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An Interview with Elizabeth Herrmann Architecture + Design, Vermont
Elizabeth Herrmann Architecture + Design is an award-winning residential architecture firm based in Bristol, Vermont, specializing in new, remodeling, and historic renovation projects.
Can you give us a quick biographical sketch?
Elizabeth Herrmann: I grew up in central Pennsylvania, went to Vassar College in New York, transferred to Cornell, and got an undergraduate degree in architecture. I moved to warm and sunny California, where I met my husband, and we ended up moving to cold Minnesota where he was going to grad school.
We spent some time in South Africa post-apartheid, went back to Minnesota, and then moved to Vermont 20 years ago. Wherever we lived, we had always taken off to hike on weekends. We finally thought, “What if we lived somewhere where we could just go hiking?”
In all those different places you lived, were you working as an architect?
EH: Yes. In San Francisco, I was doing commercial work often related to earthquake damage and historic preservation. In Minnesota, I worked mostly on commercial projects, mixed with a few residential. During my time in South Africa, Cape Town was trying to win the 2004 Summer Olympic bid. The city built sports facilities to prove to the Olympic Committee what the city was capable of, but also to build much-needed community-centered buildings and infrastructure. I got to work on a few of those projects.
When I came to Vermont, after all this urban architectural experience, I started working almost exclusively on residential projects. I love it. You really get to know your clients, and it’s more flexible—I work long hours, but I’m also able to go to my kids’ sporting and musical events.
How did you come to focus on sustainability?
EH: There was no single big awakening. It was just a matter of becoming more and more aware over the years, educating myself, learning what’s possible, and striving to improve what we do.
How much do you need to promote efficiency to your clients?
EH: Twenty years ago, what people were asking me about was different. Back then you were lucky to have any kind of conversation about energy use or insulation. Things have changed. Now I feel as though right out of the gate, clients want to talk about energy consumption and healthy homes.
Are people concerned about heating loss here, or are they interested in the bigger picture?
EH: I think it’s a mix. Day to day in this cold climate, people want to reduce their heating bills. But they also want to manage the climate crisis, and live responsibly. Going along with that, people are asking for smaller homes. I recently designed a 1,120-square-foot home for a family of four. They didn’t just want to use efficiency to offset size; they were interested in more significant change. We know the same solutions aren’t right for everyone, so we work closely with our clients to find design solutions that align with their principles, needs, and constraints.
Where are your clients?
EH: Most of my work is in Vermont. I do have one job in New York and one in New Hampshire right now, and I would travel farther for something really interesting. But I stick to Vermont for the most part.
How often do you have to travel to the building site?
EH: I tend to do pretty complete construction drawings, so my time spent on the job site is typically minimal. I find if I have to visit a site once a week, that means there are problems. Usually very few questions come up during construction. Things tend to go very smoothly. A big part of that is I have a really good bunch of builders I work with.
How do clients find you?
EH: It used to be just word of mouth. Social media is a real [factor] now, though. Some find me on Instagram or our website http://eharchitect.com/. Some find me through a builder. Some find me on the AIA [American Institute of Architects] site, and some through advertising in magazines. Hopefully more people will find me through the EEN!
Residential architects are a relatively new group represented in the Efficiency Excellence Network. Can you tell us more about your connection with the EEN?
EH: Early on, Phoebe Howe from the EEN asked me if I would be interested in joining. I reviewed what she sent me and I was pretty excited about the idea. I think I was one of the first three architects to join. I do like to tell people I am in the EEN; I think it’s a nice credential.
Have you increased your network through membership in the EEN?
EH: I’ve met some new people I would definitely love to work with. Being in central Vermont and having a Burlington focus, though, I have less of a problem finding [builders who understand high-performance design] than architects in other areas might. I have noticed in northern and southern Vermont, where there are more far-flung towns, there is a shortage of contractors in general, let alone those who build to the level we are looking for.
The networking has been great. I work collaboratively, so finding good builder partners is important. Since everyone is different, it’s also important to find the right builder for the job. People tend to think of integrated design as being for commercial projects only, but I think it’s important to collaborate on residential projects too. Let’s get everybody around the table so we can discuss expectations and options for building performance. There’s no one way to do things, and it’s good to talk through the possibilities up front.
How interested in this topic are homeowners?
EH: Owners vary. If someone doesn’t want to talk R-values, it becomes apparent right away! We then might turn to more of a “Are you interested in a particular level of efficiency?” conversation—for example, the two tiers at Efficiency Vermont. Or we can talk with the owners about heating bills, or comfort. Some homeowners are really into the nitty-gritty, and some just say “Make it work.”
You recently completed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Associate course through the EEN and Vermont Tech. Can you share a little about that?
EH: Well, I completed it in record time. Not to say it wasn’t challenging, but I happened to be familiar with a lot of the content already. It was a great refresher, and it set me up to get the LEED Green Associate certification. And there were new things I learned too.
I find I gravitate toward more in-depth courses now, like those offered at BBD [Efficiency Vermont’s Better Buildings by Design conference in February]. As architects, we have to do a lot of continuing education. To keep my licenses in Vermont and Minnesota, and to be part of the AIA, I need to meet requirements every year. I enjoy it. But I admit there are times I am scrambling at the end of the year to make sure I did enough continuing ed and reported it.
How was BBD this year?
EH: I really liked it. The plenary session was a great opener that challenged everybody to get away from using foam, talked about sequestering carbon, set the stage for all the following workshops. And I always run into people I know at BBD and rekindle professional relationships.
What do you see in the future for green building?
EH: That’s a big question. I see a lot of innovation potentially happening. There’s room for new products to be developed that both simplify construction and get us away from dependence on foam, and move us toward more wood products.
I’m really interested in construction mechanization. I just toured two prefab companies, Vermod in Wilder, Vermont, and Unity Homes in Walpole, New Hampshire, with Peter Schneider [of Efficiency Vermont]. I’m really interested in how using robotics and building indoors can speed up production, minimize waste, and ensure quality.
I think it’s an exciting time to be in the building industry. Also a little bit daunting. We’ve accepted that we have a lot of responsibility in some ways, but I am buoyed by the fact that we have a very engaged and supportive community around here.
I appreciate the backing of Efficiency Vermont because a lot of what we as building professionals do relies on that support—the technical support, all of it. It’s a really great partnership.
Making Vermont more energy efficient is a collaborative effort, and would not be possible without a strong network of independent contractors. In 2014, Efficiency Vermont created the Efficiency Excellence Network in order to better support and encourage Vermont contractors to provide energy-efficient solutions in the field. There are currently over 300 members in the Efficiency Excellence Network, including Elizabeth Herrmann Architecture + Design of Bristol, Vermont.
Interested in becoming a part of Efficiency Vermont’s Efficiency Excellence Network?