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.

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