All posts by Tedd

Martin Luther King Day: Bensonwood Story

To company associates and friends:

Today, both Bensonwood and Unity Homes are observing Martin Luther King Day as a paid holiday. This started for us in the mid-1980’s, so the institutional memory about what prompted that decision is starting to fade. It’s a personal saga, as much as it is a piece of company history, so I’m going to use my time off today to tell you the whole story.

The short version is that although Martin Luther King Day was signed into law as a federal holiday in 1983, New Hampshire and a few other states held out.  A few years later, when there was yet more news about NH politicians stalling the decision and proclaiming the illegitimacy of Dr. King and the holiday, we decided (in 1985 or 1986, I think) that we could declare it as one of our paid holidays to honor MLK and to recognize the importance of the continuing struggle for racial equality. It was a small act of defiance about our state’s position, but it was at least something we could do to demonstrate our beliefs on the matter. We also just may have been the first New Hampshire company to honor MLK Day as a paid holiday.

Unfortunately and embarrassingly, New Hampshire was the very last state to recognize MLK Day, and it didn’t officially happen until 2000. But about 15 years earlier, we did our best to set the right example.

Now, for the back story. Why is Martin Luther King Day so important to us? Why did I insist that we observe it when New Hampshire was refusing to do so?

It begins in my youth. I was brought up to believe in civil rights and social justice, and to understand that as a country, there has always been a big gaping divide between our fundamental founding principles and our actions in policy and practice. We were also taught to believe that justice and truth will eventually prevail, and to have faith in the inherent goodness of mankind.

My dad and mom were ardent Christians, and believed that racial discrimination is deeply unjust and un-Christian, and that the outcomes in suffering and poverty offends the teachings of Christ, and our very humanity.  My dad was a “lifetime” member of the NAACP, a dedication that began when he and my mom discovered in the 1950’s that traveling African-Americans could not get a hotel room, and had to find alternative lodging with “good Samaritans” like them.

Through the years, we learned about various civil rights events at the dinner table conversations and as a subject of prayer. We didn’t have a TV in those early years, but my dad would rent one on special occasions, and we’d watch transfixed, even if the technology was the main attraction. Very often, the TV rental was stimulated by the civil rights issues of the late 50’s and 60’s, including the March on Washington in 1963 and MLK’s great “I have a Dream” speech, the Selma marches of 1965, and other events. The importance of the fight for racial justice was seared into my memory and consciousness.

I went to college (Colorado State University) with the intention to play football, and although I was doing well enough, I ended up disliking the program, partially because they wanted me to be 30 pounds heavier and doing less academically in order to “concentrate on football.” There’s more to this, but the point is I quit the team, and when I told the coach (Mike Lude), his reply became a source of motivation ever since: “Benson, you’re throwing your life away!” I didn’t think so.

The big reason I quit football is that I had an idea. I knew nearly all of the blacks on campus because they were either on the football team or the basketball team, or related to someone on those teams.  For a campus of 12,000+ students, the tiny minority population was just wrong. There were serious issues involving discrimination and a lack of commitment by a state institution to integrate appropriately. Therefore, I thought we could do something about it, and together with some friends, we founded the Committee on Racial and Ethnic Equality (CREE) to bring attention to the problems, and support the minorities on campus. My two co-founders in the organization were David Williams and Meredith Springs. We accomplished a lot, and certainly raised awareness with the administration and students. We even helped to get funding for a program to bring more minorities to campus, and played a key role in its functions and execution.

Eventually, I was appointed to be the Director of Race Relations for the student government, and maintained an office in the middle of the Student Center, that became the center for CREE and other minority student activity.

In the spring of 1968, David Williams and I were invited to be delegates of CSU to attend a conference in Washington D.C. on race relations issues. Instead, we found ourselves engulfed in one of the most tragic events in American civil rights history. We arrived at roughly the same time Martin Luther King was killed. As we were making our way to the conference venue and our lodging at American University, riots erupted. David and I found ourselves in the middle of the tempest in the streets. Ironically, in that situation we were both frightened about being vulnerable because of the color of our skin.  We survived with different stories about which one of us was heroic, but there was no conference other than the one out in the streets. Martin Luther King was dead, and at that moment his legacy was uncertain.

When we got back to CSU, David, Meredith and I organized a march in honor of Dr. King. David remembers that some professors joined in as we moved along, and we were a little irked that they seemed to want to “lead” the march. I don’t remember that, but I do remember that it grew significantly and felt meaningful and important. I also remember that it was solemn and peaceful and tearful. Martin Luther King, whose work and words I had followed in belief and action, was dead.

From that moment in my life to the founding a building company in New Hampshire was a twisty, weird path, but that’s what happened. I like very much what I’m doing now and believe in it immensely, but I don’t like the lack of racial and cultural diversity in this corner of the world and I miss my friends, neighbors, and colleagues from those former times. My geography has changed; the racial mix of my community as changed; but my core beliefs and values have not. The struggle for racial equality is not over. Dr. King’s dream isnot fulfilled. It is the very least we can do to acknowledge the martyrdom of the man, and do our part to ensure that his famous words will eventually be true:

“The arc of the moral universe is strong, but it bends toward justice.”

 old days009old days008

old days010

 

 

 

 

 

Notre Dame cathedral

The New Guilded Age

All that is wrong with the conventional building industry becomes clearer when you see it through the bright lens of a better way. I’ve been thinking a lot about what is right and wrong as we say goodbye to our latest French Compagnon-in-training, Thomas Beauvillain, who has been with us this past year. We wrote a little story about Thomas and the Compagnons in an earlier newsletter, but it’s worth reviewing a few of the key pieces of the story here.

Thomas Beauvillain
Thomas Beauvillain

The Compagnons du Devoir (Companions of Duty) is a 900 year old guild of French artisans. Its roots go back to the golden age of building, an era during which many of the architectural treasures we so admire today were constructed, including grand manor halls, cathedrals, barns, houses, and public buildings, now 500 to 1000 years old. The Compagnon tradition of training deeply for knowledge, skills, discipline, and character development are the basis for the attitude and competency that were considered to be necessary requirements for master craftsmen challenged to create what has become many of western civilization’s architectural icons.For a prime example of such buildings, think of the Notre Dame Cathedral, which started construction 851 years ago. It displays the paragon of craftsmanship, engineering, sustainability, and design that doesn’t yet have any obvious contemporary peers, but has many from that amazing period.

Notre Dame cathedral
Notre Dame cathedral

Monumental buildings like the Notre Dame cathedral were made possible because the training for craftsmen who built them was rigorous. They understood that their intention to make great buildings would depend on people with great skills, and great skills, in turn, requires extensive knowledge combined with personal discipline and evolved character traits such as perseverance, patience, humility, and respect. After all, these were people who invested their lives in creating gifts to the future. Very often, the massive projects took 100+ years to build, and so many of the craftsmen did not even live to see their work completed.

While the history of Europe in the Middle Ages was an earlier version of Mark Twain’s “Gilded Age” on steroids, with the very meaning of the word civilization in question, it was also the “Guilded Age” in the development of artisanry in many crafts and trades that set standards of art, precision, and durability that are hard to emulate centuries later. For instance, with all our advanced engineering knowledge and sophisticated tooling and technology, we modern day timberframers look at amazing work in such buildings as Notre Dame and Westminster Hall and realize we are still raw apprentices in comparison.

Westminster Hall
Westminster Hall

The Compagnon du Devoir program has continued through the centuries (they were called upon for the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty), and is still active today. If we think buildings matter to our civilization, you’d think such a training program would be obvious, sensible, and essential, yet nothing like it exists in North America.

Especially in residential building, unfortunately the opposite culture is dominant. In many of our trades, you don’t need to know anything at all, and the devolution is so complete that the intent to know is considered elitist, and caring is “kissing up.”  If you aren’t close to our construction industry, you may think I’m exaggerating, but this is real and true, and it comes from both the supply and demand side. The industry cuts costs by hiring unskilled labor, and those who are hired under those kinds of motivations have no incentive to become learners– a classic vicious cycle. One of the typical job site cynical comments is, “They pretend to pay us, so we pretend to work,” but the other more unspoken version is, “They pay us only for our bodies, so we leave our brains at home.”

Recognizing both the void and an opportunity, for the past 21 years, our company has tapped into the Compagnon culture and training. Through Boris Noel, an amazingly talented French carpenter who found his way to us in the early 1990’s, we discovered the remarkable “product” of the Compagnon training, and the deep benefit of being linked into an unbroken chain of knowledge and craft culture development. With thanks to Boris, we were subsequently accepted into their program of apprenticeship “tour” companies, and therefore have had the privilege of hosting young Compagnons during their training years, and have taken advantage of it whenever possible over the past couple of decades.

“Our” compagnons:

Boris Noel
Boris Noel
Remi Chadron
Remi Chadron
Julien Worms
Julien Worms
Emmanuel Jego
Emmanuel Jego
Bruno Sutter
Bruno Sutter
Group of visiting young compagnons
Group of visiting young compagnons

Under the immigration rules, we usually are able to have the apprentice Compagnons with us for 9 to 12 months. As our own master craftsmen are also extremely experienced, knowledgeable and committed, the exchange is definitely mutually beneficial. We have a pretty well-defined curriculum, continuous learning culture and a constantly improving process that is dynamic and open. Many of the compagnons have found their experience with us to be enlightening and fresh, especially because we’re not tied to their specific traditions and methods.

After all these years of influence, the elements of the Compagnon culture that are now stuck with us are extremely important and powerful. And perhaps a bit counterintuitive. Think of this: It takes 10-15 years to complete the Compagnon program, but there are no promises or expectations for long term financial gain. The wealth it offers is in knowledge, skills, and character. The jobs at the other end of the training might only be normal carpentry, nothing more.

The training starts in the teenage years and continues through several phases, includes a lot of personal sacrifice, much traveling, few privileges, and learning, learning, learning. The implied goal is high craft mastery annealed with humility. As a link in a sacred chain, there’s too much responsibility to allow room for personal arrogance. And so in the end, the sort of training that would in another profession earn a PhD, here only gives one the right to practice a trade with confidence and pride. That’s the form of wealth that comes with the deal.

At the end of their training, compagnons are required to build a "master work," which just might be the equivalent of a PhD thesis.
At the end of their training, compagnons are required to build a “master work,” which just might
be the equivalent of a PhD thesis.

Thomas started his training when he was 15. He’s now 22. But he’s mature and wise far beyond his age because he really and truly knows a lot since he’s already fully welded into the ancient chain of knowledge. What he knows he learned it from the guys who learned it from the guys who learned it, going back to those who learned it from others nearly 1000 years ago.

Before he left, this 22 year old compagnon gave a seminar to our team about the ancient French layout method, which allows very complex 3-dimensional geometry to be determined from an amazingly detailed process in 2-dimensional triangulation, projected intersecting coordinates, and geometric math.

Thomas with the seminar project he used to teach the French layout system
Thomas with the seminar project he used to teach the French layout system
An example of the layout system, with a class project compagnons learn in their apprenticeship training
An example of the layout system, a class project compagnons learn in their apprenticeship training.
How many American carpenters could do something like this?

Since we now have computers and CAD software, we technically don’t need to use this sort of technique anymore, but good craftsmen aren’t satisfied with being dependent on computer automation; therefore learning the systems that rely on basic geometry and math is important. But more to the point, for real craftspeople, gaining more craft knowledge is important in itself and needs no further justification. Therefore, Thomas’s seminar was well-attended even though in this case it was held after hours and off-the-clock.

Bensonwood team in Thomas's seminar. We've had similar classes with other compagnons, so some of our guys are already quite proficient.
Bensonwood team in Thomas’s seminar. We’ve had similar classes with other compagnons, so some of our guys are already quite proficient and also teach.

If there is any better evidence of the advanced craft culture we have here, I don’t know what it is. Think of how different this is from the usual construction site cynicism and low-brow language and behavior: instead, a bunch of guys, after work, of their own volition, learning from a young French carpenter how to do something they may never actually use in professional practice!

If we’re going to take our industry to a better place, we need a strong dose of something akin to the Compagnon ethos. The good news is that it’s not complicated. You just have to believe that building the places where we live and work matters deeply to who we are, and what we believe and intend as a society. If that is an acceptable premise, then those who practice in the building trades need the knowledge and humility of the ages, as well as the science and tools of our age, in order to be positioned to create the kind of sustainable habitats our world desperately needs.  Buildings are the most literal home of civilization. Surely, we can be committed to getting that part right, while we struggle with the rest. To build what is desperately needed 21st century and beyond, we need a new “Guilded Age” of building, and I’m happy to say there’s at least a little groundswell of that movement under way.

screenshot-2014-05-16-13-08-55

Homes Matter

I wrote the following article for a local magazine, Business Monadnock. I’m republishing here.

screenshot-2014-05-16-13-08-55
Tedd Benson in his Walpole, NH facility.

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”  Winston Churchill

Many years ago, when we pulled our company associates together to try to draft a collective mission statement for our homebuilding company, we came to an unexpected conclusion. As we kept asking questions about why we do what we do, and why clients engage us for what is usually the biggest investment of their lives, we came to understand there’s an important ideal beyond the simple execution of our craft for the straight-forward purpose of building good quality homes. We realized that everyone undertaking the effort and expense of building a new home is doing so to improve the quality of their lives, and so that bigger objective became the core principle of our mission: “Through process and products, to improve the quality of lives.”

Why else would people from all over the country find us in this quiet corner of New Hampshire? And isn’t a focus on making a difference in peoples’ lives more worthy of the total investment of our own life’s energy?

We’ve tried to remain on that higher path since, and that nobler focus has made an incalculable difference in how we think, act and what we build. It raises the stakes, and has raised us in the process, but it has also been humbling. There’s no clear pinnacle of achievement for such a mission. There’s only, “try harder, get better.” With peoples’ lives as our focus, there’s no such thing as “good enough;” there’s always something that we can improve.

Luckily, the physical aspects of every building are like  truth mirrors, and give us immediate feedback about how we did. The quality of the work is mostly an evident, objective reality, and its attributes (and of course the flaws) easily determined. When we can see it and touch it, we can measure our work in a variety of ways, and know with some certainty what to improve. In a sense, that’s the easy side of continual improvement.

But the “improving the quality of lives” objective is intangible, subjective, and offers no easy evaluation of success or failure. Building homes that are plumb, level, square, strong and energy-efficient is relatively easy, but making deeper impacts in the occupants’ lives is a high, elusive and difficult goal.

Is all that striving for lofty ideals and a life of “healthy discontent” worth it for the simple task of homebuilding? I think so, and here’s why. We all know that homes matter immensely. Along with food, shelter is elemental to the human condition. No society advances without a broad provision of healthy food and secure shelter. Food is an obvious daily requirement for life, and gets daily attention. But the importance of quality housing in our lives is more nuanced, yet anthropologists and historians have often pointed out that stable, durable dwellings that offer some respite from life’s struggles are practically the root and stalk of civilization. Societies seem to develop in direct relation to advancements in the general quality of domestic life.

For all of its obvious value, we can’t analyze the life-improving attributes of our homes by measuring the equivalent of proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins in food, and so if it passes the basic shelter-against-the-elements test, most people accept housing as it is, decorate to taste, and get on with life. People today tend to know about cars, food and clothes rather intimately, and can even discern how the subtle distinctions—that added spice in the meal; the car’s suspension in turns; those perfectly fitted shoes—make them feel, but the fundamental qualities of homes are too often just a bland canvas for the amenities, paint and furniture. We literally live with homes as they are, and then their impacts live in us,  and subtly affect our character, as Churchill so famously suggested.

Most of the hours of our lives are spent at home. The environment we live in works on us and our closest relationships constantly, and we are better or worse for it. Without a safe and secure personal sanctuary, there’s no opportunity for dreams to flourish; there’s no place for the imagination to soar beyond the moment, and hope itself is dulled.

And that’s why it’s worth striving for homes to rise above their basic physical sheltering requirements and do more. We need to do our best to make housing worthy of its inhabitants’ lives, a therefore long-term asset for our society. I know from so many personal stories, including my own, that a home can become a sacred personal place, and a family’s special haven for the bonds of our most intimate relationships; a safe harbor in life’s storms. At best, housing and the functional act of dwelling it supports can provide its own kind of daily bread, and feed a higher sense of well being.

These high ideals for home have been the subject of builders, poets, philosophers and architects (not to mention common people with dreams) for hundreds or even thousands of years. It is also the theme of local author, Howard Mansfield’s important new book: Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter. To make his point that homes should do more for people than provide mere protection from the elements, he quotes the famed social architect, Samuel Mockbee: “Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul.”  Mansfield goes on to say:

We have shelter from the rain and snow and sun, but our houses aren’t sheltering our souls. They aren’t nourishing. We treat houses as investments or as social policy problems, as in the statistical Sahara of ‘the housing problem.’ The soul starves—we’re in our house, but not at home. Our dream houses lack room for us to dream.   … We build thousands of houses, but only a 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?

And later he adds: “The housing we are building today is starving our imagination, and without a well-fed imagination, it may be impossible to build a better world….If the house is diminished, we are diminished.”

Homes are not commodities, even if housing tries to be. Life happens there, and peoples’ lives can’t be defined by the “widget” they inhabit. No matter what we homebuilders intend or achieve in building “the product,” people will do their best to make more of it. There’s no dull real estate for the occupants, who always want their home to be special and meaningful. Howard Mansfield quotes geographer/philosopher, J.B. Jackson: “The dwelling is the primary effort of man to create heaven on earth.”

Mansfield also profiles and quotes the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, whose book The Poetics of Space is one of the seminal writings about the higher values we can find in house and home: “They give us the shelter to enlarge ourselves. They are the vessel in which we go forth into the universe. A good house is a good daydreaming space. It is the universe.”

Over the years, we’ve had enough feedback from our clients to give us an indication that sometimes we succeed in our higher mission. So we know it’s possible, even if how and why add up to a simple, daunting notion: Everything Matters.

The belief in the idea that buildings can also serve higher emotional, psychological and spiritual needs of people is the first requirement of the commitment to try, as Howard Mansfield admits: “To build soulful places, first we need to believe that it is possible.”

And he answers that question with a quote from famed architect Christopher Alexander, whose book, The Pattern Language, is the basically an instructional manual for how we can design and build homes that also touch the human spirit. Alexander therefore deserves the last word: “But it is possible. If we try our best to make all the places in our contemporary world with a vivid depth of feeling, surely then something will happen that changes our lives.”

 

building-energy-consumption

Oceans Rise, Energy Efficiency Falls

There were two headlines in the May 12th New York Times that seemed at odds. The big news story of the day was titled “Scientists Warn of Rising Oceans from Polar Melt,” which reported on two new studies indicating that portions of the Antarctic ice sheet is in irreversible retreat, due greatly to the affects of global warming. If the scientists’ predictions are anywhere near correct, there will be no beach sand to stick your head in by the end of the century, with the oceans rising four feet, or even more.

Directly below that article was another one announcing that a potential milestone bipartisan bill was scuttled in the senate, which is hardly news these days, but given the headline story, its appearance on the same front page seemed a story in itself: “Amid Pipeline and Climate Debate, Energy-Efficiency Bill is Derailed.” The defeat of this mild energy efficiency proposal clearly refutes the urgency implied in the lead story, and shouts about our inability to do anything at all in the face of mounting climate change evidence.

I have been watching that bill because its focus is to increase the energy efficiency of buildings, which is a key element of our business. And though the scope of this bill isn’t big, it’s a start, and would bring attention to the idea that we can do a lot to limit CO² atmospheric increases simply by encouraging actions that would make buildings require less energy. I’ve also been cheering because I’m proud that this sensible bill is the work of our own senator, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, who co-sponsored it with Republican Senator Rob Portman. With so much uncompromising posturing defining politics currently, it looked as if there just might be a glimmer of bipartisan sensibility around the simple notion that it would be good for homeowners, the economy and the environment if we conserved energy by reducing the need for it.

There’s a companion bill in the house that’s even united the very liberal Peter Welch, Democrat from Vermont, and very conservative Eric Cantor, the Republican House majority leader. The idea of that unlikely alliance would seem to be good news for us, suggesting that the core notion of our business crosses political boundaries.

But no such luck. What a shame. The famous Pogo quote applies: “Yep son, We have met the enemy and he is us.” We keep kicking the can down the road, as if time was an ally, not our enemy.

Whatever one’s politics or beliefs about climate change, we ought to be able to agree that buildings should use far less energy. They don’t travel down the highway at 70 mph, nor do they fly through the air, or manufacture stuff. Buildings just sit there on the earth, the very definition of sedentary, and are by far the lowest hanging fruit in our need to reduce fossil fuel consumption. There is some very tough work ahead in the worldwide need to conserve energy and clean up the atmosphere, but buildings are by far the easiest sector and one of the largest. It’s almost as if buildings are begging for those of us who build and renovate them to make them the energy conserving good guys.

Buildings account for nearly half of the energy demand, and are the easiest problem to solve.
Buildings account for nearly half of the energy demand, and are the easiest problem to solve.

If we can put men on the moon in a decade, there’s no reason we can’t meet the goal of the 2030 Challenge, and make buildings carbon neutral in 15 years. We know how to do it, but we do need our industry and all of its supply chain partners to be in alignment. The policies needed to encourage that will take some political will, and that seems to be in short supply.

128

From the implementation perspective, there’s a lot of work to do, but there’s not a lot to invent. There’s been a fantastic amount of research and development throughout the world over the last 3 or 4 decades, but especially in the last 10 years. We now have the tools, methods, and science to transform buildings into benign servants instead of demanding masters. We therefore know how to keep the energy requirements of buildings mostly out of the CO² emission problem. Now we just need to make it normal and affordable for all.

Who knows how the climate problems will play out? I hold out hope because it’s all we have, but that hope needs to be tethered to action, and I’m among those who are committed to doing all we can to make the places where we live, and love and dream also places of energy self-sufficiency.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The New (but Still Outdated) American Home

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.”

TNAH1-27-2014

The Voice of the NAHB:

Builder MagazineAll you need to know for my little build-up is the magazine’s tagline: “Smart Building 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:

1700's Building

And here’s a photo of construction practice just about 100 years ago.

1915home

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….

SMALL Builder002

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.

Homebuilding in the 21st century
The New American Home:  “construction technology laboratory”? 

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.

Really, we can do so much better!

Give Up On Prefab?

When I previously wrote about Montage Homebuilding, I explained why I am no fan of the terms prefab and modular. They represent different objectives and methods in off-site building systems, but both suffer from deep blemishes brought on by their flawed legacies. I therefore announced a new name for our unique off-site fabrication system, which has been assiduously developed to correct—rather than integrate with—the status quo.

sears kit house
A circa 1908 Sears “Modern Homes” mail-order kit house.

The promise of prefabrication has always been the simple proposition of using industrialization advances to bring consumers greater affordability simultaneous with improved quality. And why not? It has already been achieved in most every other consumer products sector from automobiles, to appliances, to furniture, and to, well, nearly everything. Modern manufacturing has indeed scaled quality and value, and buyers have come to expect it because they usually get it.

But in housing, people have instead learned to associate prefabrication and modular manufacturing methods with pigeonholing words like flimsy, toxic, cheap, temporary, limited, compromised and, oddly, to an architectural style: modernist.  Of course, the associations aren’t always deserved, but I argue that most of the off-site building industry continues to do more to reinforce the stereotypes than to overcome them, making the unfortunate perceptions too true, too often.

Naturally, I was quite interested to find a rather provocative article titled, “Why It’s Time to Give Up on Prefab.” The author, Australian architect Chris Knapp, is the director of Built-Environmental Practice, a firm that appears from its website to have a vibrant design practice, both residential and commercial. The article addresses all forms of off-site building under the single word prefabrication, as “the term identifies a range of applications for building and building components of any scale, not just housing. Yet the target of prefabrication has been focused upon housing since the very beginning.” As an architect, Knapp is particularly focused on the fractured history of prefabrication in architecture, which serves both as complement and counterpoint to my design-build perspective.

While we have simply renamed our process “montage” for clarity of intent and to avoid association, Knapp has a more radical point of view: “This is a call for the end of prefabrication.” His argument asserts that there has been too much trying and not enough succeeding, just a “countless series of disappointments.” That point is easy to make because the string of flame-outs is long and includes luminary architects like Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. Even Thomas Edison took a crack at it. From these examples and those of many others, a reasonable conclusion is that the promise of prefabrication would not be realized through a singular design or engineering concept. The future of housing was bigger than Le Corbusier’s ego, and while not perhaps as big as Fuller’s, its requirements couldn’t be reduced to his domes. Gropius could not see past Bauhaus ideals, and after attempting to pour concrete into a gigantic house-shaped form to create a monolithic structure, Edison probably realized that lightbulb-scale fail-to-success experiments were more practical.

But these aren’t good reasons to aim bullets at prefab in my opinion, and the contemporary efforts Knapp mentions don’t necessarily deserve that either. Charlie Lazor’s FlatPak house is really very innovative, and mainly suffers from being named for how it is shipped and being defined by a particular style: his. Similarly, Kieran Timberlake’s work is ambitious, creative, and courageous. They are attempting to bring the future forward and are addressing important issues with structure, form, connections, modularity, material relationships, and mechanical systems ahead of their time. If the whole looks irrelevant, as it apparently does to Knapp, in detail there is much to gain from their Loblolly and Cellophane House™ prototypes. I know. We built Loblolly. When you throw out all the conventional assumptions about building systems and design-construction process, you get to a place where there’s a virtuous cycle of innovation, feeding on itself. It wasn’t intended to be the solution, but to be a learning laboratory for finding solutions, and between Kieran Timberlake and our team, we found many. There’s a good video about the Loblolly vision and process here.

Loblolly buidling phases
The Loblolly House building process: a pod in the Bensonwood factory, pods being positioned and connected on-site, and the finished project on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

 

 

 

 

 

So the failure of prefab is not specifically in the bumpy history of flaws and failures. That’s how things get improved. Instead, it fails when architects want to shrink it down to their vision, and when an entire sector of architecture attempts to be defined by it, which is a self-limiting cage both to the modernist style itself and to the prefab moniker it wants to own. Stuck in that cage, prefab has had trouble freeing itself for broader duty in more traditional forms, as modernist proponents want the construction system to look like the buildings they love rather than an efficient, quality enhancing building process.

Though he tried, Knapp can’t quite kill the idea of prefab. As he says, “…one must reflect upon this series of utopian misfires in prefabrication’s evolution and wonder why architects have not managed to capitalize effectively upon the platform.” He seems to overlook the possibility that it isn’t about architects. It can live with them, but it is a construction method, not a design style, and therefore is not dependent on their influence, and absolutely will do better without their dominance. Inadvertently, he says so himself by pointing out that prefabrication is successful in Japan and Scandinavia. In both those cases, homebuilding companies design homes as products and sell them through catalogs and models by the thousands. And what do they get for it? Ask a Swede, in whose country they have the highest standard of housing in the world. Or inspect a Japanese house, where production efficiency is unparalleled and defects are as unacceptable as they are in their cars.

Moreover, Knapp overlooked other North American successes that also aren’t architect dominated. It is well known that Sears and Montgomery Ward sold so many houses throughout the U.S. in the first decades of the 20th century that many towns are still greatly defined by their style and influence. The ubiquity of catalog commerce, as well as the incredible convenience of rail delivery in those years, made the popular architectural styles of that period available in nearly every corner of the country.  They clearly played a role in the proliferation of the Arts and Crafts homes, most notably, but also the spare, pragmatic American Foursquare style, which gets little attention these days, but visits my dreams often, as I grew up in a wonderful Foursquare home built in 1895, before the catalog home years.

The other giant of prefab in that era was the E.F. Hodgson Company from Dover, Massachusetts. They started earlier than Sears or Montgomery Ward and also developed a more sophisticated modular system (below), which allowed them to deliver the building in more complete panels. Since many of their homes were shipped overseas, they are less well known, but it’s possible that their production was greater than Sears. My wife’s parents lived in a Hodgson home in New York and thought its quality excellent. There were other off-site homebuilding companies in that era (Aladdin Ready-Cut Houses, for instance), but these three were the largest, and accounted for perhaps 250,000 to 300,000 homes between them. Not to belabor the point, but none of these companies were founded, managed, or in any way controlled, by architects.

Hodgson Kit House
An E.F. Hodgson modular house

In the end, Knapp turns against his own theme and argues for the continuation of off-site building:

“The concept and practice of fabricating architectural elements in either part or whole under conditions separated from the contingencies of the construction site is now more important and relevant to gain efficacy as a profession today than ever before. Architects should continue to pre-build off-site, out of the weather, out of harm’s way, and in the most intelligent manner possible. This should include trusses, insulating sandwich panels, curtain walls and modular concepts, but the result needs to be considered, implemented and promoted with greater sophistication.”

That’s a very strong argument for, not against, off-site building. But depending on his meaning, I’m not sure I agree with the words I highlighted. Architects typically don’t actually build their designs, and therefore I don’t think it should be assumed that the off-site fabrication operations should be the purview of architects. For the most part, that has not worked. On the other hand, successful off-site fabrication companies usually depend on architects and professional designers to create beautiful and functional home designs.

Finally, I fully agree that the “the result needs to be considered, implemented and promoted with greater sophistication.”

So should we give up on prefab? Perhaps not. Let’s just elevate it “with greater sophistication” and call it montage.

 

Vision 2020

This year I had the honor of serving as the co-chair of the Building Design + Performance sector of the Vision 2020 project, which was conceived and organized by EcoBuilding Pulse. The idea of this important project is “to set and track critical metrics and milestones by which housing must adjust its business-as-usual paradigm” in order to meet the 2020 milestone goals of the widely accepted mandate of the 2030 Challenge.

Architecture 2030 established the 2030 Challenge to incrementally increase environmental benchmark stringency to significantly lower the carbon footprint caused by buildings, in their creation, renovation and service. It is clear that buildings are contributing greatly to climate change, but since by 2035, 75% of buildings will either be renovated or built in these intervening years, we have an opportunity to correct the problem. So it’s extremely important for our industry to do all that we can to meet the Challenge objectives.

The ten Vision 2020 chairs, along with Katie Weeks and Rick Schwolsky of HanleyWood, met by conference call on several occasions, and ultimately came together to share our respective thoughts in a day-long presentation Summit held in Washington D.C. in September. That event was followed by an essay from each chair, which additionally summarized our research and thoughts regarding our respective sectors and the 2020 milestone.

It was challenging to attempt to contribute on an equal level with my fellow chairs. For example, my co-chair was Allison Ewing of Hays+Ewing Design Studio. She’s an extremely accomplished architect, having previously worked with Renzo Piano, Cesar Pelli, and as a partner at William McDonough + Partners, before establishing her own firm with Christopher Hays. Allison is quiet and humble, but that’s easily offset by her confident, expressive, and profound body of work.  But even without that, Allison proved that some people need few words to say a lot.

The other fellow chairs were equally intimidating and inspiring, including Dennis Creech, who was the 2013 recipient of the Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Housing.  Dennis has been a sustainable building leader for 30 years and embodies so much about what is good and right in our industry. He’s never wavered in his commitment and, along with his Southface staff, has significantly moved the bar up year after year by doing the research, working in the trenches on policy and programs, and simply teaching the industry how to build better. To say he’s a hard act to follow in a speaking lineup is putting it mildly.

But follow Dennis I did, as well as all my other chairs. I spoke last and did my best to punctuate the point that our task is urgent and we should be moving toward a better sustainability standard quicker as have most of the solutions at our fingertips. As usual, the paradigm shift needed is about values and belief, and not so much about innovation and technology.

In the end, I made three contributions to the Vision 2020 program this year. The first was a webinar on the Open-Building topic with Dr. Stephen Kendall. The second was my “Tedd Talk” at the Summit and the third was an essay roughly following the theme of the talk. There are links to all of them, below. The EcoHome issue with all of the essays is now on the stands.

Following these links, I have added a link to all of the Summit essays. You could spend time in much worse ways than reading insights from some of our industry’s sustainable building luminaries talking about what we need to do to build safer, healthier, more durable and energy efficient buildings…now.

Webinar: Building Design + Performance | Open Building: A Critical Component in Sustainable, High-Performance Housing

Tedd Benson of Bensonwood Homes and Stephen Kendall, Ph.D., of Infill Systems US, explore the concept of open building and how its wide-spread adoption could change how we design homes going forward, creating more flexibility and durability.

 

VISION 2020 talk

We Must Change How We Operate

Tedd Benson lays out the options for addressing climate change. Plan A: Change the way we build and do so quickly. Plan B: There is no plan B.Read More

VISION 2020 essay (photo is scary)

It is Time to be Disruptive

Full 2020 Summit program:

Vision 2020 Introduction

Energy Efficiency + Building Science: Dennis Creech on what to do with existing homes

Building Design + Performance: Allison Ewing, AIA, on how we must adapt in order to prosper.

Indoor Environmental Quality: Marilyn Black on how we must balance energy and health.

Materials + Products: Tom Lent on how material transparency is just the beginning.

Water Efficiency: Paula Kehoe on how we must rethink water use and sources.

Economics + Financing: Robert Sahadi asks “Will green become the new granite?”

Codes, Standards + Rating Systems: Mark Frankel, AIA, LEED Fellow explains why we need outcome-based policies.

Sustainable Communities: John Norquist on the need to bring back Main Street, U.S.A.

Energy Efficiency + Building Science: Mark LaLiberte on how we must commit to education and training

Building Design + Performance: Tedd Benson asserts that all that we do must change.

 

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?

Montage Homebuilding

Words matter and the words that are used to identify the current off-site construction methods are insufficient by definition, and tainted by association. Here at Bensonwood and Unity Homes, we have long been uncomfortable with the terms used for off-site building fabrication methods. It’s usually either “modular” or “prefab,” and both have muddy meaning because of the diversity in practice, and both come with some negative baggage. Modular refers to the built volumes that are trucked on the highway like carcasses of beached whales, and prefab mostly connotes a modernist style, with an indeterminate percentage of value-added in off-site value actually accomplished in the prefabrication process.

The segment of the construction industry referenced by those two categories is wholly failing in three significant ways.

1. They represent only 2-5% of the new home construction, and therefore aren’t making much of an impact. The low percentage of actual built product is caused by #2, and is just as well because of the damage inflicted in #3.

2.  Modular and prefab aren’t bringing the sort of fundamental quality and cost improvement to the industry that’s needed. Neither segment is doing enough to use the off-site manufacturing control advantage to bring real and much-needed improvements to the quality of homes.

Modular is a building method in which whole houses or fractional 3D portions of them are constructed indoors instead of outdoors. The factories are predictably huge to house multiple volumes in production, and the process in the factories typically mirrors the on-site process, albeit under roof. Modular building has the benefit of controlling work conditions and the interaction of trade functions, but it also imposes inherent compromise by forcing architectural outcomes to the constraints of highway shipping rules. Inevitably, the widest, longest and tallest commonly trucked loads are modular buildings. They are the bane of the highway system; the ones with the escort cars, flashing lights, flapping building wrap, and often spilling over into both the adjacent lane and the road shoulder.*

Of course, there are some good things happening in the modular building segment, especially in commercial construction, where modules are typically only one aspect of a more extensive off-site strategy, not the entire solution. In addition, there are a few modular homebuilders working to raise the standards for modular building, and I certainly applaud their efforts and hope for their success. It’s sorely needed.

But the bottom line is that modular homebuilding in this country is the industry sector bringing the very worst building standards to consumers. This unfortunate fact infects the whole industry with the consumer preconception of an affordable, but low tier product. It’s the Twinkie of housing: it doesn’t cost much, but it’s not good for you either.

The specialized HUD code for manufactured housing is like one big loophole that you can drive a big modular box through. What is most impressive about these modular “houses” is their uncanny ability to aggregate the very worst, most toxic, self-destructing building materials on the market into one complete package. It is seen as virtuous by some that these homes are “affordable” enough to increase home ownership for lower income people, but it’s really just a bad deal for those who can least afford it.  The homes are typically flimsy, defect-ridden, energy hogs; making the cost of ownership high and the value of the investment low.

Prefab is generally serving the other end of the financial spectrum where cost is less important than style. Dwell Magazine is all about Prefab, for example. These homes are hip, modernist and often associated with particular architects. The consumer perception is that prefab offers contemporary design in a more accessible way, and/or offers green values rather than cost and quality benefits. Of course, there’s no single standard among the prefab companies, but prefab oriented companies typically are only prefabricating a small percentage of the building off-site, leaving most of the conventional construction process and players to build as usual, with only a modest time advantage.  It seems the real important benefit for the consumer is to get the “kit” they want to help ensure the outcome will be as they imagined.

Prefab is a good idea, but it needn’t be about style only, and ought to bring more value to the finished product. It’s not enough.

3.   Finally, the industry segment associated with modular and prefab construction is wholly failing to create good jobs. This is the worst failure in my mind, and gives further insight about #1 and #2. The employee turnover and absentee rates for those sectors of the construction industry is not only worse than the rest of the construction industry (which is in itself very bad compared to other industries), but is (or was, in 2005) worse than ANY other industry at 61%.** This is inexcusable. Nothing good can come out of a building system that depends on low pay, low skills, and bad working conditions to achieve financial success.

Even if I spend more time talking and writing, I still think of myself as a carpenter. That’s where my heart is. My objectives in this business have always been to develop a better way to build. That “better way” must result in much better homes that will bring real quality of life improvements to the occupants, but it also must elevate the builders themselves because the building profession is so critical to our civilization. After all, it’s about how we live.

For all three of the above reasons, we don’t think the modular and prefab are terms that come close to describing our off-site oriented methodology, our values, or our long term mission. We are lowering costs, raising quality, reducing energy requirements, removing defects, compressing time, increasing inhabitant control and living environment adaptability.  And to ensure that it all just gets better and better, we are committed to creating good jobs.

The narrow definitions, fuzzy mission, and erratic outcomes of modular and prefab are inadequate and too limiting. In addition, their typical work cultures take the industry in the wrong direction. We have a different philosophy and a different process. It’s smarter than modular and more complete than prefab. In our process, we are trying to pack as much completeness and value as possible into a discrete number of building elements that can result in an efficient, quick, uncompromised, on-site assembled home. In essence, the special “recipe” of our method is intended to raise the standards in every dimension, including the work culture in the once noble profession of building.

Now we need a name for it.

With an insight provided by my friend Scott Hedges, we have decided to use the Swedish term for off-site building. It’s a word that cuts across languages. Its reference to building means substantially the same thing in German, and it has similar connotations in French, Japanese and English. As we have benefited from direct influence and technology from all of those countries to develop our work culture and building process, we might as well blend in some of the language as well.

That Swedish word is “montage,” and it means “assemble.” Montage is also a close synonym for assemble in English. In fact, one of the dictionary.com definitions is a good description of our building process: “.. combination of disparate elements that forms … a unified whole.” In Sweden, an off-site built home is called a “montagehus,” which directly translates to “assembly house.” In Germany, the process of building a house with off-site assemblies is called “montage,” and the crew doing the work is also the “montage” crew. Following the Swedes and Germans, we could use the English word “assembly,” but it would be equally difficult to put into practice and doesn’t sound as nice.

Besides, the Swedes have a right to ownership of the appropriate word for this construction method. The vast majority of their homes are built the montage way, and their build quality and performance standards are incredibly high, arguably the best commonly built standard of residential construction in the world.  It’s well understood in Sweden that Montagehus is how you get that quality.

Therefore, at Bensonwood and Unity Homes, we humbly adopt montage for our design and construction system, with its hard-won association of achieving the highest possible standards through a system of construction that is an efficient, quality-focused assembly process. We also think it’s a better term because the essence of our process is, in fact, assembly, or montage. First we montage (assemble) the designs from a library of virtual “Lego” elements; then we montage (assemble) the CNC-cut (Computer Numerical Control) parts and pieces in our production studio into the same elements (structural members, panels, cartridges, pods, modules, etc); and finally, we montage (assemble) the elements on the site to create the completed building.

So Montage it is. Montage building is the basis of the best world standard for residential construction, and that’s where we’re planting our flag too.

We imagine the adoption of montage will lead to a variety of usages:

“A montage house”

“Montage home”

“Montage construction”

“Montage building”

“Montage crew”

…and we hope something like..

“I won’t settle for less than montage quality.”

The most important thing is that we have a different term to help us distinguish the quality of building and the quality of job that are essential to the Bensonwood history and the Unity vision. These two objectives lean on each other for success. You can’t create good jobs with a bad product. Good jobs only pair with the creation of good products. And the reverse is true as well. Good, industry disrupting products cannot be created unless the people doing the work have good jobs (with good pay, benefits and working conditions) that require discipline, skills, knowledge and a dedication to constant improvement.

It’s past time to disrupt the stale homebuilding paradigm. The process should invite people in, not lock them out; should be fun, not scary; certain, not risky; life improving, not stress-inducing; empowering, not dependency-increasing; a safe and healthy sanctuary, not a health threat and a daily burden. Homes should be spas of comfort and security that are a joy and honor to build. That’s our mission. And we think it’s not different than the desire all people have to create their own “nest,” to have personal control of the place where they live. That’s embedded in our DNA and a human right.

It’s time for montage homebuilding.

 

* As a bicyclist, I’ve had close calls with these monsters in the past. I now worry that they’ll be coming after me purposely.

** In an industry sponsored study (MHRA 2005), they found that Manufactured Housing in the USA, has absenteeism that is 6%, twice that of the overall industrialized sector; and the level of employee turnover is 61%- far greater than any other industry (e.g. 28% in construction and 17% in manufacturing).