Doug Selby

Doug Selby
Meadowlark Builders
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 23 July 2007
Temperature: 80F
Ceiling: scattered clouds
Ground: still walnutty
Wind: ENE at 9mph

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TT with HD: Doug Selby

[Ed. note: Doug Selby and Kirk Brandon started Meadowlark Builders in 2004. HD first encountered Doug last year, when he appeared in the neighborhood doing some background research for a building project. Specifically, he was documenting photographically some examples of garages that had recently been granted a zoning variance--in HD's case a slightly reduced setback. HD kept Doug's business card.]

DS: I'm not sure how to ride this thing.

HD: Are you kidding me??

DS: Well, I mean is there no handlebars, or?

HD: No, there's no handles.

DS: I guess that's how you compensate for weight differences, right?

HD: Right. See, you put that together! Most people just say, Man, you gotta put handles on! But I don't have an adjustable pivot, which means that you have to be able to slide back and forth wherever. So maybe the next one I design and build, I'll ...

DS: ... I didn't know regular teeter totters had an adjustable pivot, either.

HD: The ones on playgrounds? Didn't the ones you grew up with have ...

DS: ... they just had a metal cleat that went around them. So it was just sloppy, but still had a pretty much fixed pivot point.

HD: But there were like a set of three, right? One in the middle, for if you were perfectly balanced, and then you could move it either way.

DS: No, I don't remember that.

HD: Where did you grow up??

DS: In Midland. Maybe we're just different there, I don't know!

HD: Yeah, you didn't have as good a teeter totters as we did in Columbus, Indiana.

DS: Maybe we were just all chemically altered there, too!

HD: Let's pause for a second, so I can get this picture taken. Now 'chemically altered', that's a reference to DOW ...

DS: DOW Chemical, of course.

HD: Not recreational stuff.

DS: Well, I was pretty young when I was there, so. ... ...

HD: Well, welcome to the teeter totter!

DS: Thank you!

HD: First question, because you know, it was such a coincidence, to me anyway, when Chris Buhalis mentioned your name on the teeter totter--and I pieced it together that you were the guy who came around and took a picture of my garage last summer.

DS: Right, right!

HD: And I'm glad I kept your business card so that I could actually confirm that you were in fact the same guy. So you drove to Alaska with Chris Buhalis?

DS: I did, yeah. Yes.

HD: What kind of travelling companion is Chris?

DS: Well, it wasn't all fun the whole time, as anybody--being in a car with them that long is going to be challenging, right? But, we had a lot of good adventures together, and it's something I look back fondly upon. It was an interesting summer and very enlightening in a lot of respects. I'm not sure that I would have the same outlook that I have today without that trip.

HD: How do I want to phrase this, um, I know that he hitchhiked back. Was that a part of the original plan?

DS: No, we got up there ...

HD: ... your sister lived up there, right?

DS: My sister lived up there. And so at some point, we ended up becoming pretty close with a pretty large group of people--we all lived in the woods together. And at some point things kind of shuffled around. I was going to go back with a guy from California, but I had to go down and visit my sister at the end of the trip, and I spent two and a half weeks there--not 'had to' I wanted to. And at that point, I kinda decided that I just really wanted to travel back alone anyway. And Chris floated the idea that he might hitchhike back, and it kind of worked out mutually to everybody's benefit.

HD: You do any fishing when you were up in Alaska?

DS: Well, we tried to get jobs on fishing boats to actually do commercial fishing, but that's one of those Alaskan gold rush things--you go up there to make a million bucks and then come back busted. But I've been there other times and done more fishing. This time I did not. That summer I just pretty much gutted fish and hung out with my sister. But she had hit a moose with her truck in the previous month to us getting there. In Alaska, if you hit a moose, you get to keep the good half, and the state gets the bad half, because there's no way a family can eat an entire moose.

HD: And the good half is ... ?

DS: The good half is the side that didn't get hit.

HD: Oh! I was thinking front to back--between those.

DS: And the bad half they give to charity, so I do remember eating a lot of moose there, which is delicious.

HD: Huh. Is it really!

DS: Yeah, much better than beef. And very purple.

HD: Even after you cook it?

DS: Kinda a little purple-y after you cook it, too, yeah.

HD: I wouldn't have guessed that.

DS: I wouldn't have guessed that an animal that mostly eats swamp plants would taste that great, but it did.

HD: So you do any fishing around here at all?

DS: No, I'm not much of a fisherman. Of course, I enjoy the time on the water and things like that. And I suppose if I had more time, I probably would spend more time fishing.

HD: So most of your time, you spend designing and building stuff [with Meadowlark Builders]? For people right around here?

DS: Yeah, that's pretty much by necessity. If I had more time for hobbies, I would certainly take that time, but right now it's sort of all-consuming.

HD: [Ed. note: In what follows, HD misspeaks at the beginning by referencing Spring Street, instead of Fountain Street. It's all water to HD, apparently.] So your place up on Spring Street, I checked it out on the City's new storm water interface, have you done that, yet?

DS: Mmm umm.

HD: They have an interface on their website where you can type in your address, and they tell you the square footage of impervious area you've got on your property. And they're using that measurement to calculate your storm water rates. It used to be a flat rate of 22 bucks a quarter ...

DS: ... ahh, right, I did get something in the mail about that. In fact I got eight notices in the mail about that. Glad to see that they're spending our money wisely.

HD: Yeah, well, you're going to be spending more money now for your storm water.

DS: Yes. I did notice that.

HD: You're actually in the third rate tier, the third highest out of four! So, I think you're going to be jumping up to almost double what it was, so ...

DS: ... now, this is the project on Spring Street, the two-condo project?

HD: Ummm, I just checked the address of Meadowlark Builders.

DS: Okay. The one on Spring Street is actually two condominiums, so that's actually two addresses. Hopefully that'll be less for the homeowner--it should be.

HD: But you're talking about a project that you're building. The address I typed in was the address of Meadowlark Builders.

DS: Okay, so that would be on Fountain Street.

HD: Oh. Whatever it was. I mean, I copied-and-pasted it, I'm sorry.

DS: Interesting. I had no idea that I was being assessed at that higher rate on my property. [laugh]

HD: Well, it looks like you have a huge--is it a garage in the back of the house?

DS: Yes.

HD: And over in the corner, you have maybe like a pond of some kind? It's circular, a thing in the corner.

DS: No, that's actually a tracking box, which is also otherwise known as a sand box. Mostly I don't use it for either right now.

HD: So a tracking box?! You're checking out the wildlife, then?

DS: Yeah, that was the goal of putting in it, to see what comes through it at night, see how long it takes for tracks to disintegrate.

HD: Well, the City is not analyzing that thing as impervious.

DS: Right, right.

HD: But anyway. Just so you know. But dealing with storm water is something actually that Meadowlark Builders is quite progressive with--the gray-water systems discussed on the website, those are something you're prepared to deal with--even retrofitting existing buildings with whole gray-water systems?

DS: The deal with gray water systems is that, unfortunately, asphalt roofing is very cheap, ...

HD: ... and that includes just like shingles that are on my house.

DS: I don't think it's the best thing in the world to have a gray-water system, if you have an asphalt roof, because there's a lot of lead and cadmium in shingles. The last thing you want to do is spread that water all over the place. It's bad enough that it runs off into storm sewers and things like that, but you know what I try to do is have people specify metal roofs. But that's rarely, if ever, practicable for people's budgets.

HD: Just from the point of view of pure cost?

DS: Yeah, they're three times as much to start.

HD: But they last a bit longer, right?

DS: Oh, a lot longer. Yeah, that's the last roof you'll put on. Unless you're 20 years old, and then you might have to do another one. But what it comes down to is, it costs so much to build anything, and by the time you get to the roof, there's compromises that need to be made in everybody's budget. The metal roof is usually one of the big items that can go right away. Now that being said, sometimes we do have a client who that's important to, and when you have a metal roof, you can do a really nice gray-water system. The water's perfectly fine coming off the roof--for outdoor bathing, watering plants, irrigation, that type of thing. It's a good resource to re-use on your lot.

HD: So even something as simple as a rain barrel, where you're capturing the water that comes off of one downspout, you'd maybe have second thoughts about using that for irrigation, due to the heavy metal content coming off an asphalt roof?

DS: Yeah, you know, I'd like to get figures on actually what it is. I'd like to have some water tested in that respect. I'm not saying you shouldn't use it, I'm just saying that it's a concern to be aware of.

HD: So if there's enough budget, and you're putting on a new roof, then maybe a metal roof, huh?

DS: Yeah, and certainly just from the standpoint of how long it lasts, you might spend three times as much for a metal roof, but it'll last three times as long. The problem is that most people don't anticipate staying in a house for 60 years.

HD: No, not anymore. But I want to stay in this house for 60 years.

DS: I want to stay in my house for 60 years, too. I wish I could have afforded a metal roof, but I couldn't! [laugh] Maybe next time!

HD: Well, speaking of metal, you know, on your website, there is just this gorgeous--I think it's copper--inlay on these porch columns?

DS: Yeah.

HD: That's just spectacular. Is that somewhere around here?

DS: Yeah, that's on Fountain Street. That's my house, which is also Meadowlark Builder's address, all sort of rolled into one.

HD: Are you worried at all about somebody trying to steal that copper? Because stealing copper seems to be real big business suddenly.

DS: Yeah, if they can get it off of there without somebody--either a neighbor or myself--coming out with a baseball bat, then okay. No, it's very well fastened into a frame-and-panel system, so that would be very difficult without completely tearing the whole thing apart.

HD: So what's the background on that particular design in the copper?

DS: Well, the house is roughly 150 years old. It was the original farmhouse for that 40 acres. It was a Federal style house originally, and then in 1924 they put an addition on it and did sort of a Craftsman style porch. So when we bought it, it was very distressed. It pretty much needed to be completely re-built. But one thing we did like was the proportions on the columns, even though they were made of cinderblock and some pretty rough-hewn wood. But there was really no support left there. So we basically modeled the new pillars off of the old ones. And as it turns out Federal period and Craftsman mixed is actually a pretty good combination. They look good together. So I kind of did that throughout the house--mixed Craftsman and Federal period details. I've always liked wood porches, and we just started talking about what the panels should be. Having it be a lower maintenance material was attractive. And my nephew is a metal worker, so we came up with the idea of doing them out of hammered copper. He came up with some really great colors that he got out of it by heating it and quenching the copper.

HD: So each panel is different?

DS: Yes, and he was doing it off-site so he kept saying, Well, how do you want the panels to look? And I just said, Uniform kind of hammered old-looking copper, just real uniform. And he kept calling me back and saying the whole thing again, and I couldn't quite understand what he was getting at, why he kept calling me back. And he eventually made them all uniform, except for one, which he brought over and was like, This is what I wanted to do! And it was beautiful and it was amazing. And I was like, Oh, I want them all like that! And he was like, Well, you can't have'em, because you told me you wanted them uniform. [laugh] We put that one front-and-center--it has a thing that looks like a pear almost in there, and it's the coolest one of all, and it's the only one like that. The rest of them are very, very uniform and even. But it's funny, because people always ask what the material is. When they stand at the street, it kind of looks like leather a little bit. And it's clearly not wood, obviously.

HD: So over time, that will develop a greenish, copper-ish patina, or?

DS: Yeah, we put wax on it, so it'll turn brown, and in 25 years or so, it'll turn green.

HD: So have you left some sort of written documentation around, so that when you sell the house, people will understand why the one panel is different?

DS: I don't have that, but that's a good idea.

HD: I would think so. Because otherwise, people will just make up some story.

DS: That's true. Which is probably what I should do, too. [laugh]

HD: Well, you could embellish it. I think you should keep that as the core story, but you know, embellish it appropriately.

DS: The funny thing I learned from my nephew is that lot of time people want that green color to make it look like their copper has already been aged. And what I didn't know is that when copper workers are asked to do that--there are chemicals that can do that. But the best thing, nothing works as good as urine. So when people request that ...

HD: ... they just piss on it?!

DS: That's right.

HD: Jeez.

DS: I imagine that a lot of people who request patina-ed copper don't really know that's what's happening! [laugh]

HD: Talk about leaving a little bit of yourself on the work! [laugh] Huh. Did not know that.

DS: But according to my nephew, that's the only thing that works. All the other chemicals just aren't quite right. Good old-fashioned urine.

HD: Well, listen, you have anything else on your mind that you want to make sure you get on the official totter record?

DS: No, I just came over to take a teeter totter ride!

HD: Yeah? Has it been fun so far?

DS: Yeah!

HD: You don't have to say that just to be polite.

DS: No, no! It's been several years.

HD: People have complained about the width of the teeter totter, or the lack of handles, or things like that. You noted the lack of handles, but you didn't really complain.

DS: I don't mind it. You know, there is a natural desire to hang on to something, which I am. [laugh] But it's all good.

HD: Let me check my prep sheet and make sure that I haven't left out anything important.

DS: I read through several of your interviews and you are a good interviewer.

HD: Well, thanks.

DS: Even reading Chris' [Buhalis] I was surprised by what you were able to pull out of him.

HD: Chris is easy to talk to, I find.

DS: He is easy to talk to, yes. But you got some personal details out of him, a couple where I was like, Hmmm, that's a new insight on him! And I've known him for 15 years or so!

HD: [laugh] Now, you live up in the same neighborhood as him, right?

DS: Yeah, I love that neighborhood.

HD: Is that considered to be part of the same neighborhood that the Avery House project was going into?

DS: The Avery House project. Was that ...

HD: ... the Black Elks.

DS: Right. Yeah, I think so, it's definitely on the edge of that.

HD: Was there a lot of neighborhood activism that you noticed? I mean, you're down a little bit south of that.

DS: Yeah, I noticed that people in the neighborhood were definitely talking about it.

HD: Did you have any particular view on that?

DS: You know, I didn't really know that much about until pretty much a week before the meeting. And I guess it's kind of a weird thing for me, because that's sort of my business. But I also did, like many people, feel that maybe that's not the right project for the area. On the other hand, I'm kind of tend more toward libertarianism on property issues.

HD: So let people do what they will?

DS: I just think it's hard to when you legislate what people can do. Now, this case was different story, because it had already been zoned differently, so they were asking for something that was clearly out of zoning. But anything you build, there's always going to be somebody who doesn't like it. And that's a hard thing to deal with. I'm not sure what the answer is in most cases, because there's clearly things in the world that shouldn't be built. And there's things in the world that should be built. And you're going to find people that are vehemently opposed both ways. So my general viewpoint on things like that is sort of hands-off. I try not to get involved in that. But I could see both sides of the story for sure.

HD: My feeling is that no matter what you build, people will eventually get used to it. And it will feel like it's always been there.

DS: That's true. There's a house over on Brooks Street that's very modern, and I know a lot of people were up in arms about that when that was being built. And it clearly is out of character for the neighborhood.

But over time, as I've driven by it, I've started to actually appreciate what it is, and how it looks. Now, that being said, I know people around the area who are still not happy with it, and never will be. And I see their viewpoint, but I have, over time, seen a certain beauty in the structure--even though it is completely atypical from the rest of the houses in the neighborhood.

I guess that's what I feel like, too, is that people don't like change. And it's really hard to get past that emotional barrier in any project. When you have somebody who is invested in things being the way they are, and you change that, they react in irrational ways even, sometimes. And I think you're right, at the end of the day, there are things that will never quite fit into the neighborhood or things like that, but people end up getting used to them, and it doesn't end up being the end of the world.

I do believe that density in urban areas is good. I think the farmland that we eat up and things like that might be more valuable than we can possibly imagine in the future. I'm looking at severe energy austerity in the future, and how we're going to manage that. And I feel glad to live in a community like Ann Arbor where I do feel like there is a community and there still is a central urban core where commerce happens as it happened a hundred years ago. And, you know, we may be very grateful for that. I think the human tendency is to go, This is the new thing, everything is based off of this now! Thinking it will never go back to the way it was. And I think that's something that it's good to be mindful of--the things you view as being the way things are now could be very different in the future.

HD: For example, people might start getting their eggs from chickens they keep on their own property again.

DS: Well, I tell you what, I'm a big fan of eggs. I started buying eggs at the farmers market a few years ago, from local farmers. And you know there's nothing like a fertilized egg. And when you take a store-bought egg and compare the two, one looks unhealthy and unnatural, and the other one looks like an egg.

HD: So it's just like a deeper yellow, or?

DS: Not to be gross, but an unfertilized egg looks like a bag of puss now, you know? Which is essentially what it is, because it's not a living organism, it's a haploid cell. And the fertilized egg is bright orange, sunshine-orange color on the yolk, and stands up tall and firm, and even the whites are firm and have substance to them. Certainly food production happening at a more local level is imperative, and energy production at a more local level is imperative. The houses we build currently use one-fifth the energy of a normal house.

HD: One-fifth??!

DS: One-fifth.

HD: Now, you're not just exaggerating for marketing purposes?

DS: No, no. We computer model everything we build. The HVAC system, you can't forget that the 'V' part of it is 'ventilation'. And that's incredibly important. Probably even arguably more important than the heating and cooling part. But it's a very important system in a house and it makes everything else work. It's too important not to computer model and figure out exactly how the ductwork should work. And if you do that, you end up with a much more comfortable, much more healthy house. That, combined with some other techniques, can make a house that uses one-fifth the energy. Part of that is geo-thermal heating and cooling. The other part of it is building real tight, energy-efficient houses.

HD: One of the things I noticed on your website is this discussion of foam--is it injected foam insulation that you can retro-fit even over existing--if you've got blown cellulose that's been compromised and whatnot--that you can just go in there and just inject foam, or?

DS: It's certainly harder to do when you're already insulated with another material to get a perfect fit there. But blowing foam in your walls is, in my opinion, a real good way to insulate, because it seals the cavity. If you take a piece of 1-inch fiberglass insulation and put it in your furnace, you call it a 'filter'. And you put 3 and a half inches in your wall, why is that not a 'filter'? What happens is the wind still blows through the wall, and with cellulose and fiberglass both, there's a dew point between the walls. And that dew point is where moisture collects. Anywhere moisture collects you have the potential for mold to grow. And that happens summer and winter in your house as the air is conditioned differently than the outside. That doesn't happen with blown-in foam. The air can't get through the cavity, and you end up with a dew point on the outside, where it's supposed to be.

HD: So the blown-in foam, is that roughly the same sort of stuff in a can, as this you know, what is it called? Goes under a brand name ...

DS: ... well, there's Great Stuff.

HD: Great Stuff. That's what I was trying to think of.

DS: That's one kind of foam, you can get blown in. That's called a closed-cell foam. And then there's also open-cell foams, which are more like that spongy shipping material that you would get in an electronics shipment or something like that. That's open-cell foam. Water will move through that foam, but it doesn't permit air movement through it. It's a lot cheaper than polyurethane foam, which is the closed-cell. Polyurethane performs a lot better, but it doesn't move as easily. So if the house is moving a lot, it has a greater tendency for the insulation to separate from the wood. It's a relatively new thing. It's been around for a while, of course, but ...

HD: ... in this application, though, for putting it walls ...

DS: ... in this application, yeah, it's just starting to become somewhat popular now. There's been a lot of years of testing. Like all building materials, it goes through years and years of testing in a variety of applications. But I don't think that anybody really knows the true answer for every condition. There's lots of different ways to look at things, but my viewpoint is that I like closed-cell better than open-cell. And I like foam far better than any other alternative. You can really make a very tight house. I was mentioning that you can build a house that uses one-fifth the energy in a new-house setting. Well, you can get close to one-quarter in an existing house by sealing it up really well, and installing geo-thermal heating and cooling there, too. Being that buildings use about 40 percent of the resources and energy on the planet, it's really possible to greatly reduce that. Another method, of course, is through design. Making sure that you get passive solar in there and really using the elements that are already existing on the site. But it's a whole new world out there in the building sciences, mostly due to increasing energy costs. You hate to see energy costs increase, but on another level, I sort of don't mind it, because ...

HD: ... it forces the issue.

DS: It forces the issue and I think we all need to change the way we do business. So I'd like to see that happen.

HD: Have you had anybody ask you to design and build a chicken coop or a chicken house?

DS: No.

HD: Rumor has it that up towards your neighborhood--I won't give the exact street name--but that there's people who keep chickens.

DS: Oh, good for them! I'm sure the City wouldn't like to hear that.

HD: Well, that's why I'm being a little vague.

DS: That's what I like best about my neighborhood, is that it's a sort of live-and-let-live mentality. I doubt the neighbors would say anything about the chickens being there, so.

HD: So you haven't heard any chickens?

DS: No, I haven't, but you know, chickens themselves are ...

HD: ... without the rooster they're pretty quite? ...

DS: ... yeah, right, right. I've grown up and been around farms and my sisters have farms and things like that. So you never like being woken up by roosters, but it's not that bad, either!

HD: If they're up, it probably is time to get up for somebody, anyway.

DS: I'm not a morning person, but, you know, there's a lot of merit to getting up early and getting stuff done.

HD: Well, listen this morning we've got a teeter totter ride behind us already this morning!

DS: I like it!

HD: Thanks for coming over!

DS: You bet!