By George Harvey
“My goal and dream,” says Michael Lewallen, “is to be a different kind of builder.” He tells of learning much of his trade from a man who believed that a building should be finished the same way good furniture is, with attention to every inch of the product. That is the different kind of builder Lewallen wants to be.
He started out in Memphis, Tennessee. His first exposure to building came when he worked as a volunteer for a theatrical company building sets. He found he loved working with wood and wanted to learn as much as he could about the subject.
Trips to the local library were one source of inspiration and knowledge. He read about things most builders of his area had never dreamed of, such as passive houses. Fascinated with the idea of creating structures that required no energy, he pushed on.
Deep roots in the environmental movement that are found in New England is what led Michael to make his move to Perkinsville, Vermont.
Interest in creative, efficient building led to his working with Geobarns, a unique construction company that is based in White River Junction, Vermont. Michael’s experiences here gave him a new understanding of the building trade. Geobarns builds strong, durable, and unique timber-framed barn style structures, with diagonal framing that adds rigidity and beauty. The buildings do not generally have interior support, and this provides great flexibility in how the building is finished.
Lewallen took an interest in the finishing construction that Geobarns allows, and set out on his own venture, Lewallen Builders, in Perkinsville, Vermont. His new company often takes on projects where Geobarns leaves off. This means that Lewallen starts with a completed shell and manages the remainder of the construction, managing jobs like the insulating, wiring, plumbing, and actually doing the finish woodwork.
Geobarns’ unusual buildings require special skills. David Hamilton of Geobarns says, “For this reason, we absolutely need someone like Michael Lewallen who can deliver high-quality finish carpentry, but who also understands the unique character of these building shells (he’s built them in the past), and who comes with the project management skills to coordinate the ballet (or monster truck rally, pick your analogy) of subcontractors and finish work that make our buildings into homes.”
Since this is all done just as the customer wants, specifics of insulation, lighting, and efficiency vary from one project to another. The buildings all attain a high level of sustainability because of the nature and quality of construction. A building that is long lasting spreads its embodied energy, the energy it took to build it, over a long time.
A home built in Eastman, New Hampshire provides a good example of a collaboration of Geobarns with Lewallen Builders. The photo shows the angled studs clearly. Working with this structure requires skills beyond those used in ordinary construction for a number of reasons, not the least of which is electrical wiring. Insulation in these buildings is similar to what a conventional structure of the same wall thickness would have. Extra insulation can be added, if the customer wishes, and applying rigid foam boards to the exterior of the home provides improved air sealing, as well.
Michael Lewallen is constantly learning and expanding his horizons. He wants to move his business more in the direction of complete structures, and he wants them to be outstanding. Lewallen’s passion is to meet the future as a Green Builder — to build Energy Star certified homes with a focus on super-efficient passive and net zero energy homes. Another is to provide deep energy retrofits to bring older buildings up to the same high standards. He wants to maintain the high standards of craftsmanship, however, and will happily do historical renovations for both residential and commercial applications.