Category Archives: sustainable business

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Homes Matter

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

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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.”

 

USDA Supports Sustainable Wood Building Materials for Environment and Jobs

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An award-winning “Timber in the City” design by Bensonwood designer Tim Olson using advanced wood building materials such as Cross Laminated Timbers and Glulam Beams.
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architects rendering of the Courtyard Cathedral
Interiors of the Courtyard Cathedral and its innovative use of wood products. Olson’s engineered wood Courtyard Cathedral was a winner in the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture 2012-2013 competition.

Newsletter Home      Bensonwood Home

Wood—one of the world’s oldest building materials—is now emerging as one of the most advanced. Of course, Bensonwood treasures the natural wood we use in our timber frame homes, but its innovative use in engineered products is already beginning to change the nature of construction across the U.S. by offering alternatives to steel and other high embodied energy building products. By encouraging these advances in wood technology, the United States Department of Agriculture hopes to support President Obama’s Climate Action Plan by preserving the role of forests in mitigating climate change.

At a meeting hosted by the White House Rural Council in March, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new partnership to train architects, engineers and builders about the benefits of advanced wood building materials, and plans for a forthcoming prize competition to design and build high-rise wood demonstration projects. The latest engineered wood technologies can be utilized in the construction of tall buildings and skyscrapers as well as in housing projects, improving their energy efficiency and thereby reducing energy consumption for heating and cooling. According to some industry estimates, one 3-5 story building made from the new wood technologies has the same emissions control as taking up to 550 cars off the road for one year.

As an added benefit, stronger demand for innovative new wood products not only supports sustainable forestry practices and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, but also puts rural America at the vanguard of an emergent industry. This has the potential to support more than one million direct jobs, many in non-urban areas, expanding economic opportunities while moving toward greater domestic production and sustainability.

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 Seeds of Sustainable Entrepreneurship: Finding Your Way in a Turbulent World

Hannah Grimes lecture

This is the keynote speech I gave at the Hannah Grimes Center’s 8th Annual CONNECT Event in Walpole, New Hampshire, celebrating the connections between business, local economy and community.

I posted this video here because I think it is valuable to understand not only the 40-year history and evolution of Bensonwood and the genesis of our off-site manufactured, high-performance Unity Homes. I also underscore where we are going as a company and more importantly, the value of sustainable business, even when facing the tough reality of yet another “Hoosac Mountain” in the craft of business.

My speech, “The Seeds of Sustainable Entrepreneurship: Finding Your Way in a Turbulent World,” also touches on themes of unreasonable perseverance, the rewards of working without a “Plan B” and the value of entrepreneurs working under the “useful delusion” that their undertakings are easily achievable, and not at all risky.