweden, of course, the “house of clicks” turned out to be relatively small, efficient and modern. However, an American-style “house of clicks” (if there was one) is exactly the opposite. Americans like large homes, that have tons of amenities and floor space, and tend not to be efficient at all (hopefully, that will change in the future).

The question remains: What does all of this have to do with speculative building and how can it help?

Big Data Strengthens Speculative Building                              

If you work in the industry, then you already know speculative building, or “spec building,” has to do with creating a building or home with the intention of putting it right on the market. The idea is to leverage current demand, to create something that will sell sooner than later.

The problem is, going in blind and building a structure you believe will be in high demand could end in disaster. There’s always the possibility you were wrong to begin with or market demands will shift before you’re done.

Worse yet, consumers have radically different demands. Some are more concerned with having a large walk-in closet, while others want more than one bathroom.

So, how do you go about designing and building a residence that ticks all the boxes — on a list of demands — for as many people as possible? The answer is big data.

What Big Data Does

Data and information — like the kind Hemnet and Houseplans collect — can be used to design a structure that adheres to consumer preferences. Imagine knowing beforehand, before you even begin building, exactly what your customers want.

Speculative building very much relies on the adage “build it and they will come,” but at the end of the day there are no guarantees. When you leverage big data to create a “house of clicks” or any structure using consumer preferences, you’re giving consumers exactly what they want. That means they’re more likely to buy in.

The Swedish property Hemnet designed was created after the company analyzed more than 200 million clicks across 86,000 homes. Then two architects, Bolle Tham and Martin Videgård, used that data to create “the country’s statistically most sought after home.”

Take the Guesswork Out of Speculative Building

Building homes and structures to a particular demand can be tricky. Big data can eliminate most of the guesswork. Not to mention, when all is said and done, you’re more likely to end up with a home or residence consumers will be clamoring over.

It’s not just in the home industry, either; commercial and industrial structures fit into the equation too. Some companies, like Rob Mericle’s Ready to Go! program, have already begun working toward this end. Big data can be leveraged to create any type of building, and the finished project is often more efficient and better at meeting demands.

Remember that the next time you sit down to create plans for spec building projects. There’s a more reliable way to anticipate consumer and business demands — big data.

The ‘Plan Bay Area’: Restricting Housing Development Isn’t Reform

640x0 (1)BY Jonathan Wood and Randal O’Toole

In San Francisco, single-family homes are being phased out under something called “Plan Bay Area,” a regional development plan written by unelected bureaucrats over loud objections from the people whose lives it will change.

The Plan calls for sharp limits on future housing and business development across the Bay Area. Nearly 80% of new housing and two-thirds of new jobs will only be allowed to develop in a scant 5% of the region.

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge towers over the city skyline at dusk. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

San Francisco and the surrounding region is already the most expensive place to live in the country. The Plan will only exacerbate the housing shortage and drive rents and home prices further up.
So why would the bureaucrats behind Plan Bay Area foist it on these people? They contend that it is needed to address greenhouse gas emissions from housing and transit.
Yet, even under the bureaucrats’ rosy projections, these draconian restrictions will reduce emissions from the region by only three-quarters of 1%.

The Plan won’t get much return from severely restricting people’s liberty to live how and where they choose because it relies on major expansions of light and heavy rail that people don’t want to ride. In the Bay Area, transit is particularly unreliable because transit employees strike, as they did shortly after the Plan was approved, causing transit emergencies. But ridership had better skyrocket to justify the significant environmental impacts of building and operating these new rail projects.

It would be too easy to chalk this plan up to San Francisco’s idiosyncrasies. Not so fast.

The federal government has called for metropolitan areas across the country to adopt similar plans in their bids for federal transportation funds. It’s also giving “livability grants” to communities that restrict housing development in similar ways. Cities quite unlike San Francisco have been following its lead—including Des Moines, Iowa, and Lafayette, Louisiana.

The federal government promotes this type of planning as a means of encouraging economic growth. But this is largely bunk. As one critic of Minnesota’s restrictive transit-oriented plan noted: “What do ‘people magnets’ like [Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston] have in common? Less burdensome government regulation and fewer land use restrictions. Both are strongly correlated with greater economic growth.”

Admittedly, many communities have severe housing shortages and economic difficulties. But government restrictions on development are often the culprit, not the solution.

In the Bay Area, for instance, the housing shortage is a product of zoning restrictions—which, ironically, have long forbidden the types of dense development the Plan calls for—rent controls, affordable housing mandates and overly-burdensome environmental regulations like the California Environmental Quality Act (a favored tool for NIMBYs and construction worker unions).

There’s a desperate need for reform. But further restricting development isn’t reform. It’s more of the same.

Urban planners—like those responsible for Plan Bay Area—have disliked the ways Americans choose to live their lives for decades. In the middle of the 20th century, vibrant, though poor, communities were routinely bulldozed to be replaced by planner-preferred housing projects that permanently displaced and disrupted communities.

Nearly 20 years ago, Portland planners latched on to the environment as justification for rearranging people’s lives. They called for reducing the share of people who live in single-family homes from 65% to 41%.

Plan Bay Area and its copies are merely the latest round in this conflict between planners and the people whose lives they want to control.

Small steps create big savings for building owners, report details


It doesn’t take much for building owners to enjoy a savings bonanza from energy efficiency, as the non-profit Carbon War Room explains in a report today. However, despite the potential, many private building owners miss out on the financial rewards of readily available technology.

The white paper, “Raising the Roof: How to Create Climate Wealth Through Energy Efficiency,” says misinformation and a lack of understanding are just a few reasons why building owners leave easy money on the table. That’s according to research gathered from 30 municipalities, from Chicago, to Wellington, New Zealand, over 30 months.

Yet with key steps, buildings can slash their energy use by 80 percent, cutting more than $78 billion per year from the electricity bills of American consumers and businesses. The report provides building owners and city sustainability officers with fine points about harnessing technology, finance and policy.

“We already have an industry and commercial technologies that could achieve a 3 to 20 percent reduction in carbon emissions with little to zero upfront costs,” said Joshua Kagan, the Carbon War Room‘s operation lead for building energy efficiency. “We can globally abate a gigaton-level of carbon dioxide and generate hundreds of billions of dollars in profits.”

Kagan points out that many building owners are waiting for some sort of breakthrough.

“There’s been a misperception that we need future technologies to be discovered or created to drive down emissions and we already have those technologies today,” he said.

So how can commercial and private building owners begin to capture some of that money?

A deep retrofit primarily of ventilation, temperature and high-performing light systems can add $3 to $30 per square foot to the value of office space for an occupant, the report says. That’s based on potential productivity gains of 1 to 5 percent. This type of retrofitting can include installing new HVAC systems, windows, lightbulbs and ventilation systems; monitoring energy use to gauge room for improvement; and using energy storage. In addition, government programs and policies can help with costs associated with retrofits.

“Energy efficiency is both the challenge and the opportunity,” Kagan said. “If you’re a business and you’re able to reduce efficiency costs to a building, which oftentimes is the largest expense, you can reduce the operating costs (and) therefore increase the value of the building.”

Software plays an important role in benchmarking, auditing, implementation and capital upgrades, the report details. Building operators can use analytics from FirstFuelor Retroficiency, for example, to monitor building energy usage. The Peer Building Benchmarking database of more than 120,000 buildings can aid with meeting Energy Star best practices. And tablet-based apps such as those fromkWhOURS can assist with auditing.

Until recently, municipalities, universities, schools and hospitals have paid the most attention to energy efficiency, but more commercial building owners are starting to invest.

The Carbon War Room’s research included:

•  Examining energy systems that worked and that needed improvements.

•  Looking at cities’ energy benchmarks to gauge whether they’ve helped in savings.

•  Using software to track the energy output of municipalities studied.

•  Gathering feedback on the hurdles and opportunities of launching energy plans.

The Carbon War Room advocates that building owners choose from among many energy models rather than follow a “one size fits all” approach. In addition, creating a budget for upgrades and marketing and communications about any new changes are key. While the future is bright for energy efficiency worldwide, however, many obstacles interfere.

“We have some big barriers, like high upfront costs to do retrofits, and building owners just don’t have the capacity,” Kagan said. “Either they don’t have the capital to do it themselves or they don’t have the capacity to source additional debt. … Another barrier is the lack of data and information about how a project has performed historically. So much project data is confidential; there’s no open source database that tracks historical performance.”

In addition, legal and structural challenges such as mortgage covenants can prevent the sourcing of additional debt. But even with significant barriers, energy efficiency for commercial buildings will continue to grow by leaps and bounds around the world.

“We estimate that $100 million in projects will be (privately) funded this year and this will scale to $1 billion within three years,” said Kagan.

Building image by Anton Havelaar via Shutterstock