• Michael Chandler and Beth Williams
    Michael Chandler and Beth Williams
EcoHome checks in with Michael Chandler, president of Chandler Design-Build, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based custom building company.

How long have you been in the green home building business?
I’ve been building sustainable houses since graduating from college in 1977, but I started in business for myself on April Fool’s Day 1987. My lawyer said, “If you think your boss is tough now, you haven’t seen what working for yourself is like; 50-hour weeks are just the beginning.”

I’m still here 33 years later, a co-owner of Chandler Design-Build with my wife, Beth Williams, our designer. I do try to keep my job to less than 40 hours a week but the work/life boundary is increasingly gray.

You only take on about four projects a year and prefer to work on homes that are less than 3,000 square feet. Why limit your company’s growth this way?
I’d rather focus on building really nice, affordable homes that give good value, and I feel that if we do that well we will make a good income from it. The key is that our business should work for us, not the other way around.

What is your unusual billing system and how does it help to minimize customer stress?
We do a “good-better-best” estimating system that empowers the customer to make decisions about how to prioritize spending. In addition, we work on a fixed-price basis so costs are in the owners’ control from the preliminary design, the monthly reporting is clear, and clients understand that they are getting what they agreed to.

You are known for providing an extensive homeowners’ manual for each project. What does it include?
A welcome letter, a pre-insulation photo journal, construction photos, a maintenance calendar, phone numbers, and contact numbers and brief descriptions of trade partners. We also include PDF versions of warranty info, plans, changes, contract and billing records, and government documents relating to the project. The whole thing takes up about 4 gigabytes on an 8-gigabyte USB drive keychain emblazoned with our logo. We give it to the owners at closing, one for the husband and one for the wife.

We feel that educating owners is very important because occupant behavior is a big piece of what can make or break the performance of a high-performance home. For example, these homes are so airtight that if ventilation and AC systems aren’t maintained properly you can get mildew problems; if they do run well the house performs exceptionally. So we try to make the manual engaging and user-friendly enough that owners actually use it.
By taking the time to educate customers, we enhance their satisfaction and the positive feeling they have about the company.

How does your employee profit-sharing plan work?
Profit-sharing is calculated on a 60/40 split: 60% of profits after expenses (and 100% of the losses) go to the owners and 40% is split among the rest of the crew apportioned according to their performance. My hourly wage is set at 15% higher than the next-highest-paid employee and all wages are deliberately kept modest to help the company survive market downturns and unprofitable jobs. We do pay well enough that our employees’ basic needs are covered, and they receive a nice boost from the profit-sharing. They also get training, independence, family-friendly work policies, pride in the award-winning homes we build, and the chance to be creative and expand their skills. We have been recognized twice as one of the top 50 builders to work for in America. It’s about much more than the paychecks.

How have you weathered the past few years?
We’ve always rolled a part of our profits into a seed account so when we have tough times as the last couple of years we’d be strong enough to survive. This rainy-day fund is pretty well tapped out right now. The industry has become much more difficult even though we had one of our biggest years--$1.8 million worth of work--last year.

This year we’re focusing on a lot of different business models such as spec, construction management, consulting, design, and remodels. Being a small and nimble firm means that when we weren’t able to sell fancy super-green new homes we could quickly morph into another business model and keep going.

Since you co-own your firm with your wife, how do you keep work and home life separate?
For starters, she has her own office in town and I work at home. In order to maintain our relationship it’s better for us not to be working in the same office all day. She goes there in the morning and does her work and we meet for lunch and talk business. When she comes home in the evening we don’t really talk much about work.

Second, I make sure her dollar-per-hour salary is the same as mine. She may not want to work as many hours a week as I do but she earns the same amount for her hourly work. In addition, our personal finances also are completely separate and I don’t ask her to account for her money.

What green building programs do you participate in?
Energy Star, DOE Builders Challenge, National Green Building Standard, and LEED

What are some of your favorite green products?

  • Quietside condensing demand water heaters. They can be vented up to 35 feet away with regular PVC piping for reduced plumbing runs.       

  • Solar Hot drain-back solar collectors

  • SpiderLath non-metallic self-gasketing stucco lathe

  • Rain garden chambers from Infiltrator. You can build a 4-foot-by-20-foot rain garden for less than $175.

  • Amerdrain foundation dimple mats for roof gardens and roof patios.