Member Spotlight: Dr. David Edwards, Owner of Earth Bound Homes

Dr. David Edwards received his Ph.D. in 1999 in Biochemistry and Cell Biology. He worked in the pharmaceutical industry for four years before starting Earth Bound Homes in 2002. Dr. Edwards is a certified Green Building Professional, a US Green Building Council member, and Green Point Rater. Earth Bound Homes was the proud winner of Acterra’s Sustainable Built Environment Award in 2007.

Earth Bound Homes was founded with the goal of being the greenest home building and remodeling company in the nation by using sound science and leading-edge building materials and techniques.

In 2004, the company rebuilt Dr. Edwards’s home in Santa Clara. Living in this home, which is now rated the greenest home in California by Build It Green’s Green Point Rated System(315 pts.), provides Dr. Edwards with a unique understanding of what works and what doesn’t at the bleeding edge of green building. In 2009, Earth Bound Homes built the first LEED Platinum Zero Energy/Zero Carbon home in California.

Today, with a team of twenty people, Earth Bound Homes has developed into one of the most sought-after home builders in the Bay Area, with the ability to build both great homes and leading-edge Passive House homes that focus on energy efficiency and deep green building. Earth Bound Homes has developed a highly respected PreConstruction Process that focuses on an open and transparent planning and building process that emphasizes a deep collaboration with our architects and clients. This process allows us to work on a wide range of projects, from remodeling small single-family homes in San Jose to building large new estates in Atherton and Menlo Park.

Dr. Edwards and his team take immense pride in building homes for everyone, having built two smaller Passive House homes in the last three years, with five more substantially larger Passive House homes/estates currently in Construction and PreConstruction.

What is your current role at Earthbound homes?

My roles at Earth Bound Homes are President, CEO, Sales Manager, and Head of Systems Development. Like most founders, I wear many hats, although a lot less than I used to wear.

Can you explain your transition from Biochemistry and Molecular biology to the current work with Earth Bound Homes. Take us through your journey of this transition.

As crazy as it sounds, this was a pretty easy decision. I disliked my job in the biotech industry as it was filled with boredom, politics, and people put into management roles because of whom they knew and not what they knew, nor what they could do or who they could help. I started remodeling my house to keep my mind busy during my postdoctoral fellowship. And I loved it. I did it again at my next home and then at a friends’ home while I was still working in biotech. Often, it was the only thing that kept me sane. After the last company I worked with was bought out and I was subsequently laid off, I was asked by a family friend to remodel their entire home and put an addition of 1,000 sq. ft. And I fell in love with the process of building all over again. It was the most fun I had had in years!

While doing that, I interviewed with eleven academic laboratories for a second Postdoctoral fellowship and had nine offers at Stanford. However, soon realized I could either be a great father and husband or a successful scientist, but not both. In science, you are either single-minded and focused on your work, lucky, an incredible genius, or you are mediocre and stuck in a second or third-rate university in the South or Midwest. I first wanted to be a great dad and husband and decided to follow my passion and be a builder. The added bonus, I could take my children to school every day and pick them up most days. I went to every one of their sporting events and every theatre performance and built and continue to enjoy a fantastic relationship with my adult children and wife. I have never regretted my decision, and I love, love, love going to work every day, even 20 years later. And I have never been bored.

What sparked your interest in sustainability?

I learned about sustainability in high school physics and have always had this overwhelming concern for the increasing entropy in the universe, and conservation and sustainability are my way of reducing that. As a cyclist since high school, I learned to appreciate open spaces, wildlife, human-powered motion, exercise, and life. As a scientist, biochemist and cancer biologist, I cannot look at waste, pollution, chemicals in the environment and needless consumption and then dispose of anything, without realizing the stuff we are dumping into the environment is damaging human health and making it harder and harder for every living organism on the planet to survive. In biology, you learn that nature is interconnected, and damaging any one or more animals or plants in the world has indirect but huge impacts up and down the food chain. With all that knowledge, understanding, and an overwhelming sense of guilt for being able to do something and then not doing something, how could I not care about sustainability?

What are the kind of projects that you currently work on?

We only work on single-family residential homes. Most of our work is remodels, and about 20% of our jobs are new custom homes. We work on whole house, major remodels, and new custom home estates from Los Gatos/San Jose to Hillsborough and Aptos. We don’t do any spec work. We build for people we know and like. We are highly selective of clients, and get to choose the architects we love working with and projects that excite us. My favorite projects are the super efficient, highly complex projects like Passive House homes and modern style architecture. But really, the better the design, the more likely we are to want to build it. Even if it is just a small project. Excellent design makes every job exciting, which is why I love working with the AIA. I keep hoping some design talent will rub off on me, but I am still just a lover of beautiful architecture and still have no idea how to design it myself.

What is the most interesting aspect of your job?

I love building science; figuring out enormous problems and developing solutions to them, figuring out how to take beautiful architecture and make it perform more efficiently, be less or non-toxic, cost less to build and run, require less maintenance and last longer. I also love to meet new people, build new homes for families and drive or ride by every new job we do, pointing it out to anybody who will listen. The sense of accomplishment in this job is beyond my wildest dreams, and I consider our work on homes and our work with our clients, architects, and our staff to be my legacy and one I am incredibly proud of.

You are the current chair of AIA Silicon Valley COTE Committee. Can you elaborate on this experience?

When I joined the COTE committee, there was no committee or leader. It had been dead for years. I firmly believe that if you want to see a change in the world, you have to be willing to work for it. I am also a fan of history and the lessons you can learn from it. The saying “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” resonates with me. Killing our planet is the evil, and I am willing to dedicate my career to slowing or stopping it. I am impressed with the social responsibility of the younger members of the AIA and how dedicated they are to doing something positive and impactful in their lives. However, I wish more seasoned, and established architects were taking a proactive role in the group. I think young people need role models and mentors who are willing to invest in the hard things, and I don’t believe there is a more important goal than saving the planet for future generations. What we have done and have failed to do, does not speak well of my generation.

What ways do you think emerging professionals can be better supported by AIA?

As I stated above, people need role models to teach, guide, incentivize, mold, and train them, but we also need to open our ears and learn from the younger generation. My children are in their early 20’s and are more worldly, passionate, understanding and responsible people than I ever was at their age. I have learned so much from them on how to be a better person to all people, especially to those on the planet who are NOT white, American, heterosexual, cis, well fed, health insured, financially stable, educated, physically and mentally able bodied men in the world. Those of us who have every benefit possible in this world have a responsibility to help in any way we can, those who do not. My generation needs to take responsibility to those who come after us more seriously. That means volunteering time to help those who endeavor to help the world.

Can you elaborate on your recent experience with COTE workshops / Sessions and tell us briefly about the various challenges involved with such events post pandemic?

Our last COTE workshop we did was for the Nov. 2021 chapter meeting and was titled “Talking Green”. The focus was teaching people how to bring up and discuss the topics of green building with their clients. History has shown that waiting for clients to bring up what green building and efficiency elements they want into their homes is not enough. Without conversations about what is possible, especially with people not in the industry and who are not steeped in green building, there is no way we will move the needle on climate change and meet our responsibility to future generations.

The meeting was well attended for a pandemic-era meeting, but attendance was not what these meetings used to draw pre-pandemic. I think the overwhelming amount of work that has hit our industry has kept everybody busy and online meetings have become underwhelming to the point where most people skip the meetings. Additionally, considering my history in the pharmaceutical industry, where my last job was to genetically engineer human viruses to attack human cancer cells and avoid the immune system response, even I am easing my guard and only wear a mask when I go to indoor public spaces or when I have reason to believe that others are being “Virus Irresponsible”. I think changing back to in-person meetings now that the EPA has basically labeled COVID19 endemic and removed most of their recommendations for separation, will help make people feel more comfortable meeting in person. I believe people can return to in-person meetings more confidently because just by wearing an N95 mask, they can protect themselves(as long as they are current with their immunizations).

Lastly, for those of us who have had experiences in offices that were remote and have since come back to in-person full-time, the ability to connect with old friends and colleagues is like returning home, and I get so much more out of those experiences than I used to. I’m not too fond of Zoom meetings, it’s simply too easy to be distracted by emails and texts during meetings, and I learn more and retain more when we are learning in person. I know that all the research into online learning vs. in person learning in primary and secondary schools largely bears this out.

What was your most challenging project so far in your practice? Can you elaborate on the experience?

This is a great question, and my answer will probably surprise some people. Yes, I have had challenging projects, but not because of the building. My greatest challenge has always been to rise to the needs of my team, clients, and architects. It has been to grow as a servant leader, a salesperson, a collaborator with my subs, suppliers, staff, clients and design partners, and emotional support for all of the above. As a scientist, I started this career believing I could think my way out of every situation and that my education, training, and intelligence would make me a successful business person. I had to change my thinking and, therefore, who I was as a person. I soon realized that being a builder of homes is 25% building knowledge and 75% knowing how to keep people happy, and they don’t teach you that in grad school—just the opposite. Emotions were seen as a weakness and had no place in science. Here at Earth Bound Homes, we are building people’s homes, working with their families, and creating something for them that is probably the most significant investment they can make. Learning to acknowledge this and behave appropriately and with the utmost deference to this was a hard lesson for me. Learning to train my staff in the building science, technical knowledge, and quality control, and organization of a project was important obviously, but teaching them how to take care of a client’s emotional state and how to control and manage expectations, is far more important than where you put the light switch.

How has the pandemic changed the way you work as a team?

At the beginning of the pandemic, like everybody else, we were remote. That was just barely workable from a construction standpoint and not at all workable for a long-term strategy of building and growing a great company. Construction is all about relationships built on skills and experience, and working from home removes all of that. Additionally, service industries like ours are all about collaboration between teams to service the needs of our clients. If the teams cannot effectively communicate and collaborate and the client experience suffers, our company will suffer. Our future is dependent on making our customers happy. Our staff, who were already productive and successful in their roles, stayed that way but quickly became overworked as they had little to no in-person support. The newer and less experienced people who were there to support the more experienced staff didn’t get the guidance that allowed them to be key support players, and they failed to grow and evolve. From our experience, the pandemic was hardest on the younger members of our team, and as soon as they could come back to the office and be with the more experienced members of our team, they flourished. I have been saying for a while, all of these tech companies that have allowed their teams to work 100% remotely are going to wither on the vine as their people stop evolving, new ideas stop flowing and soon they will be fully dependent on bringing new employees from other companies into their teams to evolve their organizations and their thinking.

The pandemic has made me value working together in the office. There is nothing like dropping by a colleague’s desk to talk about a problem or a solution or to say “hello!”. I feel fortunate to have an office to return to; everyone in our office is closer personally, and our work has prospered as a result. Collaboration is key in our business and the newer and/or younger members of our team prosper much more when they have mentors who can help them daily and hourly, making sure they are flourishing and not floundering as they learn new thing and grow their talents and experience. We allow people to work from home when needed; otherwise, everybody works from the office or job sites. If you ensure your company is a great place to work and learn, our experience has been that everybody will want to come to the office.

What would you say your mission is? What’s the impact you’d like to have on the world, and on the profession?

My mission and the mission of our organization is to improve lives—the lives of our clients by building them beautiful homes, the lives of our architects and interior designers, by helping them to do the things they love, like design and working with clients, by doing for them the things they dislike but often takes too much of their time, like organization, specifications, dealing with jurisdictions and utilities, problem-solving before construction and doing everything we can before the start of construction, so they are not burdened by “Emergency” RFI’s with unreasonable timelines during construction. Improving the lives of our subs and suppliers by making sure we are ordering materials long before we need them, answering questions, removing obstacles, and making sure our project is prepared before the sub(s) arrive on site. This ensures they can set up their teams to work efficiently and effectively. And through the open business model made famous by Jack Stack in his seminal book “The Great Game of Business”, improving the lives of our team members by paying them well, working four-day work weeks so they have better work-life balance. We teach them how to understand business financials and how their efforts, directly and indirectly, help the organization, our clients, and their own lives. Lastly, we believe that by helping to build a better world by taking care of the planet, and pushing our clients and our architects to build better, longer lasting, more efficient and healthy homes, we protect all people and organisms who call this planet “Home”.

What is your advice for someone starting out in the field of architecture as an emerging professional?

I believe in following your passion and doing what you love. Having a job you love makes having a great life a lot easier to find. Yes, money is essential if you don’t have much of it, but research shows that money cannot buy happiness and that after a certain amount, there is no increase in joy with increasing pay. Advice I would give to anyone just starting out in any career. Find somebody whose work you love, and then make sure they treat you well, with respect, and that they care about your growth. Then work your butt off. Good bosses will invest more time in those they feel are working the hardest and contribute the most. In my experience, if they think you are unfocused and apathetic, they will likely be the same way with you. If you work hard and you do not feel like you are being appreciated, have a conversation with them. Let them know your concerns and ask them what you can do differently to help them more and become a better contributor to their organization. And then follow their advice. Expect them to be invested in your evolution and if they are not or if the organization or the people in it are not a good fit for you, move on. Don’t settle for a job you hate. You spend too much of your life at work and deserve to be happy for yourself and those around you.

How does a scientific background help you with your current line of work and how does it set you apart from traditional AEC Professionals?

I cannot imagine how much harder my job would be if I did not understand science as I do. We are constantly pushing the boundary of what we can do as builders and scientists. We are constantly bringing new ideas to our clients and architects because I am continually embedding myself in Building Science research, looking for the next way to increase quality and decrease impact. We have been early adopters of basically every building material and system improvement that are now commonplace in the green building movement because I understood the science first, then implemented the new practices. We also are a very organized, directed, and proactive organization, and that focus on “planning the work and then working the plan” has dramatically improved the quality of the projects we build and the experiences of the shareholders of our projects and, lastly, in reducing our impact on the planet. And these are all critical parts of our Organizational Mission.

How does having an AIA networking set you apart from other design professionals?

While I am not a designer, being a part of the AIA places me directly together with the smartest people in the industry and with the people who are most quickly evolving their businesses and themselves professionally. If you are not continually growing and learning, you are just forgetting and more convinced of your own omnipotence. If you constantly hear new opinions, learn new things and have your ideas challenged by your peers, you will continue to learn and evolve as a person and a leader. Additionally, because I work with many people in the AIA, the better I know who they are, how they work, what they know, and how they prefer to work, the better partner I can be to them when we work together. The AIA is crucial to my success as a leader and helps me provide a better experience for my client and my team.

What do you think are some ways for AIA to get involved with multidisciplinary professionals and how do you think this will benefit the architecture community?

What I said above about being part of the AIA can be true for everybody outside of the AIA or within the AIA. The better we know each other, the better we will be able to work with each other in the best way possible. The result will be better projects, happier clients, and a greater experience for all stakeholders.

If you had one message you wanted to share with the community, what would it be?

Every project can be greener than you think it can be. We won an award for the greenest home in Los Altos for clients who didn’t care at all about being green. They did care about giving less money to the PG&E monopoly when we put solar panels on their roof. They cared about not having to maintain their home every month because we used durable materials everywhere. They loved not worrying about their house exploding when we made it all electric and removed the gas service. They felt safer bringing their grandkids into the home because there was no toxic off-gassing when we removed all formaldehyde-containing building materials and finishes from the specifications. They didn’t care about lowering the home’s embodied energy as we replaced 70% of the cement in their concrete with fly ash and blast furnace slag. They cared about saving 66K by changing the structural engineering to develop a more efficient lateral bracing plan and removing a lot of extra lumber from the house. Building a better, greener home is not about telling them why you think it is better/important/essential. It is about learning what they think and feel is important, connecting each green element to their values, and then showing them in their own language why a green home is a better home for them.

Interviewed by Madhubala Ayyamperumal, Assoc. AIA, WELL AP, LEED AP BD+C

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