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Martin Luther King Day: Bensonwood Story

To company associates and friends:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 old days009old days008

old days010

 

 

 

 

 

The New Guilded Age

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

Thomas Beauvillain
Thomas Beauvillain

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

Notre Dame cathedral
Notre Dame cathedral

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

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

Westminster Hall
Westminster Hall

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

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

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

“Our” compagnons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New (but Still Outdated) American Home

I have to build this up a little to make a point, so bear with me while I set the stage.

The Big Event:

The International Builders Show (IBS), happening now in Las Vegas. It’s a pretty big deal in the industry. It’s organized by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and is the largest annual residential housing construction trade event for manufacturers and suppliers of home construction products and services.  According to Wikipedia, “It is the only event of its kind, focusing specifically on the needs, concerns, and opportunities that face builders.”  There are about 1,700 exhibiting companies there, all displaying their coolest products and latest innovations. It’s intended to be a veritable festival of homebuilding advancement, creating promise and excitement about all things new and better for both builders and homeowners.

The Biggest Exhibit at the Big Event:

The New American Home (TNAH). This is a complete show home built specifically for display for the thousands of IBS attendees. It is proclaimed on their website as “America’s premier show home and construction technology laboratory, The New American Home serves as the official showcase house of the annual International Builders Show.” Further, from their website: “The show home demonstrates ‘Builders’ Best Practices’: concepts, materials, designs and construction techniques that can be replicated – in whole or in part – in housing built any place and in any price range.” (The italics are all mine in this piece.)

You’ll get an inkling of what to expect from this year’s New American Home from this description: “The 2014 New American Home will display the innovative elevation design of the future of home building and incorporate in this family-style design a relevance to the way we live today and how we will live in the future. Coming in at right around 6,700 square feet, the New American Home will be comfortably spacious and inviting with warm interiors seamlessly integrating between indoors and out.”

TNAH1-27-2014

The Voice of the NAHB:

Builder MagazineAll you need to know for my little build-up is the magazine’s tagline: “Smart Building Starts Here.”  The preview of The New American Home has been exclusively featured in Builder Magazine.

So, in review:

  • IBS is the annual extravaganza of the NAHB and America’s homebuilding industry. It breathlessly presents residential building state-of-the-art.
  • TNAH is the premier exhibit at the show, demonstrating the very latest as the “construction technology laboratory” and “Builders’ Best Practices.”
  • Builder Magazine is about “smart building” and is the voice of the NAHB and the herald of IBS.

Now that your expectations are prepared about purpose and hype about the New American Home for 2014, let me briefly take you back in history.

Here’s a painting depicting construction practice in the 1700s:

1700's Building

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

1915home

With all of this as context, just imagine my reaction when I saw the cover of Builder with a photo of The New American Home under construction. Drum roll….

SMALL Builder002

Really? This is a construction technology laboratory in the 21st century? Does smart building start here? A demonstration of builders’ best practices? The future of homebuilding? Incredible.  I’m seeing lumber dumped in the dirt, strewn about like Pick-Up-Sticks; a guy bent over like Gumby, working on framing lumber with some small tool; another one on a step ladder doing something; and a third guy apparently watching. Is this where we are in 2014? This photo shows the essence of the actual building, and this is how it was made, which is not very different from the way buildings were made 300 years ago. The main difference between the 1700s building depiction and the Builder Magazine cover photo is the guys in the former would ride horses home (or walk), and the guys in the cover photo will likely drive pickup trucks manufactured with the world class precision and efficiency.

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

The article goes on to tell the story of the project. It got terribly behind schedule (easy to see why) and crews (hopefully more than 3) were working 17 hour days to try to catch up. In addition, the weather turned wet and harsh (for Las Vegas), construction was further delayed, materials got wet (and muddy, I imagine) and they even lost 350 sheets of drywall to water damage, presumably because it took so long to make the building weathertight.

I do sympathize with the heroic effort of the builders to battle weather, time and labor shortages to get the project done on time. We builders thrive on challenges. It’s in our DNA. But the big challenge we should all be taking up is to build stronger and more energy efficient buildings with the same quality standard as the appliances and fixtures that will be used in the home, not just surviving the poor planning and communication embedded in our industry’s process, and its habitual devotion to outdated building methods.

The finished New American Home will reveal none of this. According to all descriptions, it has an impressive number of features, clever amenities, the best of plumbing and electrical fixtures, a bunch of green certifications, and is “chock-full of multigenerational, sustainable, and inspirational design ideas.” I don’t doubt that.

Nor do I plan to see it. 6,700 square feet of features and amenities masquerading as real building value are hopefully not the future of American homebuilding.

Really, we can do so much better!

Give Up On Prefab?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Hodgson Kit House
An E.F. Hodgson modular house

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

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

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

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

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

 

Montage Homebuilding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now we need a name for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A montage house”

“Montage home”

“Montage construction”

“Montage building”

“Montage crew”

…and we hope something like..

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

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

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

It’s time for montage homebuilding.

 

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

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

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.

 

 

The Oakwrights blog

The Oakwrights blog.

Oakwrights Ride for Charity

The Carpenters Fellowship, which is the body that represents all oak frame carpenters and oak frame companies, holds an event called Frame each year at a different location which is normally an open air museum.

Tedd Benson of Benson wood Timber framing from the United States joined us for the ride. Tedd was the key speaker for the Frame event and stayed with Oakwrights at our show home before hand. Tedd is a legend within the timber framing industry and almost single handedly reinvented the craft in New England back in 1974. Tedd has written a number of fascinating books and if you want to look at some fantastic frames US style have a look atwww.bensonwood.com.

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.