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The New House Rules

Tedd Benson on Homebuilding

Seriously?

In my last post, I vented a little about the cover of the largest professional homebuilding magazine (Byline, “Smart Building Starts Here”) depicting a construction site that might have been exceptional 100 years ago, but today should be an industry embarrassment, not a magazine cover. Finding that the photo proudly displayed on the cover was only part of the reason for my dismay.

The home under construction was to be the “New American Home,” the featured model home at the International Builders Show.  Its purpose is to show off the latest process and products our industry has to offer.

For a refresher, here is that magazine cover with story about the model project under construction, apparently a paragon image of 21st century homebuilding. The reality is building materials in the dirt, guys cutting and shaping each and every piece that goes into the building (awkwardly, with small tools), and no organization that systematically improves quality or achieves better efficiency.

What we really see is the lurch into yet another century of homebuilding evolution, still  unimpeded by progress.

SMALL Builder002“The New American Home” that was the outcome of that site construction was also 7,000 square feet, and that represents the other side of the American problem in homebuilding. Big is more important than good.  My intent was to address the building process problem, but readers were more repulsed by the size. After all, as a model intended to be an exemplar, we can probably keep building in inefficient ways, and we can keep giving the American public less housing quality  than they need and deserve, but we can’t keep building that big. So I get it.

Nevertheless, I’m surprised that people take for granted the inherent anachronism of the typical homebuilding process.  Yet its stasis in the context of contemporary technology and worldwide manufacturing advancement is so pervasive that its lack of progress is invisible, and its inefficient and ineffective reality is widely accepted, and sometimes even lauded as evidence of craft. I see an emperor with no clothes; others say he’s always been naked and that’s what makes him so kingly.

Here are two homes I recently saw under construction in the mid-west.

KSjobsite1

Ksjobsite2

Take a minute. Study those photos, as if you were managing the efficiency and quality of a process that matters immensely to the life and economics of our society. Just look at those two sites! Look at the guys sorting through the “pick-up-sticks” in the upper photo. What could they possibly be doing, and who’s paying for it? What do you think about their care of the materials? In the second photo, the dumpster size speaks volumes, and we have more sticks in the dirt, and a guy carrying a single framing member over his shoulder. Why is any of this so accepted in 2014? In any other industry where quality and efficiency matters a company employing this sort of manufacturing standard would be out of business in a nano-second.

As a builder who has spent his professional life trying to improve building quality, I find all of the above examples rather alarming, as I do the home quality standard that usually is the process outcome.  But I guess I’m in the minority.

The final photo is even more revealing. My co-worker, Hans Porschitz, was looking for a photo of the standard building process to add to a  presentations he is doing. In his Google search, he found an article from the Wall Street Journal from 2012, titled: Housing Starts Surge as Confidence Grows. The point of the article was that home construction was starting to come back strong and that all was beginning to look good for building construction. Great news, which at the time people like me read with deep interest, hoping the long recession malaise would finally end. But here’s the kicker: look at the photo that illustrated that positive news about homebuilding:

Our Homebuilding Standard

Seriously? I don’t know where to start, but apparently the editors at the WSJ thought this was an appropriate iconic photo to illustrate the positive bustle of an industry coming out of the doldrums and now thriving again. Aren’t you glad? Would you want to own that house? Is this how much our homes matter to us? How long will we accept these wooden tents adorned with facades of drywall and garnished with amenities? A few things come to me:

  • There’s not a legal labor rate low enough to justify the methods.
  • They don’t care about the construction materials at all.
  • Waste is no problem.
  • There is no pride with anyone there or it would look different.
  • None of these people care anything about OSHA safety regulations, much less their own safety.
  • What else do you see?

Honestly, I just don’t understand it, but this IS the American way of building and we as a society apparently take it for granted that this is as it should be.  There’s an industry and cultural assumption that it’s the best we can do, I guess. The first photo is from the number one homebuilding industry trade magazine, and the last one is from our number one business newspaper. Our country, therefore, obviously thinks our homebuilding process is just hunky-dory.

But when you think about it, is it any wonder that: building construction has become the last refuge of the otherwise unemployable, and certainly doesn’t make any list of desirable careers for young people? …that natural disasters lay whole communities flat? …that the typical American home is an energy sieve? ..and a maintenance nightmare? …that there is typically at least a 15% defect rate (structure, safety, health, not cosmetic) when other industries are chasing fractions of 1%?

Homes DO matter. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, our culture creates our homes, thereafter our homes create our culture. The need for urgency is far more important than only energy and sustainability; it’s about the soul of who we are.

We CAN and therefore must do better. Much better. There are many of us working “in the trenches” to bring a better destiny to American homebuilding, and that includes all my associates at Bensonwood and Unity Homes, who have dedicated our professional lives to that proposition.

Though the enemy–a recalcitrant, misaligned industry–is strong, we will prevail. Better homebuilding is coming to America.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Green Building, homebuilding, residential construction, sustainability, sustainable business, Tedd Benson | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The New (but Still Outdated) American Home

I have to build this up a little to make a point, so bear with me while I set the stage.

The Big Event:

The International Builders Show (IBS), happening now in Las Vegas. It’s a pretty big deal in the industry. It’s organized by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and is the largest annual residential housing construction trade event for manufacturers and suppliers of home construction products and services.  According to Wikipedia, “It is the only event of its kind, focusing specifically on the needs, concerns, and opportunities that face builders.”  There are about 1,700 exhibiting companies there, all displaying their coolest products and latest innovations. It’s intended to be a veritable festival of homebuilding advancement, creating promise and excitement about all things new and better for both builders and homeowners.

The Biggest Exhibit at the Big Event:

The New American Home (TNAH). This is a complete show home built specifically for display for the thousands of IBS attendees. It is proclaimed on their website as “America’s premier show home and construction technology laboratory, The New American Home serves as the official showcase house of the annual International Builders Show.” Further, from their website: “The show home demonstrates ‘Builders’ Best Practices’: concepts, materials, designs and construction techniques that can be replicated – in whole or in part – in housing built any place and in any price range.” (The italics are all mine in this piece.)

You’ll get an inkling of what to expect from this year’s New American Home from this description: “The 2014 New American Home will display the innovative elevation design of the future of home building and incorporate in this family-style design a relevance to the way we live today and how we will live in the future. Coming in at right around 6,700 square feet, the New American Home will be comfortably spacious and inviting with warm interiors seamlessly integrating between indoors and out.”

TNAH1-27-2014

The Voice of the NAHB:

Builder MagazineAll you need to know for my little build-up is the magazine’s tagline: “Smart Building Starts Here.”  The preview of The New American Home has been exclusively featured in Builder Magazine.

So, in review:

  • IBS is the annual extravaganza of the NAHB and America’s homebuilding industry. It breathlessly presents residential building state-of-the-art.
  • TNAH is the premier exhibit at the show, demonstrating the very latest as the “construction technology laboratory” and “Builders’ Best Practices.”
  • Builder Magazine is about “smart building” and is the voice of the NAHB and the herald of IBS.

Now that your expectations are prepared about purpose and hype about the New American Home for 2014, let me briefly take you back in history.

Here’s a painting depicting construction practice in the 1700s:

1700's Building

And here’s a photo of construction practice just about 100 years ago.

1915home

With all of this as context, just imagine my reaction when I saw the cover of Builder with a photo of The New American Home under construction. Drum roll….

SMALL Builder002

Really? This is a construction technology laboratory in the 21st century? Does smart building start here? A demonstration of builders’ best practices? The future of homebuilding? Incredible.  I’m seeing lumber dumped in the dirt, strewn about like Pick-Up-Sticks; a guy bent over like Gumby, working on framing lumber with some small tool; another one on a step ladder doing something; and a third guy apparently watching. Is this where we are in 2014? This photo shows the essence of the actual building, and this is how it was made, which is not very different from the way buildings were made 300 years ago. The main difference between the 1700s building depiction and the Builder Magazine cover photo is the guys in the former would ride horses home (or walk), and the guys in the cover photo will likely drive pickup trucks manufactured with the world class precision and efficiency.

Homebuilding in the 21st century

The New American Home:  ”construction technology laboratory”? 

The article goes on to tell the story of the project. It got terribly behind schedule (easy to see why) and crews (hopefully more than 3) were working 17 hour days to try to catch up. In addition, the weather turned wet and harsh (for Las Vegas), construction was further delayed, materials got wet (and muddy, I imagine) and they even lost 350 sheets of drywall to water damage, presumably because it took so long to make the building weathertight.

I do sympathize with the heroic effort of the builders to battle weather, time and labor shortages to get the project done on time. We builders thrive on challenges. It’s in our DNA. But the big challenge we should all be taking up is to build stronger and more energy efficient buildings with the same quality standard as the appliances and fixtures that will be used in the home, not just surviving the poor planning and communication embedded in our industry’s process, and its habitual devotion to outdated building methods.

The finished New American Home will reveal none of this. According to all descriptions, it has an impressive number of features, clever amenities, the best of plumbing and electrical fixtures, a bunch of green certifications, and is “chock-full of multigenerational, sustainable, and inspirational design ideas.” I don’t doubt that.

Nor do I plan to see it. 6,700 square feet of features and amenities masquerading as real building value are hopefully not the future of American homebuilding.

Really, we can do so much better!

Posted in Green Building, residential construction, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Catherine Houghton Arts Center Opens

Catherine Houghton Arts Center at night

Newsletter Home      Bensonwood Home

In an update to an earlier story, the Catherine Houghton Arts Center, the 5,000 square foot arts center for The White Mountain School, an independent boarding and day school for grades 9-12 in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, is now open for classes.

Bensonwood prefabricated the building and acted as general contractor. We worked in collaboration with the award-winning architectural firm, Ruhl Walker Architects. The multi-use academic building incorporates many of the latest advances in 21st century construction, including prefabrication of panelized assemblies, energy-efficient design and rapid onsite assembly.

Catherine Houghton Arts Center Dance StudioThe ArtsCenter is named after Catherine “Kitty” Houghton, a school trustee who was killed in 2013. The Center has two dance studios, a music studio with a recording studio, an art studio that opens to the outdoors, a recessed outdoor performing arts stage and a ceramics kiln. A bridge to its second floor connects the Center to the main campus.

Designed for Net-Zero performance, the new arts center has a super-efficient geothermal heat pump system, with the electrical power supplied by rooftop solar photovoltaics. The rooftop PV will generate more power than the arts center needs, with the excess being used to power a portion of the other academic buildings.

CHAC Art Studio

Posted in academic buildings, Architect Collaborations, Bensonwood News, Green Building, Net-Zero, Project Update, Renewable Energy, Solar Power Photovoltaic | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Seeds of Sustainable Entrepreneurship: Finding Your Way in a Turbulent World

Hannah Grimes lecture

This is the keynote speech I gave at the Hannah Grimes Center’s 8th Annual CONNECT Event in Walpole, New Hampshire, celebrating the connections between business, local economy and community.

I posted this video here because I think it is valuable to understand not only the 40-year history and evolution of Bensonwood and the genesis of our off-site manufactured, high-performance Unity Homes. I also underscore where we are going as a company and more importantly, the value of sustainable business, even when facing the tough reality of yet another “Hoosac Mountain“ in the craft of business.

My speech, “The Seeds of Sustainable Entrepreneurship: Finding Your Way in a Turbulent World,” also touches on themes of unreasonable perseverance, the rewards of working without a “Plan B” and the value of entrepreneurs working under the “useful delusion” that their undertakings are easily achievable, and not at all risky.

 

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MIT Architecture Dean Adèle Santos Tours Bensonwood to See Her New Home

Adele Naudee Santos and Tedd Benson

Newsletter Home      Bensonwood Home

Adèle Naudeé Santos, internationally-renowned urban design authority and dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P), recently toured Bensonwood’s facilities with Tedd Benson and some of our associates to see her custom, high-performance green home being fabricated.

2nd.SantosBensonwood has been fortunate to work with many prominent design professionals, including architects as owner-builders or as advocates for their clients, but we were especially honored that someone of Ms. Santos’s stature in the architecture field would choose us to build her Somerville, Massachusetts home. Her academic career includes professorships at the University of California-Berkeley, Harvard University, Rice University and the University of Pennsylvania, where she also served as the Department Architecture Chair. She was also the founding dean of the School of Architecture at UC San Diego.

SANTOS.1Additionally, Santos is principal architect in the San Francisco-based firm, Santos, Prescott and Associates (SPA). Her architectural and planning projects include housing and institutional buildings in Africa, affordable housing in California and Japan, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, the Center for the Arts at Albright College and the Yerba Buena Gardens Children’s Center in San Francisco. She is currently working in Guatemala on a children’s center and has several projects under construction in China.

SANTOS.4Bensonwood has had a long, fruitful collaboration with MIT beginning with the partnership on the Open Prototype Initiative, whose goal is developing affordable, flexible, high-performance houses with disentangled and highly-adaptable mechanical systems. In another MIT connection, our sister company, Unity Homes, served as a business case study at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Bensonwood also has MIT graduates in our design and engineering departments.

Interestingly, Ms. Santos has another connection to Bensonwood in Steve Kieran, owner and architect of the Loblolly House, the acclaimed Maryland shore home we engineered, fabricated and assembled in 2006 for his firm, KieranTimberlake. Ms. Santos gave Kieran his first teaching position when she was the Architecture Chair at Penn.

SANTOS.5SANTOS.11The custom home was designed by SPA architect Ethan Lacy, who joined Ms. Santos on the tour. Bensonwood engineers Chris Carbone and Elizabeth Beauregard, project manager Tom Olson, job captain John McElroy and builder Tobey Wandzy were also on hand for the visit, explaining our building systems and processes and their roles in her project. A week later the  green prefab home’s shell was delivered to the site and raised in just three days, a benefit of what we call our “Montage Building” process.

Seeing the precision fabrication of a healthy house can be an informative and rewarding experience, and creates a stronger connection to the sustainable building for the homeowner—and is something we always encourage our clients to do. For more information on Bensonwood tours, click here.

Posted in Architect Collaborations, Bensonwood Guests, Bensonwood News, Bensonwood tours, Green Building, Montage Building, New Projects, Open Prototype Initiative, residential construction, Sustainable Design, Tedd Benson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bensonwood Constructing Wooden Grandstand for Legendary Cotuit Kettleers

Cape-Cod-Baseball-League-Logo

COTUIT KETTLEERS LOGO

Newsletter Home      Bensonwood Home

In our second baseball-related project in recent years, Bensonwood is currently prefabricating a wood grandstand for Elizabeth Lowell Park, home of the Cotuit Kettleers, 14-time Cape Cod Baseball League champions. Our 40-year history of building with timbers seems a perfect fit for one of the nation’s premier wooden bat league teams.

Cotuit Grandstands2The grandstand is being engineered and fabricated at our Blackjack facilities into precision-crafted timberframe superstructure elements, as well as panelized platform risers, framing and seating assemblies. The finished assemblies will be trucked to the site and flown into place by a crane, greatly reducing the onsite construction time. The Cotuit Kettleers of Massachusetts remain the only Cape Cod League team to fully maintain its playing field and park without the use of public funds and the current grandstand project is part of a multi-year Lowell Park Renovation Program.

Cotuit Grandstands3Bensonwood engineers Elizabeth Beauregard and Chris Carbone modeled the Cotuit grandstand using CAD/CNC software. Fabrication and selection of wood species occurs at 3 levels: Level I, the timberframe superstructure, utilizes pressure-treated southern yellow pine glulam beams. Level II, the framing and platform risers, is comprised of southern yellow pine. Level III, which includes the seating, guardrails, and other elements fans come in contact with are made of stadium-quality Port Orford cedar (POC)—a high grade of the species used in many of the finest grandstands—with a natural finish applied to enhance POC’s natural resistance to weather. In fact, when the world famous Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena was built, the architects insisted on Port Orford cedar planking for its beauty, strength and durability. All elements are precision-cut using our CNC machinery, and where feasible, preassembled into transportable elements.

Our engineers calculate that the grandstands sequester approximately 42 metric tons of carbon dioxide through the wood in the structure, whereas equivalent aluminum or steel elements would be strictly classified as a CO2 emitter. The grandstand guardrails are a new wood and steel mesh we designed to maximize sight lines without sacrificing structural integrity.

Cotuit Grandstands5The Cotuit Kettleers baseball team is comprised of student athletes drafted from colleges around the nation. During their tenure with the Kettleers, players are expected to get involved with service projects for the betterment of the surrounding communities.

Wooden bat leagues are amateur baseball leagues that use wood versus aluminum or composite bats. Because pro baseball allows wooden bats only, these leagues are heavily scouted by Major League Baseball clubs to establish how well a college prospect can hit with the bats used in the majors. In 2004 alone, there were over 150 Kettleers veterans on MLB rosters.

More than 1,000 Cape Cod league alumni have played in the major leagues, with many achieving “All-Star” status and/or earning World Series rings. NY Yankees manager Joe Girardi is a Cotuit Kettleers alum, as is Boston Red Sox hometown favorite and now radio personality Lou Merloni.

Paul M. Logan, president of the Cotuit Athletic Association, said, “The Cotuit Kettleers organization is thrilled to be partnering with Bensonwood on a new grandstand structure at LowellPark. The 600-plus seat grandstand will replace an outdated 50-year-old structure, and while considering all options, our fans and donors implored us consider wood and not steel. Bensonwood not only makes the finest wood products in the northeast, but they were also willing to work with us on designing new grandstands using new technology. Many thanks to Bensonwood for their willingness to create what will be a landmark product for both organizations.”

 

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1st Solar-Powered Unity Home Goes from Contract to Complete in 20 Weeks

solar panels on Unity Homes

unity homes kitchen

Newsletter Home      Bensonwood Home

A year ago when Carol and Ed Reardon wanted to build a healthy, energy-efficient, year-round residence on a lake, they knew whom to call. Bensonwood had recently launched its sister company, Unity Homes, which offers healthy, high-performance, more affordable homes.  Here was their chance to own a high-quality Bensonwood home on a budget they could afford. Best of all, they discovered they would be living in the home in only five months’ time.

The home, a Xyla 132, is the first Unity home to feature solar electric panels, which power the HVAC system, including an air source heat pump for both heating and cooling, and heat recovery ventilation. Because of the extremely low energy demands of the Unity building shell (the highly-insulated homes meet or exceed Passive House levels of air tightness), and with the state and federal incentives, the solar panels by Solar Source made sense financially.

Unity Homes Xyla Floor PlanThe home site, on a picture-perfect lake in southern New Hampshire, had been in Carol’s family for decades, so she became the driving force behind the project. The first step was to remove the old camp sitting on the land with serious rot and mold in the crawl space and above the ceilings.

Unity Homes Xyla open floor planCarol was particularly interested in the health aspects of Unity homes. Living with allergies, she wanted cabinets and vanities with low VOCs (volatile organic compounds), wood construction and a sophisticated ventilation system. All Unity homes share these health benefits, along with solid, light-filled, quiet spaces that promote a sense of well-being.

Carol says, “Unity came along at the right time for us. We have downsized to a beautiful new home where we can enjoy our retirement years in a place we love.” Ed Reardon adds, “Bensonwood and Unity people have been a pleasure to work with throughout this process. Special praise goes to Unity project manager Ryan Lawler who couldn’t have been more helpful, responsive and encouraging.”

Posted in Customer Testimonials, Floor Plans, Green Building, Montage Prefab, Passive House, Project Update, Renewable Energy, residential construction, Solar Power Photovoltaic, Sustainable Design, Unity Homes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Give Up On Prefab?

When I previously wrote about Montage Homebuilding, I explained why I am no fan of the terms prefab and modular. They represent different objectives and methods in off-site building systems, but both suffer from deep blemishes brought on by their flawed legacies. I therefore announced a new name for our unique off-site fabrication system, which has been assiduously developed to correct—rather than integrate with—the status quo.

sears kit house

A circa 1908 Sears “Modern Homes” mail-order kit house.

The promise of prefabrication has always been the simple proposition of using industrialization advances to bring consumers greater affordability simultaneous with improved quality. And why not? It has already been achieved in most every other consumer products sector from automobiles, to appliances, to furniture, and to, well, nearly everything. Modern manufacturing has indeed scaled quality and value, and buyers have come to expect it because they usually get it.

But in housing, people have instead learned to associate prefabrication and modular manufacturing methods with pigeonholing words like flimsy, toxic, cheap, temporary, limited, compromised and, oddly, to an architectural style: modernist.  Of course, the associations aren’t always deserved, but I argue that most of the off-site building industry continues to do more to reinforce the stereotypes than to overcome them, making the unfortunate perceptions too true, too often.

Naturally, I was quite interested to find a rather provocative article titled, “Why It’s Time to Give Up on Prefab.” The author, Australian architect Chris Knapp, is the director of Built-Environmental Practice, a firm that appears from its website to have a vibrant design practice, both residential and commercial. The article addresses all forms of off-site building under the single word prefabrication, as “the term identifies a range of applications for building and building components of any scale, not just housing. Yet the target of prefabrication has been focused upon housing since the very beginning.” As an architect, Knapp is particularly focused on the fractured history of prefabrication in architecture, which serves both as complement and counterpoint to my design-build perspective.

While we have simply renamed our process “montage” for clarity of intent and to avoid association, Knapp has a more radical point of view: “This is a call for the end of prefabrication.” His argument asserts that there has been too much trying and not enough succeeding, just a “countless series of disappointments.” That point is easy to make because the string of flame-outs is long and includes luminary architects like Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. Even Thomas Edison took a crack at it. From these examples and those of many others, a reasonable conclusion is that the promise of prefabrication would not be realized through a singular design or engineering concept. The future of housing was bigger than Le Corbusier’s ego, and while not perhaps as big as Fuller’s, its requirements couldn’t be reduced to his domes. Gropius could not see past Bauhaus ideals, and after attempting to pour concrete into a gigantic house-shaped form to create a monolithic structure, Edison probably realized that lightbulb-scale fail-to-success experiments were more practical.

But these aren’t good reasons to aim bullets at prefab in my opinion, and the contemporary efforts Knapp mentions don’t necessarily deserve that either. Charlie Lazor’s FlatPak house is really very innovative, and mainly suffers from being named for how it is shipped and being defined by a particular style: his. Similarly, Kieran Timberlake’s work is ambitious, creative, and courageous. They are attempting to bring the future forward and are addressing important issues with structure, form, connections, modularity, material relationships, and mechanical systems ahead of their time. If the whole looks irrelevant, as it apparently does to Knapp, in detail there is much to gain from their Loblolly and Cellophane House™ prototypes. I know. We built Loblolly. When you throw out all the conventional assumptions about building systems and design-construction process, you get to a place where there’s a virtuous cycle of innovation, feeding on itself. It wasn’t intended to be the solution, but to be a learning laboratory for finding solutions, and between Kieran Timberlake and our team, we found many. There’s a good video about the Loblolly vision and process here.

Loblolly buidling phases

The Loblolly House building process: a pod in the Bensonwood factory, pods being positioned and connected on-site, and the finished project on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

 

 

 

 

 

So the failure of prefab is not specifically in the bumpy history of flaws and failures. That’s how things get improved. Instead, it fails when architects want to shrink it down to their vision, and when an entire sector of architecture attempts to be defined by it, which is a self-limiting cage both to the modernist style itself and to the prefab moniker it wants to own. Stuck in that cage, prefab has had trouble freeing itself for broader duty in more traditional forms, as modernist proponents want the construction system to look like the buildings they love rather than an efficient, quality enhancing building process.

Though he tried, Knapp can’t quite kill the idea of prefab. As he says, “…one must reflect upon this series of utopian misfires in prefabrication’s evolution and wonder why architects have not managed to capitalize effectively upon the platform.” He seems to overlook the possibility that it isn’t about architects. It can live with them, but it is a construction method, not a design style, and therefore is not dependent on their influence, and absolutely will do better without their dominance. Inadvertently, he says so himself by pointing out that prefabrication is successful in Japan and Scandinavia. In both those cases, homebuilding companies design homes as products and sell them through catalogs and models by the thousands. And what do they get for it? Ask a Swede, in whose country they have the highest standard of housing in the world. Or inspect a Japanese house, where production efficiency is unparalleled and defects are as unacceptable as they are in their cars.

Moreover, Knapp overlooked other North American successes that also aren’t architect dominated. It is well known that Sears and Montgomery Ward sold so many houses throughout the U.S. in the first decades of the 20th century that many towns are still greatly defined by their style and influence. The ubiquity of catalog commerce, as well as the incredible convenience of rail delivery in those years, made the popular architectural styles of that period available in nearly every corner of the country.  They clearly played a role in the proliferation of the Arts and Crafts homes, most notably, but also the spare, pragmatic American Foursquare style, which gets little attention these days, but visits my dreams often, as I grew up in a wonderful Foursquare home built in 1895, before the catalog home years.

The other giant of prefab in that era was the E.F. Hodgson Company from Dover, Massachusetts. They started earlier than Sears or Montgomery Ward and also developed a more sophisticated modular system (below), which allowed them to deliver the building in more complete panels. Since many of their homes were shipped overseas, they are less well known, but it’s possible that their production was greater than Sears. My wife’s parents lived in a Hodgson home in New York and thought its quality excellent. There were other off-site homebuilding companies in that era (Aladdin Ready-Cut Houses, for instance), but these three were the largest, and accounted for perhaps 250,000 to 300,000 homes between them. Not to belabor the point, but none of these companies were founded, managed, or in any way controlled, by architects.

Hodgson Kit House

An E.F. Hodgson modular house

In the end, Knapp turns against his own theme and argues for the continuation of off-site building:

“The concept and practice of fabricating architectural elements in either part or whole under conditions separated from the contingencies of the construction site is now more important and relevant to gain efficacy as a profession today than ever before. Architects should continue to pre-build off-site, out of the weather, out of harm’s way, and in the most intelligent manner possible. This should include trusses, insulating sandwich panels, curtain walls and modular concepts, but the result needs to be considered, implemented and promoted with greater sophistication.”

That’s a very strong argument for, not against, off-site building. But depending on his meaning, I’m not sure I agree with the words I highlighted. Architects typically don’t actually build their designs, and therefore I don’t think it should be assumed that the off-site fabrication operations should be the purview of architects. For the most part, that has not worked. On the other hand, successful off-site fabrication companies usually depend on architects and professional designers to create beautiful and functional home designs.

Finally, I fully agree that the “the result needs to be considered, implemented and promoted with greater sophistication.”

So should we give up on prefab? Perhaps not. Let’s just elevate it “with greater sophistication” and call it montage.

 

Posted in residential construction, Sustainable Design, Tedd Benson, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Vision 2020

This year I had the honor of serving as the co-chair of the Building Design + Performance sector of the Vision 2020 project, which was conceived and organized by EcoBuilding Pulse. The idea of this important project is “to set and track critical metrics and milestones by which housing must adjust its business-as-usual paradigm” in order to meet the 2020 milestone goals of the widely accepted mandate of the 2030 Challenge.

Architecture 2030 established the 2030 Challenge to incrementally increase environmental benchmark stringency to significantly lower the carbon footprint caused by buildings, in their creation, renovation and service. It is clear that buildings are contributing greatly to climate change, but since by 2035, 75% of buildings will either be renovated or built in these intervening years, we have an opportunity to correct the problem. So it’s extremely important for our industry to do all that we can to meet the Challenge objectives.

The ten Vision 2020 chairs, along with Katie Weeks and Rick Schwolsky of HanleyWood, met by conference call on several occasions, and ultimately came together to share our respective thoughts in a day-long presentation Summit held in Washington D.C. in September. That event was followed by an essay from each chair, which additionally summarized our research and thoughts regarding our respective sectors and the 2020 milestone.

It was challenging to attempt to contribute on an equal level with my fellow chairs. For example, my co-chair was Allison Ewing of Hays+Ewing Design Studio. She’s an extremely accomplished architect, having previously worked with Renzo Piano, Cesar Pelli, and as a partner at William McDonough + Partners, before establishing her own firm with Christopher Hays. Allison is quiet and humble, but that’s easily offset by her confident, expressive, and profound body of work.  But even without that, Allison proved that some people need few words to say a lot.

The other fellow chairs were equally intimidating and inspiring, including Dennis Creech, who was the 2013 recipient of the Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Housing.  Dennis has been a sustainable building leader for 30 years and embodies so much about what is good and right in our industry. He’s never wavered in his commitment and, along with his Southface staff, has significantly moved the bar up year after year by doing the research, working in the trenches on policy and programs, and simply teaching the industry how to build better. To say he’s a hard act to follow in a speaking lineup is putting it mildly.

But follow Dennis I did, as well as all my other chairs. I spoke last and did my best to punctuate the point that our task is urgent and we should be moving toward a better sustainability standard quicker as have most of the solutions at our fingertips. As usual, the paradigm shift needed is about values and belief, and not so much about innovation and technology.

In the end, I made three contributions to the Vision 2020 program this year. The first was a webinar on the Open-Building topic with Dr. Stephen Kendall. The second was my “Tedd Talk” at the Summit and the third was an essay roughly following the theme of the talk. There are links to all of them, below. The EcoHome issue with all of the essays is now on the stands.

Following these links, I have added a link to all of the Summit essays. You could spend time in much worse ways than reading insights from some of our industry’s sustainable building luminaries talking about what we need to do to build safer, healthier, more durable and energy efficient buildings…now.

Webinar: Building Design + Performance | Open Building: A Critical Component in Sustainable, High-Performance Housing

Tedd Benson of Bensonwood Homes and Stephen Kendall, Ph.D., of Infill Systems US, explore the concept of open building and how its wide-spread adoption could change how we design homes going forward, creating more flexibility and durability.

 

VISION 2020 talk

We Must Change How We Operate

Tedd Benson lays out the options for addressing climate change. Plan A: Change the way we build and do so quickly. Plan B: There is no plan B.Read More

VISION 2020 essay (photo is scary)

It is Time to be Disruptive

Full 2020 Summit program:

Vision 2020 Introduction

Energy Efficiency + Building Science: Dennis Creech on what to do with existing homes

Building Design + Performance: Allison Ewing, AIA, on how we must adapt in order to prosper.

Indoor Environmental Quality: Marilyn Black on how we must balance energy and health.

Materials + Products: Tom Lent on how material transparency is just the beginning.

Water Efficiency: Paula Kehoe on how we must rethink water use and sources.

Economics + Financing: Robert Sahadi asks “Will green become the new granite?”

Codes, Standards + Rating Systems: Mark Frankel, AIA, LEED Fellow explains why we need outcome-based policies.

Sustainable Communities: John Norquist on the need to bring back Main Street, U.S.A.

Energy Efficiency + Building Science: Mark LaLiberte on how we must commit to education and training

Building Design + Performance: Tedd Benson asserts that all that we do must change.

 

Posted in 2030 Challenge, Sustainable Design, Tedd Benson, Vision 2020 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Can We Aim Higher?

Many years ago, in our mid-course correction (another story), we pulled our company associates together to write a mission statement that would reflect our collective values and goals. It turned out to be a much bigger and longer task than we expected, but worth the effort because the exercise forced us to aim higher.

At the time, we were heavily invested in timberframe homebuilding, and it was clearly how we understood ourselves and how we were known in the marketplace. But in the many hours of discussion in analysis of our beliefs and guiding principles, we realized that timberframing may be a part of the means to an ultimate objective, but it wasn’t  sufficient in itself. What we came to understand was this simple point: our clients—like everyone who makes the decision to build—want to create a place that will improve the quality of their lives, period. That’s what homes are for. So the core statement of our company mission is:

Through process and product, to improve people’s lives.

With that much bigger mission in focus, we realized that everything matters, and we’d need to become better designers, engineers, project managers, and master craftspeople with broader skills. It set us on a path that transformed us, and continues to transform us again and again. This path is just a steady climb with an endless series of false peaks, all exciting and rewarding, but never the end. Our mission to improve lives through our work is too big to ever be fully completed.

As I read blogs, discussion groups, and news stories about the slow acceptance of green and energy efficient homes in the marketplace, I’m reminded of our company conclusion, now several decades ago, that we needed to aim higher and put our capabilities in context with our clients’ needs and aspirations. Even a LEED Platinum, zero net energy home can completely fail to deliver on its most important purpose, and even a certified Passive House can be a lousy place to live.

I don’t think I’m bringing new news here, but I also think it’s a topic that’s getting short shrift, and it’s too often leading to a maximized emphasis on particular building attributes, while other critical aspects are being compromised. Surely, this is never intended, but it can be the outcome of designing and building from a tilted perspective. If we can acknowledge this potential “maximize/compromise” liability, and bring some deep internal reflection about all that’s important in our quest to make the world a better place, it could be an important pivotal change for the sustainable homebuilding movement. High performance homebuilding should be “and,” not “or.” There should be more adds than subtracts.

Putting “green and energy efficient” in the larger context of improving people’s lives doesn’t mitigate the urgency to make low-load and zero net energy homes the industry standard. If anything, we absolutely must find ways to scale up sooner for the benefit of the planet and generations of homeowners. I made this point in a speech at the Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit in September, pointing out the huge gap between what we as an industry know and what we actually do. You can see my frustration there, if you’re not reading it here.

We’ve spent the last 20 years developing the know-how and proof that we can build much better performing homes without adding much short-term cost and always subtracting long-term cost, yet most of the industry carries on like it’s 1985. It’s not that different from the medical profession saying, “Sure, we know how to cure that cancer, but it costs a little extra and you’re not asking for it, so we’re not deploying it.”

As our work and our message could become fully focused on the bigger goal of improving homeowners’ lives, it’s very possible we’d also find the key to broader, quicker acceptance. We would automatically be expanding the meaning of sustainable and high performance to include myriad of “soft” health, safety, and security attributes along with the hard calculations of building science.

“Payback” is only an energy savings vs. return on investment calculation. There’s no working formula for the benefit of healthier indoor air quality, or the security of a home built to tolerate extreme storms, and there’s no denying the savings of time and money when homes are built with few or no defects and requiring minimum maintenance. Therefore, if the quality of people’s lives matters most, we should strive equally hard to build homes that are the healthiest and safest places they can be and that don’t eat up the precious days of their lives requiring upkeep and repairs. It would be a lot less hard to market homes that are stronger, healthier, safer and by the way, also extremely energy efficient.

Department of Energy’s Challenge Home program includes most of the added attributes and begins to get to the notion that there should be many facets to the definition of high performance. In addition, recently the U.S. Green Building Council announced that they want to put health “in the front seat,” which is both admirable and somewhat overdue.

But even all of that doesn’t go far enough. It just gets harder to talk about and impossible to measure. It’s where the numbers stop and art and intuition steps in, and it’s work our industry needs to do much, much better. That objective is well expressed by the late Samuel Mockbee, founder of Alabama’s Rural Studio: “Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul.”

Homes that improve people’s lives are also “shelters for the soul,” not just bare shelter against the elements, and they do not rise up to that standard with a low Energy Star rating, or net zero performance alone. The bigger purpose of home is to fuel hopes and dreams, become that place where people know they can find moments of quiet beauty and serenity, where the routine of ordinary and intimate is the essence of one’s personal sanctuary. It’s what is meant by Winston Churchill’s statement that, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” The quality of home matters deeply to people and even to civilization. Homes that do nothing for the human spirit have an immeasurable and unaccounted negative cost. Homes that do achieve this higher standard help to inspire the very best from people and make the world a better place

“We build thousands of houses, but only few homes. With the world’s population projected to double, we will have to build this world all over again. How can we do that and shelter the soul?”       Howard Mansfield, Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter

Can the sustainable building movement also strive for the ineffable, the unmeasurable? Can we aim higher?

Posted in energy efficiency, Green Building, LEED, Montage Prefab, residential construction, Tedd Benson, Vision 2020, zero net energy homes | Tagged , | 3 Comments