Last month, three trend-savvy design/build remodelers shared with us how they keep their projects aesthetically compelling and up to date. In this column, we’ll explore what might seem an even greater challenge: staying abreast of the rapidly-evolving state of the art in construction technology and building science. Without the cross-pollination that comes from working with a variety of outside architects and designers, how do design/build remodelers know what’s working?

They have their ways. The design/build remodelers we interviewed outlined an array of strategies to continuously improve the performance of their buildings. And while offering some of the keys to their own success, they make a strong case for the advantages of the design/build model in staying at the leading edge of construction practice.

Lauren Brown Staying active in industry associations and doing careful research helps Chad Hatfield ensure projects like this one are sophisticated in construction techniques as well as design.

Put New Products Under a Microscope
Chad Hatfield, of Dallas-based Hatfield Builders & Remodelers, notes the potential pitfalls of working in a closed-loop system and says he works deliberately to avoid them. “One of the main ways we do that is having our designers attend educational conferences,” he says. “We stay active in industry associations,” including NARI and the Dallas Builders Association. “There are generally speakers at their meetings who talk about new products, whether stoves and electronics or building systems and materials.”

Industry publications provide another window on the wider remodeling world, Hatfield says, and articles about new products, construction details, and advances in building science circulate constantly among his staff. But Hatfield is open to learning from anyone, anywhere. “We had a prospective client ask about soft-close pocket door frames,” which he hadn’t heard about at the time. “Turns out, as I did the research, not only do they exist, but the company that makes them makes the frames out of steel, so they’re not going to warp like a traditional pocket door frame. The hardware is more robust, and it’s only 30 bucks more. We love those things now.”

Like most builders, Hatfield carefully vets every new product before putting it into service—and under warranty. “If we have a question about something, we’re not going to talk to just the lumber salesman; we may reach out to the manufacturer and talk with them.”

When making decisions that could affect a building’s energy performance or long-term durability, the bar is even higher. “I’m not one to switch exterior wall systems at the drop of the hat,” Hatfield says. “I don’t want to be on the bleeding edge of something that could cause water intrusion. If I have a question about a material on the outside of the building, I can usually contact one of my professional peers at NARI or the HBA here and find the information I’m looking for. Somebody’s used it on a professional level, and we can get their feedback.”

Become Your Own R&D Department
Design/build remodeler Bob Little, of Port Townsend, Wash.-based G. Little Construction, collaborates on most of his projects with outside architects and designers. But he is committed to a design/build model in which his company serves as the value engineering department as well as the construction division. “Our goal in design/build, whether we’re doing it in house or with an architect, is to do the constructability and budgeting,” Little says.

“We’re pretty big on education,” he says. “A number of our guys have gone to the International Builders Show and taken classes. [Building Science Corp. principal] Joe Lstiburek is going to do a class in Seattle this year, and a project manager from the office and I will be going to that. We’re also very active in the U.S. Green Builder’s Council; we just finished a LEED Platinum house.”

Roger Turk Education and research are keys for Bob Little in completing high-performance remodels

Along with learning from others, Little believes strongly in generating new knowledge, to the point of making his company something of an R&D lab. “We began to blower-door test our projects back in the 1980s, and we learned a ton about how we used to build and about how to improve. Once we began to do that, we changed a lot of our basic framing and building principles.”

By combining expert advice with direct experience of what works in the field, Little says, “we believe we build a really good shell. Every time we do a blower-door test, it really proves that.” Because design/build remodelers maintain an ongoing communication link between the construction site and the design studio, they are best positioned to use such field-developed processes to inform subsequent designs.

Make Better Buildings Your Mission
The key to staying current in construction practice is an appetite for continuous improvement, says Jamie Wolf, president of Avon, Conn.-based Wolfworks. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a designer or a builder; the imperative is to make better buildings. If you’re motivated by that goal, you’re going to have that question always on your mind. And different people explore that in different ways.”

Wolf’s way has been to immerse himself in building science, and in the community of professionals who are pushing the envelope on performance. “The trade press has done its part to communicate some of those ideas,” Wolf says, “and industry leaders like Building Science Corp. and Green Building Advisor have been the conduits for anybody who’s paying attention.”

Wolf’s green building fraternity is the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, which he calls “the root of my education here in the Northeast. Their annual conference, the community of people who practice, and the opportunity to share experiences with those people—all those things contribute to how I stay current.”

Industry publications, building science expertise, and community are the key elements, Wolf says. “First you have to be interested, and then, once you’ve recognized that [understanding building science] is an important part of building a good building, then you’re going to find all that other stuff. And each one of those is really important. Each of them by itself is not enough. You can’t just read about it; you’ve got to do it, and you’ve got to share your experiences with other people doing it, compare notes, adopt best practices as you see them and understand them, share failures, all that stuff.”