Full-Scale Lego Building

Last week our company announced two big advances in our products and services: the 3BMatrix™and the OBPlusWall™.They both will help us achieve our on-going, decades-old goal to build high quality, high performance homes at more affordable prices.

For this post, I’ll try to explain why we developed the 3BMatrixsystem and how how it works.

With credit to Vitruvius’sfamous triad*, I believe that good architecture (beauty) is an essential ingredient in quality (functional and durable) homebuilding. As a builder, my criticism of the typical American home has usually been focused on the low standard of construction. But I’m equally critical of the low standard of home design that permeates our landscape. Bad design–really the absence of design in most cases–is just as responsible for turning the American Dream into a nearly disposable commodity.

In fact, the early demise of far too-many homes probably stems more often from bad design than from bad building. In production home communities, mind-numbing repetition is compounded by a complete lack of site responsiveness or vernacular expression. With only a few designs to deploy, the home designs that are conceived to work for everybody are visually exciting to nobody. When things in these kinds of homes start to go bad or require change, their occupants too often don’t see them as worth maintaining or renovating. The homeowners’ abandonment of care quickly turns houses into shacks and entire neighborhoods into slums. Therefore, a key aspect of sustainable, higher performance homebuilding is that the buildings themselves must have character enough to be seen as worth caring for..

This requirement demands that good, individual design somehow must become a part of the process by which homes are conceived and built. There must be a better way for production builders. They are still building most of America’s homes. Unfortunately.

There also needs to be a better way for people who are seeking to build anew home on their own, but don’t have the budget to hire an architect. The typical solution involves the search for the perfect plan by sifting through the many thousands available through home plan websites, books and magazines. (one company claims to offer 27,500 house plans). If the perfect plan isn’t found, it is usually possible to get some customization through the plan company or by simply asking the local builder to make the changes, if they are minor. This process obviously works for many people or there wouldn’t be so many plan companies competing for the business.

There’s a flaw in both of these approaches: there are no generic people.The needs, tastes, and desires of those who plan to build a new home have infinite variation. When meeting that individual level of customization is added to the just-as-infinite varying opportunities and challenges posed by the building site climate, orientation, terrain, and regional building context considerations, it becomes obvious why it is usually difficult to find a preconceived plan that is perfectly suited to the homeowners and their situation.

Matrix componentsThe new Bensonwood Building Block (3B) Matrix is a part of an alternative solution to the problem. Instead of focusing entirely on an individual house plan, we have created a group of building blocks with pre-conceived connections and engineering that literally have thousands of configuration possibilities. Our full library has many hundreds of building blocks, but for this beta launch, we have designed three separate series, each with around 25 or 30 building blocks. While we will ultimately be offering at least four “standard” plans in each series, the intent of each matrix is to have wide-ranging capacity to meet client needs, while also connecting the building specifically to the site conditions.

Like Legos, the system is based on an underlying 3D grid. All the building blocks fit with particular connection rules and a software automation process, allowing the addition or subtraction of blocks or their elements to be efficient, while retaining the appropriate construction information.

Each matrix family is planned for a wide range of preconceived outcomes,as well as possibilities we’re sure we haven’t considered.

All the families start with a base volume and can grow along their volume or adjacent to their volume. Each matrix series also has selected pieces, components or elements that can enhance the space or the building character.
Each matrix series has its own capacities and limitations.
Every component, element and block** (see definitions, below) have “fixed and variable” options, allowing for customization of things like window locations, roof overhangs, material choices, finishes, etc.
The 3BMatrix library is paralleled with a library of floor plan patterns, living spaces and living space combinations. The floor plan library has both individual rooms and combinations of rooms or living areas that make up larger spaces. We have kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms,master bedroom suites, entry patterns, open living area patterns, etc. The design grid ensures that the 3BMatrix and the floor plan configurations and details are compatible.

The process of shaping the floor plans from the library and combining building blocks allows us to find solutions to even very unique situations quickly. After assembling the plans and blocks, we still may need to customize the floor plan details somewhat, but we will likely have reduced that effort to certain areas and details. It saves a lot of time.

Instead of giving them individual names, we named each matrix series after villages. It was a way to suggest how much variation in shape, style and appearance we know can be derived from the chosen building blocks and our plan library. Other matrix series will be suggested in the future. We decided that three was enough for now. They are Hartland,Greenfieldand Fairview.If we were Toyota (without the defects!), Hartland would be our Camry; Greenfield our Corolla and Fairview our Prius.

Hartland is based on a two story volume; the others are a single story. The smallest plan in the Fairview group would be under 700 square feet, while the largest in Hartland could easily be over 4000 square feet. In general, style is flexible in all three series. By changing windows, roof overhangs, trim treatments, etc., all three can lean toward contemporary or be developed into conventional styles.

The Fairview is somewhat radical in its design approach and is all aboutenergy efficiency. The idea in the design layout is to separate the utility functions from the living areas, creating a band of heavily focused mechanical areas on the north side and opening up the primary living areas to bigger volumes, light and sun on the south facing side. It also creates a broad roof expanse for potential PV area and solar hot water. The design concept was derived from our Unity House, which achieved Net-Zero performance and a LEED platinum certification. All the homes in our Fairview series are capable of performing those feats again. Like the Prius, the Fairview has unique aspects and features for the benefit of increasing energy performance. It gives up formality and space in certain areas in exchange.

In a way, revealing the 3BMatrix is a little like revealing the “man behind the curtain.” We’ve been designing on our grid for at least 15 years, which has given us time to build up huge libraries of both 2D and 3D blocks, elements, rooms and patterns. By distilling them into more discreet groups, we hope to increase the ease of building up customized whole house solutions, while also decreasing the cost of both designing and building them.

As we try to perfect this system and process, we have future goals.

First, it would be great if we could open the system up for use and interaction by other designers or even the clients themselves. We are working with a CAD software developer on the idea, but it is far from being fluid and practical at this point. The real efficiency isn’t just in creating the design, but in automatically having all of the construction information right down to the trim details, and then being able to directly relay that information to CNC equipment for cutting and shaping. That’s the way it works within our in-house program, but the software aspect alone is too big and complex to share easily.

Second, we’d like to be working with other builders, architects and suppliers to spread and share the development of building blocks and plan details within a grid and matrix concept. We’d welcome the partnerships. It would be a dream if even production builders could achieve their building efficiencies without resorting to the endless duplication of dumbed-down designs that compromise performance. This is the type of system and technology that could be a real solution for improving the average American Home.

*Among many other things, Vitruvius is famous for his assertion that a building must exhibit three essential qualities: firmitas, utilitas, venustas — that is, durable, useful, and beautiful.

**A Few Definitions:

Off-site fabrication: We cut, shape and assemble construction components, elements, blocks and modules in controlled conditions away from the building site. It’s not “pre” anything. It’s just fabricated. We don’t say that windows, cabinets and equipment are prefabricated. They are just fabricated, or manufactured, as more complete products.

Component: parts, pieces and various materials are aggregated into assemblies or products that have added value, but are still substantially incomplete. A window is a component, as is a framed wall or floor section.

Element: When several components and additional parts and pieces are assembled together to make the construction unit more complete. A wall with windows, insulation and siding installed is an element as is a closed roof or floor assembly. Elements are typically panels.

Building block: When the elements are assembled into a three dimensional building assembly. A dormer is a small building block.An entire building bay, extension, porch or room addition are larger building blocks.

Module: A building block with finishes and mechanical systems completed and installed off-site

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