Monthly Archives: February 2010

Sustainability requires Disentanglement

There’s nothing more important in homebuilding than finding the solution to making sustainable, affordable, high performance homes the norm. If we’re ever going to get there, we need to recognize the inherent tensions and conflicts, and then overcome those obstacles by developing new strategies in design, building and financing. To put it simply, if we really want a better result, we need to do a whole lot of things differently.

These following two slides are intended to illustrate how some of those differences might be put in perspective in order to implement new approaches. In the first one, you will see the Open Building concept, with the separation of the shell (Green) from the Infill (Blue).

The shell has its own separated layers that also must be taken into account, but the important consideration is that its performance requirements must be matched by longevity. Better buildings consume more energy and resources in their construction and therefore need a longer period to account for the embodied energy and resource use. I see no reason why 250 years shouldn’t be a normal goal and expectation for the average home. Right here in New England, we have tens of thousands of examples that prove such a time period is reasonable.

The shell has public aspects that are often controlled by public or community agencies for multiple reasons. Its energy consumption has public and environmental impacts, the structural qualities are a matter of public safety (need we be reminded by the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile?), and even exterior style and material selections are often controlled to maintain local character.

The infill elements should be much more controllable by the occupants during the multi-generational life span of the building. Because of this, the most important short and long term consideration becomes two-fold:

1. That the infill layers should be executed in such a way to give the occupants the flexibility to fit the interior out to suit their needs and desires, both initially and through the decades and centuries.
2. That the initial infill needs don’t unduly compromise the quality of the shell.

OB LayersThat leads to the second slide.

Here you will see some of the Miyasaka-san’s ideas as referenced in my earlier post. Again, green is the shell; blue is the infill. The entire length of the bar is the whole cost of the completed building with all its amenities and finishes–that is, fully “tricked out.”

The shell should have very little variation in quality and therefore its relative requirements and budget can’t easily be compromised. These needs ought to be supported by tax incentives and a completely different financing program.
Parts of Europe have long had these kinds of incentive programs. My friend Stephen Kendall, who is a leading scholar and advocate of Open Building strategies, pointed out to me that Japan now has a “long building life” program to develop residential buildings with a 200 year standard. The new law was passed in the Upper House of the Japanese Parliament in October 2008. According to Minami Kazunobu of the Shibaura Institute of Technology, the incentive works this way:

“The client can apply for tax reductions and can receive subsidies by designing and building a house which complies with the new law and technical guidelines. Specific incentive measures have been implemented. 1) When a person has purchased or constructed and occupied long life-span superior housing from 2009 to 2011, the person is exempt from income tax up to a maximum value of 6 million yen over a ten year period according to the balance of the person’s housing loan at the end of each year. 2) When a person has purchased or constructed and occupied long life-span superior housing, the person receives an income tax exemption equal to 10% of the construction cost which exceeds that of ordinary housing (limited to 10 million yen). 3) The fixed asset tax on long life-span superior housing is reduced by 1/2 for two years longer than in the case of ordinary housing.”

high performance strategyIt can be done!

Along with a new approach to achieve the “long life” shell, we need a new approach to develop the systems and approaches for the ever-changing infill elements in order to accommodate the lives of the generations of inhabitants. It’s on this side of the bar where budget flexibility and inhabitant participation are critical. The blue side should not require expensive specialists. Instead DIY systems, para-professional designers and installers, and new infill system companies should control the fast-churn side of the bar. I also envision an active second-hand market for infill elements, including modular partitions and other demountable elements.

If we’re going to achieve any of this, disentanglement must be one of the New House Rules. The shell (theater) must be disentangled from the infill (stage); the structure must be disentangled from the space plan; the space plan must be disentangled from the mechanical systems; the mechanical systems must be disentangled from each other; and each of newly disentangled layer must have access and demountability in relation to its expected life span or need for change.

–21st century homes should be durable to the tune of multiple centuries.
–21st century homes should not chew up energy; they should require little and make what they need.
–21st century homes should adapt to the lives of their occupants, continuously.

Such homes are possible right now.

Our own Open-Builtsystems, strategies and philosophy are intended to lead the way and prove that the future of homebuilding can be brought to the present.

Theater and Stage #2

I used the Theater and Stage analogy at last year’s Greenbuild conference in Phoenix. It struck a chord with reporter and author, Katherine Salant, who was in attendance. Subsequently, she wrote an articlefor the Washington Post about the principle of separating the shellfrom the infill and how it plays out in our work. We used the following graphic to illustrate the point:

High Performance House

The tie-in to high performance building is the simple notion that better structural and thermal performance requires more resources and more labor, which in turn begs for more longevity to justify the materials and time invested. Two other considerations are derived from that understanding: 1. The internal short-term elements (stage) need to be less intertwined and hard-connected to the long-term shell components (theater) and 2. infill needs to be subservient to the shell requirements in the original construction.

I grew up in Colorado Springs, which is fairly close to Cripple Creek, a1890’s mining town that was empty and crumbled into ruin by 1950. My dad used to take us up to the old ghost town where we’d explore the mine and building remains. It was there that I first saw poor construction standards. The miners’ shacks and the storefront buildings were little more than wooden tents, made with skinny framing members and board sheathing. These buildings were all temporary props, with no intention whatsoever to make permanent structure. At least they knew it, and planned it that way.

In my later youth, I found myself working in tract developments outside of Colorado Springs. First, I worked in the ground, laying sewer and water pipes, but eventually I joined a framing crew and helped to build the homes. I soon realized that the construction standard wasn’t a whole lot different than the dilapidated miners’ shacks of Cripple Creek. In some ways, these buildings were worse than the miners’ shacks because the truth wasn’t known to the owners and their homes often had very serious inherent deficiencies and workmanship flaws. With the siding on the outside and the drywall nicely painted on the inside, no one knew. Well, actually there were a few who knew–the oft-repeated job-site saying when something wasn’t right was, “You can’t see it from my house.”

Here’s an important architectural vocabulary distinction: Buildings should have good facades, but they shouldn’t BE facades. Illusions can happen on the Stage, but they shouldn’t happen on the Theater structure itself. Our commitment to building high quality, high performance buildings requires us to first of all insure the integrity of the shell. Then the play can go on, decade after decade and generation after generation, celebrating both beauty that is static and life that is forever dynamic.

Theater and Stage

I’ve been having an email conversation with my friend and colleague, Kimihiro Miyasaka. Mr. Miyasaka is an architect based in Toyko. I’ve known him for many years and have been enriched by our positive relationship in numerous ways including cross-cultural learning and collaboration. Additionally, we have various interests and priorities in common, such as the importance of good design, a fondness for wood and timber construction, the celebration of craftsmanship, and the pressing need for both more sustainable homes and homebuilding processes.

Lately, Miyasaka and I have been lamenting our difficulty in communicating the importance of Open Building ideas to the future of homebuilding. We think the name itself is inadequate and somehow undersells its significance. Open Building theory attempts to explain the rather subtle fact that buildings are fundamentally different than their contents and are only temporally defined by their interior amenities and finishes. Yet these short term elements have somehow become entangled in our consciousness and in the buildings themselves. A house is at least two things, not one. All the pieces, parts, layers and equipment add up to a long-term feature on the landscape in which the dynamic churn of daily lives plays out.

Two things. They both matter, but at different time scales and for different reasons:

One is the house; the other personalizes it and makes it your home.

One is the theater; the other is the stage where your play is set.

One should resist change; the other should invite it.

One should be designed for permanence and sustainability; the other should be designed for multiple possibilities and flexibility.

One is your actual shelter; the other allows the shelter to function for your needs and desires.

One has public implications; the other is purely private.

One ought to be worthy of long financing; elements of the other should be paid for immediately or shortly.

The purpose of the theater is what happens on the stage, but it wouldn’t be smart to compromise the quality of the theater for the needs of a play. The theater is in service to the stage, but the stage is therefore subservient to the theater.

This sort of paradoxical relationship is the nut of Open Building. It isn’t sexy. It’s even kind of boring. But understanding it and applying its truth to the process of design and construction could transform the industry and the very idea of home. At the very least, accepting its reality, and applying principles and priorities that arise from that understanding could make houses and homes much better places for less cost.

My childhood home, which we affectionately call “2320,” is a good example of a typical older home living out its long-term potential and its short-term continual change. It’s now about 120 years old and is in its 4th incarnation. It started out as a single family home, became a rooming house, and then was broken into three different apartments. My father saved it from the wrecking ball and had it moved a mile up the street. With that, it was occupied by 13 rowdy Bensons and it stayed in our family for about 40 years. When we sold it, the buyer bought it with a sub-prime mortgage and never even made the first payment. Instead the“owner” stripped out the millwork,, sold it on EBay, and otherwise did his/her best to destroy the place. But a new buyer, like my dad, recognized its beauty and value and has completely restored it for her family and her at-home business. It’s hard to imagine why 2320 won’t be useful and no doubt made over a few more times in next 120 years.

The theater lives on; the stage is constantly changing. Unfortunately, 2320 wasn’t built for the inevitable churn and change that’s happened over the years. Each of the incarnations has been difficult and expensive, or has caused the inhabitants to adapt to the building in uncomfortable ways.

The challenge Miyasaka and I have been noodling about is two-fold: How do we get the theater to support the requirements of the stage and, on the other hand, how do we ensure that the plays on the stage don’t cause people to forget the needs of the theater. Being the diligent and thoughtful man that he is, Miyasaka came up with a plan to help put the priorities in the right place. Notice that the brown refers to the “Support” (Theater) considerations, while the blue refers to the “Infill” (Stage) considerations.

Miyasaka is showing that the budget for the Support/Theater is fixed, while the budget for the Infill/Stage is variable. By this chart, he is proposing to his clients different strategies for affecting the completeness or the level of finish for the Infill for the purpose of making the underlying house construction all that it should be. He offers no strategy to go the other way, which I think is brilliant.

Miyasaka's chart

Builder Curriculum

A few weeks ago, I sat in on a training session with our Building Systems team about window installation in high performance buildings. It took over two hours to cover the theory, define the proper materials, explain the procedure, and do a demonstration. Watching and listening brought to mind some questions I was asking myself. Could I remember the first time I learned how to install, seal and flash windows? Who taught me? How long did it take? I couldn’t come up with the answers. It was too long ago.

I do remember installing many windows and doors, but most of what comes back was the focus on getting the units plumb and square and ensuring that they were operating properly. There was plenty of concern about the best way to shape and install the head flashing and getting the felt paper “splines” attached in the right way, but that was essentially the extent of it in those early days. There was no discussion about air pressure differentials and moisture diffusion issues. The only drop of water we worried about was the one from outside, from the sky above. And we didn’t want or expect an airtight seal. The house has to breathe, after all.

Over the ensuing years, energy costs and pollution effects have made it apparent that our buildings have needed to perform better. In pursuit of that, there’s been a several decades ante-raising game going on. Improved insulation in the walls led to more insulation in the ceiling or roof, and that led to more awareness of insulation around the foundation and beneath the slabs. Thermal breaks then became big issues,and building systems details were tweaked to overcome those situations.Improved insulation required more attention to vapor drive and dew points, and we learned that sealing leaks well requires that all leaks are sealed well. We learned that small defects in an otherwise good envelope can cause big problems, which brought on the use of special cameras and depressurization fans to find the pesky problem areas. But then, all of these envelope enhancements meant that indoor air quality couldn’t be taken for granted. The more we solved heat loss and moisture movement, the more we would need to control building respiration. It’s all pretty complicated and eventually led to a field of research and study called Building Science.

Of course, there has always been lots of science applied to structural and mechanical engineering and construction technology in buildings, but this thermal and moisture control branch is relatively young. It is also now the most important area for innovation in building products and process. The future of sustainable, high performance buildings as a standard consumer expectation is coming very quickly.

I learned some things I didn’t know during my attendance at our window installation training session. I suspect others did as well. Sealing against water and air requires more than common sense and it’s not at all easy. To get it right, education, training and an agreed upon team procedure are all essential.

What’s true of Building Science is also true of building crafts and trade skills. In our company, we don’t expect people to come in knowing how to properly sharpen chisels or plane blades. We use water stones and a procedure we learned from a Japanese temple builder. In his words, there are only two possibilities: “Sharp or no sharp;” in other words, the right way or the wrong way. To be efficient and effective, it is necessary to understand water stones and their proper use and care. Then you must know and follow a specific procedure. And when you have the information and know what to do, it still takes diligence and practice to become competent.

In my opinion, a good builder education curriculum ought to encompass the extremes of these two examples. We need to have the knowledge and skills of the past and the emerging science and technology of our times.If our knowledge and skills can bridge between the values of the past and rising standards we expect for the future, there’s some hope that the buildings we construct might do the same.

The truth is that being a builder today is more difficult and demanding than ever. We somehow need to invoke the wisdom of Vitruvius, revive the craft skills of our forefathers, while also performing a kind of physics sorcery as we turn normal looking buildings into weather-and-energy-defying havens of comfort. It’s a tall order. It’s also a good challenge and often fun. There’s a whole lot to learn.

In the month of January, we also had seminars and training sessions on these subjects:
Sizing timbers
Deck Layout
Moisture management (mostly focused on walls)

Taken from the lists we’ve gathered from different parts of the company,here are some other courses and training sessions, just to give an ideaof the range of topics:

Basic Frame and Panel Compound Layout
LEAN concepts
Nails, screws and bolts, oh my
Math 101 (Lots of Pythagoras)
Intro to wood technology
Understanding Shear Walls
Envelope performance criteria
Ventilation strategies
3D CAD model manipulation and reading
Framing Square basics
Crane signals and safety considerations
Passive solar strategies
Stair design
Open and closed stringer layout and cutting
Calculator Trigonometry
Door construction basics
Teamwork skills
Lighting basics
Insulating foundations and slabs
Clapboard and shingle siding
Tension joinery
Wood movement
Intro to HVAC

The list goes on. When we have revised curriculum completed, I’ll post it here for comment.


Builder Literacy

Working in Colorado tract home developments in my early years in homebuilding, it appeared the knowledge and skills to accomplish the tasks were coarse and optional. Cowboy brawn prevailed. Good framing carpenters wielded 32 ounce hammers and could drive a 16d nail in two blows. They’d run their circular saws without blade guards and sling them like machetes, dispensing with sawhorses, holding the “stick” with one hand and making the cut with the other. Cut lines and layout marks were approximate and indicated with fat pencil leads. Layout was +- 1/4 in. and the stuff we built easily lost another 1/4 in. It was all “closeenough,” or ” you can’t see it from my house.” We’d use 3,4,5 triangulation on decks, but walls would just be squared up with the sheathing. We mostly used trusses for roof framing, but when actual rafters needed to be cut, nobody on the site could do it. A friend of the boss would show up and make a template for our crew. All other roof work was figured out with strings and levels. From that distorted perspective, I had a low impression of the homebuilding trades. Given the pace and the standards, I took it to be a place where knowledge and safety considerations were a professional liability. Lots of fingers were missing.

Later, on the East Coast, I discovered there were still some craftsmen homebuilders, and that there was indeed such a thing as “builder literacy.” Meeting real craft builders solved the mystery for me. I grewup in an excellent 1895 home my dad saved from demolition by having it moved a mile up the street. I knew the guys I had previously worked withweren’t capable of the quality and precision I had experienced in that old home. I spent lots of time in the company of good construction and Ioften wondered what the guys were like who did the work. Who figured out how to frame up that complex roof? What tools were used to carve that mantle? Who turned those balusters, each one a little different? Would I get along with men like that? Would I want to be like them?

I still wasn’t sure about that yet, but I was very challenged, which wasenough at the time. For those guys, builder literacy had much to do with tools and technique. It turned out the framing square is a tool capable of providing answers to numerous complex geometric problems, from compound roof framing to spiral and elliptical stairs. How would you layout and cut a hip rafter for an octagon? The answer is on the framing square. They cared about keeping tools clean and sharp. They hadstones for chisels and plane blades, and special files for the handsaws. Their toolboxes were often examples of their best work.

Certain tasks were exemplars of skills. Stair construction was such a task, as was building up door jambs and sills from raw stock, setting hinges, hanging the door, and installing hardware. There were lots of hand tools required for these tasks. Proficiency and efficiency requiredan efficient process and a facile ability with basic tools. It was alsoexpected that good builders understood how to keep water away from the structure by using various overlapping wood strategies, metal flashing, and tar paper. Wood was very often used for the framing, siding, trim, flashing, and roof shingles. That was the case in the home I grew up in.I replaced the roof around 1990. The original wood shingle roof had lasted 95 years. Most of the original wood shingle siding is still on the house today.

How many carpenters and builders today have the knowledge and skills that were standard expectations of the trades before 1950? Who still knows how to use the framing square? How many carpenters can still hang adoor from raw stock and door slab? The answer is pretty obvious: very few tradespeople know about those those skills and that knowledge because they don’t need it and there’s no training system to provide them with the historic skills of their trade. Therefore people just learn what they know from the people on the building sites from people who learned what they know from people on the building sites. With less and less tradespeople fortunate enough to come into contact with people who have good information and good skills, the generation-to-generation chain of trades knowledge has more broken links than connected ones. Theconnection to the past is nearly gone.

Since the fuel crises of the 1970’s, there has been a scattered but deliberate development of the building knowledge and skills we will needfor the future of homebuilding. It got started in the early 1970’s and gathered momentum during the second energy crises and into the early 1980’s. Builders lost their focus again when the federal tax breaks and subsidies went away and fuel became cheap again in the mid-1980’s. By the 1990’s and into the 2000’s, the building community had mostly becomestupid, with no knowledge of the past or the future. The growth in housing starts far outpaced the ability of skilled workers to keep up with the production, which meant that unskilled workers had to be pressed into service and the builders themselves often weren’t builders at all, just project managers.

This, at the same time that consumers wanted their homes to be big, and gaudy with amenities.

With consumers willing to buy junk, the building community was more thanwilling to deliver it. What therefore happened for many years is now our shame and also the source of the current national financial debacle.It is one thing to have paid too much for a bar of gold; quite another to have not only overpaid, but to find out that that what you own is fool’s gold, all glitter with little substance.

So here we are. This is the worst slump in housing starts since WWII. Fuel costs are high again. Those with the need, means, and courage to build in these very challenging times are demanding value and high performance. If they wanted less, there’s much of that available for less money and hassle. Builders who are going to survive in these times need to perform at a very high level on every basis. Costs are expected to go down, quality has to go up. And quality not only means traditionalcraftsmanship, it also means high energy performance. In other words, builders now need many of the values, skills and knowledge of the past, along with all the building science progress of the present. Precision and craft in fit and finish still matter, but so does knowledge about moisture management, air quality, pressure balancing and all sorts of issues the master builders didn’t have to consider in earlier times.

Builder literacy is now being redefined. All of the sudden, consumers get it. They want the home of the future and they want it now. It has tobe affordable, super energy efficient, and still contain certain expected conveniences and amenities. The bad thing about the building recession is that so many people are out of work. The good thing is thatthe number of homes needing to be built is much more proportionate withthe available knowledge and skills. Those who are still in the trades are hitting on all cylinders, learning what they don’t know quickly and competing in an arena in which the bar is significantly higher.

In the midst of this, our company is in a good place. We’ve been very invested, all these years, in traditional building skills through timberframing. Its standards and demands were established many hundreds of years ago. But our company was also formed in the energy crisis yearsof the 70’s and we have been committed to energy efficiency and the development of better building systems for the past 35+ years. To keep up with these past and future challenges, we’ve been humbled on both sides. We still chase the temple and cathedral builders of 500 years agofor timberframe quality, and we are well aware that high performance inbuilding construction is not a destination, but a path.

We know what we know and we know what we can do better. That’s why we have always seen the need for both on-the-job training and classroom-oriented education. Moreover, we feel that builder training and education needs to be mandatory. Remember, the beginning of all literacy is self-awareness and humility. In his defining work, Walden,Thoreau quotes Confucius as saying:

“To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”

Learning only that is the very first requirement in Builder Literacy 101.