An Interview with Ben Bush of Hillview Design Collaborative and Building Company

Integrated design and efficiency are at the heart of the Hillview Design Collaborative and Building Company of Richmond, Vermont (www.hillviewdesign.com). The two companies, headed by four partners including Ben Bush, aim to provide a seamless design experience from conception to completion. Hillview specializes in very local residential construction.

What is your background?

Ben Bush: I grew up in Vermont. In fact, three of the four partners in the business grew up in Richmond or Huntington. John Linn and I went to high school at MMU together. Aside from college and a few years in Manhattan, I always lived in Vermont. In college I studied art and theater design. I then worked in New York City in lighting and theater. My wife Rachel, who's from Rhode Island, and I decided to come back to Vermont after six years in New York.

Do you ever miss Manhattan?

BB: I love New York. But I have no regrets.

What's your title?

BB: I'm one of four partners. I'm a designer and a project supervisor. Mark (Bromley) and John (Linn) are both licensed architects. Lee (Baughman), our fourth partner, is on more the excavation and building side of what we do. We design a lot of structures that we don't go out and build, but many things we do. 

Your website names both Hillview Design Collaborative and Hillview Building Company. Are these separate companies?

BB: Yep. We are two entirely separate companies. That's because we do a lot of design work that our building company never sees. But the companies are owned by the same partners. Some employees work for both companies. 

We focus on local work. We joke that if a project is further than 20 minutes from the office, we don't want to do it. We're lucky to be able to stay so local.

What's a typical day like for you personally?

BB: Oh, could be anything. I spend more than half my time in the office. Drawing, coordinating, meeting with our lead carpenters. Sometimes I'm wearing a tool belt - less now than I used to. John and I are the most engaged [with the building site]; we have a similar balance between office and field. But these days we get called out more to help with, say, a roof or another big project that needs a lot of hands. It is nice to get out from behind a computer into the fresh air, but we have a good balance, and we have a great crew.

Hillview is a relatively new company, founded in 2013. Can you give us a nutshell history of the company?

BB: Three of us worked together at another design firm. We didn't all leave at the same time. My wife and I ran On the Rise Bakery in Richmond. We build the building, which is high efficiency. Shortly after we closed the bakery, Mark Bromley left the other firm. He and I worked together informally, then founded Hillview. Then Lee and John joined us.

We were designing net-zero-ready and other high-efficiency buildings. There were builders who said efficient designs would be too expensive to build, so we said OK, we will build it ourselves. That's how we started. We won't build anything that just meets [minimum] energy code. We build durable homes focused on energy efficiency.

There's a lot of coordinating subcontractors, duct runs, ventilation, and so on, so being both a designer and builder really helps. 

What has changed for you since you started?

BB: I started doing design when it was done by hand in two dimensions. I loved to draw. Now it's all 3D on the computer. You see things right away- you see where that duct has to go. Building a 3D model on a computer, you can't miss a spot where, for example, the foundation steps, as you might with a 2D drawing. Sometimes I miss drawing by hand, and sometimes I still do draw by hand in the very early conceptual stages. But for technical drawings, you have to use the computer. There's no way to be competitive without doing the plans on the computer. 

Does the building company build on Hillview designs?

BB: The building company almost always is building what we designed. We will occasionally do some filler projects to keep the carpenters busy- like siding half of the North Monitor Barn in Richmond. But we shy away from large projects that we didn't design. This is purely a positive thing; we like the integration and we like following a project all the way through. 

What's the proportion of residential and commercial work?

BB: On the design side, I would guess 85% residential. The building company is almost purely residential. We are perfectly happy that way.

How many employees do you have?

BB: Four partners, one office manager, two draftspeople, seven or eight building pros. So about 15.

You use different techniques to achieve high efficiency, including how you address thermal bridging at the studs. Can you talk about that a bit?

BB: We've built houses a couple of different ways. It's important to have a continuously insulated wall. We've built with double stud walls. Another way is using R-sheathing [made by Huber Engineered Woods] as a thermal break. We rip it to the same width as the stud, put it inside the stud, and create a thermally insulated stud, nailing it to the interior afterward. When you take a 2x4 and add R-sheathing, you are back to a five-and-a-half-inch wall, i.e., a standard 2x6. It works out thermally and cost-wise for the customer. We use less foam that way.

How did you get involved with the Efficiency Excellence Network?

BB: We got involved because energy efficiency was our approach anyway. Matt Sargent at Efficiency Vermont suggested we join the EEN. We asked, "does it involve a bunch of paperwork?" He said no, we joined, and it was painless. 

What I love about it is the technical support- being able to come up with a new idea and immediately run it by Matt or another Efficiency Vermont person. Clients like the rebates. But for us, the most valuable part is having a consultant. 

I also look forward to any marketing from the EEN that brings us customers. In general, we get all different kinds of clients coming to us. If they find us through the EEN, and they come to us wanting to exceed all available efficiency standards, we love it.

Can you give me an example of an idea you have run by Efficiency Vermont?

BB: The thermally isolated stud we just talked about is one. Originally, we did double stud walls. two walls far apart filled with cellulose insulation. When we started doing this other type of wall, we asked Matt Sargent what he thought about it.

Mechanicals is another example. As designers, we are not experts on HVAC or plumbing. Our [subcontractor] plumber is becoming a distributor for a new type of gas furnace combined with a cold climate heat pump and a "smart" ducted system. I didn't know about it until Matt told me, and I told our plumber, Aaron. He really likes to dig into things. Aaron went up to Canada to learn more about the system and toured the factory, and now he's the distributor of this system for Vermont. We are using this system in some of our homes.

Where do you want the companies to go in the future?

We don't have a manifesto. We are all on board with pushing every house a little further in terms of performance without sacrificing durability. Tackling one house at a time and making homes more energy efficient continue to be important to us as designers and builders. We continue to learn every day. We continue to get a little better every day.

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 600 members in the Efficiency Excellent Network, including Hillview Design Collaborative and Building Company in Richmond, Vermont.

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