This is the keynote speech I gave at the Hannah Grimes Center’s 8th Annual CONNECT Event in Walpole, New Hampshire, celebrating the connections between business, local economy and community.
I posted this video here because I think it is valuable to understand not only the 40-year history and evolution of Bensonwood and the genesis of our off-site manufactured, high-performance Unity Homes. I also underscore where we are going as a company and more importantly, the value of sustainable business, even when facing the tough reality of yet another “Hoosac Mountain” in the craft of business.
My speech, “The Seeds of Sustainable Entrepreneurship: Finding Your Way in a Turbulent World,” also touches on themes of unreasonable perseverance, the rewards of working without a “Plan B” and the value of entrepreneurs working under the “useful delusion” that their undertakings are easily achievable, and not at all risky.
Adèle Naudeé Santos, internationally-renowned urban design authority and dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P), recently toured Bensonwood’s facilities with Tedd Benson and some of our associates to see her custom, high-performance green home being fabricated.
Bensonwood has been fortunate to work with many prominent design professionals, including architects as owner-builders or as advocates for their clients, but we were especially honored that someone of Ms. Santos’s stature in the architecture field would choose us to build her Somerville, Massachusetts home. Her academic career includes professorships at the University of California-Berkeley, Harvard University, Rice University and the University of Pennsylvania, where she also served as the Department Architecture Chair. She was also the founding dean of the School of Architecture at UC San Diego.
Additionally, Santos is principal architect in the San Francisco-based firm, Santos, Prescott and Associates (SPA). Her architectural and planning projects include housing and institutional buildings in Africa, affordable housing in California and Japan, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, the Center for the Arts at Albright College and the Yerba Buena Gardens Children’s Center in San Francisco. She is currently working in Guatemala on a children’s center and has several projects under construction in China.
Bensonwood has had a long, fruitful collaboration with MIT beginning with the partnership on the Open Prototype Initiative, whose goal is developing affordable, flexible, high-performance houses with disentangled and highly-adaptable mechanical systems. In another MIT connection, our sister company, Unity Homes, served as a business case study at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Bensonwood also has MIT graduates in our design and engineering departments.
Interestingly, Ms. Santos has another connection to Bensonwood in Steve Kieran, owner and architect of the Loblolly House, the acclaimed Maryland shore home we engineered, fabricated and assembled in 2006 for his firm, KieranTimberlake. Ms. Santos gave Kieran his first teaching position when she was the Architecture Chair at Penn.
The custom home was designed by SPA architect Ethan Lacy, who joined Ms. Santos on the tour. Bensonwood engineers Chris Carbone and Elizabeth Beauregard, project manager Tom Olson, job captain John McElroy and builder Tobey Wandzy were also on hand for the visit, explaining our building systems and processes and their roles in her project. A week later the green prefab home’s shell was delivered to the site and raised in just three days, a benefit of what we call our “Montage Building” process.
Seeing the precision fabrication of a healthy house can be an informative and rewarding experience, and creates a stronger connection to the sustainable building for the homeowner—and is something we always encourage our clients to do. For more information on Bensonwood tours, click here.
I have to build this up a little to make a point, so bear with me while I set the stage.
The Big Event:
The International Builders Show (IBS), happening now in Las Vegas. It’s a pretty big deal in the industry. It’s organized by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and is the largest annual residential housing construction trade event for manufacturers and suppliers of home construction products and services. According to Wikipedia, “It is the only event of its kind, focusing specifically on the needs, concerns, and opportunities that face builders.” There are about 1,700 exhibiting companies there, all displaying their coolest products and latest innovations. It’s intended to be a veritable festival of homebuilding advancement, creating promise and excitement about all things new and better for both builders and homeowners.
The Biggest Exhibit at the Big Event:
The New American Home (TNAH). This is a complete show home built specifically for display for the thousands of IBS attendees. It is proclaimed on their website as “America’s premier show home and construction technology laboratory, The New American Home serves as the official showcase house of the annual International Builders Show.” Further, from their website: “The show home demonstrates ‘Builders’ Best Practices’: concepts, materials, designs and construction techniques that can be replicated – in whole or in part – in housing built any place and in any price range.” (The italics are all mine in this piece.)
You’ll get an inkling of what to expect from this year’s New American Home from this description: “The 2014 New American Home will display the innovative elevation design of the future of home building and incorporate in this family-style design a relevance to the way we live today and how we will live in the future. Coming in at right around 6,700 square feet, the New American Home will be comfortably spacious and inviting with warm interiors seamlessly integrating between indoors and out.”
The Voice of the NAHB:
Builder Magazine. All you need to know for my little build-up is the magazine’s tagline: “SmartBuilding Starts Here.” The preview of The New American Home has been exclusively featured in Builder Magazine.
So, in review:
IBS is the annual extravaganza of the NAHB and America’s homebuilding industry. It breathlessly presents residential building state-of-the-art.
TNAH is the premier exhibit at the show, demonstrating the very latest as the “construction technology laboratory” and “Builders’ Best Practices.”
Builder Magazine is about “smart building” and is the voice of the NAHB and the herald of IBS.
Now that your expectations are prepared about purpose and hype about the New American Home for 2014, let me briefly take you back in history.
Here’s a painting depicting construction practice in the 1700s:
And here’s a photo of construction practice just about 100 years ago.
With all of this as context, just imagine my reaction when I saw the cover of Builder with a photo of The New American Home under construction. Drum roll….
Really? This is a construction technology laboratory in the 21st century? Does smart building start here? A demonstration of builders’ best practices? The future of homebuilding? Incredible. I’m seeing lumber dumped in the dirt, strewn about like Pick-Up-Sticks; a guy bent over like Gumby, working on framing lumber with some small tool; another one on a step ladder doing something; and a third guy apparently watching. Is this where we are in 2014? This photo shows the essence of the actual building, and this is how it was made, which is not very different from the way buildings were made 300 years ago. The main difference between the 1700s building depiction and the Builder Magazine cover photo is the guys in the former would ride horses home (or walk), and the guys in the cover photo will likely drive pickup trucks manufactured with the world class precision and efficiency.
The article goes on to tell the story of the project. It got terribly behind schedule (easy to see why) and crews (hopefully more than 3) were working 17 hour days to try to catch up. In addition, the weather turned wet and harsh (for Las Vegas), construction was further delayed, materials got wet (and muddy, I imagine) and they even lost 350 sheets of drywall to water damage, presumably because it took so long to make the building weathertight.
I do sympathize with the heroic effort of the builders to battle weather, time and labor shortages to get the project done on time. We builders thrive on challenges. It’s in our DNA. But the big challenge we should all be taking up is to build stronger and more energy efficient buildings with the same quality standard as the appliances and fixtures that will be used in the home, not just surviving the poor planning and communication embedded in our industry’s process, and its habitual devotion to outdated building methods.
The finished New American Home will reveal none of this. According to all descriptions, it has an impressive number of features, clever amenities, the best of plumbing and electrical fixtures, a bunch of green certifications, and is “chock-full of multigenerational, sustainable, and inspirational design ideas.” I don’t doubt that.
Nor do I plan to see it. 6,700 square feet of features and amenities masquerading as real building value are hopefully not the future of American homebuilding.
In our second baseball-related project in recent years, Bensonwood is currently prefabricating a wood grandstand for Elizabeth Lowell Park, home of the Cotuit Kettleers, 14-time Cape Cod Baseball League champions. Our 40-year history of building with timbers seems a perfect fit for one of the nation’s premier wooden bat league teams.
The grandstand is being engineered and fabricated at our Blackjack facilities into precision-crafted timberframe superstructure elements, as well as panelized platform risers, framing and seating assemblies. The finished assemblies will be trucked to the site and flown into place by a crane, greatly reducing the onsite construction time. The Cotuit Kettleers of Massachusetts remain the only Cape Cod League team to fully maintain its playing field and park without the use of public funds and the current grandstand project is part of a multi-year Lowell Park Renovation Program.
Bensonwood engineers Elizabeth Beauregard and Chris Carbone modeled the Cotuit grandstand using CAD/CNC software. Fabrication and selection of wood species occurs at 3 levels: Level I, the timberframe superstructure, utilizes pressure-treated southern yellow pine glulam beams. Level II, the framing and platform risers, is comprised of southern yellow pine. Level III, which includes the seating, guardrails, and other elements fans come in contact with are made of stadium-quality Port Orford cedar (POC)—a high grade of the species used in many of the finest grandstands—with a natural finish applied to enhance POC’s natural resistance to weather. In fact, when the world famous Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena was built, the architects insisted on Port Orford cedar planking for its beauty, strength and durability. All elements are precision-cut using our CNC machinery, and where feasible, preassembled into transportable elements.
Our engineers calculate that the grandstands sequester approximately 42 metric tons of carbon dioxide through the wood in the structure, whereas equivalent aluminum or steel elements would be strictly classified as a CO2 emitter. The grandstand guardrails are a new wood and steel mesh we designed to maximize sight lines without sacrificing structural integrity.
The Cotuit Kettleers baseball team is comprised of student athletes drafted from colleges around the nation. During their tenure with the Kettleers, players are expected to get involved with service projects for the betterment of the surrounding communities.
Wooden bat leagues are amateur baseball leagues that use wood versus aluminum or composite bats. Because pro baseball allows wooden bats only, these leagues are heavily scouted by Major League Baseball clubs to establish how well a college prospect can hit with the bats used in the majors. In 2004 alone, there were over 150 Kettleers veterans on MLB rosters.
More than 1,000 Cape Cod league alumni have played in the major leagues, with many achieving “All-Star” status and/or earning World Series rings. NY Yankees manager Joe Girardi is a Cotuit Kettleers alum, as is Boston Red Sox hometown favorite and now radio personality Lou Merloni.
Paul M. Logan, president of the Cotuit Athletic Association, said, “The Cotuit Kettleers organization is thrilled to be partnering with Bensonwood on a new grandstand structure at LowellPark. The 600-plus seat grandstand will replace an outdated 50-year-old structure, and while considering all options, our fans and donors implored us consider wood and not steel. Bensonwood not only makes the finest wood products in the northeast, but they were also willing to work with us on designing new grandstands using new technology. Many thanks to Bensonwood for their willingness to create what will be a landmark product for both organizations.”
A year ago when Carol and Ed Reardon wanted to build a healthy, energy-efficient, year-round residence on a lake, they knew whom to call. Bensonwood had recently launched its sister company, Unity Homes, which offers healthy, high-performance, more affordable homes. Here was their chance to own a high-quality Bensonwood home on a budget they could afford. Best of all, they discovered they would be living in the home in only five months’ time.
The home, a Xyla 132, is the first Unity home to feature solar electric panels, which power the HVAC system, including an air source heat pump for both heating and cooling, and heat recovery ventilation. Because of the extremely low energy demands of the Unity building shell (the highly-insulated homes meet or exceed Passive House levels of air tightness), and with the state and federal incentives, the solar panels by Solar Source made sense financially.
The home site, on a picture-perfect lake in southern New Hampshire, had been in Carol’s family for decades, so she became the driving force behind the project. The first step was to remove the old camp sitting on the land with serious rot and mold in the crawl space and above the ceilings.
Carol was particularly interested in the health aspects of Unity homes. Living with allergies, she wanted cabinets and vanities with low VOCs (volatile organic compounds), wood construction and a sophisticated ventilation system. All Unity homes share these health benefits, along with solid, light-filled, quiet spaces that promote a sense of well-being.
Carol says, “Unity came along at the right time for us. We have downsized to a beautiful new home where we can enjoy our retirement years in a place we love.” Ed Reardon adds, “Bensonwood and Unity people have been a pleasure to work with throughout this process. Special praise goes to Unity project manager Ryan Lawler who couldn’t have been more helpful, responsive and encouraging.”