Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Other Pythagorean Theorem

A passage I read in Chris Hedges’ book, TheEmpire of Illusion, so stunned me I had to check his references. Sure enough, it appears to be true:

“Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate–a figure that is growing by more than 2 million every year. A third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42 percent of college graduates. In 2007, 80 percent of the families in the United States did not buy or read a book.”

In summary, lots of people can’t read and lots of people who can read, don’t use that ability very fully. I don’t believe we can be a great nation while this trend persists. It is surely the harbinger of our undoing. It undermines our ability to compete economically because ignorance is the bane of innovation and efficiency, but furthermore–andperhaps worse–the vast vacuum of individual learning is quickly becoming the black hole into which the legitimacy of our democracy is disappearing. Knowledge feeds real power and is the key to true freedom,while ignorance sucks the life out of both. Watching television is the replacement for literacy, but knowledge doesn’t come via packaged messages over the airwaves. Those who can’t get their information independently are easy prey to propaganda and lies. They push “truth” into the brains of consumers in the same way they push Viagra and hamburgers. Ultimately, it’s actual beliefs, and eventually votes, that have been pressed into the informational vacuums.

One of the tenets of the Pythagorean brotherhood (a following of the mathematician and teacher, Pythagoras, who gave us the mathematical theorem without which we builders would be lost.) was that ignorance itself is not the problem, but ignorance of ignorance was to be considered a grave sin because it describes a personal abyss from which there is no escape route. When you don’t know what you don’t know, you therefore don’t have the self-awareness that would motivate you to learn.

As a kind of religious doctrine, what Pythagoras (circa 500 BC) preachedis that ignorance of ignorance becomes its own Catch-22, an avoidable condition that traps its victims in a vicious, dead-end cycle. For him, that trap was the equivalent of hell on Earth, and those in its thrall were to be avoided because they are generally unredeemable. On this point–and on his theorem), I too am a Pythagorean. I call the conditionCompound Ignorance (or Ignorance², or just I²) and have made it the number one personal deficiency to ferret out in job interviews. We can coach, teach and train (which we want to do anyway with new associates) but it’s pointless when individuals aren’t interested in learning anything because they think they already know it. I guess I’m admitting to a particular hiring discrimination, and as far as I can discern, it’sstill legal: the Compound Ignorant need not apply.

Chris Hedges’ writing about the American literacy problem got me to thinking about the literacy rate for those employed in the homebuilding trades. Is it more or less? I don’t know the answer, but I do think there’s a correlation between low literacy and compound ignorance, and there’s plenty of the latter populating the workforce of our industry. The building industry is a pretty good place to hide out if you don’t have an education and don’t have the means or desire to learn. Most of the building industry trades have no learning requirements in one’s past, and no specific learning expectations going forward. If you can physically accomplish the task at hand, that’s generally qualification enough.

I suppose my attitude might sound a bit rough. I do understand that those who aren’t literate or who are stymied by their own bullheadednessstill need to have decent jobs. I also have great sympathy for those who didn’t get a decent education, and I don’t even mostly blame them. Igive the blame primarily to us; to the priorities of our country. We’rea democracy, after all, so apparently most of us don’t think providing agood education for everyone ought to be a national mandate. How can we justify our low achievement in literacy rates among the industrialized countries? (#19, with Cuba #1 and Russia well ahead of us) All of this upsets me. But I don’t think the solution is to dumb down our jobs as a response to our deteriorating educational standards.

And I certainly don’t think the homebuilding industry is a good place for those without an education or learning potential. For most people, their home is their biggest financial investment, and for everyone, homes play too significant a role in our lives to allow the quality of this essential product to be diminished and compromised by low-performing workers.

For the past 60 years, the homebuilding industry has gone in the direction of accepting low education and skills in construction, using the excuse that it is a smart strategy for reducing costs. It’s not smart. By allowing the uneducated and the compound ignorant to play sucha big role in the building of America’s homes, we’ve ultimately paid the price in a half-century legacy of low quality in our housing stock and paralysis in progress and improvement. The entire industry–including all the suppliers, equipment and fixture manufacturers, builders, developers, and designers–have acquiesced in ways large and small to the inevitable drag of ignorance and its demand for stasis.

I have been in discussions with executives and representatives of the manufacturers and suppliers to the homebuilding industry. When confronted with the gap between their own capacity for efficiency and quality improvements, and the final product in which their materials andequipment become a part, they always talk about the inherent inability to bring change or innovation to the homebuilding process. They always point to the fact that is too fragmented and under-skilled to be able tomove or shift beyond a snail-like pace. Therefore, the vast majority ofAmerican homes have been designed so that mostly unskilled people can build them. Everything in the design and construction of the typical home has been oriented to the idea that innovation and improvements mustbe avoided because, essentially the problem is, “our guys can’t handle new information or change.”

Because of this built-in industry resistance to change and improvement, the homebuilding process and product is pretty much just as it was a century ago. We’ve substituted in some good new materials, more advancedequipment and fixtures, and tons of cozy-comfort amenities, but the underlying home itself is stuck in a time warp. Much of this is attributable to prevalence of low skills and compound ignorance.

If you can find one in this recession, walk up to a home construction site and ask the first worker you see how he knows how to do what he does. The answer will be that he learned it there, on jobs just like theone he is on that day. Ask him (there are precious few women–they are much less prone to I² and just might a part of the solution) if he ever took courses relevant to his trade, or even a seminar. If he’s honest, the answer will almost certainly be no because he’s not required to do so, and besides, there’s almost nowhere to go to get that kind of education and training. And then ask him if he’s sure he knows what he’sdoing. If he’s typical, he lacks a lot of things, but not certainty of his knowledge and skills.

In my early carpentry experiences, I worked on job sites with the dumbest, foulest humans I had met up until then. I didn’t know so many expletives could be strung together. I didn’t know the wide variety of ways the F-bomb could be used in speech. Noun, verb, pronoun, adjective;whatever; it was hard to tell. I didn’t know every lunch and break conversation could be x-rated. These guys had nothing to teach and nothing to learn because in their minds there was nothing they didn’t already know. I cringe now at what I built with those guys back then.

Later, I was fortunate to work with crews where there were a few shiningexamples of true building craftsmen, people with real knowledge, deep skills, a love of their work, and a reverence for their trade. Just as ignorance tends to compound itself, knowledge does too (K²). The best craftsmen know what they know but also what they don’t know and they spend their lives continually pursuing higher levels of trade excellence.

Having experienced both sides, I developed a conclusion about those in the homebuilding trades: The deeper the ignorance, the more you’ll find arrogance, uncivil behavior, and incompetence; the greater the knowledgeand experience, the more likely you’ll find humility, civility and mastery.

When I founded our company, the primary goal was to create a model for better homebuilding. A key ingredient of that model was to somehow establish a true craft discipline and a learning culture. After more than 35 years of building, my proudest personal accomplishment is my role in helping to engender an atmosphere of learning and ongoing improvement. At this point, I can’t take more than a small share of the credit for this. Good people draw in good people; good learning and skills draw in more learning and skills. I may have been a prime fractalfor this kind of culture at the beginning, but I feel more like a beneficiary today. Surrounded by great people, good skills and deep discipline, my worries are few and my job is easier.

As we now launch the company renewal and reconfiguration I talked about in a previous blog, one big component is to give a more formal structureto our education and training. We’re working on establishing a completecurriculum, with a full complement of courses and training opportunities. While we have always had in-house education and training,we feel it now needs to be ramped up as we ready ourselves for the challenges of trying to set the highest standards for 21st century homebuilding.

I’ll say more about that curriculum as it develops. In the meantime, what top ten courses would you include?

Rebar!

News from Haiti is heartbreaking. It brings to stark relief the capricious tragedy meted out to those afflicted by the most persistent and awful pestilence to afflict humanity: poverty. Poverty’s fate is extreme vulnerability made worse by invisibility. People who aren’t also consumers don’t matter enough to receive the benefits and protections our human world otherwise has to offer in the 21st century. The advances of the modern world don’t seem so great when the images and stories from Haiti this very morning reveal their vile discrimination.

Most of the deaths in Haiti were senseless. Tens of thousands of lives were lost simply for lack of rebar. Most of the buildings would not havecollapsed nearly so completely had the concrete only been reinforced with skinny little bars of steel. For want of rebar! Any first year engineering student could have told you exactly what would happento those buildings in the event of an earthquake. It’s not a guess anymore; there’s plenty enough science and deadly hard evidence to know it as a promise.

It is wonderful that the world has responded to the emergency in Haiti with such compassion and urgency. Hundreds of millions of dollars are now being spent by dozens of countries in attempt to bring assistance–albeit late–to those victimized by this awful crisis.

But somebody, somewhere, is surely calculating how infinitesimally less it would have cost us to provide Haitians with free rebar and pictorial instruction pamphlets about how to use them. We could have given them away with the only requirement being the institution of a basic structural building code. In comparison to what we are doing today, thiswould have been easy and cheap. But their poverty didn’t move us to actuntil the result of it caused their bodies to pile up like cordwood on the streets of Port-au-Prince. Rebar!

All this grim news is a reminder that good quality homes are one of greatest of advancements of our civilization and should never be taken for granted. It’s also a reminder that the good quality that matters most is in the building shell and structure, not in its amenities and superficialities. Did you see the photos of the Haitian Presidental Palace before and after the earthquake? It’s shining extravagance was clearly about pomp and illusion. Attention to construction detail wasn’tmuch more than skin deep. When veneered quality matters more than substance, someday there will be a price to pay, as the pancaked rubble of the Presidential Palace made so obvious.

I cry today for the Haitians. At the very least, its lessons give me renewed resolve to never compromise building substance for superficialities. The fundamental purpose of home is a secure place to be in a sometimes hostile world. Our core mission as builders is to havethe knowledge, skills, and integrity to first provide the fundamental secure structure. On a day sometime in the future, for a reason we can’tknow with certainty, building well could be the difference between lifeand death. Ask any Haitian.

Next day update:

Emotion affected my quick entry and I failed to give references for my lack of rebar assertion and its impact on lives lost.

The first came from Joel Aschenbach of the Washington Post who, like me,noticed that the fallen buildings revealed very little evidence of reinforcement in the concrete. This is from a post in his Achenblog,with my highlights:

Obviously the U.S. will send aid and relief workers, but we should do more than that: For a small fraction of what the United Statesis spending to bail out banks and auto firms we could help Haiti rebuild with reinforced concrete. Because that’s what I keep thinking when I look at these awful pictures coming from Haiti: Where’s the rebar? It’s like the lack of mosquito nets in malarial Africa: Sucha simple thing, and it would save so many lives. This is the 21st century — and yet people around the world are living and working in buildings that are certain to crumble when the earth moves.

When I was doing research on earthquakes a few years ago, a geologist told me: “Earthquakes don’t kill people. Buildings kill people.” Meaningthat these natural disasters aren’t purely natural. The planet’s crust is shattered by faults, and if you live near one, particularly one that is predicted to break in the near future, you need to live in reinforcedstructures so that the roof doesn’t fall on your head.

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times on January 14, amplified Achenbach’s point with a real-world example:

On Oct. 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0struck the Bay Area in Northern California. Sixty-three people were killed. This week, a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people (now closer to 150,000. TB) have died.

This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story. It’s a story about poorly constructed buildings

Well reinforced buildings don’t necessarily survive magnitude 7.0 earthquakes, but they do greatly increase the chances that the building occupants can survive. It’s similar to the materials and methods we employ to prevent fire spread in buildings. The purpose is primarily to save lives in the event of fire. The building is a secondary consideration. With that in mind, even a minimal rebar schedule in many cases would have saved scores of lives, even when the buildings themselves might have been demolished.

A CNN reporter mentioned that looters were seen stealing rebar from the rubble because it’s so valuable down there. They know about the reasons for it; they just can’t afford it.

Something to blog about

I’ve been doing lots of plotting, and not much blogging these past few months. It’s been an intense period for our company and for me. Innumerable discussions, many different analyses, a series of company and group meetings and lots of personal dialog, have now led to a redirection and reconfiguration of our organization.

Our motivation for change did not come from intractable problems or economic difficulties. In fact, 2009 was a remarkable year for us. At the end of 2008, we decided to “opt out” of the Great Recession. Our strategy was to extend deeper into our projects and further into the homebuilding market by utilizing our broad capabilities instead of beingrestricted to our more narrowly defining specialties. Simply put, if there was work to be done, we wanted to do it ourselves if our quality and efficiency would advance the goals of the project. As a result, we not only survived, but thrived in the most difficult economic conditionsfor builders in at least 70 years.

We also learned something incredibly valuable. What we can do is much bigger, broader and better than what we historically have done. We’re much more capable than we previously knew. Ironically, the robust (and often “irrationally exuberant”) economy of the past 15 or so years kept us in a more limited definition of ourselves and our skills. It wasthe challenge of the recession that caused us to discover our deeper abilities.

I’m not suggesting we’re exceptional or special in this regard. I assumeour situation over the past 18 months has not been different than what millions of people and thousands of companies experienced. Hard times tend to tear away the superficial protective veneers–the cozy routines of habit and history–and enforce the otherwise difficult choice most people have in regards to change. We know from nature that adaptation issynonymous with survival, yet it seems we’re still as a species wired to resist–until “change or die” is the well understood option.

Up until then there was no alternative to it: our company resisted change too. But when the time for choice came, it was like choosing between a dark alley with a dead end and a scary bridge with sunny prospects on the other side. We stampeded toward the untested bridge. But it was fear of the alley, not the courage to cross over that took usto the other side.

Now here we are, not even able to remember the reasons for our resistance not so many months ago. Here we are, doing things we didn’t know we could do; getting more done in less time, with fewer people; improving quality and reducing cost. It turns out we were already proficient at what is most important in homebuilding: craftsmanship, building science, construction efficiency, communication, leadership, teamwork, and a culture of service. And so here we are, coming off a strong year in a weak economy, realizing we have come through this whilestill being more organized for our past than our future. It had come time to change that too.

Two quotes accurately bracket our intentions in the reconfiguration. Henry David Thoreau wisely pointed out that, “In the long run men hit only what they aim at.” And celebrated 19th century Architect Daniel Burnham suggested that such an aim should be high. “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”

And so we are specifically reorganized to aggressively refine and perfect our Open-Built approach to design and building, and in doing this, we seek not only our own success, but to also have a significant influence on the way homes are built throughout the country. We aim to make a difference in this world.

Our commitment to our vision now has the full force of a new strategic plan and a reconfigured organization that will keep us on the path of achieving certain audacious objectives. Our competition is the status quo; the barriers are mostly in the accepted equipment, materials, process and technology of the conventional building systems, and the conventional wisdoms that feed its negative constructs and paralyzing paradigms.

We want to further improve, implement and demonstrate a better way to design and build. The traditional methods have run their course. Conventional building systems and processes are now an impediment to giving the American homeowner the quality they deserve in return for their investment. This calculation isn’t just about money. In fact, the real issue is that homes don’t provide security and comfort on a more visceral, emotional level because usually there’s nothing of real quality in the home beyond the superficial amenities and the homeowners’own stuff. In the underlying building shell and structure, the Americanstandard is no more than a miner’s shack. By building its antithesis for the same dollars, we intend to make a mockery of this practice and product.

We are sure that homebuilding can and should be executed in a way that can give the consumer the same efficiencies and defect-free outcome as Toyota cars and Maytag appliances. Today’s assumption is that homes are so complex and unique that they stand apart from every other type of product where quality is rising and costs are falling. The conventional assumption is that homes are best made with the same attitude and approach that has been used for millenniums. It’s perceived to be somehow better because it’s so archaic. It’s the 21st century. Weintend to prove that a high quality home can be constructed on site in less than 20 days, while also improving its beauty, durability, functionality and sustainability. Yesterday’s processes need to be displaced, even while the 2000 year-old Vitruvian principles remain.

We reject the notion that those who can’t afford to pay more therefore must suffer the fate of also being subjected to the added cost of homes that have the built-in financial burden of poor energy performance. It’sa cynical irony that only the wealthy can afford homes that are energy efficient. We intend to innovate systems and develop strategies to give those who need the energy savings the most the opportunity to live in high performance, sustainable, healthy living environments.

Good design and aesthetic delight are essential attributes in quality building. Architects have abandoned residential design because their process is too time consuming and expensive for the average home. We believe we can use technology in both software and hardware to allow architects to apply their training and skills in a way that’s affordableand sustainable. The key to homebuilding efficiency and affordability shouldn’t be to first have to accept the bland and repetitious. Most of the homes built today are constructed by production builders with mind-numbing repetition; most of the rest are built without the benefit of good architectural designers. The bleak residential landscape is all the evidence one needs that architecture is nearly dead in the homebuilding sector. We can do better and we intend to prove it.

I’ve been on the same path to improve homebuilding for over 35 years. It’s been a stimulating journey, marked equally by exciting achievementsand humbling setbacks. In all, we’re well prepared for what’s next. We know what’s possible and we know what we’re up against. We know we can do it. It seems somehow appropriate that our renewed commitment and sharpened focus comes at the beginning of a new decade, in these very trying times. It seems like the appropriate moment to push the reboot button. It’s the right thing to do when the system is malfunctioning.

So I have something new to blog about. This will be my forum to report about our progress. I promise to tell you about our problems and difficulties as well as our successes. In return, I’m hoping to get yourideas and opinions. What we are attempting will be very far from easy. All the momentum of an entrenched industry–along with the consumer mindset that has learned to accept its fallacies and shortcomings as inherent to the product we call Home–is against us.

If you are willing, please pay attention and weigh in when you get a chance. We could use your help.

Onward!