Simple tips for effective communication

In the building industry, projects depend on many different minds working together toward a common goal. There are technical experts, designers, government planners and inspectors, and interested members of the public, to name a few. Learning how to provide technical information, project timelines, financial guidance and so much more to all parties involved, takes practice, patience, and a lot of smart communication.

A good project leader can figure out the strongest forms and timing of communication for the team they are managing, while communicating equally effectively with the client and owner. Communication about design details among the architects and engineers on a project may look different than communication to the end client. For example, your team knows that COs slow things down in the construction phase, but your end client might not know that “CO” stands for “change order.”

The tone and sense of professionalism you wish to convey applies to all audiences; there are tools that support effective communication no matter who you need to share information with. Once you have a few proven techniques for delivering information, there are no “difficult clients” and there are fewer instances of lost time or money on a project. As design consultants, we strive not only for timely and efficient communication, but also for straightforward ways to share our expertise as we move through a project. An educated and empowered client will go on to advocate for architects and engineers — and their smart building practices.

Beth (far right) meets with Taitem partners

Taitem staff members are always working to improve the way they deliver engineering expertise and seeking new forms of communication among building industry professionals. I sat down with two of our top project managers to learn how they are communicating with their teams. Beth Mielbrecht is a Partner and Senior Engineer at Taitem, where she manages contracts for statewide energy programs and research. Her projects and the teams she manages typically grow and change over several years. Evan Hallas is a Senior Energy Analyst who manages the Aeroseal department and communicates daily with building owners, developers, contractors, and other building professionals.

Evan collecting Aeroseal data

These conversations have led to the insights I’ve shared below. I’ve also included some GENERAL TIPS that I’ve overheard while working alongside other outstanding engineers at Taitem. Check out what we’ve shared and please reach out with any of your own techniques for effective communication.

Know your audience


Evan says that a key component for communication is knowing who on the team already understands the value of his work and the technology he is presenting — and who needs more information. You don’t need to spend time convincing the person who already supports your work; you need to give them the tools they need to convince their team. Know your role in the decision-making process. If you are the technical expert, show up and give them the technical expertise they need with confidence. Each project has a decision-making team, and some have one final decision maker. Support the team by understanding whom each person reports to, and ask yourself, “What does each team member need to understand the information? Data sheets? Visuals of the final product in place? Financial documents?”

GENERAL TIP: Ask your client if they have any upcoming meetings where they will be delivering information that includes your services or potential project support.  Offer to format your materials in a way that they (your contact) thinks their team will understand. They may not think you can help with that aspect of delivering your value and they will appreciate you taking that extra step.

You need more than one form of communication

Beth uses a blend of email and phone communication to deliver messages to her team. Some people prefer one over the other. The best way to determine what works? Ask! Decide on the best form of communication at the project kickoff meeting. If your client says they appreciate phone calls, find time for the occasional call to check in or deliver news.

Beth notes, “If I have a meeting over the phone, I’ll send an email as a follow-up to the phone call. I have a general format in my mind that I use to provide an overview of what was discussed. I’ll summarize our talk, offer some bulleted action items, and close with a reminder of our next meeting. This is great for documentation. I also send regular project updates via email no matter what communication platform is preferred. This keeps the team up to date.”

GENERAL TIP: Put the project name and phase in the subject line and apply it to all email communication for the project. This will make finding the right email thread quick and easy.

Communicate frequently

Evan likes to over-communicate with brief updates throughout the project. He shared, “I call all the time. Good and bad news. I over-communicate so that if something does go bad, the clients knows that you have control over the project. Delivering good news builds confidence. They understand that things happen and situations arise in buildings that you don’t necessarily have control over. If they hear from you all the time, they know you’re not being negligent. It might be a voicemail that doesn’t need a response — just an FYI — and I’ll let them know they don’t need to take the time for a call back.”

GENERAL TIP: Tell your client how much you will communicate so they are aware of your routine. You might have 20 projects going on, but for them, this is the only one they are working on right now. I bet they want to know how it’s going.

Lists are important


You might already be using a shared list that for managing communication among teams during the design and construction phase of a project. Identifying the need for additional lists among trades in different phases of a project could help with project efficiency and provide the end client with a strong sense of what you need to keep things moving forward.

When the building design components start to get laid out at meetings, there are always questions that come up from supporting trades as well as the end client. Questions to help clarify the design come up when you’re outside of meetings too.  In an effort to keep things organized, it makes sense to list questions in a shared place. You could create a list of all of the questions that arise (stored in a cloud such as GoogleDocs that supports live editing by several people) with columns that clearly identify when and whether the question is answered, what the answer is, and who best person to answer the question is. When the question is resolved, you change the color of the row (I vote for light purple, but gray is easy on the eyes). The most important part of creating this type of list is sharing it with the entire team, including the end client, and including a simple email message that explains how you will work within the document.  

GENERAL TIP: Email the team (or only those who have questions that need attention) at a set time each week. For example, on Monday, the team gets the list and is asked to review questions that need answering.  

To meet or not to meet

Beth shared, “Periodic project meetings are very common. I prefer to have meetings when there is set agenda of items that need to be discussed. This makes the meeting more important and much more productive. When I have an outlined agenda, I also don’t get nearly as many cancellations.”

She continued, “Because I am the key liaison for my projects, I personally communicate with the entire project team. All members of the project team report to me, and all of their reports and updates come to my inbox. When an issue arises, after careful evaluation, I invite the people on the team who are involved in the problem to the meeting to work on the resolution. Depending on the size and scope of the issue, I inform key stakeholders of the communication, resolution and milestones once they are achieved.”

GENERAL TIP: Before you use the CC fields, ask yourself, “Does this person really need to be part of this communication?”

Clear and concise with a dash of feeling

Beth believes that using bulleted lists and simple spacing between paragraphs, can go a long way. Technology threatens to overwhelm us with information, which makes it hard to find and process the information we need. There is so much information written in so many different ways, and standards for clear writing are often overlooked. Beth shared, “Through years of managing different teams and various projects, I have learned how concise and clear communication builds trust and confidence in everyone. This informs my work now. My emails need to be simple and clear. My goal is usually to state action items and deliver the message effectively without additional noise.”

GENERAL TIP: Always include a deadline. Whatever the action items include, even if a definitive deadline does not exist, provide a date.

Leverage your firm’s brand

Your firm has its own mission and key values that help to develop its brand. Use that to your advantage when you are developing your communication plan at the project onset. Allow that to inform how you’re talking to the team, and keep it in mind when you’re crafting emails and presenting options. If your firm focuses on dependability and sustainability, for example, then use words that reflect this position and apply those words in your emails.

Evan shared, “I communicate Taitem’s responsibility. I make sure the client understands that Taitem is a responsible firm…that we are expert engineers with years of experience. I let them know that they don’t have much to worry about because I have the weight of Taitem behind me and that even though the client may not know me personally, I stand for Taitem as a whole. We will make things correct and work alongside the client to deliver expert service. I’m super confident when I communicate that. It goes a long way.”

GENERAL TIP: Don’t be afraid to use and repeat the words directly from your mission statement and website.

Debrief to review successes and shortcomings

This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s tough to take the time to do this after a project is complete.   Establish a process for closing out a project that includes an internal debrief with your team. This debrief is the opportunity to revisit successes and where identify tasks and people might need support moving forward. This builds morale, makes it easy to share ideas, and improves the design process. If you’re comfortable getting feedback directly from the end client, have that ready to share internally when your team comes together. Celebrate your successes as a team and acknowledge where you can improve.

GENERAL TIP: Don’t delay. Get some feedback from the client as soon as the project is complete. Then meet internally before a month goes past. It’s important to share best practices and potential for improvement when the project is fresh.  

 

Taitem recognized internationally as B-Corp “Best for the World”

Today, Taitem Engineering was recognized among B-Corporations worldwide as a 2018 Best for the World honoree for the environment.


What does this mean?

It means that Taitem is creating the most positive environmental impact based on an independent, comprehensive assessment of 2,400 other certified B-Corporations administered by the nonprofit B Lab. B-Corps around the world were evaluated based on the environmental performance of their facilities, materials management, GHG emissions, and resource and energy use. Honorees like Taitem scored in the top 10% and set a gold standard for businesses that are a force for good around the world.


Taitem Engineering made the list thanks to its mission-driven business model, embodied in its name, “Technology As If The Earth Mattered.” We stand proudly among other B-Corps which were honored, including Patagonia, Etsy, Seventh Generation, King Arthur Flour, and Ben and Jerry’s.


Thanks to support from our clients, the strength of our community, and the service of our dedicated staff, we are walking our company talk to benefit the planet and its people. Taitem is an Ithaca-based firm, rooted in their local community and is being recognized internationally as an environmental steward. Check out the official press release here.

Look for videos with some fun info on our Facebook and LinkedIn pages today and throughout the week. Here are the direct links to the videos in the series if you want to take a sneak peak.

Thank you to our community and clients

We’re going above and beyond

More than engineers

Standing proud among other B-Corps

Please share the news with your network. B-corporations help shape a positive future for our environment. You can learn more about what it takes to become a B-Corporation at www.bthechange.com

Ithaka Terraces Condos Offer Fossil-fuel-free Living

While the hillside location of Ithaka Terraces was a challenging spot for construction, developer Ed Cope and architect Noah Demarest make creating an all-electric Net Zero Energy condominium complex look surprisingly do-able. Prospective homebuyers, and energy geeks, have a chance to tour and learn more during Open House events on May 12 and 13. Read our interview with developer Ed Cope below.

The twelve new homes at 215 Spencer Rd, just 3 blocks from the Ithaca Commons, are inspired by the traditional architecture of the Greek island of Ithaka half a world away. They also demonstrate what best practices in green building make possible. The building designs are so energy efficient that an off-site solar farm will generate all the electricity needed to heat, cool, illuminate and power appliances in all the homes.

Ithaka Terraces exterior with all-LED lighting
Ithaka Terraces exterior with all-LED lighting
Ithaka Terraces interior with solar-powered heat pump
Ithaka Terraces interior with solar-powered heat pump

In the last two weeks, both the City and the Town of Ithaca accepted a new Green Building Policy report, creating a framework to promote sustainable development. While that is a vision that extends to 2030, Ithaka Terraces embodies many of the attributes today that the Green Building Policy seeks to encourage. STREAM Collaborative and Taitem Engineering authored that policy report, and the two firms had the opportunity to walk their talk on the design team for Ithaka Terraces.
We recently sat down with the developer Ed Cope to learn more about his vision:

When you started thinking about this project, what were the goals you had in mind?

EC: All my life I’ve been an environmentalist, particularly committed to energy efficiency and alternative energy. I live off the grid and installed solar panels back in 1984. I volunteered on the County’s Environmental Management Council. And I got into real estate, owning and renting properties through PPM Homes, an Ithaca property management company. Ithaka Terraces was a chance to build homes for people who want to enjoy an active urban lifestyle and do the right thing for the planet.

Why did you choose this spot for the Terraces?

EC: It’s a convenient location close to the Commons, parks, Ithaca College, Wegman’s and big box shopping areas along Elmira Rd. I agree with the City that urban infill is important as the City grows. This steep brushy hillside was part of the land the City had purchased to widen Spencer Rd. They tore down the rundown old apartment building, and the only new re-use that made sense was multifamily.

How did you prioritize the sustainability features for the overall design?

EC: My motivation is to provide the maximum possible state-of-the-art sustainable living with the highest emphasis on achieving net-zero energy while keeping the condo cost competitive with the market. Our solar farm 15 miles east made it an easy choice to go all-electric and avoid fossil fuels completely. Sustainable features include the use of air-source heat pumps, conduction ranges, LED lighting, electric water heaters, Low-E windows, super-insulated walls and roofs, smart temperature monitoring devices, and other energy-saving devices. We worked with NYSERDA’s New Construction Program, which provided some design guidelines to help achieve our goals.

For instance, the foundation is constructed of R23 Insulated Concrete Forms, providing continuous insulation on both the exterior and interior of the walls below grade and partially above grade. The slab is insulated with R15 rigid foam. The building features nominal 12-inch thick double stud exterior walls with a total of R39 continuous dense packed cellulous insulation and 18 inches of R63 loose fill cellulous insulation in the attic.

As led by Javier Rosa, PE, Taitem’s structural engineering design process supported maximum energy efficiency, by continually evaluating impact on the building’s energy performance. Two examples are:
• Wood wall studs were spaced farther apart than usual, to accommodate more cavity insulation
• Window and door headers were designed with 2 plies of wood members to ensure enough insulation to avoid thermal bridging (often headers are left completely uninsulated, causing a significant amount of heat loss.

What do you think your condo owners will like most about the Terraces?

EC: These homes support an active and climate conscious lifestyle so people can live their values every day. They support trends of the future that say we will be driving less, own fewer cars (and those will be electric) and be actively connected to the walkable urban community. Homebuyers will appreciate that they can get some clean energy options at half price – for example, I’m splitting the cost of optional Electric Vehicle charging stations and upgrades to induction stove tops.

What’s your favorite walk from Ithaka Terraces?

EC: The first is heading over to the west end of the Commons, the gateway to downtown. I walk that all the time. The second is up the hill to Turner and Hillview Place. It’s like a little Europe, with buildings up the hillside leading to two lovely, tucked-away pocket parks.

It’s clear that PPM Homes and the design team behind Ithaka Terraces are committed to empowering homeowners to live sustainably, and to enjoy all that downtown living has to offer. Ten of the twelve condos are still available, and visitors can tour them during the Open House on May 12 and 13.

Ithaka Terraces SQUARE

Encouraging Green Multifamily Housing Development by ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS A Workshop for City and Town Officials

Ecovillage TREE by Bob Nape

Green building is an accelerating trend, spurred by new codes and requirements from New York State and Tompkins County. Both the Town and City of Ithaca are also developing new green building policies. There is a lot to learn, and municipal officials need to keep pace with developers, architects and contractors who are planning and permitting new multifamily housing projects. This workshop will help municipal staff and board members get up to speed with an overview of current green building technologies, terminology and codes.

Participants will learn the right questions to ask when reviewing proposed new housing developments. The format combines lecture with a green building features tour of the TREE neighborhood and a hands-on case study. The Town of Ithaca and the City of Ithaca will offer annual training credit for Planning Board members. Certificates of Completion will be presented to all attendees. Learn@Ecovillage is hosting the free workshops, in partnership with Taitem Engineering and the Tompkins County Planning Department. Funded by the Park Foundation.

Choose your date: April 30, May 11 or May 17.
Learn more and register.
Location: EcoVillage at Ithaca

Polishing up Ithaca’s West End

Retaining the beauty of the past while supporting a sustainable future: Elmira Savings Bank polishes up Ithaca’s West End

The new home for Elmira Savings Bank (ESB) at 602 West State shows how smart re-use can bring an abandoned, century-old structure back to life.  This revived commercial space was originally built to house the Ithaca VFW, was transformed into a funeral home, and later housed a succession of restaurants. Now the home of a full-service community bank, this high-performance building shows how sustainable design can maintain the aesthetic allure of historic buildings.

The design team, led by HOLT Architects, understood the significance of the building as a landmark located at one of Ithaca’s busiest intersections. Although it does not lie within a designated historic area, the building owner and designers were conscious of its value to the community. The ideas for the renovation they presented to the city planners reflected their research and respect for retaining as much of the circa-1900 building as possible.

Image courtesy of HOLT Architects

The original brick exterior, which had been painted blue in recent years, was cleaned and restored to its original appearance as depicted in historic photographs. A renovated entry, upgraded building envelope, and windows that recreate the look of the original steel frames were added to improve the overall energy efficiency of the building. Metal sunshades were installed on the windows to temper the strong sunlight pouring in throughout the day.

A new 1,600 SF brick and glass addition to the north offers natural light and added functionality. On the west, a convenient drive-through service window uses an underground pneumatic tube system. The canopy for the drive-through complements the existing architecture, and thoughtful site work provides ease of access for bank customers and employees.

The interior of the building had deteriorated over the years, making the floor and roof systems irreparable. The design team was challenged to create a new, enhanced infrastructure with floors, walls, joists, and roofing. The new design is informed by state-of-the-art banking system workflow needs and the specific visual aesthetics and branding of Elmira Savings Bank. The renovated interior features a hybrid teller-line solution; streamlined, efficient technology mounting; and advanced acoustics to ensure customer privacy. Natural light fills the interior, creating a bright, lively, and engaging space for commercial banking clients and employees.

Taitem Engineering designed the mechanical and electrical systems for the building, which included electrical systems to accommodate bank equipment, security access points, and a new heating and cooling system. The original building was heated with a conventional boiler loop serving perimeter radiation and cooled through a rooftop unit serving the second floor and an air handler located in the basement serving the first floor. The owner’s goal was to have a consolidated mechanical system with all interior equipment located in the ceiling space and all exterior equipment at grade for easy maintenance. 

Taitem’s mechanical engineer, Dominick DeLucia, suggested an air source heat pump to achieve ESB’s energy and efficiency goals. Taitem’s design team suggested the owners take a tour of HOLT Architects’ new offices to get a better understanding of this kind of system. After touring the space, ESB board members agreed that an air source heat pump would meet their heating and cooling needs efficiently and economically. They also appreciated the look and feel of the exposed ductwork that is showcased in HOLT’s new space.

Dominick DeLucia, the project engineer from Taitem Engineering shared, “not only has the air source heat pump system improved the efficiency of the heating and cooling for the entire building, but It has also allowed for zoning each space on both floors to improve overall occupant comfort.” The air source heat pump system was paired with an energy recovery ventilation system on each floor, which also greatly improves the indoor air quality and comfort to employees and clients.

Elmira Savings Bank intends to install a solar electric system on the building in the future and aims to be part of the Ithaca 2030 District, an interdisciplinary public-private collaboration working to create a groundbreaking high-performance building district in Downtown Ithaca. The 2030 District project is part of a larger effort in Tompkins County to reduce Ithaca’s greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050.

From high-efficiency windows that mimic the original steel frames, to the all-electric heating and cooling system, these improvements are a testament to the sustainability efforts of the Elmira Savings Bank board and its commitment to the Ithaca community. The building reflects the beauty of so many older Tompkins County buildings as well as the community’s preservation ethic. The ESB board is “walking the walk” when it comes to sustainability and achieving its goals to significantly reduce energy use in their buildings. The success of this project laid the groundwork for another celebrated Elmira Savings Bank location in Vestal, where the team will continue to showcase the preservation of historic buildings in the Southern Tier, while moving its valued building stock forward toward a sustainable future.

Solar by Taitem – the Viridius Story

Ithaca property rental company Viridius turns to Taitem for a solar energy solution to grow the business bottom line and achieve their sustainability mission of Earth Friendly Rentals. Owners Zöe Hare and Stuart Staniford describe the process and why they chose local solar installer Taitem Engineering. Stunning aerial views of their Snyder Hill property show the 21.5 kW ground-mount photovoltaic array. State-of-the-art technology for design and data collection, paired with Taitem’s accessible community presence, are key benefits for Viridius. Tenant Michael Lenetsky couldn’t be happier.

Support Team Taitem’s Ride for Life – Sept. 9

The Southern Tier AIDS Program does incredible work to prevent the spread of HIV and provide care management services for HIV+ individuals.  Taitem is again a Corporate Sponsor for the 19th annual Ride for Life around Cayuga Lake on Sept. 9.  Please join us in supporting this essential community organization by donating to our team’s fundraising goal of $7,200 and/or volunteering on Ride day.

Taitem recently toured the Ithaca office of STAP. We learned that almost 100 staff members in 3 offices serve clients and run programs in 8 counties. Because HIV often spreads intravenously, STAP has become a leader on the front lines of the opioid epidemic. For instance, the Syringe Exchange Program reduces harm to users of both legal and illegal drugs and stops the spread of many diseases, including Hepatitis C. We saw the big machine that sterilizes the used sharps and chops them into little bits before they are properly disposed of as non-hazardous waste.

We also saw how a Narcan kit works to deliver the antidote naloxone if someone has overdosed. STAP distributed 2,000 Narcan kits in 2016! There were 310 overdose reversals reported as a result.  More impressive stats:

As engineers we appreciate numbers. As people, we appreciate the warmth, compassion and commitment so clearly expressed by the staff we met during our tour. We hope you will make a donationvolunteer and hold the clients, staff and community of STAP in your heart.

USGBC Tour Features Zero Energy Hemsin House

Hemsin House
Zero Energy home in Ithaca NY

For architects, building professionals and anyone who wants to learn what it takes to create affordable homes and a net zero energy footprint, this event at the newly-completed Hemsin House in Ithaca will be educational and inspiring. On Wednesday, July 12, the New York Upstate Chapter of the US Green Building Council will host a tour and presentation by owner-designers Courtney Royal and Umit Sirt, both sustainability professionals at Taitem Engineering. Event details and registration.

Hemsin House, on a hilltop overlooking Cayuga Lake, is a cost-effective, healthy home for the couple and their two young children while also serving as a sustainability showcase. Solar panels on the roof generate enough electricity to heat, cool, and power all appliances and lighting in the course of a year, and help the house earn the Energy Star and LEED Zero Energy designations. A 15% window-to-wall ratio, optimitized building envelope design, use of local hardwoods, water conservation methods, low VOC paint and finish materials, and even landscaping will help the home attain LEED for Homes Platinum status.

Tour attendees can earn continuing education credits: 1.5 LU  from the American Institute of Architects and 1.5 hours from the Green Building Council Institute.

Interior of Courtney’s LEED certified home.

Net Zero Energy Building Design Two-Day Training

May 15-16, 2017
EcoVillage Ithaca, 218 Rachel Carson Way, Ithaca, NY
To register, contact Liz Walker at liz.learn@ecovillageithaca.org

This two day training will focus on design and construction details to achieve net-zero energy use in new buildings. Approved for continuing education credit with AIA and GBCI. Join Ian Shapiro, founder of Taitem Engineering and co-author of the book Green Building Illustrated (Wiley, 2014) and Liz Walker, co-founder of EcoVillage Ithaca, and Executive Director of its educational arm, Learn@Ecovillage, as they address fundamentals and strategies for zero energy design. EcoVillage and cohousing concepts will be covered as well as site visits to homes and commercial community buildings at EcoVillage’s three cohousing neighborhoods, emphasizing different green building approaches, styles and details, culminating in the newest neighborhood called TREE, one of the largest Passivhaus development in North America, which includes a number of net zero homes.

The training fee includes lunch, a copy of Ian Shapiro’s book Green Building Illustrated and Liz Walker’s book EcoVillage at Ithaca: Pioneering a Sustainable Culture. A limited number of scholarships are available for students, women and low-income participants.

What people are saying:

“Excellent seminar! Very valuable.”
“EcoVillage is an excellent place to see first hand the topics covered at this seminar.”
“Ian is an accomplished speaker – excellent way of fielding questions, positive connection with audience. Presented topics in a way that could be easily understood.”

Learning Objectives:

  • Learn the fundamentals of design to achieve net-zero energy in new buildings, including heating/cooling options, hot water strategies, insulation and window design, lighting and electrical load for net-zero.
  • Learn specific construction details which help to achieve net-zero energy, including techniques to achieve low infiltration and to minimize thermal bridging.
  • Understand the concepts of cohousing and ecovillages as examples of neighborhood level design for sustainability.
  • Learn options for measuring and verifying net-zero performance, and approaches to maintain persistent net-zero performance.

Presenters:

Liz Walker Liz Walker, Executive Director of Learn@EcoVillage and Co-Founder has provided vision, leadership and prodigious hard work since the founding of EcoVillage at Ithaca in 1991. As collaborator, she has helped launch Gaia Education which teaches sustainable community development around the world.

Ian Shapiro started Taitem Engineering in 1989. He has led applied energy conservation research projects, many design and energy projects, and has delivered workshops in the areas of energy audits, managing energy projects, and the energy code. Ian’s presentations and workshops are impactful and highly recommended.

This course has been approved for 14 AIA LU. This education session may be self-reported by LEED Professionals for 14 GBCI CE hours.

For questions and to register, contact Liz Walker at liz.learn@ecovillageithaca.org

This event is co-sponsored by:

Taitem Engineering

USGBC NY Upstate Chapter