Monthly Archives: January 2009

Paedomorphic lessons

In a recent post, I wrote about the concept of paedomorphosis and its relevance to the timberframe revival. Here, I’m adding a postscript to that discussion by giving a brief account of some of the important discoveries and lessons derived from three decades of attempting to develop a new approach to design and building.

Prefabbing walls1. The discipline of off-site fabrication of exacting building elements is a solution in itself. Contemporary timberframers have become masters of prefabrication. One of the significant decisions made in the early days of rediscovering the craft was to move the cutting and shaping operations indoors, where efficiency and quality could be better controlled. The specific manner in which the work happens greatly defines our businesses and our competitive differences. We are learning that the same skills and procedures that allow us to assure highly precise fits in timbers, miles and miles from where the assembly will take place, are easily transferred to other building units, such as panelized floor, wall and roof sections. Step-by-step, we are getting the entire construction process out of the mud.

Weston rendering2. “Virtual before actual” is the modern equivalent of “Measure twice, cut once.” Advanced CAD software improves quality and efficiency. One of the challenging skills of timberframing is visualizing the individual pieces in the context of the entire framework. It can require some fairly high-level mental gymnastics to be able to properly lay out an individual timber by looking at 2D plans and elevations. Before 3D software was truly helpful in conventional building, it was a great boon to timberframers. Now that we are lead users of 3D architectural software, we have the tools in our hands to not only model the frame, but every other detail in the building, from finishes to mechanical systems. In other words, we build it before we build it, with great advantages to the owners and the construction team. These software tools are improving quality, reducing errors and increasing efficiency.

Speedcut3. Applying advanced tooling to the building process can help to make buildings better and more affordable. Twenty-first century manufacturing technologies and processes make it possible for many industries to improve overall quality and lower costs. The secret to this apparent magic is technology, much of which is focused on eliminating repetitive and dumb work. Since timberframers usually ply their trade from off-site facilities with the opportunity for fixed tooling, they are also prone to invest in systems, jigs and tools that help to improve production and enhance quality. Everything, from large, automated tools to basic Lean Manufacturing strategies is being employed to keep the quality in and get the wasted efforts out. This wouldn’t be notable if the industry were not so behind in adopting the methods and innovations other industries have long taken for granted.

Living Room4. Buildings are better when there is evidence of well-executed and visible craft. Not all buildings can have a hand-crafted timberframe, nor should that be the goal, but we know that good work matters. Whether drywall or tile or stair building, there’s broad territory between craft and hack that, for better or worse, infuses the building with its standard. Architecture and the crafts and trades of building should not be separated. Out of mutual respect and sharing of intentions, ideas and capabilities, the best possibilities emerge. Usually, timberframers and designers are usually closely aligned out of necessity, and the experience has given us a deep understanding of both the problems that can arise from lack of integration, and the opportunities that are possible when designer and builder work in concert. We have learned that both designing and building involve teams––not individual efforts or egos––to the benefit of all. Good workmanship can help to heal bad design, but bad workmanship ruins anything.

Unity Interior5. Sustainability means durability. The design and construction goal should be projected in centuries, not decades. One of the inspiring aspects of timberframing is the certainty of a very long life. Two hundred years is not an uncommon age for existing timberframe buildings in this country and, overseas it is not at all hard to visit buildings 400 or 500-years-old. With better knowledge of materials and engineering, we ought to attempt to do at least as well. It’s not possible to know whether a building will do well over time, but just the intention of longevity tends to have a powerful effect on quality. The absence of any such intention does, too.

Weston House6. In sustainable buildings, shell and infill are respectively static and dynamic. These elements should be designed and built accordingly. Timberframers commonly know a lot about old buildings because surviving structures often contain unique information and inspiration. If you know the history of old buildings, it becomes evident that the pace of change to the building’s exterior shell is quite different from the occupant-initiated churn that happens to the interior. Two examples: an Internet café I visited in Italy turned out to be in a building constructed in the late 1300s; the home I grew up in was built in 1895 for a gold magnate’s sister, later became three apartments and later still housed 11 raucous children and their saint-like parents. Both buildings obviously have been reconfigured and remodeled and have absorbed various mechanical systems and technology, yet both belie these changes on the exterior. One of the biggest ideas we can bring to the conversation of improving buildings is to develop ways in which shell and infill can be designed and built to respect and facilitate both the stasis and the change we intend.

Stress-skin panel illustration7. With a more symbiotic relationship between structure and insulation, all homes can be energy misers. Structure and insulation can be separated, with benefits to energy efficiency and potentially, building durability. One of the most urgent aspects in the early days of rethinking timberframing was insulation. If we simply copied the old buildings, our attempt for viability would have failed. It needed a new approach. The first step was to separate the structure from the insulation, which had inherent construction efficiency, as well as thermal benefits. The second step was to use rigid foam insulation and insulated panels (originally known as stressed-skin panels) to eliminate thermal bridges and structural redundancies. These developments have made timberframes among the most remarkably energy-efficient structures being built on a regular basis. While we do not expect that all buildings will be built in exactly this manner, what we know for certain is that a much better standard for all buildings is possible. There’s a fundamentally simple solution: develop systems that complement and support one another, rather than cause conflicts and compromises.

Beam team on the job8. A beginning of the definition of a better way to build is more challenging and uplifting work. The central part of the mission statement of our company is, “Through process and product, to improve people’s lives.” It has double meaning. By our work, we are striving to improve the lives of our clients. It is our fervent hope that they and future generations will deeply benefit from a building with deep attributes. But it is also about us. Through the work and the manner in which we do it together, we are trying hard to also ensure that our lives are made better also. These are two sides of the same coin. Whether the work is done in a shop setting or on site, we have an imperative to develop entire processes that engage the head, heart and hands of those who are doing the actual building. When all work is blind compliance, the soul of it is lost. There is no better building industry and no hope for consistently better homes unless we conceive of a system in which the process lifts the practitioners of its crafts and trades, so that the product can lift its occupants.

Memory and Celebration

The events of this week are reason for pause. Monday was Martin Luther King Day, which always sparks a personal memory. When I was a student at Colorado State University, a friend and I founded an organization called the Committee on Racial and Ethnic Equality (CREE). Our general purpose was to address racial issues on campus; our notable accomplishment was to get funding for a student-run program that had several objectives: 1. to recruit eligible minority students to the campus; 2. to mentor and tutor the recruits individually, to help them assimilate into the academic and cultural conditions; 3. to eventually increase the percentage of minorities in the campus population to reflect the state population ratios. The program showed some initial success and garnered some recognition around the country.

As a result, one of my CREE associates, David Williams, and I were asked to speak at a race relations conference being held at American University in Washington, D.C. So there we were, two young college students, flying from Denver on April 4, 1968, excited by the trip (my first time on an airplane) and doing last-minute preparations for our presentation, when the pilot announced that Martin Luther King had been killed. I vaguely recall our words of disbelief and shared tears of grief. When we landed, the city was on fire, and our conference agenda of unity and hopeful strategies was displaced by flames of anger and a pall of despair.

We wanted to be peacekeepers in the situation, but raw fear prevailed. There was no public transportation, so we walked through the riot. I felt more comfortable being with David, a 6′-4” black man, but I was also well aware that my presence put him in an awkward danger. He was brave; I slunk in his shadow.

It was a bleak and sorrowful day. Much was lost, including our own patience and optimism. From the perspective of that flaming racial war zone forty years ago, not a soul could have dared to imagine what happened on Tuesday.

The very same streets were this week filled with tens of thousands gathered in a racially and politically harmonic triumph. At the moment of Barack Obama’s inauguration, billions of individual mental and emotional barriers were crumbled to dust. Through the ages, mankind has been cursed. We have wreaked unbelievable mayhem on our fellow humans, driven only by foggy, illegitimate mental constructs. There exists a dark world in our collective subconscious that is untrue and wicked.

In 2008, however, America voted against that world. And then on January 20th, 2009, our worst demons were driven back to their dark corners.

We live in a different and better world today.

Timberframe Paedomorphosis

After listening to me talk about our company’s history, one of our very smart clients (They are all quite brilliant!) told me that the contemporary timberframe movement is akin to a concept from evolutionary biology called “paedomorphosis” (also “pedomorphosis”). He may be right. Paedomorphosis was a term coined by W. Garstang in 1928 to explain how an evolution could escape from a blind alley. Arthur Koestler wrote about it fairly extensively. Two quotes get the idea across.

“The principle cause of both extinction and stagnation appears to have been over-specialization with its concomitant loss of adaptability to changes in the environment…” Janus: A Summing Up

To put it simply, the phenomenon of paedomorphosis indicates that in certain circumstances evolution can retrace its steps, as it were, along the path which led to a dead end, and make a fresh start in a new, more promising direction.” Ghost in the Machine

Paedomorphisis is a useful concept. It’s another way of thinking about the idea of paradigm shifts that Thomas Kuhn analyzed in The Structure of Scientific Revolution. It suggests that the process of change isn’t necessarily transformational (metamorphosis), but instead can simply recreate something familiar in a new way. I’m already out of my area of expertise so I won’t push this too far, but I must admit that I like the implications. Were today’s timberframe pioneers unwittingly driven by some deep genetic impulse? Have we been on an ambitious paedomorphic mission all these years? I don’t know, but I’m sort of flattered by the prospect.

In any event, paedomorphosis does reflect the idea that some of us had in mind when we started in the timberframe revival in the early 1970s. We intended to approach the work with modern tools and allow the timbers to be a prominent design feature. Mainly, it was our hope to use timberframing as a basis from which to develop an improved building system. Just as a bridge is not normally the destination; the medium (in this case) wasn’t intended to be the entire message.

I’ve been in business for 36 years, 34 of them with a focus on timberframe homebuilding. As a young carpenter, I had enough good experiences to inspire me to be a builder, and enough bad experiences to be motivated to develop a viable alternative to conventional building methods. In an attempt to make a leap forward, I decided it might be useful to step backward.

My initial fascination with carpentry was probably simply an outgrowth of my innate impatience. I was a sucker for the immediate gratification. When asked, “What did you do today?” I liked answering with a physical description of what specifically had been accomplished. As builders, we are able to literally measure the dimensions and precision of the work achieved in any time period and know, with some objective certainty, that what had been constructed would have lasting effect. I also liked the team sport of it; the action and energy of working with others to make buildings rise from piles of parts and pieces and raw materials. From the good carpenters, I learned to appreciate that dissatisfaction is healthy, and eventually accepted the continuous refrain that bounces back and forth between “not good enough” and “not fast enough.”

But I also learned about how dismal the work of building can be. I spent some time as a framing carpenter in some tract home developments. It stigmatized me about stick-framing, causing me to ever after have difficulty appreciating its better possibilities. I am still stuck with the memory of the crudest possible work cultures: building sites polluted by a pounding rain of curses, insults and verbal pornography; a pervasive co-worker attitude that seemed to suggest that information was for nerds, communication was for sissies; therefore communicating information was jobsite heresy and profanity filled the air with human sounds. Before I knew much of anything about building, I saw a place where shoddy workmanship was encouraged, making shortcuts and deceptions (“It’s %&*$#@ good enough! They don’t %&*$#@ check that.”) standard practice. I saw—and was complicit in—homes being built like miners’ shacks.

Later, I worked with carpenters who did excellent stick-framing, but the damage was done; thereafter I was looking for a better way to build. This is what eventually spurred my interest in timberframing. I yearned for a building process that would be more directly defined by a disciplined craft, and I hoped for homes in which a certain inherent beauty and durability would be natural outcome.

I had become fascinated with early American timberframing and couldn’t understand why it had been abandoned. If it had proven to be labor intensive and inefficient in the days of hand tools, why wouldn’t it fare better in the age of electric power tools and powerful material handling equipment? And if the old style timberframe house—with its typically poor insulation, low ceilings and dark spaces—was obsolete, then what about a modern version with expanses of glass, open living areas and super-efficient insulation? I essentially squinted hard and saw timberframing as a structure upon which to build a bridge to the future of homebuilding, not as a reversion to ancient methodologies.

I did some trial projects in 1974-75 and by 1976, I was a full-time timberframer. I soon discovered that my idea held some apparent synchronicity, as there were several others who had also started to timberframe at about the same time. By the late 1970s, a group of scattered timberframe revivalists were communicating regularly about projects and progress. In the early 1980s, we founded the Timber Framers Guild to help facilitate and energize our need to support and encourage each other and the growing ranks of new enthusiasts and professionals.

Timberframing has proven to be an excellent basis for rethinking and reinventing a process for homebuilding. What has now emerged, after decades of development has its own identity, vastly different from its historical antecedents, and is not constrained by much of the loggerheaded assumptions from the more dominant conventional methods. Since we are trying to make an ancient building method viable and effective for the needs and aspirations of twenty-first-century homeowners, timberframers have done a lot of pioneering and innovating by necessity, if not by inclination. And it’s certainly not all about the timbers.

On our “paedomorphic” journey, much of what we’ve learned was already known, but has been forgotten. The oldest surviving book about design and building was written by the Roman architect Vitruvius over 2000 years ago. His proposition was that good buildings are a balancing composition of function, strength and beauty (utilitas, firmitas, venustas). When buildings are conceived and built in this manner, they are also sustainable because they are loved for their beauty, appreciated for their usefulness, and survive the rigors of time because they are resilient and strong. The Vitruvian principles are about results, not methods.

The biggest lesson from paedomorphosis is to not lose sight of what’s important or it will have to happen again.

Heating with History

All my heat is passive solar. I use south-facing glass and the sun as much as possible, but I also use vertically oriented, passive solar storage units. These simple, natural solar batteries have thrilled me with their beauty and bounty since I moved to New Hampshire 38 years ago.

I heat with wood.

Without wood for heat, I probably wouldn’t still be living here. First, I immediately liked the relationship between a plentiful natural resource, my physical effort and warmth. Heating with wood, one immediately becomes richer, warmer and more independent. Second, free heat was the only thing I could afford in the early years of our business, when dreams were much bigger than actual projects and ideas were more plentiful than customers. With or without projects and customers, I could throw another log on the fire and feel pretty good about myself.

Over the years, the business has grown, my family has grown, the size of my house has grown, but all of our expanded buildings are still heated with wood. Our original cabin (500 sq. ft.) has a small wood stove, our current house has a wood stove, a fireplace and an outside wood furnace; our woodworking facilities (6000 sq. ft) and our primary campus (45,000 sq. ft.) are both heated with wood gasifiers.

At home, my heat comes from the woods around my house and some of the scraps and rejects from our woodworking and timberframe shops. Our business facilities are heated with waste wood from our production. We grind the wood waste to create a fuel for the gasifiers, which generate very hot temperatures to fire boilers that, in turn, supply the heat to our offices and shops.

In addition to warmth and hot water, the wood keeps me connected to the forest around me, helps me keep tabs on the passage of time, and will often tell some pretty good stories. I like to count the growth rings and think about what was happening in our country at that time: Who was the President? What things that we take for granted now didn’t exist then? Occasionally, I’ll cut a very old dead tree. A few maples were over 250 years old. I discovered at least 50-year-old abandoned maple sugar taps when I was splitting one of the butt logs. I wondered if the guys who drilled and tapped that tree loved this land as much as I do.

Lately, I’ve had the uneasy discovery that I’m cutting trees that grew entirely in the time I’ve been on the land; I’ve even cut some trees I planted. The growth rings are not so hard to count, and I remember well the thick and thin seasons and years.

One ash tree I cut this year was a 2 inch sapling when I first arrived. I was intrigued by the fact that it had grown through a 2 ft. diameter iron wheel hoop, making the new tree and the old hoop inseparable. The hoop was almost certainly a part of an old agricultural implement, as it wasn’t far from the stone foundation remains of a barn that had been there many years ago. The ash died last year (an infestation is killing my ash), so I cut the tree, by then 20 inches in diameter and nearly filling the hoop. Now the tree is firewood, cut and split, and the hoop is liberated. It hangs on a wall in my barn, reminding me of those who worked and lived on the land before me, and my time on the
land too.

Does your heat tell you stories?

Passive House now! (Passivhaus, heute!)

I was surprised and pleased to see an article on the front page of the New York Times about the remarkably energy efficient Passive Houses. I have been following the German-born “Passivhaus” movement for quite a few years, but I hadn’t envisioned that there would be much enthusiasm in the U.S.—yet—for the extremely rigorous requirements of the Passivhaus standards. I must be wrong. For the next four days (Dec. 27 – Dec. 30) the Passive House article was the Times #1 most emailed story. During those days, I was getting multiple copies from every direction: friends, family, colleagues and even people I don’t know. It seemed that nearly overnight Passive House had entered the American vocabulary.

The Passive House (PH) concept is both brutally simple and extremely difficult. We have long known how to create an energy efficient building: face the sun; insulate, seal and mechanically ventilate. Passive House takes these rather obvious goals and establishes an extremely stringent standard for each of them, applying basic building science and its own tough formulas to set the bar at the very top of the green building stanchions. Moreover, it’s a pass-fail system; you achieve it or you don’t. It stands alone as the most energy efficient construction standard in the world. Over 15,000 Passive Homes have been built since the early ‘90s, mostly in German speaking countries and Scandinavia.

The main question I have been asked the past few days is how Zero Energy buildings, such as those (Unity House and Brightbuilt Barn) we built last year, compare with Passive Houses. The best answer, I think, is that they are perfectly complementary, not competitive. The ideal way to build a Zero Energy building is to start with a base building constructed to Passive House standards. From that platform, using renewable energy sources to get to zero (or positive) energy performance is made much easier.

Performance standards are set by the Passivhaus Institute in Germany. The building can’t consume more than 15 kilowatt-hours per square meter in heating energy per year (equivalent to 4746 BTU per square foot per year). This typically requires that the wall, roof and floor insulation must be between R40 and R60. The building can’t leak more air than 0.6 times the house volume per hour at 50 pascals of pressure, as measured in a standard blower door test. An energy recovery ventilator provides a constant, balanced fresh air supply, and may be outfitted with an electric resistant heater element to provide auxiliary heat in worst-case situations.

If the building clears the bar of the PH requirements, it no longer needs a furnace. The intention is to substitute the money spent on a heating system (along with the fuel to fire it) for money spent on insulation, careful detailing and good workmanship. Basically, it locks in heating and cooling fuel cost at zero. For the life of the building.

Why, then, isn’t everyone clamoring for it? I don’t know. We seem to have been born with a switch that allows us to turn off the memory of painful lessons that should have been learned; and with blinders that limit our ability to see that which is unsustainable when it is us. How else to explain the great interest in high performance buildings when fossil fuel costs were high only a few months ago, but now that the fuel costs have fallen, interest has suddenly waned? Is this short-term memory a defect in our species or just a peculiarly American defect? How did we come to make decisions in a dense fog, from which neither the past or future is visible?

I live in southern New Hampshire, near the Vermont border. In this area, the heart and soul of most towns are the many old houses, churches and town halls that were built 150-250 years ago. They remain in good service after many generations of use and remind us of the best of our capabilities as citizens, communities and builders. They are emblems from the past, but also beacons for a better future. If we could think and act with a vision beyond our own mortality, like the builders who constructed these enduring, defining structures, Passive Houses and Zero Energy buildings would now be much more common.

If a priority for high performance buildings doesn’t come from a social or ecological conscience—you know, looking out for the survival of our species, for instance—perhaps it would come from simple math calculations when our energy costs brutally and finally reflect their actual value.

What I hate to think about, but believe to be true, is that high fuel costs won’t really do it either. It will take a genuine crisis in which money isn’t the only issue. Just as you don’t get a new traffic light at an intersection until enough people have died in car crashes, it will take some large-scale disasters to give us the collective will to do something that is possible right now.

First, many people will have to suffer when an infrastructure entirely dependent on cheap fossil fuels completely collapses.

Then, higher standards will finally be mandated and people might at last be willing to give up flat screens and full-body showers for a home that will keep them warm and comfortable without any fuel whatsoever; in good times and bad, through decades, through generations, and on and on into a brighter future.

It’s such a good idea. Why don’t we just start doing it and NOT wait for bigger problems and human tragedies?