When building a Passive House goes horribly wrong
The following is a review of our original builder:
Evolutionary Home Builders (Geneva, Illinois):
- Brandon Weiss – owner (also works with Dvele and Sonnen)
- Patrick Danaher – architect and project manager
- Eric Barton – chief field officer (now on his own as Biltmore Homes)
What was supposed to be a straightforward, pleasant experience building a rather compact, eco-friendly Passive House dragged on for a year and a half (roughly September, 2014 to December, 2015) to little effect. After spending $30,000, we have no house, of course, but also no drawings, and not even a partial refund. We gave them $30,000, and they gave us nothing in return.
Presumably, only those contemplating a build with Evolutionary Home Builders (EHB) will punish themselves by slogging through the following documentation, which lays out our unfortunate experience. The information is here to let consumers know what our experience was like. Consider it a cautionary tale.
Our (still empty) lot on April 8, 2016.
My wife and I put our house up for sale in spring, 2014, in hopes of moving closer to her work in Palatine, Illinois (she is a school teacher; I am a stay at home dad for our daughter). Faced with a decision as to where to live, we decided to build a new home. After reading up on the options available, we concluded we wanted to build as “green” as possible, and building to the Passive House standard seemed like a worthwhile goal. We knew the numbers would be tight, in light of our limited nest egg, but we believed how we built our new home was just as important as what we built.
In doing our research, we came across Brandon Weiss and his project in River Forest — the first certified Passive House in the Chicago area. Based on his reputation (various certifications such as Master Builder and certified Passive House builder, and any number of articles from local media outlets detailing his projects in the area), we chose to move forward with Brandon and what had recently become Evolutionary Home Builders (EHB).
Even before purchasing a lot, we put down, in September, 2014, at Brandon’s request, $30,000 for a Design-Build Professional Services Agreement (PSA). At that time he assured us a Passive House was possible at $200-205/ sq. ft. for a single-story home under 2,000 sq. ft., and with a full 9’ basement included (the total dependent on the quality of finishes and any extras).
The PSA outlined a prospective budget for our 1600 square foot structure, with a total ranging between $375,000-410,000 (this included the initial $30,000). The timeline we were given included 90 days to design and 6-8 months to build. We assumed that this meant there was a good chance we could move into our new home by the end of 2015, or the early part of 2016 if hiccups occurred during the build process.
After some delay, the design phase only began in earnest towards the end of January, 2015. They were working off of drawings I had given Brandon back in June, 2014, during our initial meeting in his new office showing a 40’ x 40’ floor plan created on RoomSketcher, along with hand-drawn exterior elevation ideas. During the design phase their in-house architect, Patrick Danaher, changed it to a 49′ x 34′ structure.
It was not until the end of July, 2015, however, that we received our first official construction drawings. Nevertheless, we were very excited to see actual plans for our future home, and I kept insisting to my wife that no matter how much it felt like our project was an afterthought, EHB are supposed to be the experts in their field, so they will be worth the wait.
After additional delays, we were finally presented with hard budget numbers in late November, 2015. In that meeting, without any warning, we were given the following price to construct: $470,000. This seemed high, I assumed it must include the $30,000 PSA payment, and that I must be misunderstanding something. It was only while driving home, as my wife patiently explained to me that the $470,000 number did not include the $30,000 (therefore the total price would be $500,000), that I realized we could not afford to proceed with the build. Also worth noting: the $470,000 included nothing for contingencies or potential escalation costs.
In addition, during this budget meeting we requested a hard copy of the numbers to take with us. We were told no, we could not have it, that these numbers were only preliminary, and that a hard copy would only be made available to us after signing an official Build Contract (we were presented with various numbers in an Excel spreadsheet format, which proved more confusing than helpful — particularly since Patrick kept scrolling up and down, never allowing us to see the columns of numbers in their entirety).
In our subsequent email exchanges, a phone call with Brandon, and a face-to-face sit-down with Brandon, the claim was made repeatedly that the budget numbers contained intellectual property. Even if true, which seems doubtful, why was our $30,000 insufficient proof of our commitment to build with EHB? How could we make informed decisions without all of the budget numbers in front of us?
Moreover, the numbers presented to us were even worse than they initially appeared because Brandon had removed substantial value by changing a 9’ basement to an 8’ basement, removing a window from the basement (leaving us with only one), and by converting the concrete driveway to an asphalt driveway.
In effect, the $500,000 number should have really been $515-525,000 if the 9’ basement, the second basement window, and the concrete driveway had been left in (these items had previously been in the drawings, and they had always been understood to be included based on email exchanges and conversations in their office). The point is not that we had our hearts set on a concrete driveway, for example, rather it is how Brandon and his team appeared to manipulate the numbers in order to make them look less bad than they really were — it felt like they were trying to be devious.
Overall, then, the budgeting process struck us as fundamentally dishonest. When pressed repeatedly as to why the build budget was so different from the numbers outlined in the PSA, Brandon only offered a vague explanation, noting “additional Passive House components were necessary” — what these were, or why they were necessary, was never explained.
In our final meeting (the face-to-face sit-down), Brandon did finally admit that the energy modeling in the PHPP software showed a significant penalty for a single-story structure with a full basement. Since EHB sell themselves as experts in this field, and they had never done a single-story home before, and they had nearly a year to research potential issues with this type of structure, why were we only now — over a year into the design process — finding out about it?
No one, at any time, suggested we needed to convert our single-story structure into a two-story structure if we intended to hit the budget numbers as laid out in the PSA. There is also no language in the PSA regarding potential budget increases based on how the energy modeling turns out.
Our take away impression: EHB felt we would accept virtually any number given to us since we were so far along in the process and they already had our $30,000. That, in effect, we could not walk away, and that we would just accept the inflated price and move forward with the build.
Keep in mind, if we had proceeded, we would have ended up with a $625,000 2-BR, 2-Bath, 1666 sq. ft. single-story home ($500,000 to build + $125,000 for the lot), with no high-end finishes (not even any ceiling lighting in the family room or the two bedrooms), and before spending anything on landscaping (not to mention an 8’ basement with only one window). I was going to install 5” wide hickory wood flooring and wider trim for the door casings and baseboard, but the extra material cost would have been offset by my free, “sweat equity” labor. These were the only finishes in the house that could be construed as “high-end”.
More importantly, because no equivalent home exists in the Palatine market, our house would have been impossible to ever sell for anything near what we would have paid for it. This, in turn, raises the question: Even if we had accepted the $500,000 price ($625,000 with the lot), how were we ever going to secure financing for the project when the cost was so far above anything resembling market value?
This idea that their budget made the house financially irresponsible to build appeared to be entirely lost on Brandon. This is particularly disturbing given that the very first sentence of his PSA document specifies fiscal prudence as an explicit goal: “The goal of the parties is to build a well-constructed, healthy, super energy efficient and sustainable home at an economical price” [emphasis added].
Based on the PSA (which is all we ever had to go on), the budget we were expecting should have looked something like this:
- 325,000-350,000 Original 40′ x 40’= 1600 sq. ft.
- 13,500-14,500 Extra 66 sq. ft. (1666 sq. ft.)
- 20,000-25,000 H2O, sewer issue; 2 ret. walls
- 20-30,000 Garage
- 30,000 Design-Build PSA
- 408,500-449,500 Total Cost
We’re not the unreasonable client who wants to add additional square footage, and additional high-end finishes, and then balks when the cost goes up. Note, too, that the numbers to build range from just over $203/ sq. ft. – $218.75/ sq. ft., so we were willing, even at the time of signing the PSA, to end up at nearly $220/ sq. ft. instead of the $205 Brandon initially quoted. Nevertheless, their budget came in at an astounding $249/ sq. ft. As a result, their budget leaves at least $70-90,000+ unexplained (again, at least $70,000 because of the missing 9’ basement, second window in the basement, and concrete driveway).
At that point, in December, 2015, we reached out to several of Brandon’s prior clients to see what their experience had been like (admittedly, we should have done this before handing over our $30,000). It was revealing, and quite depressing. Not one of them would feel comfortable recommending Brandon and EHB to family or friends without serious reservations. Most of his former clients flat out said they would not recommend Brandon or EHB under any circumstances. In fact, in our discussions, several common themes developed that were congruent with our own experience:
1. Poor communication skills: Via email, or in person, they (meaning Brandon, Patrick, and Eric) leave questions unanswered, and they fail to listen — therefore requests have to be repeated over and over, or else they are implemented incorrectly.
2. Budget numbers cannot be trusted: We heard repeatedly, from separate clients, that whatever you are told add at least 25% to get an accurate idea of real costs (whether in the PSA or the harder numbers of an actual Build Budget). It is important to emphasize, this is prior to any change orders on the part of clients. In other words, as it was explained to us, during the build process Brandon would come to the clients and repeatedly tell them what they had ordered was discontinued, or the item was out of stock, and the alternative was going to be more expensive. As the clients pointed out, in the middle of the build process, what choice do you have but to pay? In addition, we were told by clients, independently of one another, that Brandon and EHB had — rather perversely — done us a favor by manipulating the numbers prior to our build commencing, rather than after, since it allows us to walk away before losing significantly more money (which had been their own experience with EHB).
3. The design capabilities of EHB are mediocre at best: Every client we spoke with urged us to seek outside design help, both in the form of an architect and for any interior design work.
4. Don’t be fooled by the hype: Brandon is very good at marketing his projects, and he has enjoyed a great deal of free advertising by having his homes covered in local media outlets, and on the internet more broadly. So why have his clients, when given the opportunity, not spoken out about their negative experiences? We believe that, even after being put through a gut-wrenching build process, few clients will have the nerve to criticize Brandon and his team when a journalist calls to talk about what a unique home they have just built, and how great it must be to live in. Understandably, homeowners in this situation are already looking for reasons to justify what they have gone through — both emotionally and financially. The message we received from his clients: there is a wide gulf between surface (how EHB present themselves) and substance (what the design-build process is really like).
5. EHB builds a solid wall assembly: Every client was happy with the quality of their structure, but they were equally unhappy with how this was achieved — for reasons outlined above. Our conclusion: EHB is a conventional builder who can put up a better wall assembly. In every other respect, however, EHB fulfills the stereotype of the average homebuilder: over promises, under delivers, is sloppy with budget numbers, and plays fast and loose with their clients’ life savings.
I should also note, after the initial email and phone call letting EHB know we could not move forward, Brandon, during our final sit-down, explained how he was able to reduce the budget to $403,000 by getting donated materials from manufacturers, and by seeking lower numbers from their subcontractors. In other words, they were prepared to charge us $500,000, but now they could build the same house for nearly $100,000 less with no drop off in quality — either in materials or craftsmanship [?] . Furthermore, based on what their previous clients had told us, we had every reason to believe the $403,000 would climb back up to $500,000 as they clawed the money back with inevitable “unforeseen” expenses throughout the build process.
Since deciding not to move forward with Brandon and EHB, we have been told (1) there will be no partial refund of our $30,000, and that we cannot use the drawings (our lawyer has explained to us why this latter claim is unfounded). The PSA even claims we cannot build on our own lot with another builder for two years. Moreover, because of a forced arbitration clause in the PSA, we have few legal options (#ripoffclause).
We were not looking for a full refund, we understand some real work has been done, but we do feel a partial refund of $15,000 is in order since we are not moving forward because of the actions of EHB — in other words, due to no fault of our own. The fact remains, if the budget numbers had been accurate and fair, we would have proceeded to build with EHB.
We also understand that the construction process is always imperfect, that compromises will always have to be made. Yet if the evidence available is examined, we believe the only conclusion is that Brandon and his company have demonstrated a willingness to violate their clients’ trust, and that they have engaged in behavior that, at the very least, is unethical.
Nevertheless, there is no reason why you should take our word for any of this. In fact, learn from our mistake and — prior to signing or doing anything — please reach out to their former clients as listed on their website and in the many articles published about their projects. In addition, I have the PSA that my wife and I signed, a year and a half of email exchanges between myself and Brandon (here’s a sampling), along with the construction drawings, in order to substantiate my claims.
It is worrisome that builders like Brandon fail to appreciate how their actions not only harm their own reputations, but how they put the very concept of Passive House, or even the notion of green building itself, at risk. If Passive House becomes synonymous with corrupt business practices, as a way for builders to pad their profits without offering substantial value, then the progress of the green building movement may find itself impeded, if not entirely halted. This would be unfortunate in light of the ever growing body of evidence that shows the negative impact our current code-built structures have on global warming.
Based on our experience, and the experience of Brandon’s former clients (as it was told to us), we would encourage anyone interested in pursuing Passive House certification, or green building generally, to look elsewhere besides EHB. Look for a quality builder with a great reputation for service and attention to detail who is willing to take on the challenge of constructing a better wall assembly. Much of the information regarding this type of building program is open-sourced and therefore readily available in books, magazines, and on the internet (e.g. PHIUS, Green Building Advisor, and Fine Homebuilding magazine — to name just a few great resources).
If you have questions about any of this, or if I can help in any way, please feel free to contact me at my email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) Response letter from Brandon
Some of the more irritating assertions:
“We agreed to look at their lot options to help them know the pros and cons of each lot.” When Brandon and Eric Barton were out looking with us at the lot we would eventually purchase, I drew their attention to the visible fall in grade present (roughly 3′- 4′ in some areas, moving high to low from south to north), wondering if a retaining wall would be necessary. They both responded that it would not be an issue. Yet we were told late in the design process that not one but two retaining walls are necessary because of the significant grade change, and that they will cost a couple thousand dollars. How is this helping us?
“We tell our clients … design and construction can take anywhere from 12-18 months.” We were never told any such thing. Again, we were told 90 days to design, 6-8 months to build. In fact, they brag about how quickly and efficiently they complete the build phase, so this is nonsense, particularly for a smaller house, like ours, that is just under 1700 sq. ft. (outside dimensions).
“… two large savings opportunities.” The “opportunities” we were offered included changing cathedral ceilings to flat ceilings throughout ($5,000), and moving the garage to the south end of the lot ($3,200), which would have entailed direct access to the interior, even though from the very start I had expressed how important it was that the garage not have direct access to the house (2). So they over-charged us, we believe, by $70,000-90,000+ and their solution was to reduce costs by $8,200, which also happened to further reduce the value of the house.
“Anita answered… ‘no reason to panic'”. It was me, not my wife, who said this. And as I explain above, I did not yet fully appreciate the significance of the numbers, due in large part to the convoluted way in which they were presented. Anita, on the other hand, rarely spoke during the meeting, having mentally latched on to the $470,000 number, assuming, unlike me, that the $470,000 did not include the $30,000 PSA payment, and terrified that even at $500,000 — without a 9′ basement and no high-end finishes — that I would still want to proceed with the build.
“…they did not want to look at the specs…” In our final sit-down with Brandon, it is true, we did not see the benefit of looking at the specs, and for two reasons: First, he had already claimed there was intellectual property rights involved with the budget numbers, so we did not want to be accused of stealing at a later date. Secondly, at that point, we didn’t trust anything he had to say. As far as we were concerned, he had engaged in bait-and-switch sales tactics, yet he expresses astonishment that we didn’t want to look at his numbers.
“…we have continued to work on the project for them.” Doing what, exactly?
“In our past experience… if a client needs to adjust price… there is a value engineering process to refine things.” How could price not be an issue for us when Brandon so badly overshot the budget laid out in the PSA? In addition, from our very first meeting with Brandon we were very open and transparent with him about what we had in savings, and how important it was that I do sweat equity work to help contain costs. The goal from the very beginning was to control costs — e.g. in terms of interior design choices — so that we could more easily hit the $375-410,000 budget number, and then, at that point, reduce the price even further with my sweat equity work. The notion that we should “value engineer” down from a bloated price of $500,000 is ridiculous. If Brandon was acting in good faith, why not warn us prior to the budget meeting that costs were way over, and then during the meeting walk us through those costs, component by component, to show us where all the money was going?
“…we have met the obligations of our agreement.” If you’ve gotten this far, I’ll let the reader evaluate this bold claim.
(2) It’s still a relatively recent idea, with a slowly growing awareness of the risks, but the research seems compelling: if you can’t avoid having an attached garage (in our case), at least avoid direct access to the garage from the house. And if that’s not possible, then start and back out, and turn off your car upon returning, as quickly as possible. It’s also worthwhile to keep chemical fertilizers, pesticides, any product containing solvents, and lawn equipment that uses gasoline and oil in a separate outdoor shed — again, if it’s at all possible.
One last sucker punch from Brandon: payment due