Q&A: Tim Eian on Renovations

Tim Eian, TE Studios

I met Tim Eian, owner of Northeast-based TE Studio, at a house demonstration event in St. Anthony Park, and appreciated his articulate, passionate viewpoints about home construction and renovation. I sat down with him for a few hours of conversation, about everything from innovative building materials to progressive politics, from frustrations to hopefulness. Here is the first in a three-part excerpt of our talk. He is participating in our December “Sustainable We” forum.

Q: What mistakes do people make when renovating their home?

We tend not to look holistically at our homes. It’s important to take a step away from a component approach – not simply see our house as a series of interchangeable parts. Windows, doors, insulation. How do they interact? What changes to the original structure were made over its life and how do they fair? Each component functions as part of a system and it is critical to understand this dynamic before starting any project.

Attaining better long-term value with energy efficiency also requires diligence. This is not an area where the bottom dollar rules. This is a new idea for many people. If you want true long-term value, then it can’t also be cheaper to create. Not right now. If you have an experienced crew that has done this a few times, attended the right workshops – then there can be an economy of scale. But we’re doing new things one home at a time at the moment. When we sent the Apollo mission up into space, the goal was to do it right, not figure out how to do it for less.

Having said that, though, the savings from a holistic retrofit do pay back the investment in many ways. Even a one-off project is extremely rewarding to those who have done them, or are commissioning them.

I also recognize the difficulty we have in America right now. There is a heavily declining middle class. It’s hard enough to “do the thing” let alone do the right thing. And this is a global phenomenon. It’s what’s wrong with our society. We’ve been on a path of decline for so long that the drastic work we need to do – the struggling buildings we need to repair, the underperforming infrastructure we need to fix – is something we are having a hard time finding the money to do.

Q: It sounds like you don’t hold out much hope?

Oh, I’m totally optimistic. Every day my colleagues and I are setting new standards in building – or, trying to, given the current rules. The answers are already out there about how to build more efficient structures, design sustainable spaces, and create a better bang for our buck. The good news is, we don’t have to wait for some fusion reactor to be built.

There are two blockades – and they are the toughest hurdles:

  1. How do we make more people aware of what we should and could be doing, and,
  2. How do we deal with the economics of the current real estate development culture?

I believe it’s like Field of Dreams, though. Build it and they will come. We know how to do this. We need codes to catch up. It will eventually be cheaper, with economies of scale that level the playing field. And when we are allowed to raise the bar for everyone.

However, time is of the essence if we want to make a difference in regards to climate change. Improving building envelopes is climate action.

Q: What frustrates you about working to create sustainable buildings in Minneapolis?

The rule in building is that first you ask where you are. Second, you ask where you need to go. And only third do you ask, “how do we get there?”

I don’t think we are asking the right questions yet as a community.

For one, I think the building inspection staff is overwhelmed, and doesn’t always know what to do with the new energy efficiency designs, materials and structures we create. Unfortunately, I think builders who do the barest minimum – simply to reach existing code – have an easier time getting through the system than those of us who are trying to reduce the considerable carbon emissions coming from our buildings.

Time is money in this business. Yet the process of getting building plans through the review process is very drawn out for those of us using new techniques and materials.

  • They don’t understand why we are doing things in a different way. The process stalls. We have to back up and explain a lot.
  • And then, because permit fees are based on a percentage of total costs, clients who are investing upfront in more energy-efficient savings in the long term end up getting penalized because they are spending more to do it.
  • After that, the buildings are appraised at a higher rate – because of the long-term improvements – and requiring higher property taxes. I’ve experienced that as both a professional, working on behalf of my clients, and as an owner of a former dentist office here in Northeast that I converted with Passive House components into a much more energy-efficient space.

I think the City should offer incentives to create more energy-efficient structures, not inadvertently disincentivize them. They should be encouraging people to do better. Streamlining the review process for energy-efficient projects. Offering fee discounts.  

Minneapolis used to offer an incentive program called “This Old House,” which would defer building improvements from tax valuation for a period of time. I advocate for a “This Inefficient House” program, which does the same with energy improvement measures.

Also, commercial buildings are currently expected to spend 20% of budget on features for the disabled, which is great. But that makes it hard to create an overall budget that also accommodates energy-efficiency goals. The more we spend on that, the more we spend on the ADA improvements as well.

Why not also require a minimum part of an improvement budget to be used on enhancing sustainability value? Both benefit the greater good and should therefore be treated equally.

It’s an old system, operating from an old paradigm. It’s terribly frustrating. I’ve talked to my Councilperson, and the building inspections department. And the compromise reached is that my plans will be reviewed more by management than regular staff. But… that’s a Band-Aid approach. I think we have to elevate the game significantly.

I know the City of Minneapolis has Climate Action Plan goals to reduce emissions by 2030. But I don’t think we’ll get there. Not even by 2050 at this rate.

PART 2: On Ice Dams and Mold — and the conflict within building codes

PART 3 Best Practices for Minnesota Home Building

Learn more about TE Studios here.

Others in the Green by Design Series

Q&A with Michael Anschel

Q&A With Ron Fergle, Sustainable Materials

Q&A With Preservationist Alex Haecker

Sustainable We: A Conversation

Designed for the Future: A Sampler

My Easy Steps to Sustainable Living

Coming Soon: Q&A With Cindy Ojzczyk


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