Monthly Archives: August 2009

European Builders Cheat!

Here’s a random piece of advice. If you ever find yourself attempting toride a mountain bike over the Alps with people who live there and thinkpedaling up a never-ending 15% grade is like a walk in the park, prepare to seriously suffer. With very little imagination, you can probably accurately picture me learning this lesson: I’m the guy hunkered over the bicycle in sheer agony, grinding in the lowest gear and only dimly cognizant of the grand and bucolic countryside he’s passing through. A need for survival caused me to develop some creative defensive strategies. It turns out, for instance, that you can slow down your fellow riders by asking them questions that require long, detailed answers. Let them talk and talk, while you focus on breathing…and keeping up.

In this comical way, I was recently doing some “research” about European homebuilding processes. In our biking group of about ten, my fellow riders included three builders, a finish carpenter, and the founder and owner of one of the premier automated CNC equipment manufacturers for the building industry. These guys have become good friends and this wasn’t our first Alps biking tour, so I’ve had some time to learn something about their philosophy and approach to the building process.

Before I say more and let it sound as if I think the Europeans are inherently better builders than we are, you should know they cheat. Theysell their homes to people who care more about the underlying building structure and thermal efficiency than they do about superficial amenities. Obviously, this isn’t fair. Anyone could do good work in thatenvironment. It is much more challenging to try to build high quality buildings in a society that tends to consistently choose short term indulgence over long term performance.

In both Europe and America, the characteristics of what is being built are a reflection of what homebuyers count as important, for good and ill, respectively. In both cases, you can equally applaud and blame boththe builders and the consumer society in which they work for the outcome in their built environment. U.S. builders can and should do muchbetter, but we do have certain cultural disadvantages. However, I’m not complaining because I think these are exciting times. Attitudes and priorities are starting to change here and we have a golden opportunity to be at the forefront of setting new standards for American homebuilding. What should those standards be? Listening to European builders talk on a long bike ride might be as good an approach as any to finding an answer.

Riding through the pristine forests of the German and Austrian Alps was aperfect context for our conversations about building as it invigorated our mutual enthusiasm for the natural benefits of wood. Wood was also our common language. As I listened to these guys talk and learned about recent changes in their building practices, I realized their dedication to wood has a somewhat different orientation than mine. For all its terrific attributes, I am prone to use wood judiciously, even sparingly.It’s a precious resource, after all. Appreciating the same attributes in wood, they are motivated to use it in abundance. The more wood, the better. As the European fixation on green and energy-efficient building deepens, the use of wood as the primary construction medium grows.

Despite what you might think about Europe, their forests are healthy andextremely productive. Along with Scandinavia, they are the best managedforests in the world. The forests are preserved for their beauty, for recreation (our bike paths snaked through heavily forested lands), but also for the important resource. According to one of my comrades, their forests add twice as much fiber in annual growth as is harvested for use. “We should use more,” said Hans Möst, whose companywas close to where we were riding that day. “It’s here, it’s natural, and requires very little energy to get it from the forest to the new house.”

As if on cue, we were soon riding through an area that was designated aswilderness. The forest seemed to thicken and the hiking/biking path narrowed, yet there was logging activity. We could see evidence of selective cutting because there were fresh piles of logs at the edge of our path every few kilometers. It was a beautiful “wilderness” area, butthere was no apology for the fact that it was a managed forest that could be preserved and productive simultaneously. It’s a different perspective, from a different history and ecological narrative, and given all that, it made sense to me. I’d also like to have access to those amazing logs.

Listening to these guys talk, I realized that they view wood building asthe way forward, not just because it is natural and abundant, but because it is perfectly suited to high-tech building processes and to supporting modern lifestyles. As it is easily machined, it can be effectively utilized for a variety of structural situations and finishes. The Europeans are masters at laminating and engineering wood in a variety of ways to reduce waste and enhance its visual and structural characteristics. So this is another way in which they cheat. Anyone could make great buildings with those materials!

KarlSchafferer’s company is in Austria, not far from Innsbruck. His website touts wood as the ultimate “high-tech building material” and everything about his company exudes a forward-looking modern enterprise.His buildings are often extremely contemporary. They are clean and simple, but are also sophisticated studies in the composition of wood and glass. Karl said his “high tech” promotion comes from all the facetsof building with wood. Using modern machinery, it easily made into improved products, which are in turn easily machined with modern machinery into a variety of building components. In the completed construction, wood is durable, beautiful and is the best basis for comfortable, energy-efficient buildings. Wood isn’t toxic and takes finishes well. When the building needs to be changed, wood is easily demounted and can be easily reused or recycled. Given Karl’s unabashed evangelism for wood, I was surprised Karl wasn’t riding a wooden bicycle. It’s probably in the works.

With their abundant forest resources, their automated machinery, and their attitude about the role of wood in green building, it should have been no surprise to find out what these guys are up to now. If more woodis better, why not ALL wood? Indeed! They are making buildings that arealmost nothing but wood. Solid wood floors; monolithic planks a foot thick or more. Solid wood walls and roof structures. Even the interior partitions are often solid and continuous planks of wood. Karl’s companyand that of another companion on the ride, Uli Hermann are both doing a lot of their building using this system. Karl’s company is currently workingtriple shifts to fabricate and ship precut solid wood elements to the Abruzzo region in Italy to help build homes for those displaced by the April’s earthquake. (If only we had responded like that for New Orleans!)

In some ways these new solid wood homes are a throwback to older forms of wooden building, but this isn’t your great grandfather’s log building. All the wood is dried and machined to improve its stability, moisture diffusion and even sound deadening characteristics. Every aspect of the building components and the buildings are highly engineered and automated. There may be a lot of material used, but most of the labor is either at a computer keyboard for manufacturing and shaping, or in the actual on-site assembly.

German prefab

German Prefab Wall

Wall section after machining, including routs for wiring and boxes

If this doesn’t seem practical, take into consideration the European attitude about building. They tend to look forward as far as they can look back, and that is a very long ways, to be sure. When you are planning a building in terms of centuries, lots of things that would otherwise seem overdone or wasteful, make sense in that context. While the volume of wood is high, they are wasting nearly nothing by using lowgrade wood for the inner cores of the elements. They’ve essentially turned pulpwood into core-wood, which seems like a pretty good upgrade, given the comparative lives of paper and homes.

When I later visited Hans Möst’s company, he showed me another method that is also all-wood construction. When they build Passive House homes,they use a wall system comprised of an inner and outer wood structure filled with wood fiber. That’s right…wood fiber. It’s a product that can come as loose fill, or dense-packed as a board product to be appliedoutside walls or roof systems for additional insulation in the same waythat we typically use foam insulation products here. Of course, this product isn’t available in the U.S. so we have a disadvantage here as well. I tell you, these guys cheat!

Thick wall
Wall thickness is about 18 in.; Wood is used for both structure and insulation.

Laminated structural wood has a built-in wood fiber thermal break. It also comes in 40 ft. lengths.

Hundegger milling machine
It is typical for even small builders to have nice shops and automated equipment. The joinery machine in this photo came from Hans Hundegger’s company. He was also onthe bike ride, but of course he cheats by living at the base of the Alps and riding up those mountains on a regular basis. Not fair!

Report from our Homebuilding Future

I’ve been traveling in Germany and Austria thispast week. I’m on one of my regular “study” trips overseas trying to get a view of the future of American homebuilding. When we come to our senses–and I have undying optimism that we will—we’ll finally have the humility to learn something from the societies and people who set betterstandards for housing quality. In homebuilding, America is perhaps ten years behind many other countries in process sophistication, and a complete paradigm shift behind in product quality. I’m here to see wherewe’ll eventually be when we wake up and catch up.

Here in the towns and villages at the base of the Alps, buildings aren’teven remarkably old at 300 years because there are so many remaining that are 400 and 500 years old, still standing erect and beautiful and in continuing use for shops, restaurants and residences. The European builders’ advantage comes from this tradition, this long history of building craft development. The bar was set very high, a very long time ago. In this setting, it would be seen as a bad investment for both the individual and the country to build to a lower standard today than they did yesterday.

In this part of the world, “green building” isn’t a marketing gambit; it’s the only way to build; it’s the ante into the game. As in the U.S.,competition among builders can be fierce, but here it begins with a commitment to build durable, energy-efficient homes using sustainable materials and practices. Here, you don’t have to teach people that we live in a finite world anymore than you would have tell them that homes should be built to keep out the wind, rain and cold. Consumers demand homebuilding to be just as much about husbanding resources as it is about the fundamentals of shelter. Builders compete on how well they make buildings in the right way; then price.

In this part of the world, the quality emphasis in homebuilding is aboutthe core building (structure, insulation, siding and roofing), not the amenities, appliances, and superficial finishes. Good quality isn’t freeand people are willing to spend what is necessary to get quality where it matters. It is common for the core building to consume more than 50% of the total building budget, where the standard American home often is built on a budget that allocated only 20-25% for the same core structureand insulation. In effect, we have decided that what matters most is the stuff that lasts the least long. We pour most of the budget into theshorter term aspects of the building, like fixtures, appliances and surface finishes. Much of it won’t even last the length of the mortgage.But here in Europe, a new home is often spare, as the owners typically choose to get a good building over fine finishes, knowing they can eventually get the things they want. Priorities and patience are cultural keys to better building.

In this part of the world, “know how” in building means education, training, apprenticeship, discipline and certification. One gains the right to be a builder the old fashioned way: you earn it through education and training that often lasts more than ten years. People herechoose the path of the building trades because there is pride in a profession that is committed to making a positive and long-lasting contribution to society. The opposite is true too. I have found it depressing to see homebuilding crews in America populated by workers whodon’t know and don’t care and weren’t hired for their skills and attitude, but for their wage scale. This is the basis for the compound stupidity of American homebuilding: start with cheap materials, then uselow-skilled and wholly untrained labor to shape them into a building. With that formula, we get what we deserve. The European standard, on theother hand, comes from a cycle of quality that expects the best from well-trained workers who are given great tools and entrusted with the very best of building materials. Funny how simple it is!

In this part of the world, technology and homebuilding aren’t mutually exclusive terms. As one builder said to me yesterday, “we no longer build like the holy Joseph, but he would be proud of what we do.” Craftsmanship doesn’t require regression and isn’t defined by a slow pace. Good builders have always been able to look both backward and forward, knowing what to take, what to leave behind, and continually finding ways to improve. Tradition demands excellence, not the exclusionof technology. Here is where I come to find software, advanced machinery, clever tools and better fasteners. We are grabbing whatever we can to make better buildings, built more efficiently. We have learnedthat technology stretches, rather than diminishes the skills of the tradespeople. In addition to all the traditional skills the European craftspeople are required to learn, they are required to become facile with computers, automated machinery, and a barrage of newly developed materials. It’s the way of the contemporary building crafts and leads tobetter, more sustainable jobs.

As a result of our company’s connection to Europe (including my many treks over here), our software comes from Switzerland, our two large CNCmachines are German, and our processes would be far more familiar to a European builder than our colleagues in America. Over the last twenty years, we have also been able to hire numerous young interns and apprentices from the trade schools and training programs in Germany, Switzerland and France. As a part of their education, they are able to stay with us for up to a year, almost always resulting in a mutually beneficial exchange.

The criticism of European homebuilding is that it’s more expensive, resulting in less homeownership. It’s true. But given the incredible difference in quality, it’s quite impressive that the cost difference isn’t greater. And given how poorly built and disposable the average American home often is, one has to wonder if giving people the opportunity to own such poorly built structures is in their best interest–or ours. From my current perspective sitting on a plaza outside a 600 year old cathedral, having dinner at a restaurant housed in a magnificent 400 year old building that also has 15 occupied apartments in the upper floors, it just seems wrong.

But I see a better future coming.