Michael Anschel and
Otogawa-Anschel Design-Build, Minneapolis
$2 million annual sales; 10 employees
With this remodel, Otogawa-Anschel Design-Build
transformed a small and inefficient 1913 residence
into a healthy, energy-efficient home. Note the two
rain barrels and the native plantings. The patio is
made from 100 percent reclaimed stone and the turf
is a no-mow, drought-resistant grass. Silver-level
certification from MN GreenStar is pending.
What got you interested in building green, and how
did you get the ball rolling within your company and in the
My company started in 1996 as a handyman and restoration
company. We quickly grew to take on larger restoration projects
and eventually additions. In 2002, we began actively promoting
our company in the sustainable and green arena. As a company,
we decided to align ourselves with the barely emerging green
market and become the leading green building and design firm in
the state. We were just a small firm and everyone felt strongly
about our commitment to the environment and employee and client
health. We began to introduce the concept to the marketplace by
talking about sustainability, urban living, and quality of
life. Our goal was, and still is, to portray green as something
that is accessible, attractive, and required for everyone. Now,
six years later, we’re considered by many in our region
to be experts on residential green building.
We hear a lot of contractors say that they’re not
getting requests for green. Well, many of our leads don’t
specifically ask for green, but when we mention that we offer
certified green projects, they light up. I can’t tell you
how many people have called our firm, elated to have found one
that shares their values and concerns. At that point,
there’s no sales pitch required. We’ve seen a
steady increase in sales over the last several years, and this
year promises to be no exception. In fact, we added three
designers to keep up with the workload.
How do you define green?
I feel that there are at least five components that must be
considered equally on all projects in order to consider them
green. They are, in no particular order, water conservation,
resource efficiency, site and community impact, energy
efficiency, and indoor environmental quality. Along with
life-cycle analysis, the concept of durability is encompassed
within resource efficiency.
What are some of the misperceptions about
green that you’ve heard, and how do you respond to
Too often, I hear people confuse green building with
energy-efficient building. Energy efficiency is at most
one-fifth of what makes a project green. We don’t have an
energy crisis; we have a consumption problem. More important,
the U.S. — less than 5 percent of the world’s
population — has a serious consumption problem. We
consume without thought or care. We don’t want to
acknowledge the realities of energy production and the impact
on our natural environment. We are only concerned with the cost
of energy. Keep it cheap, we say. We have lost all sense of
legacy and have become obsessed with the here and
What are your top priorities when considering a new
When we consider taking on a project, we start with the
location. We have an unwritten 15-minute-drive rule. If we
can’t get to the site in roughly 15 minutes, we will
typically pass on the project. Second, we need to make sure
that the project is appropriate for the home. Third, the
homeowners’ values need to align with ours. Our favorite
projects are those that allow us to take an older leaky home
and button it up tight the right way, put on a cool addition,
introduce some great technology, and give it another 100-year
lease on life.
What’s the most common negative building practice
you can think of?
Building to a price point. Cost should not be the driving
factor in making decisions about how something should be built.
Actually, I take that back. The worst — I mean worst
— practice in our industry is the “design while
building” system. Without proper planning —
assessment of the space and a well-thought-out plan — you
cannot provide the level of care for the home that you should.
Bidding on architects’ sketches before the interior is
fully designed is ridiculous. How can you determine the cost of
the project if half the project is unknown? How can you design
a wall system if you don’t know what the finish will
I have one other pet peeve. It isn’t a building practice
so much as it is a design practice and a product. The recessed
light is quite possibly one of the worst ideas to enter the
building community. It is so inefficient at lighting a room
that you have to install dozens of them just to get enough
light to see. Downlights are not flattering. They conduct heat
directly into the building cavity where they are installed,
changing the pressure dynamic of the air in the joist bay. And
in insulated ceilings they’re the number-one most common
failure point. I keep waiting for the IRC to write them out of
What’s been your favorite project to
We really try to approach every project as if it is a
potential award-winner, and we put a great deal of effort into
the design phase. That said, a personal relationship develops
with each project, and picking a favorite is hard. We are
working on a project right now that is amazing. The homeowner
not only has the mindset that green is just the right way to do
things, he also has a budget that allows us to explore design
options and technologies that otherwise wouldn’t be
What are the most important components in
green building, whether remodeling or new
The most important component in green building is to test,
explore, and assess each structure to gain an understanding of
The other component that is important is to assemble a team and
introduce them to the project early on as a group and encourage
debate and discussion among them. This idea of a
multidisciplinary team is revolutionary to some, but we find it
By reusing this kitchen’s upper cabinets and
building lower ones to match, Anschel conserved
resources and revitalized the space’s
Do your clients drive the process, or do you educate
I think it is a little of both. Our clients drive the
concept of the project — i.e., “space for eating,
cooking, reading a book” — but we drive the green
component. Clients who drive the green, unless they know what
they’re talking about, are in many ways more problematic
than clients who think they know tile. It’s our job to
drive the green and to educate the homeowners from time to time
on why we’re making certain selections. In that spirit, I
think there’s a time for education and there’s a
time for trust. I’ve found that it is sometimes more
effective to educate the homeowners just after a product is
installed and they are pleased and fascinated with it. If
there’s a technology that they’re not familiar
with, they may raise concerns about the installation, which
means more work and a slight loss of confidence.
What are the top requests from clients who want a green
Everyone wants a green roof and a geothermal heating
system. We offer both but explain to clients that these are not
where you start if you want to make your home green. The MN
GreenStar standard has proven very helpful in these cases, when
we look at what it would take to certify the home and they see
that there are some less expensive options available.
Higher-budget projects have access to advanced systems like
solar heating, ground-source heat pumps, PV panels, and so
They often are also interested in some of the fun and fancy
products that have some cool green attributes, like sorghum
board, recycled glass countertops, bamboo cabinets and
flooring. This stuff is cool, but not required to be
Television has played a huge role in getting homeowners
interested and involved in the building and remodeling process.
Does this kind of glossy education help or hinder your
TV does a good job of selling the consumer on all sorts of
products. Some of it is helpful, but much of it is misinformed,
and some of it is downright intentionally misleading. I’m
fond of saying that there is no such thing as a green product,
only products with green attributes or products that contribute
to green strategies. The real green is buried deep inside the
structure and the process. It isn’t sexy and
doesn’t sell well. You can’t point to a 60 percent
reduction in construction waste and make your neighbor
How much do your priorities typically differ from your
clients’, and how do you deal with the
Our priorities are generally fairly closely aligned, but
there are usually some breaks. We have our nonnegotiable items
and will let other things go. Our clients quickly learn when
something is not going to change, and it becomes a source of
humor going forward. I would argue that our firm stance and
strong ethics in the green arena earn us a great deal of
respect from our clients. They appreciate that we are looking
out for their best interests.
How much time do you spend educating
We spend a great deal of time educating clients. It not
only makes our job easier but often helps to drive the scope of
work to expand. Most important, however, we feel that the
clients need to have a firm understanding of how their home
works and what we’ve done to it. We want them to maintain
their home, not screw it up. The process of educating the
client also helps to build a sense of value for our firm,
giving us a greater chance of staying on the clients’
Have you had to educate your staff?
My staff has embraced the green movement and is constantly
researching new materials and techniques. I learn a lot from
them, while at the same time I help them sort the real green
from the faux green. Mixing of systems is the area where I
spend the most time working to educate my staff and subs.
Getting them to understand that there are no hard and fast
rules, that each project has to be reviewed in its entirety,
and that what may have been true six months ago might not be
How about getting buy-in from your trade contractors
— is there willingness or resistance?
Most subcontractors are willing to follow us into the green
forest without too much complaining. Some of them have really
gotten excited and have begun to make changes to their standard
operating practices. We have created a team of partners who
make an extra effort on our projects to do things differently
because they appreciate what we are trying to do.
Interestingly, since we switched to only ultra-low-VOC paints,
the painters have decided to avoid high-VOC products on their
other projects as well. They appreciate not being exposed to
the fumes, and once they realized they could work without them,
they made the switch.
We have had a couple of subs who have not taken our efforts
seriously and either didn’t put an assembly together as
requested or used products we don’t allow on our sites.
Just as we don’t tolerate a sub who leaves the door
unlocked or a mess in the living room, we don’t have room
for a sub we can’t trust on our projects. We have had to
push a couple of them to try a given technology. However, we
listen to their feedback on performance and their suggestions
for adjustments or alternative brands. That cooperative
relationship, where we both are learning, is the secret to
creating a win-win situation.
Do you adhere to a particular rating or certification
We use the MN GreenStar Certified Green Homes and
Remodeling standard. Since I helped to design the program and
serve on its board, it’s naturally my favorite standard.
We really don’t have any choice, though. LEED is strictly
new homes, and ReGreen is not a standard and offers no
certification. NAHB’s program is neither fully developed
nor supported in our state. Besides, I can’t see
homeowners trusting a NAHB product.
Do you anticipate changes in building codes to promote
There are big changes ahead in how green is evaluated.
Embodied energy and life-cycle analysis tools will be the big
players. Water will play a larger role, and the bar will be
raised as the state codes get more restrictive. Energy is the
no-brainer, but the carbon tax will be the interesting one to
watch. I expect that commercial codes will be applied to
residential projects in areas of water and energy. Cities will
begin to require green certification on all projects that have
any type of state funding or mortgage, and will require
consumption to be halved.
Michael Anschel and
McCutcheon Construction, Berkeley, Calif.
$6 million-plus annual sales; 30 employees
Certified Green Building Professional (Build It
McCutcheon Construction placed the photovoltaic
panels on this San Rafael, Calif., custom home
directly over modified bitumen roofing —
rather than over the tiles — to save money
and resources. An electrical shutoff allows
firefighters to disconnect the panels.
What got you interested in building
My specific interest in green building was sparked by a
client request for a green project about 10 years ago. Now that
I know more about it, I realize that we’ve been doing
green building in the truest sense since day one. In other
words, we’ve been building highest-quality, durable, and
thoughtfully designed work all along. Now we’re just
adding a few techniques and buzzwords to our arsenal. In the
end, durability may be the most important green feature of all,
and that is as old as the hills.
How did you get the ball rolling, both within your
company and in the marketplace?
The ball more or less rolled of its own accord. We just
responded to the needs of the time, with clients asking for
green features, using that terminology. Suddenly, tankless
water heaters were not just practical but green. Ditto with
good insulation, water-efficient plumbing fixtures, and so
What are some of the misperceptions about green that
you’ve heard, and how do you respond to
The biggest misperception is that green is expensive.
Compared to what? Quality has always cost more — if not
in money, certainly in thoughtfulness and attention to detail.
Americans have built houses that are the equivalent of the
fast-food meal — and we know what happens when you eat a
steady diet of that low-quality fare. You become obese,
unhealthy, and you suffer. Is good food expensive? Are good
homes expensive?What are your top priorities when considering a new
The people involved, particularly the client. We would
rather build a doghouse for a nice person than the Taj Mahal
for a difficult one.
What’s the most common negative building practice
you can think of?
Choosing items based on price. When building methods are
chosen purely based on price — whether by the client or
the GC or the sub or whoever — inevitably the long-term
consequences are lousy. Cheap stuff is cheap for a reason. It
never lasts as long, nor does it perform as well during its
limited useful life. The most common manifestation of this is
the three-bid mentality promoted by the consumer affairs
advisors of America. Utter nonsense. Why not have three careful
interviews — or more — to select the right
contractor, rather than just the cheapest? Let the contractors
spend more time building well and less time pricing out jobs in
parallel with other contractors.
What’s been your favorite or most significant
project to date?
We have been blessed with many wonderful projects, which
would make it impossible to select just one. We love our
clients even more than the projects we do for them, and
selecting a favorite among them would be like asking a parent
to select a favorite child. Even if they secretly had a
favorite, they should keep it to themselves.
What are the most important components of green in
building, whether remodeling or new
Energy efficiency; intelligent design; durable,
high-quality construction; safe and healthy materials;
sustainability over the long run.
Between television and the Internet, there’s a
lot of home-building information out there. What are the top
requests from clients who want a green home?
PV panels are the sexiest green item. Many also want
sustainably harvested wood, low or no-VOC paint, no
formaldehyde in their cabinets, and energy-efficient items such
as tankless water heaters.
How much do your priorities differ from your
clients’, and how do you direct the process to keep both
We both want high quality at a fair price, but the details
of our desires can vary significantly, so we spend a lot of
time getting to know our clients and what floats their boat. We
always sneak in green features. We also try to bring added
value by having home-energy audits, for example, but we
don’t insist on them.
For this deck McCutcheon used FSC-certified redwood
decking and high-volume fly-ash concrete. The
house’s south-facing windows have sun-sensing
shades that close automatically to keep interiors
How much time do you spend educating
How much of an educator have you been to your crew and
This takes a lot of time and attention. We have had to
learn the best practices and then spread the word. It’s
Is it difficult to find trade contractors who
understand and will work green?
Yes and no. It’s becoming easier, but 10 years ago it
was very difficult. Now we have developed a list of subs who
specialize in green building. They better, if they want to work
Do you encounter resistance among some employees or
trade contractors to re-examining traditional methods and
Lots of resistance, which is understandable. They
don’t like experiments because they want to stand behind
their work. We believe in working in partnership with everyone
and coming along slowly to increase their comfort. But at some
point, we lay down the law on certain items: “You must
use a soldered sheet-metal pan under every
For which trade contractors are green-modified skill sets most
critical to a project?
Hvac, which we are finding has been brutally deficient in
the past. Insulation. Electrical. Plumbing.
What are some of your most commonly used building
materials and why?
High-volume fly-ash concrete — recycled material,
saves lots of energy, and makes better concrete.
No-formaldehyde insulation — a no- or low-cost upgrade to
improve a building’s health. No- or low-VOC paint —
a low-cost upgrade for better health, and the quality’s
pretty good now. Manufactured lumber — high quality, more
Are there building products you discourage or definitely will
not work with?
Redwood decking and noncertified lumber.
What’s your take on vinyl siding?
Toxic soup — no way. Nobody uses it in the Bay Area
Fiber-cement siding and trim?
Pretty good. Short pieces make for an awkward look
Durable but plastic — yech!
Okay if no formaldehyde. We prefer cotton denim batts,
blown-in cellulose, or spray foam.
Last resort. Traps a lot of contaminants. Best to use wool
or other natural material in carpet and pad.
Solid surfacing materials?
Pretty good, but lots of chemicals involved.
What do you think about plastic decking?
Plastic is not our favorite for either durability or
aesthetics, but it has its place in extreme environments. We
prefer sustainably harvested wood.
Recyclable, but leaves the problem of thermal bridging. Not
many of our subs know how to frame with it, except for
Do you have — or have you had —problems
with suppliers being able to meet your needs or
Sure, lots of the experimental stuff — straw and
wheatboard, for example — is hard to get.
How do you manage your demolition and construction
Through subs who must prove to us they recycle.
Do you have overhead costs that are unique to running a
Education and certification. Special tools such as indoor
Can green construction methods be customized to fit any
Many green features don’t cost anything. For example,
recycling. Others are low or no cost, like low-VOC
Do you adhere to a specific rating program or
Build It Green Certified Green Building Professional. Build
It Green Green Point Rated. This is the California residential
green building program. I am on the board of Build It Green, so
I may be prejudiced.
What are some of your best educational resources for
the science and practice of building green?
Web sites. I have perhaps 20 or so links I use regularly,
builditgreen.org.Do you see code changes on the
California cities are beginning to adopt mandatory green
building codes, most using the Build It Green guidelines. I
would love to see a statewide code and eventually a national
code that required green building.
Is every builder destined to become a green
builder?I hope so.