SMALL Builder002

Seriously?

In my last post, I vented a little about the cover of the largest professional homebuilding magazine (Byline, “Smart Building Starts Here”) depicting a construction site that might have been exceptional 100 years ago, but today should be an industry embarrassment, not a magazine cover. Finding that the photo proudly displayed on the cover was only part of the reason for my dismay.

The home under construction was to be the “New American Home,” the featured model home at the International Builders Show.  Its purpose is to show off the latest process and products our industry has to offer.

For a refresher, here is that magazine cover with story about the model project under construction, apparently a paragon image of 21st century homebuilding. The reality is building materials in the dirt, guys cutting and shaping each and every piece that goes into the building (awkwardly, with small tools), and no organization that systematically improves quality or achieves better efficiency.

What we really see is the lurch into yet another century of homebuilding evolution, still  unimpeded by progress.

SMALL Builder002“The New American Home” that was the outcome of that site construction was also 7,000 square feet, and that represents the other side of the American problem in homebuilding. Big is more important than good.  My intent was to address the building process problem, but readers were more repulsed by the size. After all, as a model intended to be an exemplar, we can probably keep building in inefficient ways, and we can keep giving the American public less housing quality  than they need and deserve, but we can’t keep building that big. So I get it.

Nevertheless, I’m surprised that people take for granted the inherent anachronism of the typical homebuilding process.  Yet its stasis in the context of contemporary technology and worldwide manufacturing advancement is so pervasive that its lack of progress is invisible, and its inefficient and ineffective reality is widely accepted, and sometimes even lauded as evidence of craft. I see an emperor with no clothes; others say he’s always been naked and that’s what makes him so kingly.

Here are two homes I recently saw under construction in the mid-west.

KSjobsite1

Ksjobsite2

Take a minute. Study those photos, as if you were managing the efficiency and quality of a process that matters immensely to the life and economics of our society. Just look at those two sites! Look at the guys sorting through the “pick-up-sticks” in the upper photo. What could they possibly be doing, and who’s paying for it? What do you think about their care of the materials? In the second photo, the dumpster size speaks volumes, and we have more sticks in the dirt, and a guy carrying a single framing member over his shoulder. Why is any of this so accepted in 2014? In any other industry where quality and efficiency matters a company employing this sort of manufacturing standard would be out of business in a nano-second.

As a builder who has spent his professional life trying to improve building quality, I find all of the above examples rather alarming, as I do the home quality standard that usually is the process outcome.  But I guess I’m in the minority.

The final photo is even more revealing. My co-worker, Hans Porschitz, was looking for a photo of the standard building process to add to a  presentations he is doing. In his Google search, he found an article from the Wall Street Journal from 2012, titled: Housing Starts Surge as Confidence Grows. The point of the article was that home construction was starting to come back strong and that all was beginning to look good for building construction. Great news, which at the time people like me read with deep interest, hoping the long recession malaise would finally end. But here’s the kicker: look at the photo that illustrated that positive news about homebuilding:

Our Homebuilding Standard

Seriously? I don’t know where to start, but apparently the editors at the WSJ thought this was an appropriate iconic photo to illustrate the positive bustle of an industry coming out of the doldrums and now thriving again. Aren’t you glad? Would you want to own that house? Is this how much our homes matter to us? How long will we accept these wooden tents adorned with facades of drywall and garnished with amenities? A few things come to me:

  • There’s not a legal labor rate low enough to justify the methods.
  • They don’t care about the construction materials at all.
  • Waste is no problem.
  • There is no pride with anyone there or it would look different.
  • None of these people care anything about OSHA safety regulations, much less their own safety.
  • What else do you see?

Honestly, I just don’t understand it, but this IS the American way of building and we as a society apparently take it for granted that this is as it should be.  There’s an industry and cultural assumption that it’s the best we can do, I guess. The first photo is from the number one homebuilding industry trade magazine, and the last one is from our number one business newspaper. Our country, therefore, obviously thinks our homebuilding process is just hunky-dory.

But when you think about it, is it any wonder that: building construction has become the last refuge of the otherwise unemployable, and certainly doesn’t make any list of desirable careers for young people? …that natural disasters lay whole communities flat? …that the typical American home is an energy sieve? ..and a maintenance nightmare? …that there is typically at least a 15% defect rate (structure, safety, health, not cosmetic) when other industries are chasing fractions of 1%?

Homes DO matter. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, our culture creates our homes, thereafter our homes create our culture. The need for urgency is far more important than only energy and sustainability; it’s about the soul of who we are.

We CAN and therefore must do better. Much better. There are many of us working “in the trenches” to bring a better destiny to American homebuilding, and that includes all my associates at Bensonwood and Unity Homes, who have dedicated our professional lives to that proposition.

Though the enemy–a recalcitrant, misaligned industry–is strong, we will prevail. Better homebuilding is coming to America.

 

 

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “Seriously?

  1. Wow ! You are so right, I’ve been thinking this for years, How do we get more of a push for people like you and I. Thanks

  2. This article is not part of a solution, it is part of a problem. There is no justification (or material support) for Mr. Benson’s vapid claims.

    Two or three pictures of single or multifamily jobs in framing with sticks laying about the place is untidy looking. But without any other information that is all it is.

    I am also a 30 year veteran of the construction industry. I am also a 15 year veteran of the national home building production environment. I would submit that Mr. Benson has not spent a day of his lofty career managing a volume job site.

    1. My criticism is not of anyone in particular, but the industry in general. It’s 2014, not 1914. Yet we still deliver raw materials to building sites for physical labor to be applied to every part and piece with inadequate tools, and very often, with unskilled workers. If the system worked better, homes would not be the most defective products consumers buy. According to the Consumer Reports, the average serious defect rate (structure, health related, not cosmetic) is 15%. The Orlando Sentinel did a more in depth study around 2006, and found the actual serious defect rate in the randomly selected new homes to be above 80%. In any other industry, fractions of 1% are more typical, and still unacceptable.
      It was Edwards Deming who said quality problems are typically not people problems, but rather systems problems. I think our industry has a systems problem and I feel certain it’s fixable unless the status quo is defended as being good enough. For my part, though, I think the American consumer deserves better from us.

  3. I think the problem lies in the fact the many contractors are looking more into how much will we be paid for today and/or someone else is paying for the waste so what does it matter and not enough at the end user and what does this home or building mean to them. Is the way most construction is done today done the same way it would be if it was on your own home? Why are we saying “it isn’t built the way it used to be” and we mean it in a bad way. With all the technology and new innovative upgrades and updates we have why are we building it Cheaper (and I don’t mean in cost) less efficient and of poor quality in 2014? We are not thinking about the tomorrows that our families need us to think about.. Efficient? Green? Lasting? why??? Because our Future demands it. As Americans isn’t it time we start thinking ahead? The amount of waste on a typical job site could build someone a small cabin or a garage. Please we all need to start thinking FUTURE!

  4. My name is David Olsen. I am in the planning stage for a Timber Frame home in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Your books are very helpful – For the foundation, I plan to use a grade beam on pier approach as shown in “The Timber Frame Home,” p 126, but with the bottom of the grade beam only 6″ below the surface I’m concerned about soil expansion during the winter months. The frost line in my area is 4 ft. I intend to use 6″ of foam insulation under the slab and insulation on the inside and outside of the grade beam, but the foundation contractors I’ve talked to are leery. Please advise. deolsen.fla@cox.net (850) 729-9299

    1. While the grade beam foundation system is well proven, it doesn’t have wide acceptance (experience) in the trades. It’s really more suited to DIY builders who need a less expensive system that can be achieved without the typical form work. Therefore, in your position, I’d opt to not deal with leery subcontractors and accede to the more conventional frost wall. Even if they weren’t leery, it’s possible the grade beam system wouldn’t save money since it falls outside their normal process. In other words, go with the path of least resistance. The foundation has to be good.

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