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Alternative Home Building Interview with SUJO Design

Updated on January 18, 2011

SUJO Design is a green design company based in the San Francisco Bay Area. The company was launched in 2003 by Suzanne Dehne and Joe Wrigley. A couple of years back I had the opportunity to interview them about their work in the alternative home building industry. This is that interview:

About you:

Q: What sparked your interest in alternative home building?

Suzanne: Concerns about our future and the environment.

Joe: I’ve always been interested in efficiencies. There is also the aspect of quality: The best light is natural light (which happens to be free), the best form of heat is from the sun (feels good, and it is also free).

Q: What aspect of alternative home building are you involved in? What trends in the field interest you most (for example, is your passion for recycled materials or for earth-based building?)

Suzanne: Living in the city (SF), our focus is more on remodeling of existing spaces. It would be great to incorporate some of the more alternative building methods into urban settings, but we are not quite there yet. I would have to say I love the idea of re-use. Finding a second life for a product is just fabulous.

Joe: When possible it’s nice to incorporate passive solar elements. I have to agree with Suzanne, I like re-using as well, but more from an aesthetic level. I like the eclectic combination on new and old.

Q: What steps have you taken in your professional and/or personal life that are related to alternative home building?

Suzanne: We are striving to bring more green building methods and products into our work. We hope to educate ourselves and our clients about what is available, and ultimately include these features into our projects. We were fortunate enough to be able to do some work to our own home, which allowed us to experiment with certain ideas/ materials… so that we could really test them out and see for ourselves before making recommendations to clients.

Joe: Often I wish I would drive a little less, but Suzanne reminds me that I’m not driving to work (we have a home office). I like the fact that I’m able to save energy in that respect. When I get home from work (a short walk up the stairs), I find I still enjoy reading about architecture. So I find myself reading up on what is new (or rediscovered). So definitely, education of ourselves and our clients is an ongoing process.

Q: How do you go about meeting or networking with other people interested in alternative home building?

Suzanne: We are currently members of various groups which focus on green building. (SF Environment Green Business Program, Build It Green and ADPSR). We also attend conferences, festivals and seminars that focus on green building.

Q: Where do you get new information about alternative home building? (websites, publications, etc.)

Suzanne: Conferences, seminars, websites, magazines (Environmental Building News is great).

Joe: Books too!

Suzanne: Yes, books too.

About your work:

Q: Can you give us the basics about what your company does?

Suzanne: We are a home office. We provide architectural services to our clients, with the bulk of our projects being small residential remodels.

Joe: Our main goal is to provide our clients with an enjoyable experience as they venture through all the phases of their remodeling project.

 We design for minimal impact, energy efficiency and healthy environments. We incorporate green building methods and materials where feasible. We strive to reuse, recycle and reduce. The nature of architecture in and of itself is not very green, but we can help reduce our impact on the environment by designing smart.

Q: What is your role within this company?

Suzanne: We are a small company, just the two of us…. so we do it all. (design, marketing, book keeping, clean up, tech support, purchasing… the list goes on).

Q: How long have you been with the company? What experiences lead up to getting the job with this company?

Suzanne: We started SUJO design in 2003. The main reason was to enable both of us equal time with our son, Stian. That was the biggest benefit, but it has many more. In addition to our flexible schedules, we also have the opportunity to work from home, no commute. We are also able to prioritize what we feel is important to focus on. We can choose a direction we would like to go, and actually follow through with it. We can choose our future and how we want to impact it.

Q: What changes have you seen in the field since getting started in it?

Suzanne: As I look around, at least in the media, I see green building becoming more common place, the norm. It appears to have gone main stream, but I feel we still have a long way to go. I believe at this point the desire is there, but people still make excuses for not building green. (I have fallen into this trap too.. usually due to time constraints and lack of knowledge.) It really should just be the way that it is done. It will take awhile… but hopefully not too long.

Q: What other companies or individuals do you look towards as being leaders in this field?

Suzanne: There are so many really, too many to list here. All the folks who have made alternative home building/ sustainable issues a top priority in their business or careers.

Thoughts on alternative home building

Q: Finish the sentence … “Alternative home building is important because …”

Joe: It often times represents a higher quality product with lower operating cost. Toyota builds great cars at a reasonable price, They break down less and use less gas. Why can’t building be like that. I don’t want our work to be as blasé as a Toyota Camery, but I would like it to be as….. realible….. fuel efficient….. high quality.

Suzanne: And really, I don’t know that I would even call it “alternative” home building or “new”. It is more bringing back high quality architecture and craftsmanship. Incorporating good design principles. Many of which have been around for a long while (passive solar, natural daylighting, shelters fabricated from raw earth materials such as clay, vegetation…) Although, I duno… I would feel I need to think about that one a bit more.

Q: Do you feel that alternative home building is cost-efficient?

Suzanne: It can be. Usually time is your enemy. If you have the time to do the research and find folks who are familiar with alternative building methods, there is no reason why is should cost more. Sometimes it may require more up front costs, but it will save you money over the long term. A simple example, a good quality job will last a lot longer.

Joe: There are simple design decisions that can be made that can be very cost effective with no-added cost or cost less. The first one that comes to mind is building smaller. A family of four does not need to live in a 5,000sq.ft. house. A 2000sq.ft. house will cost less to build use less resources to build and use less energy to run. Proper placement of windows for day lighting and passive solar are other key features. This doesn’t required any additional funding, just a little more thought. Another simple step is properly sized eaves that shade a house in the summer time and let in light in the winter.

Suzanne: Basic stuff here…. Passive solar design and site design.

Q: How do you feel that alternatively built homes compare in performance with other homes (meaning are the foundations, the longevity of the home, the comfort of the home comparable and how so or how not?)

I guess it depends on what you mean by alternatively built homes. If you are just referring to “green” home building, I would have to say they outperform basic home construction. Many homes are built with just the bear minimums, typically limited by cost and/or time. Green home building places the focus on quality, durability, healthy indoor environments, energy efficiency and sustainability.

Q: What are the biggest benefits of alternative home building?

Suzanne: Higher quality. Lower user costs. Lower environmental impact. Healthier. And they can have more personality, more character.

Q: What are the biggest drawbacks of alternative home building?

Suzanne: I don’t really know of any.

Final thoughts

Q: What warnings or advice can you offer to individuals who are interested in buying or building an alternative home but who are just getting started in the process?

Suzanne: Allow plenty of time for the planning phase of the project. Lots of researching, planning and designing.

Q: What additional information would you like readers to know regarding your work or the general area of alternative home building?

Suzanne: In regards to our work, we still have a lot to learn… but we are having a lot of fun doing it and really truly feel passionate about what we do. And I would have to say the same of most folks who are in the “alternative” building industry. They are caring, loving people. They care about the future of our environment and the people living in it.


Submit a Comment

  • bigocean profile image

    George Bogosian 

    7 years ago from New England


    As a green builder....well, any conversations about the green building concepts that help inform the public about the possibilities are helpful. You're right, "Green is In" and we've been practicing it for years.

  • Hello, hello, profile image

    Hello, hello, 

    7 years ago from London, UK

    Thank you for a very detailed hub.


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