Something to blog about

I’ve been doing lots of plotting, and not much blogging these past few months. It’s been an intense period for our company and for me. Innumerable discussions, many different analyses, a series of company and group meetings and lots of personal dialog, have now led to a redirection and reconfiguration of our organization.

Our motivation for change did not come from intractable problems or economic difficulties. In fact, 2009 was a remarkable year for us. At the end of 2008, we decided to “opt out” of the Great Recession. Our strategy was to extend deeper into our projects and further into the homebuilding market by utilizing our broad capabilities instead of beingrestricted to our more narrowly defining specialties. Simply put, if there was work to be done, we wanted to do it ourselves if our quality and efficiency would advance the goals of the project. As a result, we not only survived, but thrived in the most difficult economic conditionsfor builders in at least 70 years.

We also learned something incredibly valuable. What we can do is much bigger, broader and better than what we historically have done. We’re much more capable than we previously knew. Ironically, the robust (and often “irrationally exuberant”) economy of the past 15 or so years kept us in a more limited definition of ourselves and our skills. It wasthe challenge of the recession that caused us to discover our deeper abilities.

I’m not suggesting we’re exceptional or special in this regard. I assumeour situation over the past 18 months has not been different than what millions of people and thousands of companies experienced. Hard times tend to tear away the superficial protective veneers–the cozy routines of habit and history–and enforce the otherwise difficult choice most people have in regards to change. We know from nature that adaptation issynonymous with survival, yet it seems we’re still as a species wired to resist–until “change or die” is the well understood option.

Up until then there was no alternative to it: our company resisted change too. But when the time for choice came, it was like choosing between a dark alley with a dead end and a scary bridge with sunny prospects on the other side. We stampeded toward the untested bridge. But it was fear of the alley, not the courage to cross over that took usto the other side.

Now here we are, not even able to remember the reasons for our resistance not so many months ago. Here we are, doing things we didn’t know we could do; getting more done in less time, with fewer people; improving quality and reducing cost. It turns out we were already proficient at what is most important in homebuilding: craftsmanship, building science, construction efficiency, communication, leadership, teamwork, and a culture of service. And so here we are, coming off a strong year in a weak economy, realizing we have come through this whilestill being more organized for our past than our future. It had come time to change that too.

Two quotes accurately bracket our intentions in the reconfiguration. Henry David Thoreau wisely pointed out that, “In the long run men hit only what they aim at.” And celebrated 19th century Architect Daniel Burnham suggested that such an aim should be high. “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”

And so we are specifically reorganized to aggressively refine and perfect our Open-Built approach to design and building, and in doing this, we seek not only our own success, but to also have a significant influence on the way homes are built throughout the country. We aim to make a difference in this world.

Our commitment to our vision now has the full force of a new strategic plan and a reconfigured organization that will keep us on the path of achieving certain audacious objectives. Our competition is the status quo; the barriers are mostly in the accepted equipment, materials, process and technology of the conventional building systems, and the conventional wisdoms that feed its negative constructs and paralyzing paradigms.

We want to further improve, implement and demonstrate a better way to design and build. The traditional methods have run their course. Conventional building systems and processes are now an impediment to giving the American homeowner the quality they deserve in return for their investment. This calculation isn’t just about money. In fact, the real issue is that homes don’t provide security and comfort on a more visceral, emotional level because usually there’s nothing of real quality in the home beyond the superficial amenities and the homeowners’own stuff. In the underlying building shell and structure, the Americanstandard is no more than a miner’s shack. By building its antithesis for the same dollars, we intend to make a mockery of this practice and product.

We are sure that homebuilding can and should be executed in a way that can give the consumer the same efficiencies and defect-free outcome as Toyota cars and Maytag appliances. Today’s assumption is that homes are so complex and unique that they stand apart from every other type of product where quality is rising and costs are falling. The conventional assumption is that homes are best made with the same attitude and approach that has been used for millenniums. It’s perceived to be somehow better because it’s so archaic. It’s the 21st century. Weintend to prove that a high quality home can be constructed on site in less than 20 days, while also improving its beauty, durability, functionality and sustainability. Yesterday’s processes need to be displaced, even while the 2000 year-old Vitruvian principles remain.

We reject the notion that those who can’t afford to pay more therefore must suffer the fate of also being subjected to the added cost of homes that have the built-in financial burden of poor energy performance. It’sa cynical irony that only the wealthy can afford homes that are energy efficient. We intend to innovate systems and develop strategies to give those who need the energy savings the most the opportunity to live in high performance, sustainable, healthy living environments.

Good design and aesthetic delight are essential attributes in quality building. Architects have abandoned residential design because their process is too time consuming and expensive for the average home. We believe we can use technology in both software and hardware to allow architects to apply their training and skills in a way that’s affordableand sustainable. The key to homebuilding efficiency and affordability shouldn’t be to first have to accept the bland and repetitious. Most of the homes built today are constructed by production builders with mind-numbing repetition; most of the rest are built without the benefit of good architectural designers. The bleak residential landscape is all the evidence one needs that architecture is nearly dead in the homebuilding sector. We can do better and we intend to prove it.

I’ve been on the same path to improve homebuilding for over 35 years. It’s been a stimulating journey, marked equally by exciting achievementsand humbling setbacks. In all, we’re well prepared for what’s next. We know what’s possible and we know what we’re up against. We know we can do it. It seems somehow appropriate that our renewed commitment and sharpened focus comes at the beginning of a new decade, in these very trying times. It seems like the appropriate moment to push the reboot button. It’s the right thing to do when the system is malfunctioning.

So I have something new to blog about. This will be my forum to report about our progress. I promise to tell you about our problems and difficulties as well as our successes. In return, I’m hoping to get yourideas and opinions. What we are attempting will be very far from easy. All the momentum of an entrenched industry–along with the consumer mindset that has learned to accept its fallacies and shortcomings as inherent to the product we call Home–is against us.

If you are willing, please pay attention and weigh in when you get a chance. We could use your help.


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