Monthly Archives: July 2008

Whew !

This has been an incredibly busy couple of weeks. Blog posts have been few, but buildings going up have been many. When this much work gets done in a short period of time, it’s not magic; it’s about coordination, planning, smart work, hard work, and really good people.

Mortise and TenonUnity House, OPEN_2, is up, and the exterior is completed, thanks to the efforts of Phil Henry, Paul Boa, Joey Szuch, Hans Porschitz, and Caleb French. The Chronicle of Higher Education and Residential Architect carried the story.

CAD doorsThis week the interior finishes are underway and will be installed by Kevin Bittenbender, Paul Tuller, and Drew Kurimay. Last week, the woodworking team was very busy preparing the millwork, and gave a good demonstration of our flexibility and craftsmanship as they created some prototype finishes for an exciting, contemporary home that breaks new ground, both inside and out.

Unity Window trimWith the work teams dividing up the responsibility and with orchestration by Kevin Bittenbender, most of the work was accomplished very quickly. Scott Bosworth, Josh Conley, and Collin Clifford are building the interior doors, while Scott Frazier and Mike LeBlanc are doing entry doors. Joe Szuch and Dave Chase made the wainscot and wall finish panels. Paul Tuller, Randy Roberts, and Nick Kranowski ran the window trim and ceiling system materials. And it’s no surprise that Skip Singer is masterminding and building our innovative, removable wall.

Unity Trim

Unity in the shop


Weston House Cupola, prebuiltOur This Old House project is completely enclosed, roof is going on, siding is being completed, plumbing and electrical systems are ready for inspection, and finish work is underway. It continues to be great fun to work with the TOH team!

Lifting the Weston cupola with a crane

Cupola getting setTom Silva, Norm Abram, and Rich Trethewey are the “real deal” professionally, while also juggling TV requirements; whereas we are building professionals, only, and are pretty clumsy about the demands of documenting the process for the show. But they are patient, thankfully.

Cupola, from below

Setting the cupolaWe had a couple of good TV sequences when we attached the ceremonial evergreen bough on the ridge, after the last rafter was placed, and again when the cupola, copper roof and all was picked into place, literally topping off the home and completing the enclosure.

Tedd, Christine, and the This Old Houe crew

Stair CAD Stair design

Pete Favat (homeowner) wrote a wonderful blog post about the tree ceremony. He recites a story I told him about the death of my brother Stephen, who was also my original business partner. I’ll make you read Pete’s story, but I will say here that I will always do my best to carry the spirit of Stephen with me, especially in celebrations of our achievements, because that’s when I miss him the most.

This Old House Site CrewOur on-site crew for the Weston project has been Jay Lepple, Mark Roentsch, Luke Marcum, Dennis Wright, Toby Wandzy, Duane Beiler, John McElroy, and Kevin Stowell. I also helped a little, but these guys did a mountain of work, in some very challenging circumstances. Our architect on this project is Chris Adams; the project manager is Tony Poanessa. Heroes, all.

Squam Lake houseTuesday of last week, Norm Abram and I were filmed doing a tour of one of our homes on Squam Lake in New Hampshire. It was fun, but I’ll keep my day job. Norm is more than a consummate woodworking craftsman; he’s just a fine person and we’re privileged for both reasons to work with him. Here’s a sneak peek at home we visited. The filmed tour will be a part of the first show in a sixteen-part series on This Old House, starting this fall.

Squam Lake interior

Squam Lake Interior 2 Our team also completed the enclosure of the BrightBuilt Barn in Rockland, Maine. You can see sequences of photos that show the raising and assembly process, which was completed over the course of just a few days on the BrightBuilt Blog. Our team on BrightBuilt was Project Manager Lovell Parsons and crew members Jesse Gallagher, Seth Ashworth, and Daniel Wirth. It has been a pleasure to work with Kaplan Thompson Architects. We plan to follow them wherever they go next.

Timber CADMeanwhile, Duane Beiler, Eric Selmer, and C. J. Brehio completed work on an addition for a home in Harvard, Massachusetts, which was engineered by Fire Tower Engineered Timber. It was demanding work, as it always is when new construction attempts to match up with old buildings. Connections and interfaces need to be very precise, but in a random, distorted, non-planer way.

Timberframe CADWe have yet another crew out working on a local project designed by the architectural firm Weller & Michal, engineered by Fire Tower Engineered Timber. Our collaboration with these firms has always produced excellent, remarkable buildings. Our crew on this one was Chops Polcari, Dan Rennoldson, Jesse Gallagher, and Guyton Ash.

Church SteepleWhile Norm Abram and I were doing the TOH filming last Tuesday, another crew was putting up a new steeple on a church in Brattleboro, Vermont. The original was demolished by lightning about this time last year. It was a very quick, but dramatic raising: one steeple, one crane pick. The photos from the local paper show the steeple, but not the remarkable framing underneath.

Here’s a CAD drawing of the timberframe.

On-site timberframeLast, but not least, this past Saturday some of us were a part of a volunteer project to put up a timberframe for a local automobile repair company whose shop was swept away in the Alstead, New Hampshire, flood of 2005. The trees for most of the timberframe were donated by a local farm and timberframers from around the Northeast contributed labor for cutting and shaping the individual pieces. Our company donated salvage timbers and labor for one of the tall central wall section…and LOTS of people came out to help with the raising. Here’s a link to the Keene Sentinel story, NHPR coverage, and a couple of photos. Chris Carbone (Bensonwood engineer) designed the timberframe and provided information to all those who donated their work, and Mark Roentsch masterfully orchestrated a smooth and safe raising day.

Working and celebratingOnward!

Fossil Fools

At a party over the July 4th weekend, I had a conversation with one of our clients. Not unlike probably every other holiday gathering in the U.S. this year, one of the topics we talked about was the high cost of fuel. While all of his neighbors and friends are panicking about heating their homes next winter, my client (and friend) said he had no worries. It was gratifying to hear his enthusiasm for his home’s energy performance. “You and I were smart,” he said, “to build a house in response to the energy crises. It just works! On the few occasions when the house gets chilly, I just use the woodstove. Even in the coldest weather, I rely only on the sun and a little bit of wood.”

The energy crisis my client was referring to was the one that happened in 1979-1980, not the one we are experiencing now. We built his house in 1981. It’s interesting how thrifty and wise we get when energy costs are high. It’s also interesting how silly and wasteful we can be when the cost is low. We built many of our most energy-efficient homes in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The energy crises of 1973 and 1979 made us (including the government, through subsidies and tax incentives), extremely creative and very willing to make better energy performance a higher priority. After that, oil costs fell back again and houses quickly grew in size, insulation shrank in importance, and some great energy-conserving methodologies were soon forgotten.

I can tell you without embarrassment that our energy strategies in 1981 weren’t very complicated. Step #1: Go to site, find sun; face it. Put more glass there. Step #2: Add and improve insulation to thermal envelope…and then a bit more. Step #3: Design a compact and open floor plan with public areas south, functional things (stairs, baths, laundry, entry, etc.) north, and bedrooms up. Step #4: Don’t deviate.

Back then, I was our company’s principal designer. Knowing my amateur limits, I was conservative and habitual. The running joke around the office was that you could go to Tedd with any crazy home design ideas you might want, but you’d likely come away with a story-and-a-half cape. Today, we have a team of good architects who create livelier architecture, lots of engineering support to detail the various systems, and a whole lot of new information and technologies. But much of what we do today to create energy conserving buildings, still leans on following the basic steps, learned many years ago. Eighty percent of achieving energy stingy homes is as simple as turning your face to the sun, your back to the north wind, and putting on a good coat. None of us should need a set of instructions for that!

We are doing a series of remarkable projects right now, each a demonstration of cutting-edge, energy-conserving design and technologies. All of them start with the basics. Unity House and Brightbuilt Barn have R-40 walls and roof; the Weston house (featured in the upcoming fall series on PBS’, This Old House) is R-35; all three face south with logically-oriented floor plans. Having done that, Unity and Britebuilt are striving for net-zero and LEED platinum, while the Weston project will be a more sensible alternative to the gargantuan 6,000 to 10,000 square foot energy guzzlers in its neighborhood. Additionally, all of these highly efficient homes will have photovoltaic arrays, thermal hot water, and some sophisticated heating, cooling, and ventilation systems. The last twenty percent is difficult and expensive; the rest ought to be common sense.

I’m proud to say we knew it and applied it in 1981. Then again, so did every other civilization that has lived in cold climates, up until cheap fossil fuel made us stupid. In an already precarious world, this gives us something else to watch out for: fossil fools.

Deming and Habraken and Toyota, Oh My!

If you have followed my posts, you have seen more than a few references to the auto industry, mostly to give evidence as to the level of efficiency and quality missing in homebuilding. My aspirations for homebuilding are wedded to the effective technology you can see under the hood of your car, to the absence of defects in the production of cars, and to the incredible efficiency that causes so much to be purchased for so little. If you compare all the dependable rolling technology you get for $15,000 when you buy a new Toyota Corolla (including chassis, engine, transmission, heat, air conditioning, plumbing, wiring, sound system, comfort seating, upholstery, perfect paint finish, power windows carpeting, air bags, warranty and more) with the same amount of money spent on the construction of a new home, you will get the idea. For the same money, you could get one small, inert bedroom, with inadequate insulation, thin drywall, cheap carpeting, one hand-crank window, no sound system and no furniture. The kind of production efficiency and quality assurance used to manufacture cars is not a proprietary secret. In most industries, it is now just the ante into the game of business. Conventional homebuilders think they are playing a different game.

It is notable, then, that The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday about the reinvigoration of Toyota Home, a division of the company that is now the world’s largest carmaker. Yes, they also build homes and have been doing so—very much under the radar, it would seem—since 1975. If “The Toyota Way” is being brought to the production of homes, expect something very good and getting constantly better: expect the future of homebuilding.

Toyota sets the standard for continuous product improvement, elimination of waste and for balancing customer satisfaction with employee satisfaction. Thousands of businesses, including ours, are adherents to LEAN principles, which have largely been modeled and led by Toyota. Ironically, the quality leadership might not have come from Japan were it not for an American, W. Edwards Deming. He was a statistician and quality control expert who worked with American industry during WWII, but was forgotten afterwards. He was invited to Japan around 1950 to advise their industry leaders about how to build quality into business and manufacturing processes. What he told them sparked an incredible turnaround. There is no doubt that Deming was the catalyst for what is now legendary Japanese quality, and the Deming Prize has been the most prestigious award for Japanese corporations since 1950. If only we had listened…

I now see this history repeating itself. There is precious little information on the Toyota web site about Toyota Home. In fact, there is only one page, with no links. However, there is this clue about what they are doing: “…Toyota’s house making is based on the ‘Skeleton & Infill’ approach.” These are words right out of the mouth of John Habraken, another big thinker whose ideas have been largely ignored in many parts of the world, but not Japan, where he is well known and highly respected. Habraken has preached the theoretical and physical separation of structure and infill for decades. The reference on the Toyota site isn’t a coincidence; it comes from either a Habraken lecture or one of his books. Toyota listened to Deming and therefore led the world in manufacturing quality; they are now listening to Habraken and, in the same manner, may be positioned to use his ideas to transform homebuilding. If we would only listen…

I recognize Habraken’s words because I know them. I discovered Habraken in the early 1990’s and have been an advocate of his “Open Building” concepts since. I was captivated by his book, Supports, tracked him down, and subsequently spent some time with him when he was living in Cambridge, MA, later visited him in Holland and even managed to persuade him to give a full day seminar at our company. Our Open-Built® system is greatly derived from Habraken’s thinking. I’ll devote a post about Habraken in the near future, but for now, you can link to a short bio on Wikipedia. As far as I know, we are the only company in North America that uses the philosophy of Open Building as a basis for our design and construction systems. I now know we, at Bensonwood, have a pretty good companion company in Japan.

One other thing struck me about The Wall Street Journal article. The author ponders whether Toyota can sustain the homebuilding operation because its sales are “so small”— at around 5,000 units a year from three production facilities. They have a goal of producing 7,000 units in the near future. That’s “so small?” I am aware of no companies in North America producing anything like that!

Whether or not Toyota can sustain its homebuilding operations, the answer here is clear. Not to mix metaphors, but if design/build companies and the businesses that supply them fail to see the “value” train leaving the station, their conventionally built homes—unable to compete—will be going the way of the Edsel.