Monthly Archives: April 2008

The Tyrant’s Rules

If you ever have the opportunity to visit the International Builders Show, you’d be amazed. The last show I attended had over 1,900 exhibitors in one million square feet of floor space. Walking fast, it’s hard to cover all that territory in two or three days. It’s a huge extravaganza overflowing with new product developments, technologies and miraculous claims. Tempting you to come hither with freebies, dancing girls and headphone-bedecked hucksters, booth after booth screams that a whole new world of possibility is on display. They can’t seem to avoid using grand, nation-changing, continent-shifting terms to describe things that you and I might think are, well, just not all that exciting. Can a new way to drive screws or another profile for vinyl siding be truly “revolutionary?” I don’t think so. Even the products I liked, such as environmentally-friendly sheathing, high-quality insulations and open-web joists began to disappoint against the excessive backdrop of fanfare and hyperbole. Of course, it may have been my fault for expecting too much. I was there in search of something that might be really revolutionary and so wanted to believe the hype I was hearing. Instead, I went away with a bag full of product information that I haven’t looked at since.

My disappointment stemmed from the disconnect between the supposedly cool new products and the torpid inertia of the same old building process. The constraints imposed by the methodologies and skills of typical builders and their subcontractors loom over inventors, researchers and product engineers like an old, ossified tyrant. The tyrant’s rules are clear: “Houses are built one piece at a time by mostly semi-skilled or unskilled labor. That’s an immutable fact. Therefore, don’t propose anything that would disrupt their process, cause them to think or learn something new. And especially, don’t even think of bringing an innovation that would have an impact on more than one subcontractor because that would grind the whole operation to a halt.”

As a result, nearly all the innovations for home construction are one-for-one replacements of other materials or products, and even then it can take decades for the innovation (often not an improvement) to find common use. Whatever the innovation, its potential value will be limited by the fact that it is typically only a material or a part that will be thrown into the same process, to be cut and installed by the same people in the same habitual way. Because of this, it is usually unlikely that a new innovation can save time or money unless, of course, it’s just cheaper, which usually means it’s also worse.

Over the years, there’s actually been quite a bit of hand-wringing (for example, see this Rand report.) about the lack of innovation in housing, but the rules of the tyrant haven’t been overcome. It’s widely acknowledged that other industries have developed and improved their processes and products much more rigorously. It has been said that if automobiles had developed at the same pace as computers, you could travel at over 1,000 miles per hour and get over 500 miles per gallon. If that is true, it could also be said that if homebuilding had developed at the same pace as cars, a house would be built in a week at half its current cost, and contain so few defects, require so little maintenance, and offer so much comfort and technology, that leaving it would be a drag. So, the incredible pace of innovation with computers gives us a peek at tomorrow, automobile technology lives up to our expectations for today, and the slow progress of improvements in home construction is an accurate view of yesterday.

Still, I have no respect for the rules of the tyrant and believe, instead, that new house rules will eventually prevail.

The “S” word and the American home

It is gutsy to say the plain truth when its implications might upset the status quo actions and beliefs of your audience. Paul Deffenbaugh, the Editorial Director of Professional Builder magazine, recently wrote a courageous editorial to his readers–the mainstream builders, architects, and product manufacturers of America’s homebuilding industry. His point is based on evidence that the American lifestyle is proving to be unsustainable when scaled up to include current global marginalized populations, now emerging. He then made the obvious leap that if our lifestyle is unsustainable, then one of the primary pillars of our way of life, the typical American home, is also unsustainable and needs to be reconsidered.

Deffenbaugh’s challenge to his readers is that we can either be eventually forced to change because of becoming increasingly irrelevant, or we can choose to change and become part of the solution. I applaud Deffenbaugh for his prescience, but mostly for his optimism. Nothing from the pattern of behavior of the conventional building industry over the last 75 years suggests that they would listen willingly to such a message. I hope I’m wrong.

Here’s part of Deffenbaugh’s explanation and his appeal:

Because the truth is simple. We can’t sustain this lifestyle; we must change. In an editorial in The New York Times Jan. 2, Jared Diamond, who wrote the brilliant book Guns, Germs and Steel, notes that developed countries consume resources at a rate 32 times greater than developing countries. China has a consumption rate about 11 times less than ours. But China is working hard to catch up. So is India. If both were to achieve our rates, the world’s consumption of resources would triple…. Diamond points out that if the entire world consumed at our rate, it would be equivalent to having a population of 72 billion people. We sure can’t sustain that.

This means we have to change how we build houses. We can debate about how long it will take for serious adverse effects force us to change. Or we can change now.

We have the technology and resources to develop land and build houses that are far more sustainable than what we build now. That know-how has been in place for decades and is implemented more each day. Our failure to make this transition is symptomatic of an industry that is slow to change and that often has change forced on it by outside causes.

What if we all decided to stop using so many resources and started building homes that were sustainable?

Deffenbaugh is saying to the homebuilding industry that we can either be the beneficiary or the victim of an inescapable future. Moreover, making sustainable homes is more about changing our mindset than about invention. By adapting methods and technology from other industries, we indeed have within our grasp the means to build higher quality, more durable homes today. There are many significant model building projects going on throughout North America, demonstrating that we can build attractive homes to occupy smaller physical footprints, consume far fewer resources, and require far less energy in use. As evidence, reports about LEED platinum and net-zero homes are becoming ever more frequent. It will be a better world when such high-performance homes become commonplace.

Two such pilot projects are an outcome of our OPEN Prototype Initiative (OPI). The first project, the Crotched House (OPEN_1) was completed in the fall of 2006. A short video summarizes the story about this two unit residence for Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center. It challenged us immensely due to the intense mechanical requirements, but it also helped us to make giant strides forward in our on-going efforts to develop better ways to build.

We are now taking those lessons and innovations forward to our next OPI residence, Unity House (OPEN_2), which will be the President’s residence for Unity College in Unity, Maine. I’ll be giving occasional updates about Unity House as we’ll be beginning shop fabrication soon and preparing for site assembly in early summer. When it rises, I believe Unity House will be nothing less than a demonstration of the future of homebuilding.

It will also be another demonstration that Paul Deffenbaugh’s dream of sustainability is possible right now.