Monthly Archives: February 2008

What’s wrong with this picture?

This full-page advertisement has been appearing in building trade magazines recently. Though I’m sure it is intended to generate enthusiasm for Weyerhaeuser’s lumber innovations, I found it a better illustration of some of the homebuilding industry problems.

Wyerhauser adFirst, I’m enthusiastic about the concept of the I-Level family of engineered wood products. The prices need to come down, but there’s no reason to think that won’t happen eventually with more industry acceptance and good all-American competition.

I don’t think this advertisement is a reflection of Weyerhaeuser’s view of the ideal building process. My guess is that their marketing team isn’t communicating well with their R&D department.

With the above noted, this advertisement sucks. While attempting to tout some future oriented building products, it inadvertently (I’ll assume it wasn’t purposeful.) gives credence to the backward way of building. The depicted scene might not be unusual for a typical construction project, but it’s nothing to be proud of. And it certainly is not the future. I’ll list the problems I see:

1. The lumber in the foreground is dumped on the ground carelessly. It is poor practice to treat high quality lumber this way (not stickered or stacked)–even temporarily–and the fact that these pieces are lying there means they’ll have to be handled several more times before becoming part of the building’s structure.

2. The lumber stacked inside isn’t organized, which undoubtedly will lead to some shuffling and restacking as the right pieces are found for the next construction process.

3. The lumber piled at the edge of the floor framing creates a safety hazard for those working below.

4. The two pieces of lumber projecting from the lumber pile on the floor, in addition to those in the foreground, suggests that this whole site might look like scattered pick-up-sticks instead of an organized construction area.

5. The pile of raw material on the right will undoubted have to be cut one-at-a-time on the site, with hand-held tools. I happen to know that Weyerhaeuser has better ideas about how to do things more efficiently and this isn’t it.

6. While it’s risky to criticize engineering from a photo, I sure don’t like the look of the concentrated point load from the floor system located over what is apparently a garage door opening. If the floor framing is 12 in. deep, the garage door header looks to be 8 in. deep, and inadequate. I’m probably not seeing the whole picture, but I wouldn’t have used that unfortunate framing configuration to advertise my smart structural solutions.

I could go on (Why is that wall on the right not sheathed?), but my point is that this advertisement is a pretty good summation of what I think is wrong with the residential building industry: while the suppliers and manufacturers are working overtime to create better products, they are supplying a poorly organized, inefficient, and defective-prone building process. There may be solutions in the materials, but there are built-in problems in the process.

Good stuff, bad process

The OPEN Prototype Initiative was founded because of a conversation I had with Kent Larson of MIT’s Department of Architecture. One of main things Kent and I have agreed about since we first met is that the residential building industry in the U.S. is broken.

Through our personal conversations and organized forums at MIT’s Open Source Building Alliance (which Kent founded and directs), there had been much discussion about systemic problems, as well as some lively brainstorming about potential solutions. While the reports, research projects, and resulting presentations have illustrated better scenarios for the future of homebuilding, Kent and I shared a desire to turn the talk into action. We decided that we would engage in a partnership to build prototype buildings on a regular basis (every 18-24 months), that would become visible models of the future we envision.

Further, we are sure that many of the creative ideas to improve the homebuilding industry’s process and product cannot be realized without broad industry support. Our Open Prototype concept is therefore designed to engage industry in helping to turn the ideas into better products, systems, and processes. The solution to better homebuilding has to ultimately include the vast industry infrastructure that informs it and supplies it. The industry service, materials, and equipment suppliers also need to act differently and make different stuff.

Currently, the industry continues to thicken the defensive walls of conventional wisdom despite all evidence that it is wrong. Product innovations are endless (as anyone at the current IBS show can attest), but the lack of process and strategic innovations still lead to homes that are constructed inefficiently and incorrectly. Moreover, none of these material and equipment innovations can overcome the antiquated, unmotivated, poorly organized, and low-skilled construction system, so we still get shacks masquerading as mansions.

To make steps toward penetrating those walls of resistance built up by history and habit, my monotonous refrain here will be about America’s broken homebuilding industry. I’ll try not to get obsessive about it, but it is necessary to understand the illness in order prescribe the cure.

Bear with me. There IS a better way. The OPEN Prototype Project, OPEN_2, is coming soon.

Your home’s lug nuts

A few nights ago, my wife was driving home late from spending several days with one of our daughters. In the cold, pouring rain, about 30 miles from home, her left front wheel came completely off its hub. Luckily, it got stuck up in the wheel well and she was able to get over to the highway shoulder and call for help. The near disaster happened because a mechanic had forgotten to tighten the lug nuts when her car was serviced about two weeks earlier. When I got to the scene, the state police officer and the tow truck driver were examining the wheel and the sheared-off lugs in some amazement. As we got the car onto the truck, they both told me repeatedly how lucky my wife was that a major accident had been avoided.

This incident is a reminder about the relative consequences of poor work. With automobiles, everyone in manufacturing and repair knows that the result of ignorance or carelessness can kill people. A car traveling down the road at 65 miles per hour reveals its defects pretty quickly and sometimes dramatically. Therefore, auto manufacturing has evolved to the point of almost zero defects and most automobile service garages
now require training and certification for all of their mechanics. They also invest in sophisticated diagnostic equipment and have rigorous procedures in place to ensure that the work is done correctly. What happened to my wife just plain can’t be normal, and thankfully, it isn’t.

Homebuilding and home repair work are different. Perhaps because the consequences of bad work aren’t so imminently dire, there is no formal training required for most of the building process. Even the builder’s license itself typically only requires passing a simple test, but no training. In most places, the plumbers and electricians have to be
licensed, but in most of the country nothing at all is required of all the other building trades.

It’s great to require a license to protect you from plumbing leaks, but there is no education and training to keep your house from becoming a moisture-laden haven for toxic mold. With training and licensing of electricians, you get some protection from the possibility of electrical shocks or fires, but there is very little real oversight of the workers
who do the work that should keep your home anchored and intact in a windstorm. As a result, compared to almost any other manufacturing process, the defect rate in homebuilding is astounding, as I reported in my Fine Homebuilding editorial in 2007.

The quality of a car is primarily determined by how well it moves, while the quality of a home is in how well it can sit still, no matter what. When the tornadoes hit some southern states this week, many people there learned that their homes weren’t built very well. The place they called home–that had earlier given them a sense of security and well-being–became a death trap and tragically, dozens of people lost their lives.

It turns out there isn’t much difference between the lug nuts that weren’t fastened on my wife’s car and poorly attached roof trusses or missing foundation bolts on a typical American home. In both cases, ignorance, mistakes, and the deficient processes can kill.

Sub-prime O’Leary cow

Those of us in the homebuilding business have plenty to worry about these days. The Commerce Department reported last week that sales of new homes fell last year by 26 percent, the steepest drop since records began in 1963. Unfortunately, the worst is probably yet to come: the final dismal accounting may not be known for at least two more years. Between now and then, there’s much more economic havoc and many more personal tragedies to endure. At the end of the long tunnel, there will also be a very slimmed-down, reconfigured homebuilding industry.

Compared to the upended financial markets and devastated lives, the fact that there also won’t be very many homes to build may seem rather trivial, but it’s not. When some idiot-creative came up with the idea of the sub-prime swindle, it was the nuclear equivalent of the legend of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over the lantern and starting the great Chicago fire of 1871.

Although the cow’s guilt is myth, the fire was real, leaving almost 100,000 people homeless and destroying 18,000 buildings in a mere two days. The rebuilding began immediately and proceeded rapidly. Very quickly and by necessity, stick framing, a faster and less skill-intensive method of building, became the dominant form of wood frame construction. It started in Chicago, but spread throughout the quickly growing country. The concept of stick framing (initially the balloon form, but now evolved to platform) had been developed
earlier, but the massive building effort after the Chicago fire was the seminal event that caused it to displace timberframing as the dominant construction method for residential building. It remains so today.

In comparison, the housing bust today is playing out slowly, but the transformative impact on the homebuilding industry of the future is likely to be similar. By the time the embers cool at the end of the current recession, there will be a big need for new homes, but the
industry will have less capacity to deliver them. As Mark Zandi of Moody’s Economy.com said, it is “going to be a shadow of its former self…” Already, numerous big homebuilding companies have filed for bankruptcy and many more are teetering on the brink, leaving many homebuyers with unfinished homes in unfinished communities. And nobody is stepping out from the umbrella of their legal protection to bear responsibility.

As the housing giants topple and consumers get battered, it’s pretty clear that the future of homebuilding will be different. With the conventional attitudes and assumptions so violently disrupted, there will be a ripe opportunity to establish what I am calling “New House Rules,” that will facilitate the making of better buildings, happier homebuyers, and a healthier industry.

The previous sentence sums up the theme of this blog. I’ll be using this space to write about the past, present, and future of the homebuilding industry. My bias is an opinion that nearly everything about the homebuilding process and product ought to be improved. I’m convinced we can do much better. As a physical demonstration of that opinion, I’ll report about our OPEN Prototype Initiative and the Open-Built® ideas and systems we’re using on these building projects. I’ll also give occasional reports from my company, Bensonwood, where we strive every day to do things better than the day before.

I invite and welcome your comments and ideas. We can’t do this alone.