Monthly Archives: April 2010

Full-Scale Lego Building

Last week our company announced two big advances in our products and services: the 3BMatrix™and the OBPlusWall™.They both will help us achieve our on-going, decades-old goal to build high quality, high performance homes at more affordable prices.

For this post, I’ll try to explain why we developed the 3BMatrixsystem and how how it works.

With credit to Vitruvius’sfamous triad*, I believe that good architecture (beauty) is an essential ingredient in quality (functional and durable) homebuilding. As a builder, my criticism of the typical American home has usually been focused on the low standard of construction. But I’m equally critical of the low standard of home design that permeates our landscape. Bad design–really the absence of design in most cases–is just as responsible for turning the American Dream into a nearly disposable commodity.

In fact, the early demise of far too-many homes probably stems more often from bad design than from bad building. In production home communities, mind-numbing repetition is compounded by a complete lack of site responsiveness or vernacular expression. With only a few designs to deploy, the home designs that are conceived to work for everybody are visually exciting to nobody. When things in these kinds of homes start to go bad or require change, their occupants too often don’t see them as worth maintaining or renovating. The homeowners’ abandonment of care quickly turns houses into shacks and entire neighborhoods into slums. Therefore, a key aspect of sustainable, higher performance homebuilding is that the buildings themselves must have character enough to be seen as worth caring for..

This requirement demands that good, individual design somehow must become a part of the process by which homes are conceived and built. There must be a better way for production builders. They are still building most of America’s homes. Unfortunately.

There also needs to be a better way for people who are seeking to build anew home on their own, but don’t have the budget to hire an architect. The typical solution involves the search for the perfect plan by sifting through the many thousands available through home plan websites, books and magazines. (one company claims to offer 27,500 house plans). If the perfect plan isn’t found, it is usually possible to get some customization through the plan company or by simply asking the local builder to make the changes, if they are minor. This process obviously works for many people or there wouldn’t be so many plan companies competing for the business.

There’s a flaw in both of these approaches: there are no generic people.The needs, tastes, and desires of those who plan to build a new home have infinite variation. When meeting that individual level of customization is added to the just-as-infinite varying opportunities and challenges posed by the building site climate, orientation, terrain, and regional building context considerations, it becomes obvious why it is usually difficult to find a preconceived plan that is perfectly suited to the homeowners and their situation.

Matrix componentsThe new Bensonwood Building Block (3B) Matrix is a part of an alternative solution to the problem. Instead of focusing entirely on an individual house plan, we have created a group of building blocks with pre-conceived connections and engineering that literally have thousands of configuration possibilities. Our full library has many hundreds of building blocks, but for this beta launch, we have designed three separate series, each with around 25 or 30 building blocks. While we will ultimately be offering at least four “standard” plans in each series, the intent of each matrix is to have wide-ranging capacity to meet client needs, while also connecting the building specifically to the site conditions.

Like Legos, the system is based on an underlying 3D grid. All the building blocks fit with particular connection rules and a software automation process, allowing the addition or subtraction of blocks or their elements to be efficient, while retaining the appropriate construction information.

Each matrix family is planned for a wide range of preconceived outcomes,as well as possibilities we’re sure we haven’t considered.

All the families start with a base volume and can grow along their volume or adjacent to their volume. Each matrix series also has selected pieces, components or elements that can enhance the space or the building character.
Each matrix series has its own capacities and limitations.
Every component, element and block** (see definitions, below) have “fixed and variable” options, allowing for customization of things like window locations, roof overhangs, material choices, finishes, etc.
The 3BMatrix library is paralleled with a library of floor plan patterns, living spaces and living space combinations. The floor plan library has both individual rooms and combinations of rooms or living areas that make up larger spaces. We have kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms,master bedroom suites, entry patterns, open living area patterns, etc. The design grid ensures that the 3BMatrix and the floor plan configurations and details are compatible.

The process of shaping the floor plans from the library and combining building blocks allows us to find solutions to even very unique situations quickly. After assembling the plans and blocks, we still may need to customize the floor plan details somewhat, but we will likely have reduced that effort to certain areas and details. It saves a lot of time.

Instead of giving them individual names, we named each matrix series after villages. It was a way to suggest how much variation in shape, style and appearance we know can be derived from the chosen building blocks and our plan library. Other matrix series will be suggested in the future. We decided that three was enough for now. They are Hartland,Greenfieldand Fairview.If we were Toyota (without the defects!), Hartland would be our Camry; Greenfield our Corolla and Fairview our Prius.

Hartland is based on a two story volume; the others are a single story. The smallest plan in the Fairview group would be under 700 square feet, while the largest in Hartland could easily be over 4000 square feet. In general, style is flexible in all three series. By changing windows, roof overhangs, trim treatments, etc., all three can lean toward contemporary or be developed into conventional styles.

The Fairview is somewhat radical in its design approach and is all aboutenergy efficiency. The idea in the design layout is to separate the utility functions from the living areas, creating a band of heavily focused mechanical areas on the north side and opening up the primary living areas to bigger volumes, light and sun on the south facing side. It also creates a broad roof expanse for potential PV area and solar hot water. The design concept was derived from our Unity House, which achieved Net-Zero performance and a LEED platinum certification. All the homes in our Fairview series are capable of performing those feats again. Like the Prius, the Fairview has unique aspects and features for the benefit of increasing energy performance. It gives up formality and space in certain areas in exchange.

In a way, revealing the 3BMatrix is a little like revealing the “man behind the curtain.” We’ve been designing on our grid for at least 15 years, which has given us time to build up huge libraries of both 2D and 3D blocks, elements, rooms and patterns. By distilling them into more discreet groups, we hope to increase the ease of building up customized whole house solutions, while also decreasing the cost of both designing and building them.

As we try to perfect this system and process, we have future goals.

First, it would be great if we could open the system up for use and interaction by other designers or even the clients themselves. We are working with a CAD software developer on the idea, but it is far from being fluid and practical at this point. The real efficiency isn’t just in creating the design, but in automatically having all of the construction information right down to the trim details, and then being able to directly relay that information to CNC equipment for cutting and shaping. That’s the way it works within our in-house program, but the software aspect alone is too big and complex to share easily.

Second, we’d like to be working with other builders, architects and suppliers to spread and share the development of building blocks and plan details within a grid and matrix concept. We’d welcome the partnerships. It would be a dream if even production builders could achieve their building efficiencies without resorting to the endless duplication of dumbed-down designs that compromise performance. This is the type of system and technology that could be a real solution for improving the average American Home.

*Among many other things, Vitruvius is famous for his assertion that a building must exhibit three essential qualities: firmitas, utilitas, venustas — that is, durable, useful, and beautiful.

**A Few Definitions:

Off-site fabrication: We cut, shape and assemble construction components, elements, blocks and modules in controlled conditions away from the building site. It’s not “pre” anything. It’s just fabricated. We don’t say that windows, cabinets and equipment are prefabricated. They are just fabricated, or manufactured, as more complete products.

Component: parts, pieces and various materials are aggregated into assemblies or products that have added value, but are still substantially incomplete. A window is a component, as is a framed wall or floor section.

Element: When several components and additional parts and pieces are assembled together to make the construction unit more complete. A wall with windows, insulation and siding installed is an element as is a closed roof or floor assembly. Elements are typically panels.

Building block: When the elements are assembled into a three dimensional building assembly. A dormer is a small building block.An entire building bay, extension, porch or room addition are larger building blocks.

Module: A building block with finishes and mechanical systems completed and installed off-site

Pawns in Their Game

Reading Michael Lewis’s new book, TheBig Short would have been fun if it were fictitious. It’s fast moving, well written, and full of colorful characters who play out bizarre roles in a tale that should have had a kind of philosophical Orwellian foreboding. Instead, it’s about how and why the market crashed in 2008. If you want to know how we got into this awful economic quagmire, the story told in The Big Short is as good an explanation as I’ve read.

The explanation, in short: left to their own devices, there are lots of selfish, greedy people out there who lie, cheat, and steal. They have no trouble taking away all the money, along with the humble dreams, of millions of innocent, trusting, vulnerable people.

In this tale, both the heroes and villains are villains. The hero-villains are smart gamers; the villain-villains are clueless corporate stooges. They’re all greedy, duplicitous and amoral. Because money is the only game, nothing else matters even when they know it should. One of the characters, Michael Burry, sums up what should have been a moral dilemma quite nicely:

“I have a job to do. Make money for my clients. Period. But boy it gets morbid when you start making investments that work out extra great if a tragedy occurs.”

Then he did just that, and made very large and explicit bets against subprime mortgage bonds. He knew enough to bet everything he had on the calamity of others and he won the bet.

So, on one side were all the financial houses that originated the subprime mortgages, the firms that packaged and sold the subprime mortgages, the fund managers who invested in the subprime mortgage-backed bonds and the agencies that rated the subprime mortgage bonds. On the other side were the guys who figured out not only the likelihood of failure, but how to increase the likelihood of failure. It was a gargantuan stakes financial shootout in a wild west cowboy culture with no rules and no sheriff.

Again and again, I found myself reading passages twice and thinking, “This can’t be legal. Why is this allowed?”

Apparently, it’s not. The sheriff finally showed up–even if a couple of years late–and has been investigating the crime scene. Finally, the Securities and Exchange Commission is charging Goldman Sachs with fraud.I’ve read numerous articles about the indictment just trying to find some hope that the indictments will stick. Late yesterday, the NYT reported that there is strong evidence that the top executives of Goldman were personally overseeing the mortgage department and won’t easily be able to blame their racket on lower level staff. Good. I hope they nail ’em.

As The Big Short makes clear, this kind of internal dealing wasn’t limited to just one company. There was double-dealing and lying going on everywhere. It’s how they roll.

These guys were essentially both mixing the toxic Kool-Aid and then making bets against the health of those who drank it. That’s dark and evil behavior, and I do hope there are consequences. There would be few tears if those bankers would come to learn the real meaning of the suffering caused by their “Bet against the American Dream,” (from the title of a song commissioned by ThisAmerican Life.)
Our tears are for the pawns in their game.

We cry for the millions and millions of lives have been disrupted or turned on end so that a few bankers could show all aces and cash in big.

We cry for the people who lost their live savings and their homes; for the formally middle class, now learning to live in poverty.

We cry for the millions of good people now out of work and running out of hope.

Our tears are for those whose innocent pursuit of the American Dream turned into their worst nightmare.
Our tears are for many hard working small business owners whose good enterprises are now shuttered.

I cry for the difficulties in my industry and my own business; for all the good craftsmen and builders whose noble profession was sent to ruins by an evil racket; for my associates whose jobs are much less secure and who rightfully worry about our ability to weather this calamity.

I don’t like vengeance, but I do wish those gaming bankers would come to know what is like to not be able to pay basic bills, or where their family will sleep tonight, or where the next meal will come from. I want them to sit down with some of the families whose lives they have ruined and hear first hand about the emotional, physical and economic damage they’ve done.

In that setting, I’d like them to explain themselves.

Fulfilling a Seamless Dream

Here’s the rest of the story I alluded to in my last blog, Affordable Home.

By at least a relative measure, with the project I reported on and others we have been doing recently, our company has essentially marked the achievement of an objective set at a company “Seamless Summit”** in 1982. We set a goal to advance our skills and capacities to a level that would bring us into regular work on the very best homes being built in the United States. At the same meeting, we agreed that our ultimate goal was to use the innovations, advanced capabilities, production efficiencies, and knowledge we hoped to gain doing higher-end projects back to the building of high quality affordable homes.

At the time, most of our building projects involved affordable homes. The houses we were working on then were typically simple and small. Many–if not most–were built for Do-it-Yourselfers (DIY), who usually had far more energy and determination than dollars. Our timberframes made for a perfect way to collaborate with DIY’ers because the frame and enclosure completed the most difficult and time consuming part of the project, giving them an ability to use their sweat equity in the areas in which there was less risk, less requirement for builder knowledge, and less physically demanding work. These kinds of building projects were good work, and fun. It was very rewarding to help people build high quality homes that might not have been possible without the support and value we provided

But there was a problem. We weren’t making any money. It’s hard to run a company on perpetually empty coffers.

Since the early 1970’s we had been concentrating our efforts on the revival of timberframe construction. We had developed methods and details that made our buildings some of the most energy-efficient homes being built at the time. Our revival of an old craft wasn’t intended to take homebuilding backwards; rather, it was our attempt to develop a new and better approach in which durability and high performance were inherent in the basis of our system: timber “furniture” wrapped with a high tech insulation blanket.

In this, we had been successful. The timberframe revival was starting to get some traction. We had demonstrated that it was a good alternative with unique attributes. Still, we worked in the margins of visibility and viability. We realized that we needed to bring our work into the daylight and prove its merits in every aspect or it would become yet another alternative building method that couldn’t find its way into the mainstream. We came to the conclusion that if we were ever going to earn real and steady paychecks, we’d have to earn it by bringing a higher degree of perfection to our finished products. Our homes needed better design, better engineering, and more refined solutions for the integration of mechanical systems and interior finishes.

At a time when we were incredibly weak and our future looked dubious, our Seamless Summit resulted in a strategy to go on offense instead of defense. We determined to improve our craft skills, enhance our design capabilities, get serious about engineering, and develop more capacity and efficiency to allow us to take on larger projects. While we were nearly desperate to earn more money, we knew we could only get there by providing more value.

It seemed like a slow road, but the advancements came steadily. We learned how to do more complex buildings, our tolerances tightened, our designs became more sophisticated, and the engineering more rigorous. During that period, I wrote my second book (The Timber-Frame Home: Design, Construction, Finishing) to try to bring better understanding about timberframe construction to both homeowners and professionals.

Within five or six years we had turned things around in our favor. Our expanded capability and capacity won contracts to design and build bigger homes, with bigger budgets, for clients who had higher expectations. We were then able to pay real-world wages and also invest in better tools, facilities and training. The business stress shifted from survival to execution, which were just the sort of challenges we were hoping to face.

Meeting the challenges of high-end building eventually became standard fare for us. We developed a reputation for integrating the best qualities of design, engineering, craftsmanship and high performance. Over the last 20 years, this type of work has taken us to almost all 50 states, Canada, and a few overseas locations. I featured a selection of our projects in my 1998 book, Timberframe: The Art and Craft of the Post-and-Beam Home.

By the middle 90’s, we were already talking about the second part of our Seamless Summit objectives. Were we good enough, efficient enough, innovative enough and adaptable enough to bring all the we had learned and developed back to the arena of affordable homes? Since we also didn’t want to compromise the critical elements of our standards, moving down in the market was much more difficult than moving up. We could have done it years ago if we were willing to lower the standards of structural quality, design quality or energy efficiency, but then it wouldn’t be us.

But now…finally, we are closer than ever to the goal we set so many years ago. Our homes are not cheap, and I wouldn’t want to pretend that was so, but we now have our costs down to the point of being competitive or less expensive with the site built alternative, while offering a higher standard, and delivering the finished product in less than half the time. My last post was a story about the least expensive turnkey home we will have built since the early 1980’s. It’s small, but it will be extremely well-built and energy-efficient. It will also have a beautiful interior space with a wonderful open volume. There are fewer timbers, but it will contain the quality standards of numerous timberframe craftsmen and that’s saying a lot.

It’s not the end of the road, but I’m very encouraged. We have more projects like this coming up and I’ll tell their stories in the months to come.

**In the middle of our original shop there was a big steel and cast ironwood furnace I had salvaged from the basement of an old home. It devoured our wood waste and in return kept the entire shop pretty warm, but perhaps more importantly it served as the location for all of our informal gatherings and company meetings. It was our hearth and heart.

Above the door of the furnace, the name “Seamless” was embossed in the casting. We assumed it was the model name and that a unit that was somehow seamless must have been seen to be an advantage over one that was not. But since several weld seams were visible in the steel section,we never figured out exactly what “seamless” meant to imply. We just knew it kept us warm and close.

Many of the milestones of our company history began at the Seamless. It was there that we celebrated events and achievements large and small and it was there that we settled our disagreements and managed to come to consensus on matters large and small. The gravitational pull of the Seamless was powerful enough that we often met there even in the warm months when there was no radiant heat–just a big, ugly furnace, and habit.

When we added a big wing to the shop, the Seamless could no longer keep the entire space warm. Since it was also a bit of a fire hazard, we moved it out and replaced it with a wood gassifier which fired a boiler for hydronic heat. The heat was better and more efficient, but Seamless was gone and sorely missed.

The loss of Seamless happened about the same time as the installation of our first computer network to connect our workstations and store our files and information. We were early adopters of computer technology andwere already suffering from data loss and disconnected computers. Finally getting networked was a big deal. Of course, the network needed a name. Let’s see, it’s supposed to link us together and a keep us connected, right? Of course–easy.

It’s called Seamless.

Affordable home

Once again, bad news begets good news.

For homebuilders, the latest news couldn’t be worse.

Sales of new single-family houses in February 2010 were at aseasonally adjusted annual rate of 308,000, according to estimates released jointly today by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This is 2.2 percent (±15.3%)* below the revised January rate of 315,000 and is 13.0 percent (±12.2%) below the February 2009 estimate of 354,000.

Each successive month has been setting a record for being the worst annualized monthly sales numbers for about 75 years. In better times, these numbers were three or four times what we have seen in than these last few months.

It’s tough times in our business. What’s a homebuilder to do?

What we are doing is learning and changing at a very rapid rate. Like any species or organism catapulted into a new environment, the laws of the jungle are simple: change or fade away. So we are paying very careful attention to what is wanted and needed by those homebuyers who remain in the market. That’s where the good news comes in. People now want homes that are smaller, better and cheaper, and we can do that. The first two aspirations are our sweet spot and the third one suits us fine, as long as all our better building standards are accounted for. The challenge is a good one, and we think we’re measuring up.

The home under construction in our shop this week represents a great milestone for us. We are building a complete turnkey home, including foundation, excavation, fixtures and good finishes for about $150K.

The home has about 1000 square feet, on one level. The living area and the bedrooms have cathedral ceilings. The area over the bath and central closets has a flat ceiling with access for storage and mechanical systems. This home will be full of natural light and will have a grand volume in the public area.

Shed roofs over the windows will help to provide summer shading and their brackets help to break up the facade. The home is simple but still has some nice features and will be extremely tight and energy efficient.

How do we give high quality and low cost at the same time? Our shop conditions are the key. Most of the cutting and shaping is automated and extremely accurate. We simply have to assemble the individual elements and components in the most efficient manner. With our off site building system, we have a parallel fabrication process instead of the linear system that must be adhered to on site. We can do many things simultaneously, which cuts down on time and costs. The walls elements are framed, sheathed, insulated and have their windows installed in the same day. We then can apply both interior and exterior finishes at the same time, working both inside and out, while always being indoors and in “good weather.”

Prefab walls

While the walls are being built, the roof panels are also being built in a different shop area. The sheathing and interior drywall will be applied, insulation (dense-packed cellulose) will be blown in.

Floor building
Meanwhile, we are also preparing the interior partitions and trim, cabinets, etc. When the home goes up in a few weeks, it will happen very quickly. The enclosure will be complete in a few days and the home will be completed in a few weeks afterward.

So, how do we survive in this economy? Simple. Compress time and cost. Enhance quality.

I’m proud to have this excellent example of how our company is proving itself to be a “complex adaptive” survivor in a tough economy. It’s also exciting because it represents fulfillment of a company goal established almost 30 years ago. I’ll say something about that in my next post.

I’ll also show more photos when the house is raised and assembled on site.