Monthly Archives: October 2008

Are architects relevant?

Duo Dickinson, a well-known and talented residential architect, wrote a revealing editorial about the housing crisis and his profession. It appeared in Sunday’s New Haven (CT) Register. Dickinson writes that the housing bubble was foreseen by only a few architects like himself.

“But who was in the best position to tell people that the houses being sold to them had a fraction of the value they were paying for? Well, truth be told, residential architects, like me, could have declared that the emperor had no clothes. There were a bunch of us who unrelentingly spoke of the mis-fit between what was being built and what people were paying for it, and of the absurdity of basing the value of a home on its monthly mortgage payment.”

His point is that lots of people may have suspected the problem, but architects were among those who should have known about the bubble, and whose opinions should have carried weight. However, few knew and fewer still cared, and it didn’t matter anyway because architects aren’t really very much involved in mainstream homebuilding.

“Unlike legal aid attorneys who can tell the least powerful among us what their rights are, or the emergency room doctor who can make clear the practical and ethical realities of health care to those who are most endangered, architects have largely abandoned social relevance for the glamour of a star system where the hip and fashionable get the professional credibility that carries media attention.

Abstraction has been celebrated in my profession to the point where sculpture and architecture merged in the buildings that received acclaim. This stylistic fetish further reinforced our status as elite artistes in the minds of many.”

Parenthetically, I will point out that this use of the word “elite” is the reference to the educated but out-of-touch kind of person derided recently in McCain ads, as opposed to the primary dictionary definition which is: “the choice or best of anything considered collectively, as of a group or class of persons.”

Elite or not, architects have largely marginalized themselves by completely separating themselves from what people want or care about in regards to homes. The patrons are essentially asking for well-prepared vegetables and meat, but these haughty chefs deliver the equivalent of escargot. More from Dickinson:

“Many of us aspired to be fashion designers rather than grounding what we do in the belief that a client has legitimate demands, that a context has elements to be respected, and a budget must be derived from the true costs of what it takes to build any building.

Instead, we have used the prophylactics of “green” and “sustainability” to project an image of relevance that is grounded in some overarching social responsibility rather than the nitty-gritty world of dealing with people, neighborhoods and money. This disconnect made us largely irrelevant to those who might have listened to us.”

Since architects are involved with less than 5% of new American homes, it could be said that in no other profession are so many people so diligently (and expensively) educated to do so little. Architects should have been in this game, but they’ve not even been close to the sidelines because they tend to prefer the air up in the clouds. They might think this absolves them of blame, but Dickinson isn’t buying it:

“Architects could have warned against this rip-off, but a lot of us valued fame over relevance.”

The craft of business

Last week I was asked to give a presentation about our attempts to create a more democratic, bottom-up business model to a group of graduate students from Antioch University New England. They visited our company as a part of their research for a course called: “Building Sustainable Organizations.” My preparation for their visit caused me to organize some thoughts about a subject that has become an important aspect of my daily thoughts and efforts. I call it, “The craft of business.”

For many years, we have specifically tried to build an open, sustainable organization. It’s a path and process that is at various times interesting or maddening; exciting or disappointing; rewarding or humbling. Like our own American democracy vs. countries that are run by dictatorships, it is easy to come to the conclusion that the alternative surely must be easier and less messy, but it is also, most definitely, not better.

Our company can’t claim to be the perfect model for what we’ve been striving for, but we’ve come a long way and we’re not turning back. We like this path. It’s based on a goal to make our company always a restorative, positive influence on peoples’ lives, both internally and externally. Greatly inspired by evidence from the workings of natural systems, we are building an organization that engenders more discipline, energy, innovation and constant improvement than could ever be generated by command and control management.

Along the way, I’ve learned some lessons from my perspective as a Company Steward (my title).

1. Progress is more important than growth.

Growth may be an outcome of progress, but it’s often not. Strive for progress and see what happens.

2. Signs of life are more important than signs of order.

Chaos is not the enemy; inertia is.

3. Doing right is the first and primary objective.

Sustainable business recognizes that moral, spiritual and ecological considerations should be given greater value than economic goals and strategies.

4. With entrepreneurship comes responsibility, not entitlement.

The purpose of business is not to be a wealth and power generator for a few executives, but to be a mechanism for creating opportunity and lifting people.

5. The mission of the company is NOT more important than its people…

…unless you are in the business of saving lives.

6. Ninety-nine percent of the time, systems are bad, people are good.

When people perform poorly, tinker with the system and support the people.

7. Give away the things to do that are fun and help people grow; help with the hard and tedious things.

Let others have as much responsibility, authority, recognition and fun as possible, and then pitch in to help when things in their world get difficult.

8. If people in your company don’t challenge any of your ideas, worry.

You are not always right.

9. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Pride goeth before a fall.

10. If people stop laughing on the job, worry.

Business at its best is fun.

The medium is NOT the message

I am first of all a carpenter and builder. I like shaping and assembling materials and I like to see buildings rise from the ground because the forces of brain and brawn made it happen. It’s a process that gives honest and direct feedback in response to physical effort, which is nearly always equal parts gratifying and motivating. You can literally measure the quantity and quality of the work achieved in any time period and therefore know, with some objective certainty, that it will have a lasting affect on lives and communities. But those same observations incessantly reveal that it could have also been done better. Good builders are proud, humble and addicted.

After nearly 35 years and over 700 buildings, I can say that our company has continuously improved and, project by project, year by year, made some remarkable achievements in nearly every phase of design and building. I can also say that nothing we’ve done has been perfect. Somehow we’ve managed to both improve dramatically and still have as far to go as we did in the year of our founding.

I am also a timberframer. As a young carpenter and builder, I worked to relearn and reinvigorate the craft of timber joinery as a way to infuse the building process with more craft and greater inherent beauty and durability. I couldn’t understand why timberframing had been abandoned by the late 19th century. If it had proven to be labor intensive and inefficient in the days of hand tools, why wouldn’t it fare better in the age of sophisticated power tools and material handling equipment? And if the old style timberframe house—with its typical poor insulation, low ceilings and dark spaces—was obsolete, then what about a modern version with expanses of glass, open living areas and super-efficient insulation? I essentially squinted hard and saw timberframing as a structure upon which we could build a bridge to the future of homebuilding, not as a reversion to ancient methodologies.

Even more than I could have imagined, the effort of reviving timberframing has proven to be an excellent basis for rethinking and reinventing the process of homebuilding. It has grown into a healthy industry and has attracted to its ranks scores of great craftspeople and builders throughout North America and overseas. Inch by inch, we have collectively raised the bar of homebuilding craft and quality. Over the last 25 years or so, our impact has been real and profound.

In my company, I am now dog-paddling in a pool of talent and energy, as I work with a large group of hard-charging carpenters, engineers, architects, building systems specialists, woodworkers and project managers. I can no longer say that my skills are the best in any of those disciplines. Luckily, I still have a role. I keep my eyes on what’s next, as we continue to improve on that bridge to the future of homebuilding. A better way is always just around the corner and there’s always another corner. I’m finally at peace with the notion that the original dream is, in fact, a towering cathedral that won’t be finished in my lifetime. It’s satisfying enough to see it taking shape and rising upward.

But it is important to understand that just as a bridge is not the destination, the medium (in this case) is not the message.

Timberframing has indeed taken us away from the loggerheaded conventional wisdom about how homes should be built and turned our whole emerging industry towards innovation, both by inclination and necessity. Here are few things we’ve learned from the timberframe perspective:

  • Homes are better when they are infused with well-executed and visible craft. Architecture and building crafts should not be separated.
  • All built volume is valuable and shouldn’t be wasted.
  • A sustainable home is a durable home. The design and construction goal should be projected in centuries, not decades.
  • Structure and insulation can be separated, with benefits to energy efficiency and potential building durability.
  • All homes can be energy misers.
  • Shell and infill can be separated, with benefits to adaptability of the building to its inhabitants over time.
  • Homes’ environments should be malleable to the inhabitants.
  • Fabricating building elements in controlled conditions, and using the site for assembly only, improves quality and efficiency.
  • The discipline of fabricating exacting building elements is a building solution in itself.
  • Advanced CAD software improves quality and efficiency. “Virtual before actual,” is the modern equivalent of, “measuring twice and cutting once.”
  • Applying the best of modern technology to the building process can help to make buildings better and more affordable.

Now that most of my professional life has been spent with timberframing nearly always playing a central role in our building process, I have come to realize that it has matured into a system that, like the conventional methods we have tended to spurn, has potential for its practitioners to get mired in ruts of conventional wisdom. Timberframing has limits:

  • A timberframe doesn’t automatically make the house better.
  • A high performance, durable building results from keeping an eye on every detail.
  • A well-crafted timberframe in a badly designed home is a waste of time and timbers.
  • Neither a frame nor a building shell is a house.
  • Most local contractors aren’t able to work with timberframe buildings effectively and efficiently without training.

All good building stems from keeping the priorities balanced and focused. The oldest surviving book about design and building was written by the Roman architect Vitruvius over 2000 years ago. His famous triad of objectives for buildings still describes the fundamental goals for good quality building today. He essentially said that good buildings are a composition of function, strength and beauty (utilitas, firmitas, venustas) and that none should be sacrificed for the other. I suggest that when buildings achieve this, they are also sustainable because they are loved for their beauty, appreciated for their usefulness and survive the rigors of time because they are structurally strong. It goes without saying that the principles defined by Vitruvius don’t describe a method, but a result.

After 35 years, I will always be a timberframer, but I won’t only be a timberframer. The objective of making high performance, sustainable, beautiful and affordable buildings is far more important.