Monthly Archives: May 2008

The School Teacher’s Challenge

The sustainable house, isn’t sustainable, if it isn’t both affordable and widely available.

One of my brothers is a grade school reading teacher in Texas. Having read my post about sustainability, he issued the “school teacher’s challenge,” which would have us building him a custom designed, high-performance, sustainable home that he could afford on his modest salary.

I’d like nothing more than to do that, and not just for my brother. But to be able to build high-performance homes at a price range that would allow the average income family to buy one, nearly everything about the way homes are built will have to be changed. We can’t create high quality, affordable homes when each one is made one-at-at-time, on individual building sites, directly from raw materials. Architect Kent Larson, my colleague and partner in the OPEN Prototype Initiative, has pointed out, that current homebuilding methods are the equivalent of building cars, one-at-a-time, in the driveway of each consumer. If cars were made that way, it is easy to speculate that they would be 25-50 times more expensive and about half as reliable. To make really good homes available to Main Street America, we’ll need a new mindset and a new system.

We launched the OPEN Prototype Initiative specifically to work toward the development of a new approach to building. Through this effort, we’re trying to broadly connect with the homebuilding industry, to promote a set of standards and principles that would result in the development of components and systems that could be mass produced at a scale that would ensure both quality improvement and price reduction.

The Unity House project is a prototype of this idea. One of the core concepts is to change the building site from a place of inefficient manufacturing to a place of efficient assembly. The shift is simple in theory: bundles of raw commodity materials are replaced with preconstructed elements; unprocessed wire, pipe, connectors, elbows, and valves are replaced with manifolds, harnesses, and “plug-and-play” systems; linear on-site construction is replaced with parallel off-site preconstruction; pick-up-truck construction exposed to weather is replaced with state-of-the-art Lean manufacturing.

For Unity House, we distilled the many thousands of parts and pieces down to about fifty preconstructed elements. We are using modules for the mechanical-intensive areas, panels for walls, floors and roof sections for the living areas, and modular systems for interior partitions and finishes. It’s a multi-pronged approach, to give us many different ways to achieve the project requirements. The modules and panels are already in production. You can see progress photos on the OPEN Prototype Initiative web site.

The obstacles to the “school teacher’s challenge” are many, but if I squint real hard, it’s possible to visualize how it happens. If manufacturers and suppliers of building products could agree on some basic dimensioning standards, materials could be supplied with added value, and in a more complete form. Virtual libraries and catalogs would make everything available to designers, engineers, and homeowners, making it possible for truly custom homes to be quickly assembled in design, the same way they would ultimately be built. Based on Open Building concepts, electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems would be accessible, allowing them to be complete systems and facilitating quick plug-in connections for assembly, change, and repair.

Basically, the high-performance affordable home is just a shift of consciousness away; no new technology or radical innovations are required. In addition, adopting a few general standards, interfaces, and principles would unify a fragmented industry and create vast new areas of innovation, creative competition, and whole new sectors of economic potential.

There will be losers when the “school teacher’s challenge” is won, but the winners—including homeowners, now and in the future—are long overdue and desperately in need of more sustainable places to live their lives.

Unity Commencement #3

Rule #3. Save your world

It’s actually a simple thing to define wealth and progress more maturely, more humanely, and with more sustainable ambitions. It just needs to happen in the hearts and lives of people like you and me, one at a time.

Almost forty years ago, I heard a speech by the great English economist E.F. Schumacher in which he said something that has been my mantra and beacon ever since. I’ll pass it on exactly as I wrote it down. “The most powerful and useful thing any individual or organization can do, is to create a visible model of the ideal world they envision.” His point was that it is often useless to struggle and fight against the big world problems. It’s typically frustrating, ineffective, and depressing. On the other hand, it’s much easier, much more positive, and much more rewarding, to work toward your ideal of how the world should be – by simply creating it where you are.

Schumacher was echoing the words of Gandhi’s: “Be the change you want to see in the world,” but he was also specifically talking about creating tangible evidence for others to see, allowing your visible model to inspire others in a potentially endless cycle of positive change. Schumacher’s take on the concept was to not only “be the change,” but also to be deliberate about ensuring that others see it and learn from it. Every good model of a better world, large or small, has the potential to become a movement. This simple idea is the definition of the term, “seeds of change” and it is something that any person, group, or community can do, right now.

Inspired by the Schumacher/Gandhi challenge, my wife, Christine, and I have spent our years together trying to build good, visible models of the world as we’d like it to be for everyone.

First, in our home life: we have tried to make this our number one priority and a place where love and patience are boundless. We have two amazing daughters and 39 years of marriage to show for it. In addition, we have only used the sun and wood to heat our home for the past 36 years.

Second, in our business, we have tried to make it a place where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential, and where responsibility, authority and money are fairly distributed. Our view of a healthy business is one in which everyone can apply Tedd’s Rules in their own way. We have 80 associates, many of whom have been with us for over 15, 20 and 25 years to show for it. Also, our facilities have been built primarily from recycled materials, and we use our wood waste as our heating fuel.

Thirdly, we have the houses we build. We believe homes greatly matter in the lives of people and communities. This Winston Churchill quote is carved into a beam you see as you enter our building: “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” Our company mission statement therefore doesn’t mention buildings: it reads, “Through process and product, to improve the quality of lives.”

We now are trying, audaciously as usual, to shape the future of homebuilding. Our OPEN Prototype Initiative, in partnership with MIT, is an attempt to make a visible model of the sustainable American home. In our vision, this home will be capable of lasting 500 years, require zero energy for heat and power, and will be affordable. It may take many years for this vision to be fully realized, but once again, there is no plan B. I’m happy and proud to say that our most recent effort in creating that model is also a partnership with Unity College, and it will rise right across the campus in the next month or so. Our vision and yours are now destined to be entwined, for many centuries.

So, I guess this speech could have been much shorter: Tedd’s rules are:

Be happy, buck convention, save your world.

There is no doubt that the world is in distress and that these are difficult times, but I believe that we will not only endure, we’ll prevail. In the deepest part of us, there is an inner truth that fires a spirit capable of compassion, sacrifice, and an inherent longing for sustainability.

Somewhere within us, we know what all religious teachings have been trying to tell us for centuries: that this life is ephemeral and transient, and that success and failure, as popularly defined, are a lie. It is the mission of our team—as I like to think of you and myself—for each of us to find meaning with our hearts, and our minds, and our hands, and our souls. The work of our lives is simply to bring out all that is within us, and doing that will not only save us – it will save the world.

Unity Commencement #2

Rule #2: Buck convention.

Don’t deny your youthful naiveté; it may be a blessing. Innocent idealism trumps cynical realism. In a world that has gone so wrong, a certain amount of ignorance can be a powerful tool. You have no trouble thinking outside the box when you’re not in it. In this world, there’s an overabundance of the rational, reasonable and realistic and not enough big, hairy audacious, let’s-stretch-ourselves belief in the possible. So, challenge conventional wisdom; much of it has proven to be both unwise and unsustainable.

Trust your instincts and then trust yourself to learn about the constraints and barriers in real time. If you are humble, resilient, perseverant and adaptable, you’ll end up where you should be – not with someone else’s ideals and visions, and not where you were told to stop.

Conventional wisdom tends to build up big, thick defensive walls to ward off the evidence that it might be wrong, incomplete, or inadequate. Habit and history are powerful forces, but they also often create arbitrary mental boundaries and constrain possibility. Over time, habit becomes belief, belief becomes cultural law, and questioning it becomes heresy.

Sometimes—in fact, very often—the ideas, processes, and systems we take for granted, are out of date or just plain wrong. Henry Ford said that if he had listened to conventional wisdom, he would have worked on faster horses. If our founding fathers had listened to conventional wisdom, we might still be living under English rule, and we certainly wouldn’t have tried the grand American experiment we call democracy.

Soon after I went off on my own in carpentry and building, I started seeking a better way to build because I’d become dissatisfied with what is known as stick construction. Ironically, it is also called conventional building. As an alternative, I eventually decided to embark on a mission to revive the craft of timberframe building in North America. From a rational perspective, the idea was nuts. Although timberframing had been the dominant form of wood building for several thousand years, it had been completely dead for the previous four generations; there was nobody to learn from and the only available tools were antiques. Furthermore, I didn’t even know how to do it.

So, there were some significant obstacles, but I had some things going for me to improve my odds for success:

• youthful naiveté
• blind ignorance
• unwarranted optimism
• dumb perseverance
• no Plan B

Today, I know how to timberframe. I’ve written four books about it and there are now around four hundred companies throughout North America that specialize in this ancient, but now completely modern building method.

So, what big, thick walls of conventional wisdom stand in your way? There are many and there is much at stake. For tens of thousands of years of human development, we struggled to protect ourselves from nature, but now it is nature that needs to be protected from us.

To build a sustainable world for humans, we’ll first need sustainable beliefs and aspirations. We need the power of innocence; we need a new vision from those who haven’t yet been boiled in the stew of prevailing illusions and disconnections. Those who remain unshackled to accepted economic and societal assumptions are unlikely to need being told that:

• Prosperity is not just about money and stuff
• Our purpose here on earth is not to shop and consume
• Progress is not inherently defined by growth
• Productivity does not trump health
• The desires of present lives are not more important than the needs of future lives

That leads to the final rule.

Unity Commencement #1

Last Saturday, I gave the commencement address at Unity College in Maine. I was also given an honorary doctorate, which is likely to make many who know me well chuckle, with the exception of my oldest daughter, Emily, who is now deep in the throes of writing her dissertation for a real doctorate.

The speech could have been better and it certainly wasn’t terribly original, but it was an accurate reflection of a few things I feel strongly about, which I called Tedd’s Rules. I’m going to post the written version of the speech over next few days.

I’m deeply honored and very humbled about being asked to speak on this milestone day in your lives. I’ll admit I was surprised to get the invitation. You see, when you strip me back to my essence, wiping away some of my biographical spit and polish, I’m really still at heart a carpenter, which was my career choice at your age, and carpenters aren’t typically asked to give commencement speeches.

Well, it’s pretty easy for me to guess what you’re thinking right now: “Who IS this geezer? I hope he doesn’t talk too long.” I realize sitting there patiently could be hard. I’m now literally the only thing left standing between your years of hard work and your diploma, so I’ll try to be sensitive to that.

I do have some thoughts for this day, but this is not a pulpit and I’m in no position to preach. I offer these words with humility, or as my Dad used to say at the end of making a persuasive argument: “Of course, I could be wrong.”

As Unity College graduates, my preconceived notion here is that I am talking with you as new teammates, as Unity’s environmental focus and mission for sustainability likely lands many of us on the same team. Old as I look, I have a lot of working years left, and I very much believe that in that time—let’s call it twenty-five years—we can make this a much better, more sustainable world for our family and friends, for our communities, for our country, for this planet, and, of course, for ourselves.

To keep this simple and short(er), I have just three pieces of advice to give you—none original—but taken together they still amount to this veteran’s pointers to his new teammates. I’ll call them Tedd’s rules.

Rule #1. Be happy.

Love what you do. I know this sounds trite and obvious, but all too few follow this rule. I know many people who have spent their entire lives being absolutely miserable in their work. I’m sure you do too. When you see it go on year after year, decade after decade, it’s enough to make you cry. Even financial security doesn’t compensate for this bad choice.

Sustainability begins in you. It is critical that you find work that satisfies you in that very deepest part of your soul. You can’t be useful and effective if the thing you do every day is at cross-purposes with your heart.

Don’t even spurn this advice for a good cause, unless it’s only a short-term mission. If you try to work for a cause or an effort that doesn’t grab the spirit and substance of you, then it’s more likely that you’ll end up as another one of its victims instead of a part of the solution. So, do not submit your time on earth to anything other than a full discovery of your true calling.

Mastering anything takes a long time. It’s true of art, music, writing, law and medicine. It’s also true of forestry, farming, mechanics, and my profession, carpentry and building. Have patience (including you, parents). However long it takes, whatever it takes, find something to do that you never have to force yourself out of bed for. From then on, there will be few limitations to what you can achieve.

Remember also, that your graduation today doesn’t determine your path; it only increases your freedom to be very selective about it and your ability to master it.

When I was in school, I had ambitions of going into journalism or politics or law. I wasn’t really sure which avenue to pursue because I wasn’t really committed to any of them, but they were on the list of accepted professions to be pursued by college students, so that’s what I thought I should do.

As luck would have it, I ended up spending some concentrated time doing carpentry when I came to New England. I knew I loved building things, but always assumed that carpentry was beneath me somehow. But in this period, I met a very special master carpenter who was the most skilled building craftsman I had ever met and also the most passionate, even though he was already past retirement age. One day, upon hearing that I was an English major, he gave me a five minute recitation, by memory, of his favorite Yeats poem. It blew me away and taught me that you don’t have to give up one thing to become another, you can take it all with you.

I also learned from this man and others that the dignity of the work comes mainly from having the right attitude. They taught me that carpentry isn’t just a job of banging nails in wood, raising walls and laying floors; but it’s rather a much higher mission, having to do with improving the quality of peoples’ lives for generations and generations into the future.

When I understood its deeper dimensions, and when I came to finally understand just how challenging and incredibly difficult it is to truly master the craft of building, I was hooked for life. I have now been a builder for over thirty-five years and I have just as much energy and commitment for it today as I did when I was twenty five and I’m not at all eager to stop because there’s so much more to learn and do.

There are a few interesting outcomes to Rule #1 and you’ll learn more of these when you get there, but I’ll give you a peek.

-When you work for the love of it, you don’t work for money. It becomes an outcome, not the primary goal. My wife and I spent many of our early years with very little money and a few recent years with more than adequate money. I prefer the latter to the former, but though I remember the years of living in a one-room cabin, simpler meals and half-filling the gas tank, I don’t recall ever wanting to do anything else. The hard times and easy times honestly aren’t that different when you find your calling.

-When you work for the love of it, you come to realize that comfort is overrated. If you’ve ever kayaked down a river, been out on snowshoes (or a snowmobile) on a sub-zero moonlit night, or reached the summit after a long mountain climb, then you know that there are several levels of satisfaction that rise way above simply being comfortable. The finest things in life, in fact, usually have attached to them some amount of serious stress, pain and hard work. Every mother knows about this basic truth. You already have a sense for that also, or you wouldn’t be graduating today. I’ve experienced this feeling many times over the years as I’ve worked long days and weeks with my associates in the company breaking through barrier after barrier with our buildings, each time achieving things previously impossible. These accomplishments are sheer, unfettered joy, and it’s easy to get addicted to that.

-When you work for the love of it, you will find, in Abraham Lincoln’s words “the better angels of your nature.” I don’t know what would have become of me if I’d chosen a different path in life, but I do know that this one has demanded me to try harder to rise above my petty and selfish tendencies, if only because I have learned (unfortunately, too many times) that the small side of me always makes things worse.

Rule #1 is so important that I will also offer it as the #1 reason for this commencement speech. If you ever feel outside pressure to take the wrong path, tell them this old guy you heard talk kind of scared you about that. I’ll be glad to take the blame.

Greed’s perfect storm

It is said that family businesses classically go through a rise and decline cycle of succession, memorably termed, “Thunder, Blunder, and Plunder.” Thunder, the company’s founding generation, typically sets the standard for energy, courage, leadership, and innovation. Blunder is the generation befuddled by their inherited responsibility and lacking the courage or vision to live up to it. And Plunder is the generation, with no grounding, that takes advantage of all that is left to them for purely personal gain. If they don’t manage to kill the enterprise, the next generation—just to survive—has to muster the character to cycle back to a Thunder level of leadership.

In the last century or so, homebuilding in America has gone through an analogous pattern of rise and decline. The Thunder era is evident in buildings where trade mastery, construction durability, and architectural integrity were evidently a common standard. While the Blunder era still built some wonderful homes, a need for speed began to supersede the requirement for longevity and building trade mastery. In that era, the influence of some very good builders slowly gave way to other interests and market forces. And Plunder? We have lived with that era during the last half of the 20th century through today. Until the current recession, plundering the housing marketplace had become the very raison d’etre for much of the industry. There’s nothing wrong with profiting from building; builders have been doing that for centuries, but the distinguishing characteristic of plundering is that good standards of workmanship and construction quality become the specific obstacles to be strategically undermined in pursuit of other objectives, such as good quarterly reports. Quality building requires skill, takes time, and costs money – all anathema to those bent exclusively on paying less and getting more.

In larger cities, you can often see Thunder, Blunder, and Plunder played out in concentric circles around the older town center. In Colorado Springs, where I grew up, the Thunder era of building was roughly from 1875 through the 1920s. The old parts of the city have excellent, varied architecture and rich displays of building craftsmanship. Even the old working class neighborhoods were simply smaller house and lot versions of the upper class neighborhoods. They still reflected the variety of typical, early 20th century architectural styles, built with good materials and apparent care. This era was stalled by the Great Depression and ended with WWII. Outside of that old Thunder zone, you can see what was going on in the Blunder years. I don’t know what actually happened, but it appears it might have unfolded this way: the designers and developers did their best to strip the houses down to the bare essence of functionality, but good carpenters and builders (probably many of whom had worked on homes from the previous era) couldn’t help but maintain at least the fundamental aspects of their accustomed building standards. Here, bad design and some cheesy developments were legitimized and upgraded by some pretty good builders. Apparently, though, not enough skilled tradesmen were left to stem the backsliding when the real plundering began, between 1960 and 1970, as the Colorado Springs metropolitan area grew 64%, from 144,000 to 236,000. It has gone unabated since, with the population now rising to about 600,000. Therefore, in the case of Colorado Springs, the Plunder ring is the big sprawling suburbia that now houses most of the population, the Blunder ring defines a thin boundary area including the old core, and the Thunder area is now quite small in comparison. Of course, there are exceptions in each zone, but the highest concentration of well-designed, well-built homes can be found at the Thunder builders’ core, and the very worst homes, along with most of the crime-ridden slum neighborhoods, are out at the Plunder builders’ fringes. Nearly every growing city in America has a similar story to tell.

I’ll admit to being an optimist, but I believe the Plunder era of homebuilding is coming to an end. The sub-prime disaster was greed’s perfect storm, fueled by the converging influences of blind and fast money, butt-ugly developments, and really bad builders. It was a cacophony of shills propping up a ruse. And now that the economic tide has gone out – to paraphrase Warren Buffet’s wise remark – we can now see quite clearly that all the players in those bad business deals were swimming naked.

With the truth revealed, there will be an opportunity to help establish new mindsets and new standards, as we eventually emerge from this recession. Could it be the beginning of the next cycle, and the beginning of a new Thunder era?

I think it’s possible.