Can We Aim Higher?

Many years ago, in our mid-course correction (another story), we pulled our company associates together to write a mission statement that would reflect our collective values and goals. It turned out to be a much bigger and longer task than we expected, but worth the effort because the exercise forced us to aim higher.

At the time, we were heavily invested in timberframe homebuilding, and it was clearly how we understood ourselves and how we were known in the marketplace. But in the many hours of discussion in analysis of our beliefs and guiding principles, we realized that timberframing may be a part of the means to an ultimate objective, but it wasn’t  sufficient in itself. What we came to understand was this simple point: our clients—like everyone who makes the decision to build—want to create a place that will improve the quality of their lives, period. That’s what homes are for. So the core statement of our company mission is:

Through process and product, to improve people’s lives.

With that much bigger mission in focus, we realized that everything matters, and we’d need to become better designers, engineers, project managers, and master craftspeople with broader skills. It set us on a path that transformed us, and continues to transform us again and again. This path is just a steady climb with an endless series of false peaks, all exciting and rewarding, but never the end. Our mission to improve lives through our work is too big to ever be fully completed.

As I read blogs, discussion groups, and news stories about the slow acceptance of green and energy efficient homes in the marketplace, I’m reminded of our company conclusion, now several decades ago, that we needed to aim higher and put our capabilities in context with our clients’ needs and aspirations. Even a LEED Platinum, zero net energy home can completely fail to deliver on its most important purpose, and even a certified Passive House can be a lousy place to live.

I don’t think I’m bringing new news here, but I also think it’s a topic that’s getting short shrift, and it’s too often leading to a maximized emphasis on particular building attributes, while other critical aspects are being compromised. Surely, this is never intended, but it can be the outcome of designing and building from a tilted perspective. If we can acknowledge this potential “maximize/compromise” liability, and bring some deep internal reflection about all that’s important in our quest to make the world a better place, it could be an important pivotal change for the sustainable homebuilding movement. High performance homebuilding should be “and,” not “or.” There should be more adds than subtracts.

Putting “green and energy efficient” in the larger context of improving people’s lives doesn’t mitigate the urgency to make low-load and zero net energy homes the industry standard. If anything, we absolutely must find ways to scale up sooner for the benefit of the planet and generations of homeowners. I made this point in a speech at the Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit in September, pointing out the huge gap between what we as an industry know and what we actually do. You can see my frustration there, if you’re not reading it here.

We’ve spent the last 20 years developing the know-how and proof that we can build much better performing homes without adding much short-term cost and always subtracting long-term cost, yet most of the industry carries on like it’s 1985. It’s not that different from the medical profession saying, “Sure, we know how to cure that cancer, but it costs a little extra and you’re not asking for it, so we’re not deploying it.”

As our work and our message could become fully focused on the bigger goal of improving homeowners’ lives, it’s very possible we’d also find the key to broader, quicker acceptance. We would automatically be expanding the meaning of sustainable and high performance to include myriad of “soft” health, safety, and security attributes along with the hard calculations of building science.

“Payback” is only an energy savings vs. return on investment calculation. There’s no working formula for the benefit of healthier indoor air quality, or the security of a home built to tolerate extreme storms, and there’s no denying the savings of time and money when homes are built with few or no defects and requiring minimum maintenance. Therefore, if the quality of people’s lives matters most, we should strive equally hard to build homes that are the healthiest and safest places they can be and that don’t eat up the precious days of their lives requiring upkeep and repairs. It would be a lot less hard to market homes that are stronger, healthier, safer and by the way, also extremely energy efficient.

Department of Energy’s Challenge Home program includes most of the added attributes and begins to get to the notion that there should be many facets to the definition of high performance. In addition, recently the U.S. Green Building Council announced that they want to put health “in the front seat,” which is both admirable and somewhat overdue.

But even all of that doesn’t go far enough. It just gets harder to talk about and impossible to measure. It’s where the numbers stop and art and intuition steps in, and it’s work our industry needs to do much, much better. That objective is well expressed by the late Samuel Mockbee, founder of Alabama’s Rural Studio: “Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul.”

Homes that improve people’s lives are also “shelters for the soul,” not just bare shelter against the elements, and they do not rise up to that standard with a low Energy Star rating, or net zero performance alone. The bigger purpose of home is to fuel hopes and dreams, become that place where people know they can find moments of quiet beauty and serenity, where the routine of ordinary and intimate is the essence of one’s personal sanctuary. It’s what is meant by Winston Churchill’s statement that, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” The quality of home matters deeply to people and even to civilization. Homes that do nothing for the human spirit have an immeasurable and unaccounted negative cost. Homes that do achieve this higher standard help to inspire the very best from people and make the world a better place

“We build thousands of houses, but only few homes. With the world’s population projected to double, we will have to build this world all over again. How can we do that and shelter the soul?”       Howard Mansfield, Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter

Can the sustainable building movement also strive for the ineffable, the unmeasurable? Can we aim higher?

3 thoughts on “Can We Aim Higher?

  1. Oh my goodness!! My husband and I are needing to downsize because of our age and this information has been a godsend! We just need one level with about 1,600 sq ft. with a full unfinished basement.
    I don’t know if this is something you can do on this small of a scale or in this area (Knoxville, TN) but we would love to have this if the cost isn’t prohibitive. We saw a 1906 Craftsman bungalow that would be perfect for your type construction. We didn’t purchase that one because the utility bills were over $600 most months. We would build in the same vicinity where homes are being restored (if not torn down) and this would be PERFECT! Please contact me with approximate costs.

  2. Tedd, from 1958 to 2000 we lived in a wonderful design world, Seattle Worlds Fair, Vancouver Worlds Fair and all the wonderful company’s that started up in the
    Greater Northwest. Wonderful TIMBER fRAMES. Small homes by Ross Chapin Wa.
    Then too “Many Choices” came along with poor designs. Steve Jobs said that the hardest thing to do was to leave out things that ALL wanted. He did not give them what all wanted- they did not know what they needed…..STOP! get to beautiful simple things that last and have value. Change is so fast IT runs over us. BEAUTY NOW. Find out what that will SELL as a PRODUCT and produce it WELL
    Soon you are going to have to give up ALL the things we put in our homes. It HERE,
    Good Cheer AIM HIGHER with LESS but more BEAUTY. FLW houses of 1900 knew.
    M. Leigh Williams Designer of LESS but MORE BEAUTY.

  3. Tedd, Follow the wonderful world of EICHLER HOMES in Sunnyvale, California in
    the 1940’s complete with land, fences, appliances, glass walls, courtyards all of
    similar steel frame concepts in 1940-50’s. Honor Award design was $24,950.
    Creative developments sold over 35,000. Today waiting lists for homes with
    years old landscaping selling for over $350,000 -$450,000. Great Investments!
    WE NEED CONCEPTS of PRODUCTS NOW. M. Leigh Williams Creative DESIGN

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