The building industry isn’t exactly the epitome of environment-friendly practices. Compared to other industries, it doesn’t have the same level of dedication towards the issue. Pam Hutter, the Principal of Hutter Architects, took action to encourage greener living by achieving net-zero living. In this episode, she explains that it is not the solar panels that will solve our problems but the Energy Footprint Reduction. If helping the environment to become a better place is your passion, then make it your vocation and tune in to this inspiring episode with Pam.
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Net-Zero Living With Pam Hutter
I have my wonderful guest, Pamela Hutter of Hutter Architects. She's with us now. Pam is a woman who has been a very experienced and well-known architect in the City of Chicago, and has pursued her passion and gone green. We are here to talk about her passions and work as a woman-owned business. Thank you, Pam.
Thank you very much for the opportunity. I've always loved your work, and it's an honor to be here.
When did you first know you wanted to be an architect?
When I was a little kid, I felt like I was born to do this. I have always had a fascination with buildings, drawing houses, and making space very much crafting and building things. It has always been.
I heard a story about you when you were a little girl. Tell me about how you used to play with your friends.
I was 7, 8, or 9 years old. They would tell me what they wanted in a grown-up house, and I would draw it for them and hand those out. They would bring them back and say, “I want a pool.” I would draw in a pool, and it was super fun.
When did you know you wanted to go out on your own, be autonomous, and start your own company?
I always knew that someday I would have my own company but it happened abruptly during the recession in the '90s when it was forced upon me, and the company I worked for went out of business. Therefore, I had some freelance work going and thought, “I'm just going to finish up my freelance work, and then I'm going to mount a job offer.” What I didn't know is that some of my freelance clients were holding out on me, and the minute they found out I didn't have a day job, the floodgates opened, and I've never looked back. I incorporated, started a firm, and went on from there.
What do you love about owning your own company?
The ability to call the shots. The ability to step into where I need to be. The ability to trust me. I still have clients and people I answer to so that never goes away in the business world but the ability to manage that with more agency. I believe I managed that really well with my employees where I tried to be the employer that I never had. The employer that if I feel overburdened, I know what my priorities are. I try and be that for my employees. I try and parcel stuff out. Not overburdened, give enough feedback, and I've got amazing loyal people that amaze me daily with what they get done and how they think.
Tell me what makes you unique as an architect.
I've developed some processes in the way we structure a project. One of the things that always bothered me working in other architecture firms was how sometimes somebody gets the niche in a firm of starting the early stages of a project. Somebody gets the niche of working on construction documents, and then somebody gets the niche of monitoring the project during construction.
During every handoff, it seems like something would get lost. We've developed a process for other architects where every phase creates a checklist for the next phase. Even in our proposal where we are recreating for the client what they asked for verbally. We have a core process that I believe has led to our success and efficiency.
I know because we have had a long-term relationship and create every workday together, living with intention, which is what the show is all about we come in the morning. Even though we both live 2,500 miles apart, we happen to be together now for this interview, and we call each other on the phone and say, “What are you creating for your day?”
“Now I am clarity and enthusiasm.”
“Now I am partnership and inspiration.” We create the day, which sets the tone and mood for what's going to happen. I've known you for a long time, and you have a lot of passions. Architecture is not just your job. It is a core passion. You live in Chicago. You take the boat and see all the different buildings but you've got this passion you've also had for the climate. When did you first know that the climate was important to you?
It was first grade. We had the assignment to pick up litter in our neighborhood and take photographs of anything we thought was bad for the environment. All I have to do is step out onto my front porch and look at a belching smoke. My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Woods, is a phenomenal teacher but she said, “We are breathing this.”
I was six years old when I first went to it. It looked at that point in time, this was the '60s, and there was beginning to be a groundswell. I remember the first Earth Day. We all went out and planted a tree at school, and I'm like, “This is cool. I want to be a part of this, so I want to be good to the environment.” What happened is that there were decades of inaction where stuff wasn't happening, and it was terrible.
I didn’t know this was happening, and you are watching the news about climate change. You are watching this happen, and we see progress in our society. In my lifetime, we have seen no safety belts in cars to safety belts. We have seen no fuel efficiency to major strides in fuel efficiency, and now we have electric vehicles. I see change being required in other industries but then I look at the billing industry of which I'm a part and I don't see the same level of dedication to the issue that's at hand. I found it frustrating and I'm like, “No, I'm sorry.” I am not somebody who sits on the sidelines and watch his stuff happen. I want to be somebody who's on the front line.
We've got the passion for climate and the vocation and passion for architecture. How have you found to bring those passions together? I want you to tell the readers because I find it very inspiring, which is why I flew all the way to Chicago to do this interview.
As an architect, I'm drawing and specifying how much insulation goes in every building that I'm working on. Where does the insulation go? What kind of insulation is there? The heating. On a bigger project, I will get a mechanical engineer but I'm still, he's working for me or she's working for me. I'm involved in these conversations about how efficient the furnace is. We were kind of, “What are we going to do to heat and cool this house?”
These are all conversations that I'm part of every day, and it occurred to me that I am literally on the front line of what we need to be doing about climate change. I talked to some of my clients about this, and a lot of clients are like, “That's bunk. We don't care about that. We don't want to add to the budget.” I'm like, “What if we can figure out a way to do this where we are not adding to the budget?” That's how the conversation got rolling. I'm figuring out how much insulation is going to go in your house. We might as well put more instead of less.
Tell me about the insulation and the spring jacket theory.
I developed this analogy that the average American home is insulated to the extent of a spring jacket. Here in Chicago, we have a wide variety of temperature swings. A spring jacket is what you wear when it's 50 degrees outside. It doesn't keep you very warm but it will give you some warmth. I believe that the bright analogy is that the average American home is insulated like what you would be insulated if you had a spring jacket up.
Sometimes here in Chicago, we get below 0 degrees. We have a polar vortex where it gets 20 below 0 or it gets 100 degrees but we are talking about the 20 below now. I know why I left Chicago. When it's 20 degrees below, you wouldn't wear your spring jacket. You would wear your parka, which is much more insulated. You might even wear your spring jacket with your parka on top because that's even more insulated than the parka.
A lot of people, there's a myth out there that, “I have insulation,” but insulation is a qualitative thing. It's like, “I ate lunch.” Did you have one bite or did you have something that satiated you? It's a quantitative thing. We could do the math and figure out when you want it to be 68 degrees inside, and it's 20 below outside because heat is energy.
We can figure out how much energy is trying to get out of your house to the outside because when it's 68 degrees inside and 20 below outside, heat is literally trying to leave your house to go outside. When you are waiting for a bus when it's zero, heat is trying to leave your body when you go outside. It's like the HOT theory.
Is this all about saving on gas usage and electricity?
If you are inclined or motivated by saving on your energy bills, then I want you to look at this like you are saving on your energy bill. If you are motivated by the environment, then I want you to look at this like you are reducing your carbon footprint. If you are motivated by money, you can think about this as, “I could get to a point where I don't have any utility bills.” If you are motivated by the environment, then think about this like, “I can decrease my carbon footprint.”
You've got these passions and took a class a few years back. You put the passion into action and took a class. Tell us about that turning point for you when you took that class. What made you go? What was the class like? What did you learn, and then what happened?
I have long been interested in certification. There are various certifications that measure how efficient is your house. One of the certification systems that I like the most is the passive house, also known as PHIUS, Passive House Institute of the United States. I took that class. I have wanted to take that class for years but you got to clear your schedule and sign up for it and do it.
I took it a year before COVID delightfully, and it was like nirvana for me because everything that I have been reading, thinking about, and gravitating toward like is possible. This is the main driver here. Being efficient doesn't have to be full of sexy technical things in your house that are pricey. You could do this by understanding physics or getting somebody that does understand physics.
I would be getting somebody who understands physics.
You know someone that can figure out the BTUs. How much insulation do you need to resist the heat loss from outside to inside when it's cold in the winter or resist the heat loss from the outside to inside in the summer because the same thing happens? If Southern California is in the desert, you around have the opposite problem. It's hot outside. They want cold inside, and how do we resist that movement?
After you took the class, I remember you creating a vision for your future as an architect. Can you share with the readers what that vision was that you created for yourself after taking that class?
These houses are so special. To be a house that's this efficient or sustainable, either net 0 ready or net 0. My vision is that there are not enough of these houses, and they are not accessible to enough people that want that. Therefore, I'm creating that I'm a developer of net zero homes and a whole community.
What is net zero?
Net zero is when the energy use of your home is supplanted by your low-energy use of your home with solar panels, wind energy, or some sustainable energy source. There's another myth out there. I'm going to myth bust here. There are a lot of people that think that, “We throw solar panels all over the place, and our problems are solved.” No, because we are so addicted to energy usage that we don't have places.
Unless we are trucking or filling all of our empty space with solar panels, the typical home isn't going to get enough electrical use in powering their car from the solar panels on the roof. We have to decrease our addiction to energy, and we have to do that by lowering our energy footprint first. When you go to get solar because it's much less panels.
We have to decrease our addiction to energy. And we have to do that by lowering the energy footprint first.
You are super passionate about this, and I appreciate the passion. What do you want to say to people who are building a house or thinking about building a house? Why should they consider going green or going net zero?
If you do this when you start the house, it's much less money than if you tried to do it after you build the house.
You should not be trying to retrofit your house.
You can but that's where it's going to cost you. That's an advocation I have too, to buy an old beat-up house someplace and retrofit but I wouldn't be doing that to save money. Do you know what I mean? Which is why I'm not doing it. It's possible but it costs more. There are people that have a home. It might be paid for or almost paid for, and they are doing this to their home. Slowly invites.
It's so much easier and more economical to do it as the house is getting built. News flash, the insulation in your house is not the most expensive part of your house. There are other more expensive parts to your house. You could add on more insulation without breaking the bank and probably even keep your budget if you made some changes.
You just finished your first net zero-ready home. I want you to tell us about the journey of building that home, designing it, and how it felt for you that you created this vision, and now you've completed your first home.
Clients called me and said, “Would you design a home like this?” I said, “Absolutely,” so we did that. Like any endeavor where you are doing it with a client, it's a partnership with a client. There are a lot of they come with needs. They charged me with, “We want a passive house-certified home.” By the end of the project, they eased off on the certified and ended up with a home that meets passive house standards but is being energy rated by the Department of Energy Net Zero Ready Program.
Do we have a Department of Energy Net Zero Ready Program in this country?
Yes. I'm not prepared to give you the website now, but if you google Department of Energy Net Zero Ready is the same people you've all heard of Energy Star for your appliances. It's the same department but they are getting in the business of “rating homes,” not that somebody from the government comes out but that there are raters who will go and rate your home according to these standards.
Here's a prediction. I'm hoping that I'm making that in the near future, the appraisers, you know when you sell your home and get an appraiser to make sure that your home is worth to the buyer, what the buyer is paying for it, that the appraisers will start caring about how energy efficient your home is. Now, to my knowledge, the appraisers are not onboard with this.
They look at the number of bedrooms and bathrooms. They look at whether your appliances are stainless steel or not on the outside but they don't look at what is the HERS Rating of this house. The HERS Rating is part of this Department of Energy program, and that is a numerical rating that is applied to a home. Every home can have a HERS Rating but the lower the rating, the better your home is.
I'm really getting that there are a lot of technical elements to being an architect, and then even more if you are an architect who goes green. I want to go back to your journey of building this house. I know they haven't moved in yet because it's very new but the last brick is done and it's complete. How was that for you to be seeing and realizing your dream?
It was awesome because I can't explain the dejavu feeling I get after when you go to the house. We've drawn it and lived with it. When we go to the house, it's like this very strange déjà vu feeling because, for the most part, when everything is going right, everything is exactly the way you expected it to be. This project actually, from that point of view, went smoothly. There wasn’t any way work turned by the contractor or anything like that, and I love the contractor on the house as well.
What I love about what you are saying is that we have a leadership development program, a key alignment it's called Elevate Leadership, and it's an accelerator program. One of the distinctions or modules is about envisioning an outcome. I always say imagine an architect drawing the blueprints. They already have in their mind what that house or that building looks like. What I hear you saying is that one of your greatest moments occurs as déjà vu. You walk into the home and are like, “This is what I created.”
I have been there and done that experience. There's something that I realized if I could say, we've all heard, “All talk, no action.” It has a certain amount of traction. When you write about what you are speaking, it has way more traction but when you draw it, just get out of the way. When you draw it, it’s amazing, and I've noticed that. It actually has me more drawing my visions. Even my visions that aren't about architecture and the practice, things that I want, I will draw.
When you write about what you are speaking, it has way more traction.
Have you drawn your whole community?
I have not drawn the whole community. I'm waiting for somebody to step up with the money for the land. I need to put that together.
I invite you to draw the community because once you draw it, get out of the way. That's what you said. Pam, you have been an architect for how long?
At least 30-something years. I'm really old.
Thirty-something years and how long have you owned your own?
25 or 26 years.
What would you say to other business owners, even if they are not in or they own an architecture firm? What would be some of the biggest lessons to close interview that you've learned about running your own business?
There have been many really great spiritual experiences in my life but running a business is probably the biggest spiritual lesson in my life. By spiritual, I mean something that implores me to be at my best to get out of my way. To dig deep for everything inside of me that's negative that I have to get rid of because there is no room for it.
I have noticed that how I'm resonating and aligned with my source energy directly affects my bottom line because the last 30 years where I was not aligned with my source. I was off in a negative spiral due to a couple of different big reasons. It affected my bottom line like crazy. The minute I got out of that, I was off flying again. To me, it's not a luxury to get out and create my day with my dear friend Margaret. It's not a luxury to meditate a couple of times a day. It's something I have to do. It's like flossing.
The spiritual teacher has been your biggest lesson from being a business owner. Any other tips? A lot of people quit their jobs in the last Great Resignation. There are people saying that the Great Resignation is now the Great Regret because now people have to actually get other jobs, and we might be entering a recession. As a business owner, for all these people who say, “I'm going to get out on my own, I'm hearing I have a spiritual practice.” They are open to growing. Any other lessons? Did you ever have any bad business deals or have you learned that you got to get things out of writing or what other lessons?
You just have to accept where you are and say, “I made a mistake,” and get out of the way and keep moving forward. You have to process it, and you have to keep moving.
It also sounds like not taking rejection personally and not taking correction. I know we talk, and you sometimes say that certain homeowners or contractors break their agreements, don't do what they say they are going to do, yell at you, or get angry.
People are going to be people. I'm somebody early in my career. I had my own anger problems. I grew up in a family where if you didn't like what somebody was saying, you got their face about it and it's like, “I have to learn,” but that's not appropriate.
Customers and contractors do that. They get in the architect's face.
When it happens to architects, it gets in their faces. It’s like, “We are people.” We came to the realization that every single client I've ever worked with is spending more money with me on this project than they've ever spent before, and that is stressful. I can appreciate that. Having been a client to myself, I appreciate that stress.
Another thing that this has taught me is that I have a perspective on money that I try to realize money is very important or budgets are exceedingly important. It's one of the value systems in life that we have to accrue, but when it comes to my own money, I'm not going to let it freak out my internal guidance system.
You are going to stay grounded because you have an internal guidance system. Pam, thank you so much. Thank you for being an inspiration to all the people who want to take their passion and make it their vocation and then keep growing. Thank you very much.
About Pam Hutter
Pam Hutter’s design philosophy is centered on creating spaces for life to be lived on an extraordinary level. Home becomes both a backdrop and a springboard to catapult one into their life. “When your home or workspace supports who you are in every way, you are freer to go into the world and do extraordinary things,” Hutter explains. Hutter has a passion for low energy buildings and believes that the adoption of this strategy would help solve the climate crises. She also believes that in our high paced society it is vital that her clients’ spaces beckon them to be there and to find relaxing sustenance.
As principal of Hutter Architects, Ltd., Pam’s work as a designer and construction administrator has included numerous single-family homes, townhomes, and work spaces. She has designed projects in Illinois, Connecticut, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Maryland, Florida, Arizona, and Oregon.
Hutter Architects, Ltd. was formed in 1998 and has four full time employees plus many out sourced consultants and engineers that are utilized on a project-by-project basis. From 1991 to 1998 Hutter was a partner in an architectural firm she helped found. Between 1983 and 1991 she worked in various firms with the longest tenure being a field superintendent with a national construction company. Some of her work can be viewed on the website www.hutterarchitects.com.
Hutter was featured on the show “New Spaces” and on the show “Small Spaces, Big Ideas” on House and Garden Television. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois school of Architecture, Urbana-Champaign. She works and resides in Chicago.
Pam explained, “Creativity is merely asking the right questions and really understanding why we do the things we do, why we build the way we build, why we chose what we chose. I find that by asking those questions and distilling the problems to their very essence, the elegant solution – often the simplest answer is staring right back at you. Creativity is stepping out of a life taken for granted. My work calls me to do this all day long and for this I am grateful.”