Interviews with Michael Anschel and Michael McCutcheon

Michael Anschel

Otogawa-Anschel Design-Build, Minneapolis

Residential remodeling

$2 million annual sales; 10 employees

MN GreenStar

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 marketplace?

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 them?

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 now.

What are your top priorities when considering a new project?

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 be? 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 the code.

What’s been your favorite project to date?

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 possible. What are the most important components in green building, whether remodeling or new construction?

The most important component in green building is to test, explore, and assess each structure to gain an understanding of its issues. 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 invaluable.

By reusing this kitchen’s upper cabinets and building lower ones to match, Anschel conserved resources and revitalized the space’s original style.

Do your clients drive the process, or do you educate them?

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 home?

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 on. 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 green.

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 efforts?

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 jealous.

How much do your priorities typically differ from your clients’, and how do you deal with the differences?

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 clients?

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’ resource list.

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 true anymore.

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 program?

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 green practices?

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.

Interviews with Michael Anschel and Michael McCutcheon

Michael McCutcheon

McCutcheon Construction, Berkeley, Calif.


$6 million-plus annual sales; 30 employees

Certified Green Building Professional (Build It Green)

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 green?

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 on.

What are some of the misperceptions about green that you’ve heard, and how do you respond to them?

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 project?

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 construction?

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 sides happy?

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 from overheating.

How much time do you spend educating clients?

Many hours.

How much of an educator have you been to your crew and trade contractors?

This takes a lot of time and attention. We have had to learn the best practices and then spread the word. It’s hard work.

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 with us!

Do you encounter resistance among some employees or trade contractors to re-examining traditional methods and technologies?

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 window.”

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. Concrete.

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 sustainable.

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 anyway.

Fiber-cement siding and trim?

Pretty good. Short pieces make for an awkward look sometimes.

PVC trim?

Durable but plastic — yech!

Fiberglass insulation?

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.

Steel framing?

Recyclable, but leaves the problem of thermal bridging. Not many of our subs know how to frame with it, except for nonstructural work.

Do you have — or have you had —problems with suppliers being able to meet your needs or schedule?

Sure, lots of the experimental stuff — straw and wheatboard, for example — is hard to get.

How do you manage your demolition and construction waste?

Through subs who must prove to us they recycle.

Do you have overhead costs that are unique to running a green company?

Education and certification. Special tools such as indoor air-scrubbing machines.

Can green construction methods be customized to fit any size budget?

Many green features don’t cost anything. For example, recycling. Others are low or no cost, like low-VOC paint.

Do you adhere to a specific rating program or guideline?

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, including you see code changes on the horizon?

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.