EP 36 | Building Performance Failures: Design & Engineering Coordination
In this episode:
In this ‘building performance failure’ episode, host Curtis Lawson and co-host Toner Kersting, along with guests Greg Swedberg and Matt Gray delve into the importance of design and engineering coordination.
Through their stories of projects that could have gone south real quick, they reveal how communication and collaboration in the early stages of a construction project are essential for effective execution of a project. These seasoned professionals illustrate how a lack of coordination between architect, engineer, builder, and building performance designer can lead to problems or even failures!
Learn how they navigate the unavoidable challenges of building a custom home and gain invaluable insights into how to strengthen the workflow and processes on your project – it’s all hands on deck and these guys are here to guide you towards success! ✅
Bonus: Accompanying every episode are show notes with links to guest speakers and other helpful sites mentioned in the podcast.
How to get in touch: Please let us know what questions you have and we will get back to you as soon as possible. You may email us at email@example.com.
About our Guests:
Greg Swedberg, the founder of 2Scale Architects, is an accomplished architect with a passion for custom residential designs. With extensive experience in high-end retail and interiors architecture, he has honed his skills and unwavering commitment to delivering exceptional results. Greg’s dedication to client satisfaction, contextual designs, and continuous improvement sets 2scale architects apart in the industry, ensuring the creation of homes that become cherished backdrops to clients’ lives.
Matt Gray, is Founder and Owner of Anvil Engineering. With a wealth of experience in residential engineering and a background in designing thousands of conventionally-reinforced and post-tensioned slab on grade foundations for major homebuilders in Houston, he brings a unique perspective to residential foundation inspections. As a licensed Structural Engineer with a focus solely on structural work, he possess the necessary design expertise critical for understanding how foundations are intended to perform. Being independent and without any affiliations to contractors, he prioritizes representing the interests of his clients alone. Additionally, he provide expedited engineering reports with a remarkable 12-hour turnaround time, ensuring prompt and efficient service for his clients.
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CURTIS: Hey everyone, welcome back to the Your Project Shepard Construction Podcast. You’ve heard me say this before and if you somehow missed it though, or if it’s your first time listening, I’m going to say it again. Here we teach that every successful project has four key components, which are demonstrated by this simple child’s drawing of a house. The foundation is proper planning. The left wall is your team. The right wall is communication and the roof protecting it all is proper execution. Have all four of those components in place and your project will succeed. Today we are starting a series of episodes about building performance failures and I thought we would start by talking about the early stages of where things can go wrong. We’re talking about failures that can occur if there’s a lack of coordination between architect, engineer, builder, building performance designer. All those parties have to work together early on for success. Here to talk about with us today, we have one long time running return guest, Toner Kirsting of Toner Home Matters. We’ve got two first time guests. We’ve got Greg Svedberg with Two Scale Architects and Matt Gray with Anvil Engineering.
So welcome guys, thanks for coming.
MATT: Thanks for having us.
GREG: Yeah, of course.
CURTIS: With that simple house design diagram that I just talked about, our discussion today kind of really touches on all four of those components. So as I mentioned, and this is a little kind of cheesy kids drawing that I’ve done that we show on screen at the beginning of every episode. So that the foundation of planning a project is proper planning. It’s gathering all the right data. It has a good design. It’s having everybody working together. The left wall of that diagram is building your team. So having all the team members on board, qualified professionals who are working toward a common goal. And then that right wall of communication, we all have to like work together, talk, effectively communicate to make sure we’re communicating the design intent, cross checking each other’s work and just making sure that everything that needs to be on the drawings is on the drawings. to set the contractor up for success and to make sure the homeowner understands what the goals are. And then the last component of that, that roof of proper execution, we have to make sure it gets built right. And that means that, you know, you guys, all of us are checking our work. We’re checking each other’s work, extra sets of eyes on the project, doing site inspections and things like that. In this discussion, I really kind of wanted to talk about early on what has to take place and then how all that gets communicated to the builder to make sure that it gets done the right way early on. And we’ll start with Greg. He’s usually going to be the first person as the architect that’s involved in the design process. So how do you kind of set up the team for success to make sure that all that information’s there? How do you coordinate with Matt and Toner and me? Let’s just touch on that a little bit.
TONER: If you can’t go ahead and set us up with explaining exactly who you are, how long you’ve been doing this. Oh yeah, sorry. I skipped the formal introduction. He’s all business. It’s so builder of him. I’m just like, hey, this has all been figured out, right? Like let’s go.
GREG: So. Yeah. So my name is Greg Swedberg. My company is 2Scale Architects. Of course, thanks for having me. I have known these guys for a long time. So we design custom residential projects, so both new construction as well as large remodels. And so our clients tend to have pretty complex projects. We’re not talking track home, cookie cutter, rinse repeat type projects. So there’s a lot of first times things that are happening in the house. It’s the first-time designs ever been created. We might be the first time somebody is actually doing an interesting new material or an interesting new assembly. There’s a lot of pre-planning that goes on with these clients. I’d say I set the table to go back to your question about how do we sort of tee this up to be successful. I set the table with our clients to say, look, this is the first time it’s ever been done. This is the first time your house has been built. And so there will be mistakes. And what we’re here to do is to try to minimize those mistakes. We’re all human hands. We’re all the people out in the field are human. And I think setting expectations of, hey, we need to set up the right team that we’re comfortable with. So when issues do come around, how do we feel confident that that team is going to have everybody’s best interests? And when you approach it that way, it’s less about finding the cheapest person or finding the fastest person or finding the person that dresses the best. It’s about finding the team that you want to go into the trenches with. You finding the team that says, OK, if something goes bad, which one of the people I’m considering are people I’m willing to have that bad conversation with? And then I know that that’s going to end up working out to be an OK situation.
TONER: Yeah, most definitely.
CURTIS: Yeah, I mean, we talk all the time about how building a custom home is building a prototype. Production homes is a product that you’re putting the same product out over and over. We are building a prototype every single time we start a new project, right?
GREG: I tell my clients, I said, once we’re done with you, you’re going to be an excellent client. Yes. And that’s because there’s so much for them to learn. And I have clients that are actively engaged in the learning process. They want to meet all the team members. They want to have a relationship. They have other clients that don’t. But regardless of how they feel about it, we need to come into the project and set up processes that allow us to find the little gremlins that are hiding in a project and to address them as early as possible. Matt, why don’t you introduce yourself since I skipped that part a while ago too.
MATT: No, that’s OK. So Matt Gray, I’m a structural engineer and I own Anvil Engineering. We’ve been around for about seven years. So we do we work on some more types of projects that Greg was describing, mostly new construction, custom homes. We do remodels as well, small, and large. We don’t turn away too much work. But yeah, we basically take the architectural drawings that someone like Greg develops. And then from there, we develop the structural drawings. So design the foundation, design all the wood framing, size all the beams, all the joists, and basically issue a set of structural blueprints. So that’s basically what we do. And just to jump on your point about the gremlins that pop up in these projects, these are not simple cookie cutter houses. These are nice higher end homes that we all work on. There’s always challenges in residential construction that are going to pop up. It may not even be a true mistake. The drawings that I generate are my interpretation of architectural drawings. And Greg may be 100% sure that what he’s showing is clear and cannot even be misinterpreted. And then when I look at it, I may maybe I see it a little differently. And I’m 100% sure that I’ve got it right and then you get to the field, and you build it and you’re not sure what’s supposed to you know what it’s supposed to be. So yeah, I think having a having a, you know, kind of a cohesive team that communicates super important because those things happen and we deal with them and we find solutions and we move on if the team can, you know, is a good team and is communicating effectively.
TONER: One thing that I think is interesting about how this table is set up today is this side of the table. What I do and what you do, we have no regulation whatsoever, right? We’re free to do whatever we want. That’s the regulated side of the table over there. They have a very intentful educational process to go through. Licensing, state reviews, everything. You all have parameters to work within. I can understand why someone may choose not to use me or may choose not to use Curtis because they’re free to do that. The impression is that you all should be part of every project. So can you all both tell me where you are in terms of what is required of your organization and of your industry as a whole and if it’s being utilized fully or not in this market in particular?
MATT: Yeah. So, I mean, city of Houston, as far as I know, every new home is getting engineered. I don’t know if that’s 100% accurate, but it should be. And I know if you’re building on expansive soils, I mean, I think state law requires that you have an engineer design the foundation.
TONER: But yeah, my impression is that pretty much every new house in Houston should be engineered. So what about because Houston is only 30% of all the housing work in Houston is actually under permit. The other 70% is the Wild West part of Houston. So let’s walk our way out to Tomball, not even Tomball, because let’s say Magnolia. Are those houses out there being engineered?
MATT: I’m doing a lot of work out there. I know that. I don’t know. I can’t speak for all of them. I know there’s places out there where, no, there’s probably custom homes being built that are not engineered. They should be. If it’s a custom home with the spans that we typically see in custom homes, it should be engineered whether it’s required to be or not.
TONER: But engineering inspections, actually going out and verifying if the engineering is being applied properly, is that required?
MATT: It depends on where you’re building, and it depends on the inspection. So even in the city of Houston, I’m not required to go do a pre-pour inspection on a new slab because the city does the inspection. So that one is required. But they don’t require that I show up and do the inspection. But I’ll tell clients all the time, the most important inspection is your pre-pour inspection, and we should be doing it. So yeah, it really just depends.
GREG: I think what he’s alluding to is when we do custom houses, people like me like to draw a large span. So the span is the distance between two points. So in his instance, he’s talking about large ceilings with walls that are far apart. So you’re getting those sort of expansive views or you’re getting that open floor concept. It’s not the turn of the 20th century, homes where the rooms were 10 by 11, 10 by 12 could easily be spanned by conventional pieces of lumber. We’re getting these larger, more irregular floor plans, more sort of articulated walls that kind of come in and out and create weird geometries for his team to solve. A much simpler American four square home, which would be sort of a floor plan of four rooms just sort of stacked too wide and too deep. Those can be conventionally framed with somebody that just read about framing for 30 minutes. But the more complicated stuff that we do, that’s why he’s saying a custom home should be designed. And it’s because when you start getting past what a regular two by four, two by six or a two by 12 can handle, you start having to do things like having to forbid steel or glue timbers or all the other interesting sort of unconventional framing pieces. That’s when you need the structural engineer because that person, it’s not the first rodeo he’s been doing, he’s trained.
TONER: But of course you have to know a little bit about structural engineering because you don’t want to make this great design and have it be compromised. And then of course you have to have a good bit of knowledge about architecture. You guys are most definitely influencing each other. Typically, Greg is the one setting the stage first. I’ve been working with Greg for a long time and not all my other architects provide the same plan set that I get from Greg. So what do you do when you’re not on a Greg house and the plan’s sharp and you’re like, well, this isn’t going to work. How do you communicate that back?
MATT: Yeah. So I had one just the other day. It was like a 26-foot-long beam that was needed at the back porch and the rear elevation gave us like 10 inches of depth for the beam. You know? Yeah. Do I need to tell the rest of the story? It just doesn’t work. Please. You know? So if we were going to use, if we were going to stick with lumber, which is always our first option, it was going to be like 24 inches deep. So yeah, had, you know, it just couldn’t work as it was drawn, you know, emailed the builder, told him the situation. They had to get back with me and now we’re going to be putting steel in. But those are the types of things that, you know, a set of architectures from Greg, he’s not going to give me a 26-foot-long span and only allow me 10 inches of depth. Yeah. He’s going to know that that thing is going to be deeper.
TONER: So then Greg, how did you, and at what point did you pick up on how to design architecturally that’s going to be able to be an engineered actual structure?
GREG: I started my career after college in commercial architecture. So we were, I worked at a firm designing really high-end boutique retail. So think about an 800 square foot jewelry store in an airport where they’re spending multiple millions of dollars to build out that small space. So we were making a lot out of very little space. It was actually a really fun job. And then from there, I moved into residential design. So I worked for a high-end home builder and that experience was invaluable to me because it really pushed me out of designing a project that I never got to see in person to understanding the value of actually being boots on the ground. So I actually took that three years that I worked for that company as the learning ground of seeing the like, okay, we drew something. Now I’m standing inside it. What happened when I drew that versus drawing something else? And so I started to understand the ramifications of drawing something incorrectly or not a accommodating the necessary structure and took to heart the reality of if we don’t draw it right, somebody is going to figure out something and it’s probably not going to look like we want it. So I picked up pretty early on that I need to know if I’m going to put the builder in a good spot or if I’m putting them in a challenging spot, I want to talk to that builder early and say, hey, here’s what we’re trying to do. What do you think is the best idea? Or if structurally I’m trying to do something out of the ordinary, I might bring in anvil engineering and say, hey, look, this is going to be your project in a couple months, but we’re just in the design stage right now. So what happens if I do this thing? Is that going to cause you some consternation or is that going to be actually, okay? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? My radar has been tuned in over the last few years, so I feel like I pretty much know if I’m going to call this structural engineer, it’s because I think there’s an issue and I need somebody that knows more about it than I do to let me know how do I get the design down the path without getting my client excited about something that is unattainable. Like your example of a super wide span, but not enough depth to pull it off with the materials that the client was hoping to have. There’s a lot of opportunity in the early stage to address future potential issues and have that inform the design as opposed to trying to sort of force the design of structural in this example, forcing something to work just because the design on the front end wasn’t making the necessary accommodations.
CURTIS: For listeners who don’t know what the back and forth is, so obviously you’re going to be the first person to get this and as you mentioned, you might call Matt and say, I’m thinking about doing this, but ultimately, he’s not seeing a full set of drawings right off the bat. So just talk about the workflow of you creating it, passing it off, when he gets it back to you, what happens? So what’s that flow like?
GREG: Yeah, so I really enjoy having a preliminary meeting with the structural engineer. It’s like a kickoff meeting. We’ll do something similar with Toner’s team. We of course do similar things when we have the builder step in and say, hey, we’d love for you to start working on a preliminary pricing but let me tell you about the project. Because at that point, like you said, if it’s early on, we haven’t solved all the things. We haven’t pushed all of the necessary information onto what is essentially an instruction manual. And so there are assumptions that have to be made. anecdotal stories that need to be told about why something is there. When we do kick that project off, I’m going to circle some areas that I think, hey, I need your attention here. I assume all the rest of it’s easy, but this part is the challenging part. And then we start creating that dialogue. So sometimes it’s an engineer saying, hey, let me go look at it and I’ll get back to you. Sometimes it’s a real live over Zoom or on top of the table solving of something right then and there. And then just creating sort of a collaborative dialogue so that when the structural engineer in this example comes back with preliminary drawings, we want to be able to give them feedback and say, hey, look, we appreciate what you’ve drawn or we appreciate how you’re solving or interpreting what we drew. How do we improve it to make it match more the story that’s being told to our clients? And sometimes that means we have to go back to the client and say, hey, look, the structural engineer told us what you were hoping for isn’t attainable. Here are a couple options about how we can actually tweak the overall look of something. I’m speaking in generality, so I don’t know if that’s really super helpful.
TONER: But a good example of this, it was in 2022, you had a rooftop pool, right? That was on the roof or was it on the, didn’t we design a rooftop pool over in New Memorial? And that was not, hey, I’m going to draw this pool up and send it over to engineering.
I guarantee you that some set up like pretty early on that, right?
GREG: So the early prompt from the client was it’s a fairly small lot. It’s a highly visible lot and they wanted a pool, but there just wasn’t going to be enough real estate or privacy to put it on the ground floor. And so we said, okay, well, what does it look like if we go upstairs? We’ve done pools on roofs before, so it didn’t scare me, but it was definitely an example where it was Toner’s teams at the table, the structural engineers at the table, the lead builders on the table, the clients on the table and we’re talking about how do we solve, I mean, you’re essentially putting a lunchbox on the roof that sloshes around with so much water that it could shake the whole building apart. And so we decided you can either integrate the pool into the structure of the house and let the house help it be rigid, or we can do an isolated structure so that as the pool rocks back and forth from people that will invariably make the water move around, how does that not rock the house apart? And that was the solution we chose. And so we essentially made two different systems. There was a house structure and then there was the pool structure. And then if the house got knocked down, the pool still needed to be able to stand up. And so that was more than just a, hey, here’s an idea. It was definitely multiple rounds of talking with people. And so, I mean, obviously that’s an extreme example. You know, what I’d say would be much more common is someone saying, hey, I want a 20-foot-wide back porch and I don’t want to have a column in the middle. OK, so your columns are 20 feet apart, which gets you that great view. But how low does some beam that’s spanning across those come down to actually obstruct your view? And that’s where we got to talk to the structural engineer and say, OK, well, if we don’t have a column, now I’ve got a big bulky beam. Is my client OK with that? Is the builder OK with that? Or do we shorten it up by doing some sort of more advanced technology like a steel? Or can our client be OK with adding a column?
MATT: Yeah, and to just piggyback on what Greg was talking about, like, it’s, I mean, the fact that he’s thinking about these things, he’s not designing the structure, but he is aware that there’s a structural aspect to this, too. He can draw something really, really pretty and make it look really, really cool. But if it’s not practical or feasible on the structural side, what’s the point? So him thinking about these things early on is super important.
GREG: Yeah, I like to say if it’s not buildable and it’s not permittable, then what the hell are we doing? Right.
MATT: I appreciate that. We’re not doing our job, honestly. Yeah.
GREG: You know, we can’t put something on paper that’s doable and buildable. And I appreciate that when Matt sees our work, it’s not just, you know, throwing hands up, shrug emoji. Well, here’s what we could do. There’s optionality there. And I think a lot of people feel like we live in a binary world. But in actuality, we have multiple ways we could do things. And so being able to show our clients and say, hey, the structural engineer says we could do this or this other thing. Or I had this weird idea of the third thing that the structural engineer isn’t very sure about. I mean, we can have this kind of conversations when we set up our clients saying it’s this is a collaborative experience. Design isn’t a straight line. It’s going to be this sort of meandering path. But we know that generally we’re speaking towards the same direction. If we’re picking up clients that are willing to go down that path, I think it makes the collaboration product actually a lot more fun.
TONER: Yeah, I would say that the structural once we go, when we say we’re going to engineering, there’s a certain level of permanence that statement brings, right? Like, OK, we’re going to structural engineering. And that’s when things are getting super serious now.
GREG: I told clients I said they’ll say, well, what’s the criteria? I said, the walls need to stop moving and the roof needs to settle down. It’s like it doesn’t have to be permanent. But if you can meet those criteria, then it’s that’s OK to go to structure.
TONER: Yeah, because it’s for real at that point. What are the common architectural issues that show up at your table, Matt, that you wish you could tell every architect, please stop doing this?
GREG: Where’s my note?
MATT: No, I I will say most of the architects that we work with do a very good job. Yeah, very detail oriented like Greg thinking in advance of some of these potential problems or challenges. Super important. But yeah, most of the licensed architects that that I work with seem to all be cut from the same mold and they do a pretty darn good job. The planned issues that we run into. I think a lot of it has to do with either a builder or a client or a designer that wants to design a, you know, a large open span custom home and use like a two by 12 four system. Yeah. Again, it’s just not, it’s just not practical.
TONER: And I would say both of you are live in that environment where you get to choose your clientele in many cases, especially you, Matt, like you’re only going to work with the architects that don’t cause you problems. Right. You’re not going to we there are some out there who especially when we get into those that are not licensed and we have some really, really good house designers, but then we also have folks who are just buying a set of plans online and then trying to modify them. And those are very difficult to utilize.
GREG: I remember years ago I had I think I had like five projects that were coming out of design, which is a major log jam and a super mind screw. I was just like, ah, how am I going to do all this? And and I came to Matt and I said, I said, hey, man, I have five projects coming. I cannot put all five of these on your desk. Let me show you which ones are coming. Which one do you want? And I’ll send the other ones somewhere else. Yeah. Because I know that I’m not his only client. And he’s got a lot of other people. I mean, I say I mean, I’m not the one writing the check, but I think that that’s important to understand is that you they’re going to be seeing all sorts of other crazy issues from lots of other other people. And so teeing them up to be in the best position possible that they want to be in. I think it’s important. And I think we both created businesses as Curtis has. The business of being able to say no. Yes, I think that’s important.
MATT: Yeah. And there’s some engineering shops out there and probably some residential design shops that don’t say no.
TONER: I mean, that’s why I have a forensic business.
MATT: Just doing high volume, you know, pumping out high volume stuff. That’s not what we do. I know that’s not it’s not what you do.
TONER: Yeah. I mean, and I I’ve called Matt many times like, hey, I’ve got this forensic project and I’m pretty happy just doing my normal stuff. I don’t need to go evaluate that house with you because it becomes difficult. In fact, we had one a few years ago now. It’s been almost four years since we went there. And it was we’re always real proud on this on this podcast of not revealing names. But I like to get really close to revealing names. It was an extremely predominant national custom home builder. You and I walked into the game room that was above the garage. And there was a noticeable look like a bone spur on that. And I remember you. I think this may have been the last time you ever did a forensic with me. You’re like, this is a waste of time. And we’re stepping on it. And it’s kind of like a diving board is going away. And it’s because of the span that they did on this four-car garage with no post through the middle of it. So we had deflection from the beam below. And I remember going, OK, how are we going to fix this? And you’re like, man, this is like this is demolishing. That how do you support the rest of the house really is the question. While we fix it. So this is an organization that has, I think, in total, well over 100 architects that work for them. And they have been using their their same engineering group, which is a huge engineering group. And they made a mistake. Right. And it’s going to be extremely hard to fix it. In fact, the way that we ended up fixing it, because I had wood floor on it, had regular wood floors on deck, was we ended up taking up the wood floor, taking up the seven, eight, seven deck and going back with inch and a half screeds and then new wood floor. And where that hump was, there was no screed. So the hump got hidden inside the screed. That was some pretty creative thinking right there. Right. Like, so it’s flat wood floors flat. Does the structural deficiency is still there. Yeah. And but that’s that was the resolution that they chose.
GREG: Yeah. So I think you’re really talking about coordination. That’s the big the big C word in our business. And I think I think you could have people that just sort of do a set of drawings and then sort of wipe their hands and, you know, say, OK, good luck, have fun. And then and then there are also people that want to be more coordinated, want to be more involved. And I run across builders that that did not want an architect that was involved in the job site. Most of them don’t. They see it as a negative. Yeah. And and, you know, I think of I think of a lot of instances where I’ve earned my fee just in a singular meeting that was not a design meeting but was all about saving the builder from problems that were about to happen. Can tell a story. Go for it. Yeah. So it was this is it’s not it’s all about me, but it’s not about me. It was my birthday. My birthday was on a Friday and I’m not a big birthday guy, but, you know, your birthday doesn’t land on a Friday every year. Yeah. So I was like, OK. So the builder calls me on three o’clock Friday afternoon on my birthday. And he’s like, hey, I know I know you want to come see the foundation forms before the concrete is poured. You know, we’ve got all the signoffs from everybody. It’s probably not a big deal. But maybe you want to come by. I know it’s late on Friday, but we come by. And I’m like, it’s like, darn it. Yes, I will go by. And so I like to go see the foundation with the form survey, with the structural engineers’ drawings in mind and just try to make sure everything’s good before. He’s like, yeah. So I was like, oh, it doesn’t have to be today. And he said, well, concrete trucks are rolling on Saturday. I was like, OK, I’ll be there in 30 minutes. So I go to the job site and I’m looking at it. It looks weird to pull up the drawings on my iPad. And I’m walking around and I’m not saying anything because I’m just not really sure what I’m looking at. And this house had a little bit of an elevated portion in the front. And then the foundation was supposed to drop a couple of steps and be flatter lower to the ground in the back. And it wasn’t. It was all to be all one level. Oh, no. And and so it’s like, oh, I mean, it didn’t look bad. It was just it was just not what the structural engineer had done. It was not what I did. It’s not what the client signed off and said that, oh, yes, builder, I will pay you this large sum of money for you to build me this house. That’s on these drawings. It did not match that. So this is like a lawsuit level problem. If there’s concrete in the ground. So I checked the foundation, and the superintendent had already approved it. The structural engineer (who was not Anvil Engineering) had been by and said, yeah, all looks good. The building, the superintendent for the home builder, so the guy on site said everything was fine and his boss had showed up and everything was fine. So I was the fifth person on that job site to say, is this concrete or is this foundation ready to have concrete poured? And I don’t know if you know this, but when concrete is poured, it’s really hard to unpour.
CURTIS: Yeah, very difficult.
GREG: When it sets up, you can now have a much more expensive problem. So I said, look, I said, you need to call the concrete company and tell them don’t roll concrete tomorrow. We have to figure this out. As it turned out, the client, the client was out of town, which of course is what’s going to happen when you have these kind of big issues. Like, hey, can you take a quick phone call? He’s like, I really can’t right now. So I had to tell the builder, I said, look, I don’t know what’s going on here, but it doesn’t match the plans. We have to stop. Please, for the love of Jesus, don’t pour concrete. The client is an attorney. You don’t you don’t want to poke that bear. And so we waited. We came back, got brought the whole team together. The following Monday, clients on site, builders on site, everybody’s there. And we walked through the ramifications of what we were looking at and whether what we were seeing was fine or we should change something. And man, I feel like I feel like that was a big win for team coordination, because I cannot imagine if the client was expecting that to be stepped down and they showed up on Monday after what was probably a very lovely weekend. Yeah. And saw that their foundation was a different shape than what they thought they were going to get.
TONER: And the odds of you not going on that phone call were so high. Right. It’s your birthday day on a Friday. Friday at three o’clock. I don’t know if I would have said yes, I would have been like thinking about what my wife was about to say to me when I said I needed to go at the end of the day on a Friday on my birthday.
GREG: And but I’ve got like dozens of those kind of stories. Nothing is nothing is quite as concrete as that.
TONER: But I get it.
MATT: Yeah, I’ve got a similar story.
GREG: It’s I’m limbering up. Yeah, I’ve got a summer one that I’ve dealt with. Multi-million-dollar house in the city. About half of it was built. It was supposed to be dropped and it was built up, you know, or vice versa, I can’t remember. But yeah, potentially a huge, huge issue.
CURTIS: It’s a commercial for doing a C.A. Right. I mean, yeah, like to me, that’s like it like ding, ding, ding. You have to do C.A. on your projects if you’re if you’re a homeowner. Construction administration for those of you not in the not pay the architect people, pay the engineer for his inspections. Don’t don’t cheap out on that stuff. You know.
MATT: And hire a good builder. I mean, there’s a lot of good builders out there. And there’s also a lot of a lot of bad builders. Yeah.
CURTIS: So one of the things that that I see a lot is the builder. Trusts his concrete subcontractor, right? Like the superintendent doesn’t know how to properly read that set of plans, maybe. And so the builder is just trusting the concrete guy to do it right. And the concrete guys trusting his form setting subcontractor. So you’ve got this chain of people trusting each other that shouldn’t be trusting each other. And that’s where things happen.
TONER: Right. Yeah.
GREG: Trust, trust, but verify.
MATT: But a lot of builders just turn it over to the subs. They do.
TONER: And with Houston being such a concrete turnkey subcontractor market, where from scratching dirt through poor is one guy, it’s easy to to you lose, especially from the builder side, the visibility into the steps because one guy is taking it forward. And that’s generally where we see our biggest issues. That’s where we see our form boards knocked out of place. Right. Out of squares. I have a project right now out of square slab. Four inches doweling in four inches of out of square slab is going to part. That is I was looking at it like three years from now. That piece is going to be broken. Like, there’s no way this thing is holding on to here. Especially because it’s a weight. It’s on a brick ledge. It’s like there’s no way this thing’s going to hold the weight. So that I was brought in because they want to do full set brick on this until we get to that add on. And then they want to do flat brick, which is shave off the face. I’m like, it’s going to settle at a different rate. It’s going to hold ground at a different rate. The mortar is going to be a different color. Like this is hammered bananas, guys. Like, let’s just pour it on. So they brought in a third party and that brick ledge is going to have, I don’t know what you call it, where you basically pour the poor forward from it. So the footing that’s holding it is actually going to go 18 inches into the yard. OK, yeah. So like underground, underground. Yeah, which is pretty cool. It’s the first time I’ve seen that done. So that was a good resolution. But the subcontractor said it’s not his responsibility because he said it’s the superintendent’s responsibility to check his work. I’m like, you suck, bro. Like, that’s not cool.
MATT: Yeah, most I would say most job sites I show up to, if I’m if I’m going out there to look at a pre-pour, you know, before they pour concrete or something, I’d say most of the time the builder, you know, isn’t on site. Yeah. And I’m not here to bash builders, but usually I’m just dealing directly with, you know, the foundation contractor. Yeah. The best builders that I work with are guys that are on site a lot. They’re not just trusting the contractors. They’re, you know, actually providing supervision. Yeah. You know, they’re looking at the plans. They’re doing what Greg and I would do when we show up to the job site. Are the drops in the right locations? Are there any special details? You know, all that stuff.
TONER: So how many on average of the of the foundations you’re reviewing, how many of them have zero issues? Percentage wise.
MATT: I mean, less than less than one percent have zero issues. Yeah. Now, a lot of them have very minor things. Yes. You know, like, let’s get the loose debris out of the grade beam trenches and things like that. Most of them, I would say most of them don’t have significant, serious issues, but they all have things that need to be fixed. Yeah, for sure and frames are, you know, framing inspections are even more so.
TONER: OK. And on that account, I have this question come up all the time with homeowners. Can you pour a slab when the beams are full of water? No. OK. Just I guess you can. It’s no, I mean, I had an argument this is last Tuesday. You know, the concrete is going to displace that water. Oh, my gosh. Yes. No, technically. Yes, you’re right.
MATT: But yeah, I mean, we try and be reasonable and practical. I mean, we deal with weather stuff in Houston a lot. Yeah. If there’s a little bit of water down there, you know, yeah, maybe it gets displaced. It’s not going to harm anything. But yeah, I’ve seen a lot that, you know, that are just way to they’re way too wet, way too much standing water in the beam trenches. The pad is soft, you know, because it’s gotten wet, you know, and the builder wants to move forward and pour concrete.
TONER: Yeah. Yep. Terrible decision. No, I’m doing with a problem from that right now. So it’s not the right way, you know.
CURTIS: Toner what do you see on the forensic side as far as issues that could have been cut off early by just, you know, the architect, the engineer, the builder coordinating together more early on?
TONER: Sure. And just a reminder that both of the guys on the side of the table here have been longtime clients and buddies of mine. But more than 50 percent of my business is doing projects that we don’t get the upfront design on. So, right. Speaking from that. But some of these are very, very expensive pieces of architecture. I would say that an architect designing a completely open concept, especially first floor, and then expecting that that is going to be supported structurally and then allow for mechanicals to move through that structural support is unrealistic. And I have. And I’m good at figuring out how to get something air conditioned. But I especially lately, we’ve had to bring more air conditioning through the slab, which is not something you can just decide to do late in the game and not very many engineers understand when I’ve got to drag return air flex, return air ductwork that’s 18 inches across through the slab. What that’s going to mean. Right. We have one that we just got done with. We had to add seven inches to the slab. You know, much cost seven inches of concrete is on a 3600 square foot slab. That’s not cheap, man. And then, God forbid, it’s post tension. Like, that’s not happening. That’s not going to happen on this one. That’s a challenge. The other one is architecturally, when we have a lot of glass, that’s two-story glass, especially on corners. This will be very predominant in my Austin market with ultra mod in that corner has to be steel between two pieces of glass. Steel in the envelope is super challenging. And Matt and I’ve had this conversation about if you’re going to do it, please back up the steel enough that I can thermally break it at the envelope. Otherwise, it’s protruding all the way out to the front surface. And the amount of thermal gain is monstrous. And I just have soaking wet, rusty we just took the cladding off of a structure in East Austin and double windowed two-story column ultra mod, not that big of a house, but really, really expensive East Austin home. And it’s only a year and a half old. And it looks like that post came out of the Titanic is so rusted. And structurally, it’s it’s already too far gone. We have 30 percent of the capacity of that is compromised. So had the architect been conscious that, hey, I realized that I’m designing something that’s going to require metal and then coordinated with that engineer, who’s also coordinated with someone like me that keeps up with things outside. That’s building performance. What I do is not part of your job. But you and I have conversations about this all the time. Just same thing with me and Greg. Right. Greg would know, hey, this is in. Greg’s real good about telling his story of his project. He just doesn’t float a set of plans over to you. It’s always a call going, hey, let me tell you about what I’m about to send to you. You don’t get any pre-interpretation, right? Like it sets the stage for you. And he’ll let me know, hey, we have a big window assembly back here that’s going to have some steel in it. And we’re going to go ahead and make sure that we get the cladding on the outside. And we’re working through that because we’ve worked through problems like that before. But that translation doesn’t make it to the engineer. And the engineer hasn’t gone through learning about forensics and you would think thermodynamics out of everybody, you’ve had the thermodynamics class the most. Is there thermodynamics in your study?
GREG: I don’t remember. That was a long time ago.
MATT: And I barely remember. I remember I didn’t like it.
TONER: I know that. But, you know, thermodynamics and hydrodynamics are two totally different sensibilities, right. And the psychometrics of indoor and outdoor relative climates. And none of that stuff is really taught in any of these schools. It’s not taught in any school.
GREG: There was a building science class, for sure. It was rough. But there wasn’t specific thermodynamics. Yeah. Just take me a second
TONER: But you I don’t worry about that with you. I know that if I look at those plans and I drop you an email and say, hey, can you please back up, make sure the steel is backed up long enough so that I can thermally break it with, you know, some type of polyisostyrene or RMAX or something like that. But I have many, many, many architects who don’t care what happens when it goes over to structural. They want their design realized that many engineers like I got to get this off my desk. So they just draw it up as it is. And then I’m left picking up the pieces on turns of performance. And we have a lot of houses that don’t look like the way they were designed architecturally because the engineering didn’t care. And then they actually don’t cool. They don’t heat. They sweat. They grow mold and they fail. And I’m dealing with right now where they poured a wet slab into wet beams. And this guy legally said the rule of thumb is if there’s less than 30 percent or basically the bottom third of the beam can be full of water, that’s considered dry. So the house is two years old. Engineer wood floors are rotten everywhere. All of the underside of the cabinets are complete stacky botchers. Tons of mold because all that moisture, it came up through the slab. Had to go somewhere, had to go somewhere, not until they turned on the AC. And then that hydrostatic pressure went capillary action, expressed it at the surface, drenched it, drenched everything. I’m going to have to end all the bottom plates. I can run my thumb through the bottom plates of all the walls. That’s that repairs. It’s a two-story house. Yeah. I mean, like it’s going to be it’s going to be tough.
GREG: But here’s the here’s the fun side of this. So when we when we tee up our clients and tell them, hey, there’s some things that aren’t we don’t necessarily know exactly how it’s going to go, but here’s a good team to put together. I just had a client just this weekend who sent a group email to the structural engineer toner’s office and my office and saying, hey, a builder has been looking at our plans and his air conditioning person doesn’t feel like the mechanical closet that that to scale architects provided is going to be sufficient to do to to cool all the different spaces of the house. And the specific house had a very unique AC system that the toner has already done the layout for. And but their air conditioning person doesn’t feel like what we’ve set up works. So I’m looking forward to having that conversation to say, OK, well, here’s where we thought everything was going to go in the mechanical closet. I don’t I am not a mechanical engineer. I don’t know what the equipment is. But if it means we need to shift some things based on, well, this side of the house is too far and that piece of equipment can’t reach or can’t go through those trusses that needs to go somewhere else. Then let’s change the design. Let’s if we need to make that mechanic and it’s and I say mechanical closet. It’s it’s a place that’s five times larger than this room. It’s huge. It’s a big space already. But if it’s not good enough, if it’s not the right space in the right place of the house, then let’s go find the other place to do it. And let’s do it while it’s just black lines on white paper and not while we’re standing in the middle of a multimillion dollar structure, then trying to sort of. Ram something through that actually is sort of like a compromise in a negative way.
CURTIS: Yeah, that’s what I see a lot of is, you know, that the client may be cheaped out on hiring the house designer, the architect, and then the house is framed. And now the mechanical guys brought in to figure out where the AC is going and there’s steel beams, there’s glu-lams, and you just can’t get that stuff to where it needs to go. And so in those cases, they’re figuring it out on the fly. And that never works out. Like the more and especially with the modern houses, like you mentioned the house in Austin, yes, especially the modern houses, like hammering out those details in design and making sure all those details get communicated properly is is key. Otherwise, you’re going to totally ruin the design intent of the house. You got this beautiful design. And then when it’s built, you have all these weird bump outs and for outs and changes that totally screw up the aesthetics of the design.
GREG: There’s a reason we had those fur downs above the kitchen cabinets in the kitchens we all grew up in with the AC ducts running out the side of them. Those were there because there was nowhere to put the AC up in an attic because maybe there was a second floor or super low pitch roof. So they had to do those fur downs below the below the ceiling, but above the kitchen cabinets to be able to get that ducting.
TONER: Most definitely and I would remind everyone that listens to this. We’re talking about nice custom homes, people who are following the process appropriately. But if you are likely buying a speculative home, one that’s just been built for sale, their profit lies in cheap architecture, bad engineering, no building performance design, cheap subs, cheap subs, because all of those things lay under the skin. They are you are buying a painted pig and it and it may be in an awesome location and it may have that slipper tub and the black charcoal paint on the outside and all those things. They skimp on everything that we’re talking about at this table. So we have fortunate with all of our clients have been very fortunate that they’re following the right process. And once again, I appreciate that Greg in particular realizes he’s the first person that’s talking this home. All right. He’s that in the stage. We all benefit from that conversation. And without it, it’s going to be a compromising approach going forward. So but you said at the very beginning, when you were first allowed to talk on this podcast, you said,
GREG: Hi my name is Greg Swedberg (laughing)
TONER: Hi, my name is Greg over here. I go. It’s not just about who we design with us, who we recover with on that team. Right. Because we have all recovered out of projects together where we’ve had issues, where we get together for the benefit of our homeowner, which that’s who we’re all trying to. That’s who we ultimately all work for. Sure. And you’re going to recover in the best teams or those that you already have done. You failed with your best team because you recovered with your best team.
GREG: Yeah, I get it. And I think there’s another there’s another setup to that. And that’s even before we’re talking about whether somebody’s designed too big of a porch or too large of a too large of a living room or whatever. We have to set the expectations with our clients. We know we’re in a volatile pricing time now. Clients don’t necessarily know what the cost of construction is. And so I think the designer or architect that’s on the front line, that’s sort of introducing the client to the design process also needs to introduce them to the to the buying process. Whatever we draw is something they’re buying. So are they willing to spend the money for the thing that’s on the paper? And and that takes some care and some handling because I have to be strong enough to sort of stand up for Matt and for Toner and for Curtis to say, hey, you this is something you are not willing to spend money on. Or if you are, we need to raise the budget. I have a client west of Austin out near Lake LBJ. They bought this amazing 16-acre property on a hill looking out over, you know, just a just lovely part of the state. It’s all rock, you know. So the foundation’s different. There’s a tremendous amount of topography on the property. And they’re interested in some very complex structural foundation. They’re interested in a foundation that goes like this and then comes down, then comes flat again. And so I needed to go talk to the builders that they’re considering using out there. They’re not the guys I usually use because I don’t, I’m not out there. And I needed to learn, OK, how does this how does that affect the cost? I understand how it affects the idea of a house that has multiple levels on topography. I understand the flow of the house. But how is that different than building a house on a flat slab or a house that maybe needed to have the land sort of flattened out so that it could just be more of a conventional house? And then and then I have to take that information to the client and say, here’s how your neat idea you had affects the cost. Is that is that an effect you’re willing to spend? And I’ve learned to not assume anything from clients anymore. Because they have always surprised me. I’ve had clients that will have said, well, now that I see what that price is, I don’t want to pay that. So let’s go a different direction. I’ve also had clients that say, oh, now that I see that price, I understand more. And I and I believe that and I like it. And yes, please move forward. Yeah. Right. And I have to have to double check. Hey, you are saying you want to house to be more expensive than what we originally planned. Is that, OK? I get I get buy in from them. But there’s always sort of a little push and pull because we’re still speaking in generalities. We don’t have drawings from the structural engineer, but we have builders that have decades of experience of building these kinds of systems. And that’s where I know what I don’t know. And I need to go reach out to builders that have the experience like Curtis and to reach out to toner and say, OK, how is that climate different than the climate that I’m living in now? How do we need to set up these systems differently? And that’s the pre planning. That needs to be done. You don’t just get to rush into this because if you rush into it, then you’re what you’ll be reactive instead of proactive. I’m really trying to work on our team being more proactive.
MATT: I think if you rush into it and I think the more time that you spend up front planning some of the things like you’re talking about in the collaboration, it may take longer up front. But as far as I’m concerned, that project will get completed quicker. It will be. I mean, the planning is huge. I think people need to spend as much time as they feel is necessary with their architect.
GREG: But it’s intentional time. It’s not just like, hey, cool, we’re hanging out.
MATT: Right. It’s trying to be intentional. Sure. Sure. And those are those are the best projects. So I think time spent up front is valuable.
TONER: This environment is that most definitely the go slow to go fast is the way that you win this thing. So most definitely.
CURTIS: There’s certain clients, though, they think that they can achieve something for a lower cost than what the builders telling them and what the architects telling them. So they’ll say, I know that guy’s telling me it’s going to be 300 bucks a foot, but I know a guy who can do it for 250. Or I don’t believe that, you know, that number is not right. And so they’ll in their mind, they’ll say, OK, we’ll move forward. And in the back of their mind, they’re thinking, OK, I’m going to talk to somebody else and get it done cheaper. Right. And I see that all the time, like where, you know, me, Matt Sneller or another good builder, Steven Dietzer, that we know, we’ll tell them, hey, this is a four-hundred-dollar square foot house. And they’ll say, OK, cool, move forward with design. And then they’ll go out and try to find some guy who says he can do it for 200 bucks a foot and there’s repercussions for that.
TONER: There is. And I can speak from the legal side. Every homeowner expects that their house is going to perform structurally, is going to look good architecturally, is going to be built well, even if they fully never paid for any of that. So that is the full expectation. That is the argument when we’re in arbitration. Well, this house, including the house, is not going to have mold and moisture issues and all that is that is the absolute assumption. They believe it’s an inalienable right to a to a cell, safe and proper dwelling. And even though I can justify, and we’ve done that, we spend time doing this. Justifying that they got what they paid for. They still believe they deserved what they didn’t pay for.
CURTIS: Yeah, I have to tell people all the time you get what you bought. Yes. You know, you paid for a Toyota camera. You didn’t pay for a Mercedes G Wagon. Correct. What do you expect?
TONER: Exactly right. And like the one that you talked about with the bump up, you know, they could have gone with the not large, giant custom guy that was selling probably a four-hundred-dollar foot house for two fifty. And their expectation should not be in this was their comparison. They said, well, we moved from X city where we had the exact same house. We didn’t have that problem. It’s like, well, that was a custom home that you paid almost a thousand eleven hundred dollars a foot to build. It’s going to be that those aren’t the same kind of structures so that was our argument in court.
GREG: We have to understand that there’s a lot of people in our, let’s call it market. I’m not sure I love that word, but a lot of people that might reach out to us for for our services and there are not all high end custom clients and so there are good architects and designers that work up and down the cost spectrum. There are good builders that work up and down the cost spectrum. I’ve seen that. Did you don’t just have to go to the expensive person to get the good quality. There has to be an understanding of what a realistic expectation is for them for what a client can buy. So if somebody says they want to build a house for six hundred thousand dollars, they’re not going to get all the bells and whistles, which might be some aesthetic things, but they’re also going to be some building performance things of a house that’s a million dollars or a million and a half dollars. If somebody wants to do a remodel that’s two hundred thousand, they’re probably not getting all of all of the sort of accoutrement of a house that the remodel that was three times that price. And so finding somebody, I would just say a client has to sort of be married up with somebody that is a home builder and a designer that isn’t promising more than that client can actually get. So we don’t promise ultimate building support, you know, performance superiority if they don’t have the money to go do those things. How do we smartly allocate their money to build the building science side of things or the structural engineer like, oh, we don’t have the money to do the big, crazy, wide thing or the really expensive building assembly from a builder. I think there are the people that are out there. I think we have all sort of individually picked our own sort of lane to be in. And there but there are other good people around beyond just sort of I mean, I’m a little piece of the puzzle. I see people tell me all the time, like, oh, yeah, we see yourself everywhere. I’m like, my stuff isn’t everywhere. It’s just not we do 10 to 14 houses a year. Like we’re not everywhere. It’s a big place. Yeah. But so I know I know my little microcosm, but I’m just I have radar up enough to know. And we have clients that range from affordable to quite expensive. And just trying to find the builder in the team to kind of come in and say, look, you don’t get to be the big fancy thing you saw in architectural digest, if you don’t have the budget to punch up to that class.
CURTIS: Right. Yeah. The whole thing is just an educational process. I mean, each of us has a role in educating the client on what they should expect to get for their money, on how their houses could perform, as all four of us are involved in the educational process. Right. Most definitely.
MATT: Yeah. And you know, whether it’s a multimillion-dollar, super fancy, high end custom home or something, you know, much less expensive. I mean if it’s not designed properly and if it’s not built properly. It can have problems, you know, even in high end stuff.
TONER: So I have a client in the west side of West Memorial west part of Houston, which is a tricky little segment of our market. And he is a huge, huge building science nerd, loves, loves, loves building science. Talk approached us, said, hey, we want you to do all of our design work. I’m like, great, great. Let’s go through your team. So we get his first project. Architecture’s total garbage. I’m like, OK, great. He’s like, we’ve already gone through structural problems. I’m like, have you matched these two up? He goes, no, no. I was like, all of your all your beams sit four inches lower than all your ceiling. Joyce. He’s like, I didn’t catch on to that. And then I walk a house that’s another construction and all of his wood sills on his first floor don’t have sills between them. But he wants to go buy this really, really expensive fresh air system and all these things that he saw online and YouTube. And I’m like, hey, man, have you ever seen Hoosiers? He’s like, he’s like, yeah, I’ve seen Hoosiers. I’m like, OK, you’re not allowed to shoot anymore. You need to work on fundamentals. You’re just dribbling. And that’s it. In fact, put the ball down and run back and forth across. You need to catch up on so many things before you ever utter the word building science again. It’s like you. I feel bad for all of your clients that you’ve sold houses for. And I was like, at this time, I don’t think you’re ready to work with us. I said, but here’s a good architect. He’s going to have a good team. You need to start over from scratch. These aren’t necessarily $800,000 houses, which is a really rough price point. Right. That’s a rough price point kind of part of town. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s hit the basics. And you can still provide a really, really good structure. You just aren’t going to have, you know, panels with gold leaf on the interior.
CURTIS: So, well, I think it’s a great place to wrap it up. We’re kind of bumping up against our time. So I want to thank everybody again for joining us today. Matt, Greg, Toner, thanks for having us. Great to have all you guys. Yeah. We’ll be sharing a link, all your websites, phone numbers, social media, all that stuff on the podcast notes so that if people here in the Houston area or maybe even the Austin area, if they want to work with Greg, Toner does work all over. Matt, do you do work outside of Houston?
MATT: A little bit in central Texas, a little bit in Dallas. All right. Yeah. Mostly Houston area.
CURTIS: Cool. So we all do some work outside of Houston. So if you’re in the Texas area, give us a call. Please reach out to all these guys. They do fantastic work. And thank you all for joining us today on the Your Project Shepherd podcast. Be sure and stay tuned for the rest of this season where we talk about building performance failures. We’ll catch you next time.