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A Powerful Company Tool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacred Personal Cathedrals

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

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

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

“It held us tight”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



My “Sabbatical”

My blog has been inactive for awhile. I’ve been made more aware of my silence because concerned readers have recently been sending me messages like these:

“Are you all right?”

“This isn’t like you. Will you be writing again?”

“I had been worrying about your silent weblog for these months, though I know you have been regenerating your company in the recession.”

The last comment is accurate, but to put a better spin on it, I’ll call my writing absence a sabbatical. The time of not keeping up with the blog, while indeed caused by excessive work for our company, has also been helpful. The space and time has given me new perspectives and new energy. I’m now ready for a return to regular reporting, though I realize I surely lost some readers who had every right to give up hope.

While some people have been worried about me through the fallow period, our marketing team has been breathing a sigh of relief. They know I will always say the truth as I see it, and it gives them some concern at times that I might write with rather too much unhappy honestly. They rightfully worry that my unfiltered words might tarnish our image. I’m gambling that honesty and good soul-searching are better than the hyping and preening just for positive effect.

Therefore, for better or worse, I’m back, and you can continue to count on me to write what I think without concern about whether it’s a benefit or pitfall for our marketing.

My blog sabbatical began at the end of December when my site got hacked. In the place of my posts, a dark, satanic creature appeared with dripping sharp teeth and a foul mouth. It was shocking. My IT experts couldn’t get rid of this guy, so after multiple attempts we pulled the site down. I took it personally, even though I was told my site was almost certainly the victim of mass attack, not a personal vendetta. I still felt violated.

Eventually, we put the blog site back up with a different host, but by that time my focus was on trying to maintain our company’s health and vigor in the midst of the feeblest housing market for 75 years, compounded by realities of a typical New England winter, which is usually our slowest time of any year.

I can report that we are prevailing despite the slings and arrows of the persistently tough economy. With thanks to the hard and creative work of our team, and with further thanks to the many clients who have demonstrated their faith in us, we’ve been able to push through a long, cold winter. We’re even beginning to develop strategies for increasing our production capacities rather than shrinking.

There’s no doubt I have some battle scars from the home industry depression, but they don’t include laying off any associates in 2009-2011, and that’s something about which we can be very proud of considering the dire circumstances.

As I renew my conversations with you here, I’ll remind you that the themes I care about remain those that have been the focus of my 38 year effort to improve homebuilding in America. On the building process side, the elements of craftsmanship are key, but when that is in place, it must be supported by good design, the art of structural engineering, the technology expertise required in mechanical engineering, and the fast-emerging field of building science. But on the product side, we must never lose sight that the end goal of homebuilding is for and about enhancing and ennobling the lives of people.

I believe we homebuilders can do a whole lot better. We’ve set our bar too low. Anything we build will eventually move in the marketplace because people need shelter. But that fact has blinded us from a correct vision of what we we should try to accomplish in our profession. With that, I guess I’ll spend the next 38 years (hey, I’m an optimist!) working on raising the bar.

Homebuilding is most of all about our aspirations for humanity. Expressed in every seemingly mundane construction there are also loud statements about what we value and what we believe.

Here’s what I believe:

  • We can build homes that deeply matter in the lives of people. Such homes are not commodities; they are the context for security, love, beauty, sacred relationships and cherished memories. The best attributes of good homes are its intangibles; the stuff that inhabits dreams and is a source of hope and inspiration. Homes are both a refuge of comfort and security and a prospect for action and engagement in the world.
  • We can build homes that represent our highest values, that display the hopes and ideals of our culture and reveal our best ambitions for the future.
  • We can build homes that are durable and flexible enough to pass from generation to generation for centuries, sometimes many centuries. When we are at our best, our homes age like fine wine, not like raw milk.
  • We can build homes that are the pride of their communities and cities that define the place where they are; that honor the past, vibrantly live in the present, and project a stalwart attitude about their important role in the future.
  • We can build homes that extract little from the planet and give back in relation to the resources used in a way that is worthy and sustainable.
  • We can build homes that use less energy than they make.
  • We can completely eliminate the use of fossil fuels for the heating and cooling of homes.
  • We can build homes that exhibit a reverence for the natural world of which they are a part. We can build homes that inherently renew the natural connections to the places they inhabit.
  • We can build homes that are a tribute to 21st century craft of homebuilding, showing once again the critical contributions of our historically proud and noble profession.
  • We can highlight the advancements in workmanship and technology that are the hallmarks of our contemporary civilization. We don’t need to choose between honoring the past and embracing the future. However, we do need to choose from both wisely.
  • Finally, we can and we must make these kinds of homes accessible to the broadest possible sector of our society. Our brightest destiny requires that we pursue ways to allow all people to live in homes that elevate life.

And so, onward. With many thanks for your understanding and patience, and especially for your kind words of concern and encouragement. Please join the conversation as my “sabbatical” now ends.

New Year, New Blog!

As some of you are sure to have noticed, The New House Rules was down over Christmas and New Year’s. We got hacked (not in a major way) and took the opportunity to upgrade the back-end on the blog to WordPress. This will let us add some new features (Facebook integration, for instance).

Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to retain all of the old comments. We’re still digging through the database, and, if we can get the old comments associated with the posts, we’ll put them back up.

From Maslow to Megaloceros

My lack of blog posts these last few weeks can be explained by simply saying these are tough times in my business and my thoughts haven’t been the sort you’d like know about. Remembering the classic refrain from your mom and mine, since I haven’t had anything good to say, I haven’t said anything.

For those of us in homebuilding, the word recession trivializes what we’re going through. This is a Depression. Our industry has nearly come to a full stop. Housing starts are down a full three quarters compared to better times, and profit margins on existing projects are nearly non-existent. Every day there are fewer homebuilding trade survivors. For those of us who remain standing, there is no joy even in the loss of our competitors, for many are also friends and colleagues, people whose work and integrity we can ill afford to lose. And of course, we cry for the stress and agony imposed on building tradespeople and their families throughout the country. Their modest incomes are shrunken or gone; their tools and skills are idle and wasted. Hard working people are suffering while the homebuilding dreams of an entire nation go unfulfilled.

As we helplessly watch the industry around us shrink, our company resolve to maintain our strength and resilience increases. While there’s a natural tendency to retrench to lower levels in Maslow’s hierarchy* (pyramid illustration below), our team knows how important it is to stay on the levels where our collective support, intelligence and creativity can remain in play. Only by being at our collective best can we hope to continue to maneuver our way out of this housing depression. There’s no room these days for waste and error, but there’s also no mercy for lack of confidence and courage. Survival goes to the bold.

Maslow's needsAt times like this, we’re fools if we don’t pay attention to nature’s lessons. They aren’t exactly abstract metaphors for us to learn from, even as organizations. Organizations, commercial and otherwise, are organisms in a complex ecology just as surely as molecules, trees and beasts. Unless we think that our dust will be different than that of a mite, or a mouse, or a moose, or an extinct megaloceros, we would be wise to learn from the experience of other life forms, whether past or present. Nature’s been naturally selecting for quite awhile. If you can figure anything at all about how it works, your a step ahead.

Megaloceros? I didn’t know about it either until I read its story in Mahlon Hoagland and Bert Dodson’s beautiful book, The Way Life Works: The Science Lover’s Illustrated Guide to How Life Grows, Develops, Reproduces, and Gets Along. I’ll get back to the megaloceros. It’s just one of the “life lessons” in this easy-to-digest book. For those in business, the subtitle should be changed to “How to Steer your Business toward Improvement, Growth and Continual Adaptability in a Beautiful but Brutal World.”

The Way Life Works
In Chapter 2, the authors present “An Overview of the Basic Concepts of Biology” in the form of what they identify as sixteen patterns, or rules, that life uses to build, organize, create, and re-create.

The Sixteen Life Patterns

Life builds from the bottom up
Life assembles itself into chains
Life needs an inside and an outside
Life uses a few themes to generate many variations
Life organizes with information
Life encourages variety by reshuffling information
Life creates with mistakes
Life occurs in water
Life runs on sugar
Life works in cycles
Life recycles everything it uses
Life maintains itself by turnover
Life tends to optimize rather than maximize
Life is opportunistic
Life competes within a cooperative framework
Life is interconnected and interdependent

I find this stuff fascinating, and as good a place as any to go to look for clues to new paths, or how to wiggle out of tough situations. Not being a scientist, I tend to think about the facts as metaphors and the patterns as abstract parallels. It’s a muddy form of biomimicry.

The following are a few examples of how these patterns are informing my thinking about our organizational development and adaptation as we find the market we serve smaller and greatly altered.

Life is opportunistic.

Life finds a way to make do with the way things are. The natural world adapts to the prevailing conditions; that which doesn’t, doesn’t survive.


The housing recession has been like a desert in comparison to the bubble years’ rich savanna. We have needed to think about how to use our skills and strengths in new ways rather than attempting to push our preferences into the new environment. We will always be timberframers, for instance, but it became necessary to apply our timberframing mindset to other aspects of building. That has led to a fountain of creative thinking that now allows us to build all kinds of building components with the efficiency, precision and craft priority we learned in our decades of building “livable wooden sculptures.” Of course, we aren’t leaving the timbers behind; they’re just not the only kind of arrow in our quiver.

Life uses a few themes to generate many variations
Life encourages variety by reshuffling information

“Life hangs on to what works. At the same time, it explores and tinkers. This restless combination leads to a vast array of unique living creatures on a considerably smaller number of patterns and rules.

“The beetle, with some 300,000 separate species, displays every imaginable color, decorative motif, and proportional distribution of the body parts — yet the pattern of relationships that makes the species of beetles is constant.”**


In this new world of homebuilding, budgets are smaller, but the desire for customizing designs for the owner needs and site conditions hasn’t changed. We needed to develop a much less expensive way to create new home designs. We needed to be like beetles.

We looked at the library of components we had been developing for some 15 years (an outgrowth of our OBGrid 3D environment) and realized we had the answer already fully developed. We just needed to extract the families of components from our library to create more defined and specific home design DNA.

We call this system the 3BMatrix. With it we can create almost endless variations with speed and, as the needs require, we can reshuffle the pieces to make further variations. Instead of beetles, ants or birds, our 3BMatrices are in home style families that have particular pre-determined parameters.


Life tends to optimize rather than maximize

“To optimize means to achieve just the right amount–a value in the middle range between too much and too little. To much or too little sugar in the blood will kill. Everyone needs calcium and iron, but too much is toxic.

At the level of the organism, optimizing is an intricate dance involving many interacting parts and values. Deer antlers require an optimum mix of strength, shock absorption, weight, and growing ability. A change in any one of these variables might adversely affect the others… Thus maximizing any single value tends to reduce flexibility in the overall system, so that it may not be able to adapt to adverse environmental change.”*

Discussing deer antlers brought Hoagland and Dodson to the subject of the Megloceros, more commonly known as the Irish Elk, and animal that lived in many parts of the world (not just Ireland) about 400,000 years ago. Their antlers apparently got so maximized that it probably contributed to their extinction.

MegalocerosI got to thinking that perhaps the Megaloceros and a McMansion have in lot in common.

The Irish Elk’s antlers were mainly for display. Their primary purpose was to attract females. They grew to be about 12 feet across, making them pretty cumbersome for combat and were otherwise a burden rather than a benefit. This made the Irish Elk ill-suited to environmental change, whether it was a new predator or perhaps the growth of thicker forests. Those massive, showy antlers almost certainly contributed to their extinction.

The McMansion, also known as the Housamanious, also grew way too big, and its maximization has little purpose other than to impress neighbors and friends. It’s a species that has grown and grown, but only the size is maximized, most of the rest is usually compromised, rather than optimized, to achieve the big affectation to show off one kind of quality–big. After the impression has been made, what’s left is only a big environmental burden, just like the Irish Elk.

Too big!This, then, is one of the good outcomes of the housing Depression. The McMansion is a dying species. Its massive foyers, unused rooms and energy gobbling requirements are its twelve foot antlers. Smart homeowners are coming to us with a desire for smaller homes, and they want them to be optimized, not maximized, and certainly not compromised.

This is one part of these hard economic times I like.

*Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology, proposed by bAbraham Maslow in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation.

**quotes from The Way Life Works

Insulate My Home

It requires the twisted neural pathways of the human brain to overcome natural instincts, making us sometimes dumber than our primal ancestors. You don’t need instructions to turn toward the sun for warmth or to put on a coat when it’s cold outside. And yet millions of homes are built without regard for solar orientation, and insulation still doesn’t merit much importance with both homeowners and builders across the country.

I’ve always thought these kinds of oversights were born of builder greed and confusion among homeowners. Builders and developers assume they can’t make as much money if energy efficiency had to be the first priority, and homeowners assume that building codes are protecting them from buying bad buildings, which is hardly the case. Somehow, this kind of anthropomorphic avarice and ignorance have disconnected us from the common sense born even to a mouse.

But surely, somewhere buried in our deep memory, people must innately know better. Wouldn’t people intuitively make the right decisions if making an energy efficient shelter wasn’t a choice but a life-preserving necessity?

Maybe not, if the implications of a recent study are accurate.

Researchers at Columbia University, Ohio State University and Carnegie Mellon University recently published a report called “Public Perceptions of Energy Consumption and Savings” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The idea of the study was to see if people understand the most effective things they can do to conserve energy.

The study’s 505 survey respondents basically got it backwards. They didn’t understand that efficiency improvements are far more effective than curtailment efforts. Therefore, turning out lights was the most cited way to save energy, rating far above using more efficient light bulbs. In reality, turning off lights is insignificant compared to replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs or LEDs. Similarly, respondents thought shutting off appliances when not in use was more effective than having energy efficient appliances. The opposite is true in that case too.

Here’s the summary table from the PNAS study:

Energy efficiency misunderstandings

This apparent lack of public understanding led Kirsten Korosec of the Bnet website (CBS affiliate) to write a column titled Energy Efficiency Industry Dragged Down by Our Stupid Selves. Korosec seems as concerned about industry market implications as she is about the energy problems that need attention:

In short, Americans don’t know the first thing about how to save energy. Their misconceptions, if changed, could have a very real impact on bottom lines of appliance companies like GE, energy-efficient automakers and retrofit specialists.
The unfortunate theme for appliance and light bulb manufacturers, car makers and contractors is that Americans — at least based on this survey — equate savings with changing their behavior, such as turning off the lights, and not investing in new products. Which means companies like GE have to work harder to make their advertising and marketing into educational campaigns.

I agree with Korosec, but this isn’t the part of the study jumped out at me. I have sympathy for the survey participants who didn’t know that the most energy efficient lights and appliances are THAT effective. You’d have to see the math that compares less use with less energy consumption. The facts are convincing, to be sure, but they clearly are not as obvious as we wish. There’s education to do here.

What startled me is that “insulate my home” was basically dead last in possible energy efficiency actions. It was the lowest scoring action item, falling just above “there’s no way/don’t know.” By far the most effective category on the survey list almost didn’t make the list. As a builder of high performance homes, this caught me by surprise.

“Insulate my home” even fell below “sleep more/relax more,” suggesting that the respondents thought going into a catatonic state might be a more useful solution. I was briefly inclined to say something more irreverent about this one, but I do respect the notion that slowing down in our frenetic world may be a pretty useful way to save energy. Still, if we were less superficially active, most likely we’d be spending more time in our poorly insulated homes, which would only further raise the importance of the “insulate my home” category.

The facts are simple. Buildings consume more energy than any other sector, as shown on this Architecture 2030 graph:

Energy consumption chart

And in homes, as in most buildings, heating and cooling is where the lion’s share of the energy goes:

Home energy use

There’s no doubt that we need to reduce every slice of the energy pie. Not only should we be replacing incandescent lights with CFLs and LEDs, we should be turning them off more too. We can double-down on more efficient appliances by unplugging power to them when not in use. And there’s nothing more efficient than a uber-efficient car that isn’t going anywhere. So the survey’s participants were at least partially right on these issues, but on the biggest piece of the energy pie, respondents got it all wrong and stuck it between not doing anything and giving up.

Since the late 1970’s, we’ve been building homes that are so well insulated that they won’t freeze, even in sub-zero weather and no auxiliary heat source. This is called “passive survivability” and it’s really not that hard to achieve. It requires only better insulating and sealing details and careful, knowledgeable work. This level of insulation should have been the American standard for the past 30 years. The energy savings accrued over the years would have been the equivalent of discovering a vast new oil reserve beneath all of us, one that requires no drilling and yet constantly delivers security and comfort.

In fact, in the last ten years we have come to the realization that we now have the capability to cut the “heating and cooling” half of the household energy usage completely off. We can make a different pie. If we commit ourselves to the task, we can make the heating and cooling loads of our homes so small that renewable energy sources can make up the difference.

The mantra for the future of American homebuilders should therefore be “Reduce the load. Reduce the load. Reduce the load.” Not very sexy, but it’s the key to our energy independent future. No good solutions are possible until all our homes are “low-load” because of extremely good insulation. When the energy requirements are tiny, a whole new world of really cool technologies can come into play and can make every home its own power plant.

However, that probably won’t happen until American homeowners across the land are heard to be chanting: “Insulate my home. Insulate my home. Insulate my home.”

Passive House Heroes

Over a week ago the New York Times ran a feature article in their Sunday edition entitled Can We Build in a Brighter Shade of Green? about the Passive House project we’ve been involved with. I discussed that same project in my last post on this blog. The NYTimes story (and video) hit a good nerve and was widely read, frequently emailed, and subsequently discussed on several green building blogs. Even though it brought up some of the obstacles to achieving the Passive House standard, there’s no doubt the article was a boost to the movement.

I was introduced to the Passive House idea in 1997 during one of my trips to Europe. A friend took me to see a house under construction that was going to be insulated so well that it wouldn’t require a heating system! It was exciting, and it immediately struck a chord with me. Twenty years earlier I had written about my dream of houses of the future with “energy-autonomous environments that consume no fossil fuels.”**

Even at the beginning of my career, I knew it would be eventually possible to unplug the fuel lines by maximizing the insulation, air tightness and passive solar contributions. I just didn’t know exactly how to do it. Leave it to the Germans to figure out how an idealistic notion could be a reality by solving the science, doing the math and therefore making Passive House an objective and achievable standard.

Over the years, I watched in frustration as the numbers of Passive Houses built in Europe kept rising by magnitudes while few people in the U.S. had even heard of the concept. By 2006, Passive House was reaching maturity in Europe and becoming commonplace. On one memorable Alps-crossing mountain biking trip, a builder-friend from Austria, a Professor from the University of Innsbruck and a carpenter from Germany talked over a lunch break about half a dozen PH projects they were separately involved with. I only listened and hoped to someday be “in” the conversation.

Finally, our company has built one. What took so long? I’ve believed in the idea since my early professional days and I’ve known about Passive House since its early days in Europe. More than most builders, I have no good excuse. I do have an explanation, though.

Until recently, I didn’t know Steve and Barbara Landau.

I can dream all I want, but I had no way of making our clients want one. We had nothing to show and no experience or costs to reference. The first of anything is always difficult. It’s hard to promote what you haven’t done.

So when the Landaus asked about our interest, the answer from myself and our team was immediate. We also offered to cut our costs, knowing there would be some learning-curve inefficiencies. As our work on the Landau house is done, I can say it’s been a rewarding experience, even without profit.

But is Passive House worth the cost in general? It depends on the calculation you use. If you use a cost-benefit analysis based on 2010 U.S. fuel costs, the answer might be no. If you think, as I do, that we should be building and calculating for multiple generations, then the answer is yes, many times over.

We can build homes that last centuries, not decades. My career has been dedicated to that proposition. We can also build homes that use NO fossil fuels during all those long years of service, for allthose generations of inhabitants, yielding a home that provides a rare brand of security and comfort. Tens of thousands of Passive Houses prove that. Put those two ideas–uncommon durability + uncommon energy efficiency–together and you will have a model for a sustainable future.

We need these model buildings to prove the possible. But more importantly, to prove the possible, we need model clients.

We need more Landaus.

These are people who are willing to put unselfish numbers into the denominator of their cost/benefit equation. Some calculations should be about OUR earth, not just MY bank account. If the equation is stretched out to 25 or 30 years, PH and Zero Net homes will almost always show a return. Do they need to make it back in ten? Why not 50? 100? 200? Is that too absurd? How about just the duration of the three generations most people know in their immediate family? If our time frame of consideration can’t stretch backward and forward to include the people we know and love, what hope is there?

That’s why the Landaus are my heroes. When the project started, their calculations were about maximizing energy efficiency, not demonstrating their own return on the cost investment.

Still, the Landaus struggled with the basic calculation of how to afford the kind of building that has no fuel lines. The substantial walls and roof cost more. Better windows cost more. Thick blankets of insulation under and around the foundation cost more. It’s a better building and itought to cost more. (It bothers me when PH proponents try to deny the added costs, as if it’s an embarrassment.)

To deal with the costs, the instinctual wisdom of the Landaus was to cut amenities and save costs on the finishes. What they understood was that they had one shot at building a good structure with the very best thermal characteristics, while the amenities and finishes could be added or upgraded at any time. They didn’t compromise the long-term layers of the building, while they willingly cut back on the short term layers.

Brilliant? Yes, but it should be obvious. When building homes, most builders and homeowners do the complete opposite. Typically, the structural and thermal performance of new homes is severely compromised to make room in the budget for better carpets, fancy light fixtures, all-around shower heads and the-mother-of-all-new necessities: the home theater. People seem convinced that the only things that matter in a home is what they can see and get entertained with, when what really matters most is mostly not visible.

How did the Landaus afford a Passive House? A simple approach; their own kind of math: they added to the envelope until they subtracted fossil fuels, then they subtracted the superficial until the substantial was affordable.

That is how good homes are built. Good builders need good clients and in that regard, we’ve been very fortunate. Over many years, we have been built many wonderful buildings. They are ALL tributes more to our clients than to us. We are in service to their aspirations. We are just grateful when they take us in new and better directions. Right now, I’m grateful for the Landaus.

I don’t think all our homes will be Passive Houses. That’s not necessarily my hope or expectation. On the other hand, I do think our entire country could learn from the Landaus about what is important and what is not; and therefore how to add and subtract, and about the number in the denominator that makes the cost/benefit consideration about building a better future; the one beyond ourselves.

**from Building the Timber Frame House: The Revival of a Forgotten Craft

Not Passive about Passive

Some things take time. My first book, Building the Timber Frame House, was written over 30 years ago. It was a personal manifesto about a better approach to building homes. I was convinced that conventional systems were inherently flawed and that we therefore needed a building system in which higher standards of durability and energy-efficiency were natural outcomes rather than occasional outliers. I made the argument that the dominant building methods invite shortcuts and poor workmanship, while also making energy-efficiency difficult to achieve because structure and insulation fight each other in the same territory.

I promoted timberframing as a solution for two reasons. First, timberframes are robust and visible structures that demand disciplined craft standards and result in buildings that can last for many centuries. Second, by applying insulation as an exterior covering layer,there is less need to compromise the insulation with structure, which I argued was an opportunity to maximize the building’s thermal performance.

Even so many years ago, I could see that our ability to make homes extremely tight and well insulated would lead to interesting challenges and compelling opportunities. I could also see a very exciting future, a veritable paradigm shift in our expectations of our buildings, and knew that the vision I was describing about building performance was even more important than the timberframe strategy that was the book’s subject. It was no accident that these were the last two paragraphs of that book: (Italics added)

To insulate as well as we can and to make houses as tight aswe can presents new challenges to the building industry. Houses will no longer naturally ventilate, because of our inability to get them tight.We can lock them up like thermos bottles if we like. To bring new air into the house, we’ll have to design ventilation systems into the plans.With heat loss cut to the bones, we’ll have design natural and mechanical recirculation to keep the temperature even and the air fresh.In this kind of environment, the heat from appliances, lights, and even body heat will contribute significant proportions to the small heating requirements. In houses built this way, energy from the sun, wind, or water could easily replace fuel-fired power sources.

Energy conservation is the hope of the future. In conscience, we must mark the end of the era of substandard housing that is cheap to build but expensive and wasteful to maintain. In conscience, we should begin a time when houses contain energy-autonomous environments that consume no fossil fuels and are built to last centuries.

Without giving that mission a name, I was describing what we now call Passive House or Net-Zero homes. I knew then that these types of homes were possible, and I knew that such a possibility therefore had to be realized, for it wasn’t just an idealized way of the future, but rather–even as I wrote those words in the late 1970’s–it felt like it was our future’s hope.

While our progress has not always been constant, I’m proud to say the mission of building durable, energy-independent homes has always been important. Real important.

We have just assembled our first Passive House. A time lapse of the 5 day shell installation is here. The home is still under construction, but we’re confident we’ll have achieved the stringent Passive House standards* when it is complete, which is basically the realization of the two last paragraphs in my first book. Energy conservation through extraordinary insulation and air tightness is the key to eliminating fossil fuels, and a sophisticated ventilation system is the solution for heat recovery and fresh air.

In a way, the Passive House requirement was not daunting because, at Bensonwood, we’ve been preparing for it with our continual performance improvements over the last 35 years. We’ve been inching ever closer to the “energy autonomous environments” I envisioned. In the past few years, we’ve built several Net-Zero buildings, which while not quite as demanding in proven performance, have very similar requirements. The Passive House standards attempt to achieve energy independence without a conventional heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) system, while Net-Zero allows renewal energy sources to make up the difference and also tries seeks to address the total home energy, not just heating and cooling. But there is little doubt that a good way to achieve Net-Zero performance would be to start with a Passive House.

In another way, the Passive House was a big and important step for us. It forced us to improve our air tightness to a level a little better than we had previously achieved. On previous projects, we had achieved .75 ach at 50 pascals, but Passive House requires .60. This is called “raising the bar,” a phrase that is often used, but not always appreciated for its potential significance.

Since I was a pole-vaulter in my high school years, the term “raising the bar” means something pretty specific to me. What I learned back then was that every new height, once leaped, made the height below it seem quantums easier. There was a time when I was stuck at 13’6″ for quite awhile, but a particular competition forced me to jump 13’9″. From then on, 13’6″ was a cinch. The same thing happened at 14′. I spent nearly a year hovering around that height, never doing better, until I somehow got over 14’6″ in a tough competition. From then on, 14′ was no big deal. (If you have no context, these were middling heights. I seldom won.)

So for us, building the Passive House is a lot like my 14’6″ jump. It couldn’t have happened without years of developing skills, training and continual improvement. But since we have now made the performance leap from .75ach to .6ach, we think .6 will be become relatively normal and .75 will be easy. In fact, we already think .6 will soon become our standard air tightness expectation and we look forward to setting our sights on an even better performance stand of .5ach at 50pascals.

The cool thing about the air tightness improvement is that it’s essentially free, where improving the R-value means increasing shell thickness and/or buying better windows, and that costs more money. Air-tight building is about attention to detail, discipline, and doing things correctly and precisely. It’s not about buying more materials; just installing the same ones a little bit better. Once the process is understood, it becomes repeatable with no penalty on production efficiency.

We recently raised our standard insulation level to R-35 (wall) and R-42 (roof). At this level, both Passive House and Net-Zero are within reach for most of our standard homes. With our newly-gained Passive House level of air tightness, we’re closer than ever to my 30+ year old vision. Being this close makes me anxious for the bar to be a bit higher, because I think we’re ready to make that leap to “begin a time when (all our) houses contain energy-autonomous environments that consume no fossil fuels and are built to last centuries.”

* Passive House standard from Wikipedia:
The building must be designed to have an annual heating demand as calculated with the Passivhaus Planning Package of not more than 15 kWh/m² per year (4746 btu/ft² per year) in heating and 15 kWh/m² per year cooling energy OR to be designed with a peak heat load of 10W/m²

Total primary energy (source energy for electricity and etc.) consumption (primary energy for heating, hot water and electricity) mustnot be more than 120 kWh/m² per year (3.79 × 104 btu/ft² per year)

The building must not leak more air than 0.6 times the house volume per hour (n50 ≤ 0.6 / hour) at 50 Pa (N/m²) as tested by a blower door.

What Matters

Oh boy. The “housing sector” has been both receiving and delivering really bad news for the past few weeks. Every day seems to bring yet another body blow. One our economy’s usually strongest pullers is now beaten to a bloody pulp and just can’t get up. In this NYT report, we are told that homes will possibly no longer be a source of wealth creation, which is quite a problem because homes have been a fountain of cash, sprinkling life to a myriad other economic sectors.

Home ownership will never again yield rewards like those enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century, when houses not only provided shelter but also a plump nest egg.

The wealth generated by housing … did more than assure the owners a comfortable retirement. It powered the economy, paying for the education of children and grandchildren, keeping the cruise ships and golf courses full and the restaurants humming.

More than likely, that era is gone for good.

The dire implication is that homes will just be homes and there will be great suffering if they will never again be useful as ATM’s.

In a Monthly Review article, Rick Wolff suggests that the whole “homeownership religion” was always a bit of a sham because it was propped up with subsidies and encouraged very long term debt that had not historically been a part of the American economic system until very recently.

To see the systemic problems of the US housing industry, consider its basic economics. The “American dream” of owning one’s home was never affordable to the vast majority of US families because the wages or salaries paid by their employers were never enough. To realize the dream therefore required borrowing. However, because working families had insufficient wages and salaries and no accumulated wealth,.. private banks rarely lent to them. The vast majority of them,not merely the poorest among them, were too risky as borrowers

(A) …”solution” was found… The government would subsidize and guarantee private banks’ loans to millions of homebuyers. This solution boosted profits in private banks’ mortgage loan business. It indirectly subsidized all the industries producing for private homes. Yet it did not raise wages and salaries (something capitalists opposed).Many US workers became homeowners with large, long-term mortgages, making them more dependent on keeping jobs, not offending employers, etc. That experience also prepared workers to accept credit card, student loan, and other consumer debts. Expanding debt became the way most Americans bridged the gap between their incomes and the “good life”relentlessly advertised by capitalists needing buyers

The US housing industry’s basic problem is the system in which it is embedded… Over the last 75 years, US capitalism has bridged that gap by means of private credit guaranteed and/or subsidized by the government. This system provides incentives as well as opportunities for excessive home prices, diminished wages and salaries, and excessive quantities, risks, and costs of housing credit. The last 30 years have seen all three phenomena converge into a systemic crisis.

Like the changing of seasons, and night following day, housing has long been propped up on the unquestioned belief that homes will always increase in value. When the props fell out of that particular structure of shared belief, a tidal wave swept in and took away zillions of dollars that only existed because we told each other so.

Props gone; faith gone; money gone.

What’s left? The house. Even as people are absorbing their losses and the economy searches for some other kind of savior, it is dawning on homeowners that they still have something that’s pretty important, as David Streitfeld reports in a NYT article about July’s terrible housing sales figures:

His house, (homeowner Jimmy Penz) knows, is “an illiquid asset, a long-term asset, something I won’t be able to tap in for cash. But we chose a place we’ll be able to stay for a long time, to ride out any trouble.”

Once upon a time, before everyone from the banks to the buyers to the sellers got greedy, that was how everyone thought about the housing market. And however bumpy the path, that is once again the market’s future, said Mr. Kelman of Redfin.

“It’s not the apocalypse,” he said. “People will buy homes when they need to move or want the house, not when they want to make money. There will be winners and losers — not just, as in years past, winners and bigger winners.”

While everyone seems to be searching for a silver lining, including me, these articles are peppered with phrases like, “truly gut wrenching,” “gruesome,” “even more breathtaking,” “unprecedented,” and many foreboding indications that it could get worse, such as: “If unemployment goes higher than 10 percent, then the housing market is really looking at trouble.”

Joe Nocera, in hisTalking Business blog, even mocked the spokesperson for the National Association of Realtors, Lawrence Yun, for trying to put a positive spin on a very negative situation. He wondered “what they’re smoking over there.” All Mr. Yun said was that “Given the rock-bottom mortgage interest rates and historically high housing affordability conditions, the pace of a sales recovery could pick up quickly..” Still,Nocera picked that comment apart and did his best to explain why our situation is really, really bad and may never get better.

For millions of homeowners stuck “underwater,” for millions more who have foreclosed, and for people who are suffering everywhere because this housing situation has drained all vitality out of our economy, Mr. Nocera’s analysis has the depressive ring of truth. There’s no way to make this picture pretty.

I’d have ended this post that way, but my day and attitude was just brightened. I just had a chat with prospective clients who want to add on to their small home. Their upbeat attitude was infectious. Their two young sleeping boys are beautiful and heartwarming. They hope we can build a good quality house they can afford. I looked at this family and I could feel their excitement. I couldn’t help but hope for their dream right along with them.

They tell their story of rehabbing a rough, small cabin into a more-finished small home. They’re proud of their work and the result. It works, but it’s very small for their growing family.

They would like us to build an addition that would provide an open living area on one level and several bedrooms on the upper level. It’s a simple concept, and they say several times that what they are after is a home that is well-built, well-insulated and functional. “Nothing fancy,” they say, “We just want a good quality home for our family. And we definitely don’t want it big. We don’t want to have to call people to dinner with a cell phone. It would be better just to be able to say ‘dinner’s ready.'” All I do is smile. I’m sold.

I didn’t stay in the room long. I was just there to introduce myself. Bill Holtz, one of our architects, was there to work through some design ideas with them.

But in the space of a few minutes, they made me happy. I can’t fix the decades-long misguided and greedy machinations to pull money down from housing every which-way from Sunday. And I can’t fix the rotten economy that resulted from all of that. What I can do is help our team continue our efforts to make our homes better and more affordable. This lovely couple and their two boys were a refreshing reminder that homes matter in the lives of people and that we can make a difference.

Home Value Reconsidered

I’m in the homebuilding business because I believe better quality homes are an important aspect of making this world a better place. My associates in our company share my interests and passion. I know this because I’m pulled along by their energy and ideas as much as I pull things along myself. There are two quotes carved into beams in the main entry of our Walpole, NH facility that reflect our company’s view of the ultimate value of good homebuilding. The first is a classic one from Winston Churchill:

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”

The other one is less known, from Confucious:

“The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.”

It’s hard to imagine that Churchill hadn’t read Confucious. With different words, millenniums separated, they said much the same thing. Whether in the personal, national, or societal context, buildings are a reflection of the people and culture from which they arise. We build not just with tools and skills, but also with collective values, beliefs and societal baggage. Buildings may look like just an aggregation of materials formed into shelter, but their dynamic impact is profound, deep and generations long–for better and for worse–on its inhabitants,its community and our ecology.

Where and how we build matters. What we build matters. What buildings give and take matters. Durable, functional, beautiful and sustainable homes are essential ingredients of a strong and lasting civilization. We’re going with Churchill and Confucious on this subject, and will spend our careers trying to prove that good buildings can have an important, positive and powerful influence now and into the future.

For the last few months, the New York Times has been running a series of essays about homes and home life, called “Living Rooms.” Naturally, I’ve been a very interested reader, hoping mostly that the reporters would generally conclude that homes matter more than most people realize and much, much more than the wreckage of the past few decades of flim-flam, hyper-inflating, flipping madness would indicate. The series has been uneven, but not disappointing. And if nothing else, it’s been good to read about housing in the mainstream press for some other reason than it being the cause of our economy’s woes.

In the introduction to the series, the editors noted that home making has essentially been in our DNA from early in our human evolution, but the nature of our dwellings are constantly changing, as society changes;as we do.

Many animals build shelters, some of them dazzlingly efficient and complex, but only humans design homes that thoroughly reflect the architecture of their lives, families, work — even their thoughts. The home has been central to human existence since the Paleolithic age: recent archaeological work in Israel has found evidence of domestic order — food preparation here, beds over there — dating from around 100,000 B.C.E.

But amid such consistency, there is constant change. A century ago the kitchen was a lowly service space relegated to the back of the house, or to a separate building altogether; today it is the center of home entertainment. We used to talk about our houses as islands of financial security; now we worry about them being underwater.

In the first series essay, The Other Real Estate Value, Winifred Gallagher wrote about recent attitudinal changes regarding what a home is for, and just what sort of security it should provide. Easy mortgages got way-too-many people playing the risky building speculators’ game, and scams just don’t work when the number of players exceeds the number of victims. So the game itself came apart and brought a whole lot of our economic vitality down with it. In the process, the idea of home itself paid a price, as the whole premise of the subprime debacle took a toll on the more important real estate values.

(The shaky economy) …changed the home from a haven into a commodity: a bargaining chip in an increasingly uncertain world. Not so long ago, your house or apartment and its network of neighbors, shops and services supplied a feeling of belonging and stability that anchored you in life’s shifting currents. Now, a sense of security increasingly means selling your home, not staying in it.

But Gallagher is convinced none of that is true. The real value of a home is in the experience of lives lived there. Houses become homes and homes become places that inspire lifelong memories as the homes we inhabit, over time, begin to inhabit us. You know this from your own memories and experiences and I do too, but it’s good to be reminded.

Like the old song says, there’s no place like home, not because of the real estate, but because of the sense of shelter and nurture that it provides. This deep, wordless experience can’t be manufactured in an instant but develops slowly, one birthday party, convalescence, Thanksgiving and cup of tea at a time.

Jayne Merkel wrote two enlightening essays about our changing attitudes regarding home size, which is actually a study in a shift in what is understood to be necessary and sufficient. Her titles, When Less Was More and When Less Was No Longer More are hung on Mies van der Rohe’s famous phrase, “less is more,” which defines beauty with simplicity and wealth with satisfaction, not unending accumulation. In the years following WWII, America was expansive, growing and positve:

But when it came to their houses, it was a time of common sense and a belief that less truly could be more. During the Depression and the war,Americans had learned to live with less, and that restraint, in combination with the postwar confidence in the future, made small, efficient housing positively stylish.

Average houses were less than 1000 square feet. The big architects, like Frank Lloyd Wright, bought into it and were designing homes for wealthy people that were a tribute to that smaller scale. Small homes were easy to build, easy to maintain and their mortgages could be paid off in only a few years. By living with less, full ownership was quicker, and upgrades, additions and remodeling could happen over time, without loans, and targeted to what was truly needed and desired. Lots of the post war tract homes weren’t particularly great in their initial construction, but they were commensurately cheap and left plenty of possibility for changes and improvements.

The modesty and optimism of the “Less is More” idea helped to create the unbridled wealth that was later its undoing, as Merkel reported in her second essay. The Postmodernism of the ’80’s and ’90’s was a look backward to various historical styles, but it was more about pretense than authenticity, making for thin facades of show and appearance inside and out.

The interest in old buildings also failed to have much influence on houses in new suburban subdivisions where most new housing was being built. These had always aped historical styles and fresh ideas from famous architects about how to use those styles in different ways had little impact. Home builders might add a new stained glass window or beveled glass door, like those in old urban houses, but the quality of construction, design and materials did not improve. Customers preferred specific features, like hot tubs and decks, and prized “curb appeal” and more space above all else.

As I have said in earlier posts here, many of these grand appearing homes are no more than miners’s shacks dressed up in plaster and amenities. There’s no restraint or “enough” in what has become known as the McMansion or “Executive” design style. Like gaudy, fake jewelry, it’s a celebration of excess, and its illusions are similarly transparent. American homebuilding has been too much defined by this wasteful and fraudulent design and building approach. Finally, it is being its own kind of emperor with no clothes. It wastes resources and feeds dissatisfaction. When more is the goal, more is never enough.

As Merkel summarizes,

…a desperate desire for more of everything led to out-of-control consumption that bloated home sizes, deflated savings accounts, and distorted the American economy for the next 20 years.

Joan Dejean wrote about rooms in her essay, Who Lives in This Room? For the wealthy, display has often been the only function of many rooms and while they are showing off space, furniture, art and possessions, the real purpose has historically been about showing off social position. Lest we forget, that remains the purpose of much of home design. It begins with “curb appeal,” includes useless entrances and various unused spaces.

As Dejean points out, very little living goes on in a lot of living rooms. If you could build new walls around the space that people use instead of the home they currently live in, the resulting newly defined living space would probably equal the 1950’s standard of about 1000 square feet. Want to save money? Shed ego.

I think I enjoyed Allison Arieff’s essay the most, if only because it confirmed an encouraging trend we are seeing. In HomeFor Life, she writes that people are waking up to what is important about a home and they’re actually asking for it and investing in themselves instead of some vague prediction about a future buyer.

At what point did the house become more about the future tenant than the current resident? It’s hard to trace the moment, but let’s hope it’s passed. Because for too long, home design has been hijacked by the allure of resale value. Maybe now we can begin again to think of our houses not as investments but as homes.

..Now we need to think more sensibly about building houses that people want to stay in.

I’m happy to say that we are hearing precisely this message from our clients. They aren’t talking about resale; they’re talking about what their home needs to be to serve their needs and they want good design, good engineering and high performance level of energy efficiency. Underlying these priorities is a common comment from our clients (young or aging) that “this will be our last house.” Undoubtedly, that’s an attitude that concentrates the mind toward good decision making.

Arieff goes on to quote a 2009 Builder survey that revealed a growing preference for smaller homes:

“…unprecedented housing bust, which brought about the largest loss of home equity in history has fostered fundamental attitudinal changes in new-home prospects…. The desire for a McMansion seems to have been supplanted by the desire for a more responsible home.”

Glory be.