All posts by Tedd

A Better Standard

This post continues my interview with Kiva Bottero, freelance writer. The first part was about Open Building. In this part, Kiva wanted to know more about Unity Homes, and how Open Building and some of our objectives would play out with that initiative.

I am grateful for Kiva’s good questions and the opportunity to expand on some important ideas.  Kiva has reported on portions of the interview in Green Building Canada as well as in his blog Green Home Gnome, and most recently in Buildipedia.  TB

Part II

KB: In regards to durability, you state, “We believe there should be a 250 year standard.” Does that mean your homes are built to that standard or you just believe that homes should be built to that standard? If so, can you give me an idea of what building to that standard means… because I don’t imagine you’re planning on living 250 years 😉

TB:In high-performance building, the essence of sustainability is durability. We can’t invest so much resource and material in buildings that aren’t destined to last. That’s too much waste on too big a scale, especially as our buildings contain increasing amounts of insulation and structure to contain and support improved energy efficiency. The commitment to a longer durability standard should include regulation and economic stimulation, but we can’t wait for that to come about; we need to lead toward that outcome.

Here in New England, we are surrounded by buildings that are 250 years old or more. We know the value of that commitment and legacy. And if you’ve been to older parts of the world, particularly Europe, it is evident that in a culture in which good building has long been standard, 250 years is considered young. Clearly, the better standard of 250 years is not pie-in-the-sky or overreaching.


The obvious parts of the 250 year standard are in the structure. We can’t compromise foundations, or structure, or the skins that protect the building from the elements. The less obvious aspects are in location, siting, and design compatibility, where integration into the public fabric is essential. An even less obvious aspect is in the need to design for long term capacity rather than short term requirements only. Creating an “open” architecture that allows ongoing inhabitant adaptation is conscious professional activity, and extremely important for durability.

KB: You wrote,” Design tends to make the inhabitants lives generic.” What comes to mind for me is the two-car attached garage and how people have adopted a two-car lifestyle. Using this garage example can you tell me what options an Open-Built home would give homeowners if they want to do away with their garage? Would that be easier to do than with a traditionally built home? If so, what options would they have?

TB: What I mean is different. Most residential design isn’t for adaptation, nor is it for specific inhabitant requirements, but rather for a predetermined profile judged by the production builders to meet the requirements of most people. They didn’t design for anybody in particular, but for what they judged to be a large segment of the population in a generic prediction. As the resulting typical American home is hopelessly entangled and therefore inflexible, inhabitants are forced to adapt to the home; it isn’t designed to adapt to them. Their lives are at least partially forced into the pattern of that generic design prediction.


In the Open-Built philosophy, we are trying to develop and innovate ever-improved ways in which the living environments we create can be affected by their occupants to suit their needs and requirements. We’ve made enormous progress in this regard, but we won’t reach the fully realized vision without the participation of more industry partners, especially as it relates to creating true systems (not aggregated parts and pieces) that are in full control of the occupants.

KB: Your new line of Unity Homes delivers the Passive House standard of air tightness with prefabricated construction. Why did you choose to pair prefab and passive?

TB: It’s not that we’re pairing off-site prefab (I hate that word. We will replace it with a better one.) with passive, but rather that off-site methodology gets us to a higher standard more easily and consistently. We have tremendous control over the all that happens in our facilities. We have the right training, the right tools, the right working conditions, etc. We aren’t shooting for the Passive House standard, but rather for the standard where cost and performance are most optimized. Our philosophy on this is simple. We try not to either compromise or maximize, but to optimize for cost, quality, good design, and good engineering.

KB: Why did you choose to adopt the Passive House standard of air-tightness, but not the other standards that go with Passive House?

TB: This answer continues the one above. The Passive House standard has multiple requirements. Some are more effective than others, and some are more expensive than others. We’re trying to optimize by focusing on controlling cost and leveraging for effectiveness. Thicker walls and more insulation are costly and need to be considered against the value very carefully. We have therefore studied this issue, and our analysis has brought us to the conclusion that after about R30, there are severely diminishing returns with added insulation. At that point, air-tightness is a much more significant factor in the building performance. Luckily, air-tightness is nearly free. It’s just about good workmanship and good work processes. We can achieve the Passive House air-tightness standard on all of our homes consistently, so we focus on that and diminish the PH standard insulation level slightly (R35) to a point where we are getting really good performance, allowing us to use small air-source heat pumps for heating and cooling.


KB: Can you tell me a little about the Unity homes currently in production? (Features, performance, price, launch date, etc.)

TB: We have two homes being built right now, and a few more under contract and a whole bunch of prospects that are looking very good for spring starts. Unity is on the way!

Our proposition is about a no-compromise home with that has more value than cost. All Unity Homes have a mini-energy demand, which allows us to eliminate fossil fuels and use a air source heat pump to supply all the heating and cooling requirements. With this and many other energy features, these homes can achieve net-zero with a modest solar array (5-7 kwh). In addition, we don’t compromise on the structure, as we assume these homes will serve for 300-500 years.

Oh yes, and they’re comfortable, light filled, spacious, have great air quality, and are filled with great materials, finishes, and fixtures.

The Unity standard is the future of homebuilding. You could put it this way: “Nothing compromised. Nothing maximized. Everything optimized.” Or simply: “Not too little. Not too much. Just right.” The Swedes value this idea so much that they have a word for it. The word is “lagom.” The Unity objective is to seek to be proudly lagom.


KB: How far can you transport these houses and how economical is it to transport?

TB: We can ship within a few hundred miles efficiently. The consideration is really quite practical: the distance a single driver can make the trip and unload the truck without having to sleep over. We can deliver beyond that, of course, but the costs are higher and need to be more carefully analyzed. Our goal for Unity Homes is to extend our production to be closer to our markets. We expect to begin that expansion this year.

KB: A catch-22 facing prefab builders is that volume needs to increase before costs can drop, but for that to happen prices need to be lower for the average consumer. What do you get for the amount of your homes? (What costs are included, finish, etc.) And what would you say to a home buyer that offers a compelling reason to own a Unity Home?

TB: That’s right. But it’s not such a bad Catch-22 if we’re strategically accurate as we grow. There are plenty of markets in which Unity is cost competitive now, while providing much higher quality in much faster time. As we grow and bring prices down with scale, we can then bring the Unity proposition to markets where costs are currently lower.

KB: Can you tell me a little about the five key attributes of Unity Homes?

TB: I’ll put this in the form of the Unity Homes goals, and indicate where we are today:

  1. Custom home design will be free (currently is)
  2. The typical build time will be 20 working days (currently 30-35)
  3. Living in a home can be free of utility costs and also generate energy for transportation. (currently no fossil fuels, net zero capable)
  4. All systems within the home should be continually alterable and up-gradable, with most of the work accomplished by the homeowners (currently disentangled and reconfigurable within the shell, with easy access to most mechanical systems and all homes designed for unpredicted capacity, not just first space plan)
  5. Cost for this much higher standard design and performance standard is competitive with current on-site, building-code-based standard. (Currently competitive with on lower quality on-site alternative in many markets where building costs are at the national average or higher.)

KB: What advantages does the Open-Built system offer and how does that expand-ability integrate with prefab?

TB: Open-Built improves the efficiency of the construction process by disentangling systems for easier installation. That same disentanglement allows for long-term access, which means homeowners and professionals can accomplish changes, upgrades and renovations with less demolition and rework.

Our buildings are assembled in a logical and practical way. The result is a building in which disassembly replaces demolition, and with a broader Open-Built standard adoption, the parts and elements could be reused at a later time or even sold online to others who had built to the same standard. That’s an important dream that we intend to make real.



Open Building Now!

I recently had an interview with freelance writer, Kiva Bottero.  During the interview, we talked first about Open Building and our Open-Built “operating system,” and then went on to discuss our new Unity Homes company.  Kiva has reported on portions of the interview in Green Building Canada as well as in his blog Green Home Gnome. A further report will be coming out soon in Buildipedia.

Since Kiva did a good job of teasing out a good amount of information about some important topics, I’m publishing the whole interview here in two parts. The first part, for this post, is about Open Building.   TB

KB: Open Building means different things to different people. How does your Open-Built® implementation of Open Building fit in with the vision Habraken set forth?

TB: The unfortunate fact is that Open Building doesn’t mean much of anything to most people, and even more unfortunately, that includes most professionals in the homebuilding industry.  I wish there were more discussions about the meaning of Open Building, but the conversations are really much more basic at this point, as there is very little awareness about one of the most important industry ideas that, if understood and applied, could move homebuilding process and product to a better place.

Our adoption of the Open Building principles follows Habraken’s ideas quite closely, but we have then extended the implementation with our own ideas to address current design and building practice and the particular issues in the contemporary American homebuilding industry, including building science, engineering and technology.

Our launch of the Open-Built system began with Habraken himself. He came to New Hampshire in the early 1990’s and gave a thorough seminar to our staff. The seminar grew out of a series of discussions between Habraken and I. He was working at MIT (Head of Department of Architecture) and living in Cambridge, MA at the time, so getting together was pretty convenient. By the time he gave the seminar, he was able to cast the Open Building ideas in a way that made them directly relevant to our company’s design and building systems. His generous efforts pushed us forward pretty quickly. What we do today was born from our personal interaction with Habraken, which continues today. I most recently saw Habraken when I gave a talk on Open Building at a conference in Boston last year. It was an honor to have him present.


KB: What benefits does Open Building contribute to the design and building process?

TB: In Habraken’s words, one of the fundamental objectives of Open Building is to restore the ‘natural relation’ between building form and the inhabitants. Design tends to assume that the inhabitants’ lives are generic. Buildings are so fixed in their aesthetics and function that people must adapt to buildings, because buildings have not been made to be adaptable to the people who live in them.  Here’s an important disconnect to acknowledge: buildings are for people, yet people tend to be dynamic and ever-changing, while buildings tend to be static and thwart change. The central tenet of Open Building addresses this problem by seeking to separate the base building (“support”) from the interior fit-out (infill). The former is long term, durable and relatively static; the latter is viewed as mutable, ever-changing and relatively dynamic.

There are two parts to the OB proposition. First, in the process, the supports side of the building is seen as public, long term, and involves regulation and professional skills to create a durable and sustainable structure that will be an asset to the community as well as its owners. The infill, on the other hand, is seen as private and should be in the full control of its occupants. It is designed for occupant control, and is designed and organized to reinvigorate the “natural relation” that people should have with their living environment. Second, in the product of the home, the result is a “disentanglement” between the long term and short term (base building and infill), and inevitably between numerous building “layers” that live in time differently.


From this essential philosophical idea flows a whole host of solutions, from organizational rationale that can revolutionize design methodology, to unique building systems that will radically alter assumptions about the process of building.

KB: Can you give an example of how it benefits home owners?

TB: Open Building is intended to ease–and even facilitate–renovation, upgrade and change as the occupants’ desire and require. The central idea is to allow the building to adapt to changing needs, changing technology and changing fashion.  There are two important added advantages: it makes the construction process more efficient since there is less entanglement and more open access, while also allowing the owners to finish the building as they can afford it rather than being forced to finish the entire home during construction because of the inherent entanglement.

KB: Does it benefit the community or environment in any way?

TB: By separating the base building from the infill, the focus for the underlying structure is on long term durability, which is the essence of sustainability. We believe there should be a 250 year standard (at least) which Open Building encourages because it allows constant renewal for the occupants but seeks to keep the structure inviolate.

In addition, since the infill is designed for renewal and access, there is more opportunity for parts, components and equipment that are all demountable, reusable and recyclable.

So the community gets a long term asset, the occupants get a building that adapts to them, and the environment benefits from less demolition and the usual landfill impact.

KB: What impact does Open Building have on the communication process between the various people involved in the building of a home and the home owner?

TB: Since an OB building is more organized, and there’s much more access to the service and finish layers, there’s less anxiety about making all decisions and predicting the near and long term future, because the short term and long term aspects of the building are not entangled.  The homeowner simply has more control even if the initial considerations turn out to not be accurate.  The result is that the homeowner isn’t so pressured because design and process decisions are not weighty with finality.

KB: The Open Prototype Initiative that you are taking part in seeks to prototype the future of homebuilding. How are you working towards this goal?

TB: The recession has slowed down the Open Prototype progress, but we have decided to accelerate it despite current conditions by launching a new company called Unity Building Technologies, and under it, the Unity Homes brand. It is a direct outgrowth of the Open Prototype project and is named for the second one at Unity College. We intend to pursue the future of homebuilding in actual homes that people can buy. The first two Unity homes are under construction now.  More will be built this spring. We think this effort will be extremely successful, as all these homes will be off-site built to higher standards than any typical home, and will also display the Open-Built advantages.


KB: The popularity of open source software propagates the notion that “open” means free and accessible by all to use. Your Open-Built system is registered as a trademark, so is the Open Prototype Initiative aimed at opening up this process of building to the whole building industry to freely use?

TB: Open Building and Open-Built have the occupant/homeowner in mind for the use of the word “open,” but in fact there’s much about Open Building that must be widely accessible if it’s going to be widely adopted. The basis for Open-Built is what I call an Operating System, which includes a 3D grid and interface/connection standards. This is where the industry needs to come together to create an environment in which suppliers, manufacturers, designers, and builders can all make, create, and deploy with a host of agreed upon standards. This will make good design more available and good building parts, components and equipment more affordable.  In the coming year, we intend to make a formal proposal in this regard and we’ll invite everyone to participate.

KB: You state in your 2003 White Paper, “What is Open Building?” that the theories, practices and projects in residential open building are largely unknown, even within the building industry. What would you most like builders to know about open building?


TB: Open Building is a disruptive idea. It inherently unseats the status quo assumptions about how design and construction should proceed. The main thing I want builders to know is that the change is coming (just as it has in every other industrial activity) and they can either be victims or beneficiaries of the inevitable.

KB: Why do you feel builders have been so slow to adopt the principles of open building?

TB: Not just slow. Complete denial or ignorance. I suppose the guilty parties are people like me who understand Open Building and believe deeply in its value and industry changing power. We just haven’t done a good enough job of spreading the word and demonstrating. As we move our new Unity Homes company to scale, we intend to change that.

Our Teamwork Principles

Our company has been constantly improving for almost 40 years. In that period of time, so many things have evolved dramatically. Much of that evolution is visible in our maturity as an organization and the impressive achievements evident in our work skills and processes. The visible outcome is in the scores of buildings we construct every year. Since I’m not so often on the front lines where the work gets done, it’s easier now to brag: we’ve become very, very good! You can see it. Measure it. Feel it. Built structures tell only the truth, so there’s not much doubt.

But there’s an aspect that’s harder to quantify and takes some “squinting” to see and experience. It’s also the foundation for all our capabilities, capacity and potential; and that’s our culture.

We always say our people are our most important asset and that’s true, but it’s also true that the context in which we all work and interact is essential to our individual and collective performance. If you take that cultural context away, the people would perform differently.   In many ways, then, the culture in which we work is the most important asset for all of us.

But what is it? I don’t really know, and can’t easily define it, as it ever evolves too. I do know it’s pulled us through some very difficult projects, some lean economic times and it propels us to improve and innovate constantly.

Perhaps the closest we have come to defining our culture happened about 8 years ago when we decided to write our Teamwork Principles. It was a fun little exercise because everyone seemed to know what they were by then.  It was the first time and last time we actually wrote them down and numbered them. There were only a couple of drafts, mostly to distill the wording.  Apparently, they were already ensconced in the DNA of our culture.

Fittingly, they are posted above the sharpening bench. Look up, and you get two sharpenings at once.  So here they are: Not our culture, but one outgrowth of it.

Teamwork Principles

  1. Nobody is above the work that needs to be done.
  2. Nobody is below the work that needs to be done.
  3. We share the same high expectations and work ethic intensity.
  4. We are a team. Each person strives to be a good supporter and a good leader, and to know when to be one or the other.
  5. We provide opportunity for success for all team members.
  6. We will constantly improve our products and our work performance.
  7. We will be known for consistent quality and integrity of work.
  8. When problems arise, we will assume people are good, systems are bad.
  9. We treat the company property, time, and money as if it were our own.
  10. We are committed to self management.
  11. We own the problems we see.
  12. We create the setting for excellent craftsmanship by keeping an orderly workplace.



Unity Homes!

My blog has been in hibernation for quite awhile, and I suppose that should be a reason to feel badly, but the reason for less writing was more working, and the reason for more working was to realize a long-held dream which is hitting an important milestone today. Here’s the background story:

Bensonwood was founded nearly 40 years ago. My youthful driving passion at the time was to find a better way to build. As a carpenter, I had come to really like building homes, but to equally dislike some of the prevailing methods that often led to shortcuts and severe compromises. It set me off on what I intended to be a noble mission, but in retrospect I’m sure it was selfishly motivated too, as I wanted to develop a system that had more challenges, more opportunity for creativity, and was, well, just more fun.

And it has been fun. I’ve constantly worked with amazing people in a company that is much better than my leadership has earned. And over the years, we’ve all learned that we can accomplish nearly anything if we unleash our collective energy, skills and knowledge because in the end, making good buildings is a team sport. If there are any heroes, it’s always an accounting of how many are in the “we.”

In the past four decades, that “we” that we call Bensonwood have contributed our special skills to over a thousand building projects, most of which have been designed and engineered by our staff. We have built in nearly every state in theU.S., and a few places overseas. Our work graces churches, restaurants, libraries, theaters, gazebos, pergolas, barns of all sorts, and houses big and small. We have made a difference.

We’ve also done what I set out to do at the beginning: we have indeed developed a better way to build. It wasn’t luck. We’ve been working on that specific project assiduously for fifteen years. We now have a truly unique off-site design and construction process that is a real and unique solution to many of the conventional construction deficiencies. We’ve developed a design system, written software, invented building systems, and then combined all of that with the precision of our craftsmanship and the efficiency and control of Lean manufacturing methods. Our special system is called Open-Built™ This entire “operating system” brings to homebuilding the consistency, quality standards, and cost structure homeowners deserve.

Now we realize that our “secret sauce” gives us more capabilities and capacity than we typically utilize. It’s time to expand.

Today we are announcing the launch of a new brand called Unity Homes that will increase our capacity for growth and bring our legendary quality to more people. Unity Homes and Bensonwood will be separated to assure full focus for both, but they will also be complementary. Bensonwood will be free to continue pursuing new challenges in timberframes, and highly customized, demanding building projects, both commercial and residential. Unity Homes will have a tightly engineered and well designed suite of homes that can be personalized, but the customization will be limited for the sake of optimizing cost and quality.

The mission of Unity Homes is to offer the highest quality homes for the lowest possible cost. Because of Bensonwood’s legacy, the Unity Homes quality won’t waver; because of our goals for this new brand, we’ll constantly fight to make this standard of homebuilding more affordable and more accessible.

For nearly a year, we have been working hard in the background to design and engineer the Unity Homes offerings and develop all the information and material needed to bring it to life in a way that is distinct and unique, and representative of our standards and values.  Our team did all of the work right here, including the design, engineering, pricing, specifications, website design and development and even the wonderful renderings to represent the designs.

Essentially, with no outside funding and lots of long hours, we have created a 40 year old start up. And it is now live. I feel like a kid.

The “we” of Bensonwood has triumphed again. The new era of Unity Homes has begun.




A New Guide to the “Sexy” Energy Solution

A few weeks ago, Alex Wilson asked me to write a foreword for his new book, which is simply titled Insulation: The GreenBuilding Guide.  Writing the short foreword was a harder task than I imagined. The stakes felt high, both because it’s such an important topic, and also because it would affect a good friend’s book. It paralyzed me for a bit before I finally got some words to stick. As it turned out, I haven’t done any other writing for the past few weeks because of an intense work schedule for our company these days. Therefore, I’m posting this little foreword to get something up here, but also because Alex’s book will be a must-read and I’ll be promoting it in every way I can.  Here’s a start.

We instinctively know that insulation is the obvious solution to a very common problem, but low energy costs have allowed us for too long to give it short shrift. We are certain to grab a good coat when we go outside on a cold day, yet most of the buildings we inhabit are themselves poorly dressed for the weather they inevitably encounter. Despite having readily available and effective insulation materials for over a century, we’ve failed to address the insufficient thermal coverings of our buildings, having opted instead to hook them up with all sorts of high-tech mechanical devices to manufacture artificially tempered living environments no matter the necessity. And no matter the energy costs.

Frank Lloyd Wright probably best summed up the oblivious rationale for under-utilizing insulation when he said that insulation might be worthwhile for roofs, “…whereas the insulation of the walls and the airspace within the walls become less and less important. With modern systems of air conditioning and heating, you can manage almost any condition.” Armed with that unfortunate logic, we spent decades equipping our buildings with the necessary equipment to “manage almost any condition” instead of pursuing better insulation. Wright’s opinion and the long-prevailing paradigm it represents is the major reason the energy consumption of buildings rises well above that of both the transportation and industry sectors as our nation’s number one fuel guzzling, polymorphous beast.

But the building construction piece of the energy sector pie has been decidedly sedentary, an unproductive sloth in comparison to its unending appetite for fuel. Unlike the transportation sector, which must both transport us and condition our indoor environment, buildings need only be designed and constructed to serve us while steadfastly stuck in one spot. They can simply sit there, securing their space on the earth, serving best by being stalwart immovable objects. They don’t take us places by land, sea or air; nor do they do any industrial tasks or produce things for our benefit. As such, buildings haven’t been designed to provide that sort of tangible return for the spent fuels. Instead, the largest proportion of that energy is delivered for the sole purpose of creating habitable (i.e. “comfortable”) environments.

Finding ways to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels is a mighty problem; one that now pulls at us with ever increasing urgency. Some facets of that predicament appear to be overwhelmingly difficult to solve. Ocean freighters and airplanes burn fantastic quantities of fuel to perform their tasks, as do steel mills and chemical plants. It’s hard to imagine how these things ever lose their energy-hogging ways.

Buildings, on the other hand, are easy. Nearly half of their energy demands come from heating and cooling, and most of that usage could be cut dramatically–even eliminated–by making the building envelope tight and adding lots of insulation. So there IS some good news: our biggest energy consuming sector also has the lowest hanging fruit, and lots of it.

We can literally insulate our way to a much brighter energy future while insulating ourselves from the ever-higher cost of energy. Every highly insulated building is an energy miser forever. Every building weaned from fossil fuels is weaned forever. We can keep warm and cool without resorting to the energy-sucking equipment Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to rely on. The new paradigm shift recognizes that if we DON’T insulate sufficiently, we’ll probably be saddled with big, thirsty equipment running constantly at exorbitant financial and ecological cost.

This is one of those world-changing awakenings that doesn’t stem from any kind of brilliance, but instead comes from stupidity having a little less dominance. But it’s important change nevertheless, and it’s at least beginning to overwhelm the reign of ignorance. Builders, architects and homeowners across the country are proving that with enough insulation (including air-tightness) we can use smaller and simpler equipment and eschew fossil fuels entirely.

Insulation is, therefore, the obvious and simple answer to a big problem. Understanding insulation and using it effectively are key to achieving passive comfort and energy independence. There are no technological barriers to insulating our buildings more effectively and thereby lowering our national energy usage dramatically. You’d think that would be the end of it. We’d employ it, solve that problem, and move on to the next one. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy, nor that simple.

First, it’s not that easy because the general public still has little interest in insulation. It’s invisible and boring. Like reinforcement in concrete, it’s often seen as kind of a cost nuisance rather than something you’d want to consider improving. Similarly, “out of sight, out of mind,” aptly explains why people don’t give much consideration to insulation. Knowing too little about the subject, people are often proud to announce that their home meets code requirements, as if that was like acing a test, instead of what it is: the lowest possible passing grade. Where “minimum” sounds like “maximum,”  “better” sounds like overdoing it. So we’ve been stuck insulating most of our buildings at the C- level or less for a long time.

Knowing that, consumer awareness is critical to implementing the massive energy reductions we can achieve with our buildings. President Obama tried to encourage people to have a little more respect for insulation when he jovially declared that it is “sexy stuff,” and “I get really excited about it.” Of course, that was fodder for many days of derision by the critics and comedians. But it’s no joke. We have a ways to go before people will commonly trade their noticeable A+ features for hidden A+ insulation.

Second, it’s not that simple because insulation is a deceptively complicated subject. And that’s the reason for this book. As Alex Wilson points out, “No other building element offers such a diverse range of materials, and complexity of considerations–environmental, human health, performance, and building science.” There are myriad materials, old and new, promising to be the better way to insulate—even as newer “innovative” products are coming out all the time. Attempting to understand the benefits and potential in all these options can easily get confusing and overwhelming.

Like the canoe adventurer (and canoeing author) that he is, Alex is our perfect guide. He’s been exploring both the quiet and turbulent waters of this subject, and delivers here an accessible guidebook that clarifies the issues in his typical objective, authoritative way. With the information packed into this small volume and Alex’s reassuring guidance, we’ll all feel just a bit more comfortable as we continue to chart our own routes toward a steady current of true sustainability in building performance.

Look for Alex Wilson’s important new book from BuildingGreen soon.

Ishikawa and the Compagnons

Good buildings can’t be made without skills and knowledge. But where does one acquire those skills? And where does the knowledge come from? One of the reasons I like the “Old Audels” is that its four volumes give a wide spectrum of basic building education in a manner that is readable and easy to understand, but more importantly they reveal how much more one would need to know to master the craft of building. Too many in the building trades these days are afflicted with what Pythagoras called “compound ignorance,” or ignorance of ignorance. The reason for this is simple. There’s little in the way of training requirements for almost all of the trades; there are precious few active master builders around to teach; and so few places where one can learn anything about building trades in an organized way. The void is just too big. People involved with building in America often assume they know what they’re doing when they don’t. With a serious lack of mentors, teachers and schools for at least the past 50 years, American builders are often lost in their own fog.

The situation is very unfortunate for our floundering industry. Houses are more complicated than ever. With every hurricane, earthquake and tornado, we learn something new about how to make buildings perform better structurally. In addition, the need to make our built environment more energy efficient has raised that particular ante many-fold in just the last decade. The craft of building right now involves a lot of science. Making good buildings now more than ever requires builders to be capable, determined learners, not just good with their hands. In opposition to compound ignorance, the main thing every builder needs to know is that there’s more to know, and the present accepted standard isn’t nearly good enough.

Bridging the divide between our deficient building industry culture and the one we wish would be more dominant is a challenge. In the current context, we can’t reasonably expect our new employees to come to us already educated and trained, making our training obligations pretty substantial in the first few years. While we strive to fill in the all learning requirements for our associates, it’s often hard to find the time and maintain the budgets for the education we know to be critical. Therefore, we sometimes rely on our associates to “learn on the fly” while working with the “job captains,”  team leaders and their co-workers.

Without schools and without industry requirements, we have to depend on our own resources for education and training. We’ve developed a good curriculum, and in our midst we have good teachers for most of the requirements, but we’ve come to realize that the most important ingredient is our associates’ innate desire to learn, and to continue developing their skills. If they don’t want it, we can’t cram it. And if they do…well, it can be a really incredible, unstoppable force.

When I was young, the thing that excited me was being in the presence of master builders whose accomplishments and skills was only matched by their humility and respect for the tradition of which they were a part. You perhaps have never thought of carpentry as the “noble profession,” but when I heard that phrase from a practicing carpenter in his late 60’s, it didn’t sound like hyperbole because of his demeanor, and his explanation about how much buildings matter in the lives of people, and therefore how important it is that we build really well. That was Oliver. He was one of those who inspired me to want to be a carpenter and to learn how to build well. I needed his example for a standard, for a goal.

Since then, I’ve wanted people in our company to have the same opportunity to be inspired and pulled toward a higher standard by example. We spent our early years trying to accomplish that on our own, but while we had the passion and desire, there were some missing links in our craft lineage we were striving to overcome, and the dominant homebuilding culture was going in the other direction. We were swimming hard, but against the tide.

In 1984, we fell into the opportunity to have a Japanese temple builder, Masahiko Ishikawa, work with us for a year. He was at the end of a 10 year apprenticeship and wanted to spend a little time in a different place before going back to officially begin his career. Ishikawa was a 28 year old Oliver from a different place in the world, but from the same disciplined, reverential building tradition. He learned from people, who learned from people, who learned from people…going back 2000 years. When the thread of knowledge is that long and deep, it brings with it grace and confidence.

Ishikawa’s training began when he was a teenager. The path he took through the years of apprenticeship was a rigorous combination of classroom, workshop and field work. They emphasized the mental and physical discipline of the building crafts, but also humility and respect. It sounded like a combination of training to be a Marine and a Monk, while pursuing a PhD in a very specialized form of construction. There was little he didn’t know or couldn’t do if it involved wood, tools and building.

Masahiko Ishikawa

It was transformational to work with Ishikawa that year. We learned an immense amount, became a little bit Japanese, but perhaps most importantly, we had a living example to show us where the bar should be set. It was the starkest of contrasts with the non-caring, cynical building environment we often saw on American job sites. We all knew where we wanted to be on that spectrum. It was an experience and influence that deeply affected and directed us at an important time.

In the early 1990’s, I developed a good connection to the Compagnons du Devoir of France. Their training and building tradition is very similar to the one that Ishikawa was a part of in Japan in nearly all respects. Jon Senior, who lives in France commented on my last blog and pointed us to a web site about the Compagnons. I wrote back to him excitedly because for the last 20 years, we’ve had a regular flow of Compagnons working with our company as a part of their formal training.

The first Compagnon to join us for a period was Boris Noel. At the time, he had finished his decade of training and had accomplished his Masterwork, making him a true “Master builder” as formally defined in their training program. He did for us in the 90’s what Ishikawa had done before: he was an example of the education and skill level we wanted to be our own standard. He reminded us about the “noble profession” in his attitude, work ethic, and skills.

Boris Noel

As an interesting side note, Boris now works for Jean-Louis Velentin, whose story is highlighted on the Compagnon web site. Since Boris’ time with us, he has been our connection to other Compagnons who have joined us for periods and helped to make us a little bit French.

It’s hard to the fathom the difference between a building culture that requires no training with those from Japan and France that require 7 to 12 years of education and apprenticeship.  Having worked with these people and having used their standards to help develop ours, we know why it matters in every way.

Oh yes, we’re also a little bit German and Swiss. More about that later.

Emmanuel Jego
Julien Worms


Remi Chardon


Bruno Sutter

Old Audels, New Audels, No Audels

Recently, I was working with Rick Reynolds (learn about him on our People page) to edit our company Timeline, now up on our website. The Timeline rightfully starts in 1973 when our company was founded, but of course there were certain catalysts before then that pulled me in the direction of carpentry and building. One of those seminal events was the discovery of a volume of books known back then as “The carpenter’s bible.”

When I came to New England, I discovered that my carpentry apprenticeship in Colorado wasn’t a good calling card. In fact, “Colorado carpenter” was a common phrase used by East Coast builders as a contemptuous epithet to describe any hack with poor skills and a bad attitude. While I realized I had some preconceptions to overcome with my new workmates, this was one unfortunate stereotype that had been borne out by my own experiences. I was actually relieved to hear that I might have seen the worst. It seemed that way.

One of the first indications that New England builders were different was their sense of pride about their profession. Those guys liked being carpenters and were challenged by its demands. They cared. And they had skills. I knew I had a lot to learn and asked them if they had any ideas about how I might do some off-work hours learning. There was a quick answer: “Just get a copy of the old Audels and start reading.”

It turned out the “old Audels” was a four volume set that had been out of print for about 20 years at that time. I would have to search old bookstores to find it. In the meantime, one of my workmates brought a set in for me to see what the fuss was about. I turned to the first page of the first volume and what I read I had a big affect on me. It still does.

The Ruskin quote was the frontispiece in all four volumes and set the tone for an amazing construction manual that intends to communicate something about the right attitude to go along with the knowledge and skills. After all, you have to do a whole lot of things well to “build forever.” There’s something inherently audacious about pushing construction into raw earth and building up toward the sky, using tons of raw materials, massive amounts of energy, and “by dint of severe effort.” Ruskin was saying that the act of making buildings is one of those things that if done at all, should be done as well as humanly possible.

I eventually pieced together my old Audels set. It’s been with me ever since. The “bible” reference not only comes from the fact that it was quite obviously the trade reference for quite a few decades, but it is also inspired by the fact that they are black and leather-bound. You feel just a little more reverent having these books in your hands.

Authors Frank D. Graham and Thomas J. Emery put together what they called “A Practical Illustrated Trade Assistant on Modern Construction For Carpenters-Joiners, Builders-Mechanics, and all Wood Workers.” Theo. Audel Co. was the publisher and the original copyright was 1923, with re-printings up until about 1947.

The scope of the information is impressive. It covers a complete curriculum from tools, math, strength of timbers, estimating, and foundations all the way to exterior and interior finish work and furniture.


Volume 1: Tools – Steel – Square – Saw Filing – Joinery – Furniture

Volume 2: Builders Mathematics – Drawing Plans – Specifications – Estimating

Volume 3: House and Roof Framing – Laying Out – Foundations

Volume 4: Doors – Windows -Stair Building – Mill Work – Painting

In my first hours alone with my Audels volumes, I can remember blissfully discovering the extent of my ignorance. There was something comforting about knowing the trade required so much knowledge and skill development. It was extremely daunting, but it was also exactly what was missing from my Colorado carpenter days. Those guys knew nothing, but thought they knew all that was necessary. The New England carpenters knew a lot, but at the same time were fully aware of how much more there was to know. (Why is it that ignorance breeds arrogance and knowledge breeds humility?)

Needless to say, much of the information in the old Audels is outdated, but its intentions, attitude and objectives are timeless, making it a good instruction manual even now. Here’s a quote with advice for builders and clients as relevant now as then:

“In the early days when people were content to live natural lives, and before the ruthless destruction of forests had reached its present stage, houses were built as they should be–substantial, well put together, and lasting. Conditions of today, however, preclude such construction. Houses are now usually built with a total disregard for lasting qualities and this is not always the fault of the builder, but of the purchaser who will not stand the expense of first class construction.

To those contemplating building a house the best advice that can be given is to keep the cost down by reducing the size of the proposed house rather than resorting to cheap makeshift construction.”

The word “makeshift” comes up in these volumes pretty often and is synonymous with “cheap” and “objectionable,” and if the authors really want to make the point, they use them all. They clearly had nothing but spite for balloon framing:

“…makeshift framing of the balloon type..having come into general use to reduce cost.”

“This is a cheap and as usually put together a more or less objectionable construction. A well built balloon frame is satisfactory for a moderate sized house, but how often is one well built?  Since the balloon frame is a type which invites poor work and a certain class of builders cannot resist such a temptation, it has a bad reputation.”

At the time, those words rang quite true to me because I’d seen first hand the “certain class of builders” who couldn’t resist the temptation to cut corners, (nor did they resist most other temptations) and consistently made the simplified construction form an excuse to not just be cheap, but to cheat.

Reading the old Audels was, in fact, the first time I became enamored of timberframing. That edition had good illustrations and reasonably good instructions about joinery and particular framing techniques. The joinery section of Audels mixed furniture joinery and timberframe joinery in the same chapter, leading me to the fun conclusion that timberframing was viewed as just extra-large furniture.

Later, as our Timeline points out, I dismantled a 18th century barn, which was further instruction and convincing evidence about the tremendous attributes of timberframe building. I knew I eventually had to try timberframing and it was Audels that got that ball rolling.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, a new edition of Audels came out. It was the same four volumes, organized in the same way. The information was updated, but the opinion and attitude was gone. There was no “makeshift” sneer from the authors. The Ruskin frontispiece quote was gone too.  The leather was replaced with cloth; black became 1950’s orange. It was very modern. And dull.

Dispassion has its place, but my feeling is that to remove values from a discussion about professional practice in an important trade was a huge mistake. “Just the facts sir” does nothing to arouse one’s spirit to get involved too. When you’re learning from mentors, you want their information, but even more importantly you want to feel the power of their passion. You want to know why they care.

The old Audels was one of my mentors. I could filter the information through the contemporary changes and I could filter the attitude through what I had learned and what I believed, but because I heard the attitude, I was stirred to learn.

The new Audels was flat, cold information. I could use it as a resource to look things up if I needed to, but there was no good reason to sit down to read it. The personal mentor side of it was gone.

The new Audels didn’t last long.  By the late 60’s, there was no Audels.

What’s left for a carpenter/builder to learn from today? A few textbooks and a raft of trade magazines. That’s it. And it leaves a gaping void that has sucked the life out of our industry. We need much more instructional information to be accessible to all tradespeople and we need it to come packaged with a mentor who will talk like John Ruskin and harangue about poor practice like the Audels authors.

So I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the very worst of American building practice was simultaneous with the end of the original Audels, “The carpenter’s bible?”

I’m not sure, but I do suggest you find a copy of the four volumes of the old Audels. They’re pretty much available online and you won’t regret the purchase. It would be worth it if only to hold a black leather-bound book and read its first page. If you go further than that, you might want to become a carpenter.

The Rule of Civility

Respect the sanctity of houses you are building
with your attitude and language.

A few weeks ago, I received a nice call from a client who mentioned, among other things, how civil and well spoken our crew was during the job. He remarked about it because he knew that kind of behavior is unfortunately unusual in construction. His comment reminded me of where I started.

Before I knew anything about homebuilding, I learned a lot about swearing. My Christian upbringing didn’t prepare me for the extreme, low level of human behavior and language I encountered in my first construction experiences. The production homes being built were noticeably bad, even to a novice, but the crudity that came out of the mouths of people was even more unsettling. I didn’t know there were people who couldn’t say anything at all without stringing together multiple obscenities, and it was amazing how consistently job-site banter always spiraled into the lowest gutter-thought the group could conjure. One guy whose name was Deke usually got to the bottom the quickest. He thought he was funny.

Lunch break was particularly awful because there was enough time for the discussion to not only sink to the lowest depths, but also get into lurid detail. I hated having to hear it, particularly because I knew some of their stories were true and probably accurately described. It was disgusting, angering and sad. The best of the crew were smart enough but lost; the worst were deviants and actual criminals.

One day we were eating our lunches inside a newly constructed house. It was still only rough framed and sheathed, with open stud partitions shaping the future rooms. To me, the spatial transformations were pretty exciting; as for the other crew members, I got the sense there was nothing to see and feel but a hateful job. As usual, the conversation drifted toward crude jokes and cynical epithets. Then, it got worse.

Finally I had to speak up, and what came out was something like: “Stop it! People will be living here soon and your talk is turning this place into a cesspool. It will take years to clean this place of the garbage you’re throwing around.” Of course, it didn’t do any good. I was the young, goofy, straight-laced kid who was badly in need of the education they were trying to give me, which had nothing to do with building. They laughed at me about that for days afterward and continued to trash the homes we built with their mouths.

I’m more world-wise now and less of a prude, but the young me was right on that subject. My stumbling certainty came from growing up in a home in which the security and integrity came from both inside the people (my family) and the standards of demeanor expected in the place. I knew the sanctity of place mattered. Even those hardened guys wouldn’t have talked that way in a chapel, nor would they have been so crude in a stranger’s finished home because that’s another kind of chapel people instinctively respect.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed something like my early experiences being repeated on jobsites across the country. My workmates in those early days were perhaps extremely debauched, but the norm for construction behavior today isn’t something most people would want their kids exposed to.

But if your kids are not there and you don’t hear it, why would it matter? First, it matters because civility is the mother of quality. Good work comes from good attitude, and it’s pretty hard to maintain a good attitude while also spewing obscenities.

The other reason is essentially what I was trying to say to the vile “carpenters.” What we think is who we are, and who we are matters to what we make. That’s why in all the craft and trade traditions going back thousands of years, personal discipline and integrity are emphasized as much as the skills. The essence of craft is in the character of the craftsperson. Discipline and care are also optimism, just as non-caring short-cuts and bad work are cynicism in action. When hopelessness and acrimony are being built into a house, you can hear them tumbling into the cavities. It sounds bad and it’s not funny.

Having told that bad story, I need to offset it with several good ones. The first is the general comment that one of the surest ways to identify a good quality construction crew is to listen to them. They usually don’t need to talk a lot, almost never raise their voices, and are typically capable of expressing themselves without resorting to the low adjectives.

Some years ago, we had the job of replacing the roof of a church in New York City after a fire. Our team of timberframers worked alongside quite a few other trades people as the job was on a tight schedule to recreate the weather protection for the building as quickly as possible. The guys on our crew reported that it was by far the most curse-absent project they had ever been on. There were no rules set. It was just apparently automatic to not hurl profanity while standing directly between the sky and a sanctuary.

Finally, there is a story about a Habitat for Humanity blitz build I led a few years ago. We had over 500 volunteers and we worked several shifts over an eight day period and in that period completely constructed a new home for a large family. At any given time, the site was nearly a riot of activity. The energy level was high, but there were also plenty of reasons to be frustrated with people, process and certainly my attempts at coordination and leadership. Yet I never heard a word in anger and certainly no bad language. People came in the right spirit and knew that what they were giving was the gift of their higher selves as much as their physical effort. Nobody diminished the building with a bad attitude and therefore what we built was a simple, sturdy home that was also constructed with confidence, hope and love.

A Powerful Company Tool

In my previous post, I referenced our company vision statement and wrote about how it has been pulling us toward higher objectives. As it’s rather an unusual model, I thought I’d show it and say a little more about how it came to be and how it is used. We are a company with many tools, from simple hand tools, to powerful CNC tools to some very high-tech software tools, but no other tool is as powerful as our Shared Vision.

It developed from a mid-course correction that happened in the late 1980’s, and has been continually evolving ever since. The correction came because I began to recognize that my leadership wasn’t as inclusive as it needed to be to create a great company. I wanted to work in a place in which the best outcomes in service and products emanate naturally. I knew we couldn’t achieve our full potential unless everyone pulled and pushed with the same intensity.

When I put myself in the shoes of my fellow associates, I realized my management methods weren’t going to lead to the future I wanted. Essentially, I came to understand that I needed to release my personal tendency to control because passion and commitment can’t be commanded, but instead can only grow in a more natural and organic way within each individual.

When it comes to what happens in the hearts of people, I had learned the hard way that we can only control some of the context, but none of the content.

With these hard-won realizations, I brought the company together and thanked them for doing their best to help me realize my visions over the previous years, and then went on to express my interest in starting a new era in which I could join them in pursuit of our collective vision.  In order to do that, though, we’d have to find a way to agree about what it was, and express it in a way that we could all work toward its fulfillment.

It started with pieces of paper pinned up to big bulletin board, each one with a statement about principles, values or actions each person thought we should be working toward or doing. We then divided them up in categories, worked on the wording and then worked to find consensus about what they meant and what we could do to make them a part of our efforts.

It took a long, long time! We had to find time to meet. We had to learn how to communicate and listen as we never had in the past. We had to reach agreement on important principles, though we were then and now anything but a monoculture of people and attitudes. The Shared Vision existed in bulletin board form for several years, with very much the organization you see below, but for quite some time it was also separated into several groups by color, with green being the statements that had consensus, yellow the ones we were currently working on, and red being the outliers.

Here’s a slightly out-of-date edition. You can click on it to see more detail.

As you can see, what we eventually came up with is anything but a linear document. We came to feel that our principles and company values should be the drivers of our actions. We organized the statements and the actions to show us graphically that there is consistency between what we do and what we believe.

Like any good vision statement, this one is a bugger. It mostly reminds us that there is still are still gaps; we’re still falling short on this and that, and there’s more work to do. Because of that immutable fact, most of the editing in the past ten years has been in the action area, not the principle/value core of the document.

Of course, a good Shared Vision does not automatically make us a great company, but it does make us a better company. I also think it makes me a better leader. I can point to our values, not my own, when pressing for a new initiative. It’s also empowering because our collective vision is bigger than mine was.

The other obvious benefit is that what it does for me, it also does for everyone else in the company. If you can reference the Shared Vision with your idea (or complaint), you’ve got our attention. We always have more work to do, one more thing to improve or change or do. Which is why I always say…onward!

Sacred Personal Cathedrals

I met with a couple (I’ll call them the Smiths) a few days ago who just a week earlier had lost their home in a fire. They were still very emotional about their loss, but as no one was home at the time, they were very thankful that they and their children were never endangered. They were also thankful their children only had to deal with the post-fire acceptance of loss, not the horrific event itself. It is interesting how tragedy begets a more nuanced and heightened sense of gratitude.

Speaking for myself, hard times and personal tragedies have also recalibrated my own under-utilized thankfulness meter and sorted out true priorities. In that same context, what I learned from the Smiths about their home was instructive. My purpose was to learn as much as I could about their house to help us get to a conversation about the time, logistics and the estimated cost of replacing it. But for a few minutes, we were somewhat disconnected. My questions were about how well the building functioned for their needs, and about finishes, equipment and features that were important to them. The Smiths’ answers, on the other hand, were about how it made them feel, and its deep effect on their family.

So my questions were superficial, but their answers were profound. I listened for a few minutes and was reminded again what a home often really means to people:

“It held us tight”

“There was plenty of space, but it still kept us close.”

“We were so secure there. It felt good to be there together.”

“It was well built, and made me happy and proud.”

“It was beautiful, simple and comfortable…just good place for living.”

“That home made us forget about the world’s problems and remember our family.”

“For the kids, it was a paradise…and so much fun.”

It isn’t a very big insight to realize that homes are not just about their boards, bricks, ducts and pipes; what mostly matters is their effect on improving the quality of lives. Yet we so easily forget, or perhaps we get sidetracked by the building basics, including technology, engineering, building science and all the attention that’s paid to style and stuff.

I’m happy to say the Smiths and I ultimately connected in the conversation and we were able to talk about the deeper aspects of the home they lost, but we also got into some of the physical details so that I could start thinking about what it might take to replace the building as soon as possible. Of course their comments also raised the ante about what needed to be replaced. I know we can build a very good quality building, but as designers and builders, how do we go about trying to build a home that will have that sense of deep meaning and purpose?

In my experience, I think the “sidetracked” perspective is the professional norm. At the center of our work are the mechanics and logistics of creating the physical environment, and we often give no thought to the emotional and psychological effects of the places we build. Even designers and architects often get more involved with the basics of form and function and aren’t typically openly aspirational about the deeper impacts on lives. At least they don’t talk about it much.

I don’t intend this as a criticism, because that higher bar is about the human interaction with the built environment, and we’re only involved with the context, not the daily living content. But as architects and builders, I think we could be much more tuned to the things that deeply matter in people’s lives, not just the built environment. How do our buildings affect how people feel? What impact does a living space have on relationships? One thing is certain: physical context and life content are not disconnected.

At least that’s how I’m thinking today as I contemplate how we can rebuild what obviously had become something really important in the Smiths’ lives. How do we go about trying to build a place that will “hold them tight?” What can we do to ensure that the house helps return them to a place in which they are “happy and proud” again? Though these things are fuzzy, elusive and intangible, can’t we still strive for them?

It’s an important question and challenge, which we accepted years ago, when our company was working on our “Shared Vision.” We engaged everyone in the company in a process to define our principles, values and actions. We wanted the former to guide the latter. What came out of that effort has been a living document that we’ve been able to use as a basis for our ongoing improvements and new initiatives ever since.

The core concepts haven’t changed, but functionally we’ve reconfigured ourselves substantially several times as we’ve pursued our higher goals.  We realized 20 years ago that our clients seek us out for something far more important than simply a good quality shelter, or a timberframe, or even something as functionally good as a zero net home or a Passive House. Those things may be in the conversation, but the real goal for most people is bigger still. Therefore, at the heart of our Shared Vision, it says:

“Through process and product, we will strive to improve the quality of lives.”

It’s a simple statement, but took some collective digging to uncover. Coming from a group of people who get a thrill out of making things, it was an acknowledgement that our constructions are secondary to the lives of those who inhabit them. Therefore, there’s necessarily a deeper purpose–as emotionally discussed with the Smiths–about what a home can and should mean to peoples’ lives.

For our company, that objective has been a guiding ideal for our constantly unfolding improvements. It’s not as if we can ever essentially achieve it because we don’t exactly know what success means for each individual. Still, pursuing that goal has changed us in fundamental ways. Now everything matters. We won’t impact lives deeply if we do only one kind of thing well. We have to do everything well. Cost and budgets matter immensely. So does the building experience itself; it shouldn’t be a trial of stress for the owners. Materials matter. And of course fit and finish. It also matters immensely that we try to create places that enhance life and living in ways big and small.

Tall order. But what does that mean exactly? I’m certainly not going to try to answer that question here, but I will say that just the realization that the ultimate value of our work goes way beyond the physical products we create is a critical beginning. Attitude impacts performance. We can either see ourselves as prosaic mechanics just plying our building trades day after day, or we can see ourselves as involved with a high calling that at its best results in the building of sacred personal cathedrals for common people.

Now I have some important work to do for the Smiths. They need their sacred cathedral restored.