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Dealing with Burnout on the Building Site

Emotional AspectsJamie PurnellComment
 This is how builder’s burnout can feel! But the blue skies are up ahead…

This is how builder’s burnout can feel! But the blue skies are up ahead…

How to Keep Going when the Fire’s Gone Out

I first got the idea for this blog entry three years ago. It took me this long to feel ready to put the idea into words and share it with you. I’m writing about burnout today, and everyone experiences it sometimes. It can be a particular nuisance when you “catch it” on the building site, especially since it often strikes at critical moments. During our San Juan Island build I had a bad case of it as we approached close in. It struck again, oddly, toward the finishing stages of our build when you’d expect excitement to be the foremost feeling. During the first bout, I was able to get through it because there was no choice. We had to get the roof on, and the rains that return to the Northwest every fall are a significant motivator for physical work, even if the heart isn’t fully in it. The second round of burnout was more severe but was whisked away when dear friends (also experienced in building their own home and doing building work by trade) came for a visit and reinvigorated us. Like getting over a cold, but faster and with less sniffling!

I don’t know why burnout happens or suddenly lifts. It can feel like a bad mood settling on you. A combination of stress, worry, financial strain, physical and mental exhaustion, the mere reality that you’ve got too much to do…all of those things might play greater or lesser roles in burnout. It can show up at odd times. Why, for example, would you hit a wall when you’re down to the last month or so of work on a project? I recall a couple we met while living in Maine. They were finishing a massive renovation project on their mother’s home and were literally weeks from completion. One of the team had hit his limit. He was burned out. He had several pretty important things to do and not too long to do it, and found he was so unmotivated that he’d get dressed and ready to work but would instead sit down and just watch TV. All day. This was causing both he and his fiance some serious concern, but finally he seemed to get over it and finished his part of the work. Who knows, maybe our visit provided some of that needed boost, a couple of listening ears and recognition/confirmation that “it just happens” can be incredibly helpful, as I’ve learned!

How to Process Burnout

So what do you do with burnout if you catch it? Here’s my take.

First, I think it’s helpful to realize it’s pretty normal. Doing a random search online will reveal the sensation is experienced by just about everyone - regardless of profession. Everyone from social workers to Olympic athletes experiences the sensation.

Second, sometimes work is really hard. I think that fact should be acknowledged. Some of the things we confront are not simple, might be physically or mentally or financially challenging, and perhaps offer no straightforward resolution. The unfortunate reality is that plowing ahead, whether you’re excited or not, is often the only way to solve the problem. Sometimes, the mind isn’t ready to accept that and burnout ensues. Remind yourself that this is going on. You can overcome the sensation by sheer willpower if needed. Burnout, in my opinion, gets worse the longer you stall. For me, moving ahead in whatever capacity is the way to move beyond it ultimately.

That leads me to my third tip for dealing with burnout. Don’t stop working, not for long, at least, but give yourself a day to physically recuperate if need be. Even if it’s a day of rest that allows you to complete other chores that are different than building related chores. Give yourself that. Get caught up on laundry or clean the house up or make some phone calls you’ve needed to. But don’t take too much time off. A little break can reset your clock but too long of one can be like a deep comfy chair, too hard to get out of!

Lastly, be realistic with yourself and your situation. Maybe you need some assistance to get through a particular phase of the build. Is the roof work too much? Would hiring some assistance for finishing work, framing, drywall or what have you make your job manageable again? Sometimes you’ve got to get out of the weeds, and once you do, the sense of being caught up can rekindle your fire for the project, or at least help you feel like you can face it again. Even if this aspect is financially difficult or unplanned for, it could be worth it.

Another tip…if you don’t have the financial resources to get assistance, be realistic about that too. You may have to take a long time to get the work done. Acknowledging that can help. In Maine, we ran out of finances right around the time the drywall needed to go in. The recession had just hit and there was no way any additional loan money could be procured. We needed very little to finish the work, but that didn’t matter to any bank. We realized in short order that we were just going to have to do the drywall (for three and a half floors) ourselves. It was a job we could handle in small sections. Drywall is cheap…and since it took us forever to do it ourselves the payment could be made out of our income over time. No loan required. But it did take us over a year to complete. Realizing we’d be living in the midst of all that dust took an adjustment period. But there you go. Acceptance. The final aspect of dealing with burnout. Sometimes, you just have to acknowledge that you’re most certainly burned out but that in time, it will resolve. You might feel cruddy for a long time, but eventually it will get better.

Learning From Burnout

Those are my tips. They aren’t exhaustive and perhaps aren’t even particularly helpful. There’s no magic wand. I was surprised by burnout. For the most part, I love everything about the building process…the intellect and problem solving involved, the independence of the work, the excitement of learning new things and being in new places, the physical aspects…Recognizing what I was feeling and not being too hard on myself was a useful approach. Being stubborn and knowing that I had to move ahead no matter what kind of mood I was in was also helpful. Friends giving us encouragement gave me oomph when I thought oomph was excised from my existence. Believing that if I just kept at it, it would get better also helped. Having had a case of burnout, I hope that even reading about it will make anyone suffering from it feel a little better.

You’ll make it through!!

PS, Just because you get burnout once, by the way, doesn’t mean you’ll experience it again. We rolled right into another building project and it was actually FUN. We planned it carefully so that it wouldn’t be too expensive or physically demanding, and it was a good experience. So don’t let a bad experience one place make you think you’d never do it again. Just let it make you wiser!

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 No. 62 Gulf View Apartment Garage Plan

No. 62 Gulf View Apartment Garage Plan

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 No. 62 Gulf View Apartment Garage Plan

No. 62 Gulf View Apartment Garage Plan

The Gulf View Apartment Garage was designed as a bachelor's home in Point Roberts, Washington. It's design is suitable a wide variety of applications from full-time home, rental or accessory dwelling unit to office space or commercial use.  

Building with Fire Season in Mind

fire resistant structures, climate change designJamie PurnellComment
 Smoke from BC wildfires blotting out our typical view of Vancouver from Point Roberts.

Smoke from BC wildfires blotting out our typical view of Vancouver from Point Roberts.

Today is a sad day around the Pacific Northwest, and there have been quite a few of them this summer. So much smoke is in the air here in town that the air is brownish grayish and we have the windows sealed up. This is a day that I'm appreciating having air sealed our house so thoroughly though I'd much prefer clear skies, fresh air and the windows open for these last days of summer.

Undeniably, I am gloomy about the smoke filled days we've had lately. I have family living in areas that can be threatened by wildfires, so I worry about them, and the Pacific Northwest has been my home, almost exclusively, for the vast majority of my life. Smoky summers are new these last few years and aside from depressing me, they do rally me to consider my options for our future build, which we intend to be the last for some time. 

Most of us who live in the west or in heavily wooded areas have given at least some thought to what it means to build with a wildfire season in mind. Metal roofing, adequate clearing of trees and brush around building sites, non combustible siding materials where relevant...even sprinkler systems should be given some thought for wildfire season, as dousing the house and landscape immediately surrounding your home is standard protocol when fires are nearing.  In the past, I've mostly thought of these building features as being more appropriate for people living and building in what have always been or are becoming more fire prone. But after three summers in the maritime northwest featuring smoke and blazes nearby, I am thinking about these issues more and more. And today, with unhealthy air (for all groups) throughout my locale, Shawn and I have been giving some thought to proactive ways we can make our home more comfortable for future fire seasons.

One of the things we incorporate into our builds, on account of building envelope tightness, are HRV systems that mechanically exchange air inside with fresh air outside, maintaining clean and healthful indoor air. Occasionally in the winter time our current system, a Life Breath model, brings in people's woodsmoke from fires as we did not opt for a model with a built in HEPA filter. Now that we have summer smoke, far more pervasive and serious, we are going to be sure and incorporate a HEPA filter equipped HRV system in the next house. This will allow us to seal up the house against smoky outdoor conditions if needed while still being able to use the air exchange system for its intended purpose and maintain a more comfortable interior space. 

In the past I've been, frankly, somewhat scornful of people in the Northwest using air conditioners, which have never been something I've needed (to be fair, I live in a very cool part of the Northwest...we are lucky to make it to 80 degrees in a given summer). And while an air conditioning unit is not something I particularly have a use for, there are pretty amazing, energy efficient heat pump models now that perform both heating and cooling duties in a home. This sort of system may or may not be ideal for our next build, in which we are aiming to achieve Passive House certification or an approximation thereof, but I am now convinced of times when even Pacific Northwest homes might truly benefit from an energy efficient form of home cooling. Those living in older, less well insulated homes might find these installs worth the comfort that they offer, in particular on hot summer days when it would be best for your breathing comfort to have the windows closed. 

Other lower tech or lower installation heavy responses to these smoky summer days could at least include a portable HEPA filter for the home. I am not sure how remarkably they would function in terms of forest fire particulate matter overall, but it's possible that some comfort might be derived from having one on hand for the worst of wildfire season. 

Things to keep in mind, though, if you are considering a new build anywhere in the western United States or Canada...