Category Archives: Tedd Benson

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.”

 

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

Building History Next Door

rebuild For a number of reasons, in the past few months I’ve been pulled into thinking again about historical timber frame construction and the evolution to light wood framing in the 19th century.  It’s an incredibly interesting topic in any event, but even more so as our contemporary wood building systems continue to evolve—now, as they did 200 years ago—continually responding to changes in technology, economics and cultural expectations. Building history seems to be in the air. I have recently accepted speaking engagements at the Weare, New Hampshire Public Library in May and another for the Monadnock Center for History and Culture in July. Both will be talks about timber frame building, past and present, and the sponsors have an interest in referencing the historical timber framing in their towns. With these engagements coming up, I’ve been doing some research about the history of a few towns in this part of New Hampshire, particularly Weare and Peterborough. P1030301 (Medium)Staying with the history theme, we are also currently working on a timberframe project that requires the use of reclaimed hand-hewn timbers. We are purchasing these timbers from salvage contractors who dismantle old, out-of-use barns that are often a tax and maintenance liability for the owners. This is a rather sad story, as America is quickly losing one of the most beautiful and enduring parts of our architectural heritage. Yet without programs to support the costs borne by the property owners, the demise of barns will continue. We wish we could save them all, but a second best alternative is to try to save the timbers when we can, and this project will do that well, and celebrate their rugged hand made beauty in a building that should stand for another few hundred years.

The timing of that project turned out to be serendipity when the producers of a new TV show  called to ask if I could help narrate a short segment with them to give a little insight about traditional timber frame building methods. I agreed to do it, knowing that the authentic hand-hewn timbers we had on hand would make it easy to explain the fundamentals of the traditional process using the visible hand-tooling evidence as the best explanation of the work involved. The timbers we used to describe early timber framing in the short film segment are remarkable. They’re mostly white oak and chestnut, with sizes up to 14” x 14” and up to 40’ long. To understand the task, you have to understand that each of the timbers was a tree growing in a primeval forest we can’t imagine today, and every one of them was worked with both skills and toil most of us can’t fathom. Wresting timbers from trees was accomplished, as many things were back then, “by dint of severe effort.” Looking at these timbers now, you can know a lot of truth about the men who labored over them 200 years ago. The marks of their axe, adze, scribe, chisel and handsaw are right there, as if made yesterday, and they reveal patience, perseverance and pride. It’s quite a story.

colonial era pit saw
A two-man colonial pit saw. Courtesy Plimouth Plantation

But that work only resulted in a timber frame. For this kind of structure, it was still necessary to have boards for sheathing, cladding, flooring and various millwork. As towns were sprouting up in the expanding new world in the 18th century, it was usually just too much effort for most people to make all of those materials by hand. The traditional method for making boards was to use a two-man saw over a pit, with one person on top the log and another below, making up and down strokes through the log length. That work was brutal, even by the work standards then. Therefore, as soon as watermills became possible, they almost simultaneously became a requirement of colonization. The agreement to establish a settlement in Weare, NH was based on the condition that a mill would be in place. That took a few years, and therefore, “House construction in the early settlement was primitive. Logs were used to build houses, and were hewn flat for flooring, ” according to the town history. By this method, they nearly eliminated the need for boards and the massive amount of handwork needed to make them.

When sawmills were finally in place, timber frame buildings became more common in Weare, but nails were scarce and precious, so most of the boards were attached with wooden pins instead. The sawmills solved one big problem, but another remained. It must have been frustrating to be in the midst of a limitless forest resource, but still many man years of work away from turning that raw material into the kinds of buildings they ultimately intended. The buildings we know, use and revere today were the dream of every family, but most early settlers never achieved the dream, and lived instead in crude log houses, or worse. In the Peterborough, NH town history written in 1876, the typical homes of the mid 18th century were described this way:

They were open, cold, and uncomfortable, and it required much hardihood to endure the exposure to which all were subjected in abodes so imperfectly constructed. We can hardly imagine how they could live in such houses, and carry on so much work besides the regular household duties; but they had made up their minds to receive everything in the best spirit, in hopes of better and more prosperous times to come, and thereby they made of their hovels, of their wretched cabins, and half-built houses, homes consecrated to religion, and to all the social and moral virtues.

I like the word “hardihood.” Along with “dint of severe effort,” it kind of says it all. Theirs was a struggle to get out of the hovels and into real homes, and live in civilized villages, and ultimately they did, but it was accomplished the truly old fashioned way. NH-SawmillFor all these reasons, easier was better because it improved the quality of life sooner. Sawmills became more efficient as the mechanical equipment improved, making it much more practical to saw the timbers from the logs as well as the boards. At the same time, manufactured cut nails replaced hand-forged nails, and even later wire nails replaced cut nails. With these advancements, timber frame building evolved to use more sawn lumber, and then sawn lumber parts became smaller, and the connections were made with thousands of nails instead of a few hundred timberframe joints.

Coincidentally, on a bike ride the other day, I happened by a building in the process of being razed and stripped to its structural bones, revealing nearly the whole of the evolutionary history between early timberframing and the light wood framing that eventually completely displaced it. IMAG0335 (Medium) (2)I learned that original building was built in the mid 19th century, possibly before the Civil War. The older part was built with some typical timber frame methods, but most of the timbers were sawn, with tell-tale up-and-down strokes visible. Interestingly though, there are also quite a few hand hewn timbers in the frame that clearly came from an earlier structure with “ghost” mortises and notches suggesting their previous frame position. Clearly, they eschewed hand-hewing as soon as possible, but they still were frugal and respectful enough to reuse the timbers with so much labor invested in them by earlier generations of builders. And you just have to wonder: just how old ARE those timbers?IMAG0337 (Medium) (2) (1)

P1030313he other story in the older part of the building is the number of sawn studs, rafters and joists of smaller 2x dimension that are interacting with the old timberframe. You can almost see these builders getting comfortable with light wood framing replacing heavy timber framing, just step by step.

When they built the larger section of the home a few years later, they took giant leaps toward balloon framing, but still could not quite give up the use of a few timbers. The front wall is like a classic balloon frame with small, vertical studs going from sill to eave plate uninterrupted. But there was still a timber post and girts at the corners and mid-wall to carry the floor joist loads, and maintain the heavy timber asset.P1030310IMAG0333 (Medium) However, there’s no diagonal bracing, leaving the vestiges of the classic timber frame to be very minimal. And if the front wall shows the balloon frame that would soon dominate, the gable end wall is more like platform framing that is ubiquitous today. So there it is: one building, and a 1ooo year wooden frame building history.

Some say balloon framing (light framing) was invented by George Washington Snow in 1832. (From Keene, NH, right next door, by the way.) Some say it was Augustine Taylor in 1833. Some credit others. But I’m with those who say it just evolved, pulled by sawmill efficiency, nail innovation, and a tremendous need for good quality homes to be built with less skill and labor in the growing and expanding country. Thomas Friedman said, “Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.” Big breakthroughs have happened again, including our ability to bring timberframing back with new capabilities and needs, and an ever-evolving, wood-centered construction method that’s getting ever more durable, energy efficient and adaptable.

Tedd Benson Featured in “Acts of Creation” by Walt Harrington

acts of creation featuring tedd bensonNewsletter Home      Bensonwood Home

Walt Harrington, the award-winning journalist and writer of seminal books such as The Next Wave, The Everlasting Stream, The Beholders Eye, and American Profiles, has included a chapter on Tedd Benson in his new book, Acts of Creation, America’s Finest Hand Craftsmen at Work.

In the book, the author travels coast to coast seeking America’s finest craftsmen at work in a quest to find “the magical nexus of craft, character, and mastery that gives birth to a functional work of art – and leaves its maker with a sense of satisfaction, awe and achievement known well to artists across the ages.”

In a chapter titled, “Tedd Benson: The Craft of Craftsmanship,” the author describes how Tedd literally wrote the book on timber frame home construction, and in the process, demonstrated how the elaborate wood beam joinery of our timberframe buildings can resemble “furniture making done by giants.”

“You are humbled by your own creation, this building that will stand for 500 years,” Tedd tells the author. “And that feeling is what keeps me and all craftsmen doing it every day.”

The book is due out this spring.

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.

 

MIT Architecture Dean Adèle Santos Tours Bensonwood to See Her New Home

Adele Naudee Santos and Tedd Benson

Newsletter Home      Bensonwood Home

Adèle Naudeé Santos, internationally-renowned urban design authority and dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P), recently toured Bensonwood’s facilities with Tedd Benson and some of our associates to see her custom, high-performance green home being fabricated.

2nd.SantosBensonwood has been fortunate to work with many prominent design professionals, including architects as owner-builders or as advocates for their clients, but we were especially honored that someone of Ms. Santos’s stature in the architecture field would choose us to build her Somerville, Massachusetts home. Her academic career includes professorships at the University of California-Berkeley, Harvard University, Rice University and the University of Pennsylvania, where she also served as the Department Architecture Chair. She was also the founding dean of the School of Architecture at UC San Diego.

SANTOS.1Additionally, Santos is principal architect in the San Francisco-based firm, Santos, Prescott and Associates (SPA). Her architectural and planning projects include housing and institutional buildings in Africa, affordable housing in California and Japan, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, the Center for the Arts at Albright College and the Yerba Buena Gardens Children’s Center in San Francisco. She is currently working in Guatemala on a children’s center and has several projects under construction in China.

SANTOS.4Bensonwood has had a long, fruitful collaboration with MIT beginning with the partnership on the Open Prototype Initiative, whose goal is developing affordable, flexible, high-performance houses with disentangled and highly-adaptable mechanical systems. In another MIT connection, our sister company, Unity Homes, served as a business case study at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Bensonwood also has MIT graduates in our design and engineering departments.

Interestingly, Ms. Santos has another connection to Bensonwood in Steve Kieran, owner and architect of the Loblolly House, the acclaimed Maryland shore home we engineered, fabricated and assembled in 2006 for his firm, KieranTimberlake. Ms. Santos gave Kieran his first teaching position when she was the Architecture Chair at Penn.

SANTOS.5SANTOS.11The custom home was designed by SPA architect Ethan Lacy, who joined Ms. Santos on the tour. Bensonwood engineers Chris Carbone and Elizabeth Beauregard, project manager Tom Olson, job captain John McElroy and builder Tobey Wandzy were also on hand for the visit, explaining our building systems and processes and their roles in her project. A week later the  green prefab home’s shell was delivered to the site and raised in just three days, a benefit of what we call our “Montage Building” process.

Seeing the precision fabrication of a healthy house can be an informative and rewarding experience, and creates a stronger connection to the sustainable building for the homeowner—and is something we always encourage our clients to do. For more information on Bensonwood tours, click here.

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?