What’s next for this Vermont Architect – some thoughts

By October 10, 2012business, education

When I finally finished college (at age 25 and after 7 years) I didn’t feel like I knew everything. In fact, I felt like I knew nothing. I still do actually. In reality, I have spent the last 19 years learning like crazy. After a year or so of internship, I went to work for Mindel and Morse Builders where I spent 5 years building houses, doing innumerable additions and renovations and generally learning like crazy. I learned a lot of practical stuff such as how to handle bituthene on a warm day but I also learned a lot about what I’m good at – and what I’m not good at. I’m not such a good finish carpenter – I don’t have the patience. I can do it but it is “not me”. I am, however, a good framer. What I’m best at on the building end of things is understanding the flow, the dance of a project and I’m good at figuring out better ways of doing things. I’m good foreman material. But what I’m really best at is design, pure and simple.

Since I decided to return my focus on the architecty side of things, I have continued to feel like I know nothing. Perhaps this is because my tendency to need to know something about everything, architecture and otherwise and the realization that no matter how much I know about a thing, there is always someone who knows more.

Lately my interest (of the month) is energy modeling and Passive houses. I am currently evaluating whether to do Passive House Training which would result in me becoming a Passive House Consultant. I may never actually do a Passive House but the immersion in state of the art building science plus the practical aspect of learning the ins and outs of very powerful energy modeling software definitely has appeal. The cost of the program and spending 9 days away from home, perhaps not so much. The cost means I have to have some sense of return on investment which I have not come to terms with. Are there consulting opportunities? Is there a need? It would certainly help on my regular projects.

Longer term I am really interested in doing the Master of Science in Historic Preservation program at UMass Amherst. Again, I have to look at cost and return on investment. New England architecural history is a fascinating subject to me and the idea of immersing myself in the subject rather than just occasionally reading a book or poking around in an old house has enourmous appeal and the program is very rich in hands-on learning. How would it affect my practice? Would it mean I would then be able to market a specialty in historic preservation? Many architects around here do that but without any real credentials. Or would it mean that I was very employable by a larger firm either as an employee or a consultant? Or would it mean little at all and really just be an intellectual detour?

An M.S. in H.P. in combination with being a Passive House consultant would uniquely position me to deal with the “greening” of existing houses from all eras. A definite “growth industry” in the Northeast.

I’m also signing up for an adult ed. class in welding – I have SO many super-cool furniture ideas involving steel.

Of course, any insight from readers of my blog would be welcome.


  • Jan says:

    There’s gotta be some grant or scholarship out there…..

  • bob says:

    short term I highly recommend the welding … you can never have enough bookends

  • bob says:

    Drat and Darn – the waiting list for the welding course is 3x the available slots. I will begin designing my supa-cool steel and wood dining table in sketchup.

  • Peter says:

    Bob –
    I have enjoyed reading your blog for the last year or two. I have recently been looking to move, and wishing I had enough money to build as I would love to build a very energy efficient home. I have been looking at boring homes built in the last 20 years that are somewhat efficient, or much older homes with character that are very inefficient. Sadly, as I have three young children, I have very little time for updating myself so we will likely end up in a bland newer home. I have to imagine there is a demand out there for someone to advise on how to modernize, update, make more efficient, while keeping that NE charm.

    Thanks so much for sharing what you do on your blog, I always look forward to new posts. Someday I hope to have you design my home, I just hope you’re still working at that point.


  • bob says:

    I do think that Passive house (or nearly so) represents a very cost effective answer – many Habitat for Humanity chapters are adopting the standards as well as other low income housing groups . The big trick seams to be aesthetics. Many of the examples held forth were designed by nearsighted nerds with slide rules (getting myself in trouble here) or at least look as if they were.

  • Anonymous says:

    o.k. try this again, not sure if you got the beginning of my message. Bob, I have a version of the passivhaus software and been to Katrin’s workshop at build boston. you can market as passivhaus and that’s something i would consider moving to vt for. no need for u to get degree in historic preservation, you are a master of new england architecture. i like your ideas about combining the 2. actually that’s what i’m dealing with here at my place in Rocport

  • Anonymous says:

    bob and rachelle, i think it’s time for maggie and i to visit; let me know when is good for you. hope you got my messages. love el

  • Lucy says:

    Very interesting class choices. It doesn’t matter which one you choose. You’d be on the steep end of the learning curve once again.

  • Jack says:

    I recently took the CPHC training and would be happy to share more thoughts about it offline if you want to email me. A few of us were fortunate to get some funding assistance which made it more palatable, and also I was able to take the classes locally — if 9+ days travel were required it would be tough to swallow (note that PH Academy offers a different version of the training in 6 days).
    I don’t have any PH projects on the boards, but I have found that the training has made it much easier for me to speak confidently with clients and others about energy efficiency and building science, even though I already had a decent background in these topics. Good luck!

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Robert Swinburne in Brattleoboro, VT on Houzz
Robert Swinburne in Brattleoboro, VT on Houzz


Robert Swinburne Architect, LLC AIA, NCARB, CPHD, DAD bob@swinburnearchitect.com 802.451.9764
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