Report from our Homebuilding Future

I’ve been traveling in Germany and Austria thispast week. I’m on one of my regular “study” trips overseas trying to get a view of the future of American homebuilding. When we come to our senses–and I have undying optimism that we will—we’ll finally have the humility to learn something from the societies and people who set betterstandards for housing quality. In homebuilding, America is perhaps ten years behind many other countries in process sophistication, and a complete paradigm shift behind in product quality. I’m here to see wherewe’ll eventually be when we wake up and catch up.

Here in the towns and villages at the base of the Alps, buildings aren’teven remarkably old at 300 years because there are so many remaining that are 400 and 500 years old, still standing erect and beautiful and in continuing use for shops, restaurants and residences. The European builders’ advantage comes from this tradition, this long history of building craft development. The bar was set very high, a very long time ago. In this setting, it would be seen as a bad investment for both the individual and the country to build to a lower standard today than they did yesterday.

In this part of the world, “green building” isn’t a marketing gambit; it’s the only way to build; it’s the ante into the game. As in the U.S.,competition among builders can be fierce, but here it begins with a commitment to build durable, energy-efficient homes using sustainable materials and practices. Here, you don’t have to teach people that we live in a finite world anymore than you would have tell them that homes should be built to keep out the wind, rain and cold. Consumers demand homebuilding to be just as much about husbanding resources as it is about the fundamentals of shelter. Builders compete on how well they make buildings in the right way; then price.

In this part of the world, the quality emphasis in homebuilding is aboutthe core building (structure, insulation, siding and roofing), not the amenities, appliances, and superficial finishes. Good quality isn’t freeand people are willing to spend what is necessary to get quality where it matters. It is common for the core building to consume more than 50% of the total building budget, where the standard American home often is built on a budget that allocated only 20-25% for the same core structureand insulation. In effect, we have decided that what matters most is the stuff that lasts the least long. We pour most of the budget into theshorter term aspects of the building, like fixtures, appliances and surface finishes. Much of it won’t even last the length of the mortgage.But here in Europe, a new home is often spare, as the owners typically choose to get a good building over fine finishes, knowing they can eventually get the things they want. Priorities and patience are cultural keys to better building.

In this part of the world, “know how” in building means education, training, apprenticeship, discipline and certification. One gains the right to be a builder the old fashioned way: you earn it through education and training that often lasts more than ten years. People herechoose the path of the building trades because there is pride in a profession that is committed to making a positive and long-lasting contribution to society. The opposite is true too. I have found it depressing to see homebuilding crews in America populated by workers whodon’t know and don’t care and weren’t hired for their skills and attitude, but for their wage scale. This is the basis for the compound stupidity of American homebuilding: start with cheap materials, then uselow-skilled and wholly untrained labor to shape them into a building. With that formula, we get what we deserve. The European standard, on theother hand, comes from a cycle of quality that expects the best from well-trained workers who are given great tools and entrusted with the very best of building materials. Funny how simple it is!

In this part of the world, technology and homebuilding aren’t mutually exclusive terms. As one builder said to me yesterday, “we no longer build like the holy Joseph, but he would be proud of what we do.” Craftsmanship doesn’t require regression and isn’t defined by a slow pace. Good builders have always been able to look both backward and forward, knowing what to take, what to leave behind, and continually finding ways to improve. Tradition demands excellence, not the exclusionof technology. Here is where I come to find software, advanced machinery, clever tools and better fasteners. We are grabbing whatever we can to make better buildings, built more efficiently. We have learnedthat technology stretches, rather than diminishes the skills of the tradespeople. In addition to all the traditional skills the European craftspeople are required to learn, they are required to become facile with computers, automated machinery, and a barrage of newly developed materials. It’s the way of the contemporary building crafts and leads tobetter, more sustainable jobs.

As a result of our company’s connection to Europe (including my many treks over here), our software comes from Switzerland, our two large CNCmachines are German, and our processes would be far more familiar to a European builder than our colleagues in America. Over the last twenty years, we have also been able to hire numerous young interns and apprentices from the trade schools and training programs in Germany, Switzerland and France. As a part of their education, they are able to stay with us for up to a year, almost always resulting in a mutually beneficial exchange.

The criticism of European homebuilding is that it’s more expensive, resulting in less homeownership. It’s true. But given the incredible difference in quality, it’s quite impressive that the cost difference isn’t greater. And given how poorly built and disposable the average American home often is, one has to wonder if giving people the opportunity to own such poorly built structures is in their best interest–or ours. From my current perspective sitting on a plaza outside a 600 year old cathedral, having dinner at a restaurant housed in a magnificent 400 year old building that also has 15 occupied apartments in the upper floors, it just seems wrong.

But I see a better future coming.

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