Credit: Stephen Voss
Tedd Benson is the founder of Bensonwood Homes and Unity Homes, both based in Walpole, N.H., and the Vision 2020 co-chair for Building Design + Performance.
If we fully accepted the implications of failing to stem global warming, Architecture 2030’s 2030 Challenge wouldn’t be a challenge at all. We currently have proven antidotes to our energy-guzzling, heavy-carbon footprint ailments, and we have the knowledge and capability to apply the solutions on a broad scale. What is holding us back are belief and conviction.
We have a wide gap between our capabilities and our actions, and our home building industry is strangely bipolar: We are both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As good Dr. Jekyll, we have focused on reducing—and even eliminating—the energy waste of our buildings. We’ve spent the last couple of decades doing an enormous amount of research to prove the practical viability of a new class of resource-efficient homes that are durable, healthy, and net-energy positive. But as bad Mr. Hyde, we continue to build as if we have learned nothing, and as if there is no necessity to alter our environmentally destructive course. The disaggregation and misalignment of the home building industry is compounded by a pervasive societal disengagement from the natural systems of which we’re a part, and on which we depend. This hitch in our industry’s genetic code is preventing faster adoption of readily available solutions that would reduce the vast, unnecessary energy waste from our nation’s new homes.
The industry doesn’t have high-performance home building as a priority because it has never had its hand forced by consumers. And customers aren’t demanding it because they’ve never experienced it.
Therefore, while the industry–consumer relationship should be symbiotic, here it is often mutually destructive instead. Both the home building industry and its consumers bought heavily into fraudulent subprime mortgage promises in the middle 2000s. As an outcome, a glut of terrible homes was produced which helped contribute to a global economic collapse. Given any kind of similar caustic intervention, no other form of manufacturing—be it auto, computer, or appliance—would have so quickly and completely self destructed against its own self-interest and that of its customers. We need to seriously consider the implication of the debacle we brought upon ourselves.
But our mistakes can also lead us forward. If we’re serious about making the kind of homes that are both good for people and good for the planet, we need to do nothing less than replace our industry’s DNA. All that we are, and all that we do, needs to be different. For the environmental strategy that is necessary for our survival, we’ll need to think, act, and organize differently. We’ll need to change our core values. And we’ll need to be bold enough to adopt a new operating system. In other words, we need to act audaciously and disruptively. There is no time to waste.
For an industry genetic code makeover, here are a few suggestions:Embrace the Vitruvian Imperative
When a patient asks a doctor for a medicine that the doctor knows will make him ill, the practitioner doesn’t accede to those wishes. He knows full well that the patient isn’t always right. The Hippocratic Oath that the doctor took also disallows it. Our work is the same. The consumer isn’t always right, and our industry needs its own oath to ensure that we’re doing our best to serve consumer desires while not delivering products that are unhealthy, environmentally destructive, or unsustainable.
Many in the industry know about the seeds of such an oath already: the Vitruvian Triad. Asserted by Vitruvius some 2,000 years ago, the three elements of the triad are beauty, strength, and function (or venustas, firmitas, and utilitas). Those values are all equally important and should not be sacrificed one for the other. At my company, Bensonwood Homes, we have added parsus (frugality) to reflect the need for energy efficiency and affordability. We call it the Vitruvian Imperative.
If the Vitruvian Imperative were our oath, we’d have better homes. So much of what is currently built is about maximizing size and compromising beauty, durability, and frugality. Instead, we need proud industry standards to serve the public and the environment better. What we no longer need are insufficient code minimums, that are full of loopholes, and poor enforcement, both of which become standard industry compromises masquerading as value.
Adjust Dimensional Coordination and Interface Standards
Due to a lack of dimensional standards, our industry is forced to produce every new building as a prototype. Some of our industry’s biggest companies are producing relatively stupid commodities only because we don’t have a simple modular coordination system. It’s a shame. Anyone who has played with LEGOs knows that infinite possibilities arise from only a few basic standards. And it works. For instance, since we have only a few accepted dimensional variations for interior doors, designers can set door sizes long before the door itself is chosen. This brings greater choice, higher quality, and reduced cost to that one element. The cabinetmaking industry has also standardized enough to make standard doors, drawers, and other cabinet parts. If housing had a similar set of standards that applied to everything (coarser for structure; finer for space plan; and even finer for systems and finishes), then waste could be nearly eliminated, manufacturers could add greater value, and every new home wouldn’t have to begin as a pile of raw materials dropped off in the dirt.
Our company has been using dimensional standards for almost 20 years. It has yielded a vast library of elements and patterns that are now products—which are, in turn, made up of subset products, or smaller parts and elements. I can easily envision a new world of building in which manufacturers make more complete elements that can be rapidly assembled into larger assemblies. These can lead to complete building systems that are quickly montaged on site with zero waste and low defect rates. The low-cost, high-performance building of the future will arrive when we boldly adopt an operating system with this kind of game-changing impact.
Restore the Noble Profession
Homes are important. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, our industry may primarily shape the homes, but then they, in turn, shape people’s lives and a critical aspect of our civilization. We have been wrong to think that we can do this job properly with unskilled (and often uncivilized) labor. Good-quality, energy-efficient homes involve craftsmanship, building science, materials knowledge, mechanical systems proficiency, and a complete dedication to eliminating waste in the building process. We need desperately to bring education, training, and pride back to our industry.
We need established educational curriculums, training programs, certifications, and much higher standards—and then we need to offer better jobs. How will we pay for it? With less hierarchy and fewer warranty problems. When done well, home building is a service to civilization. We need to make sure that it rises once again to be known as one of our society’s noble professions.
In practice and product, we must commit to do what we have proven achievable. We can meet the 2030 Challenge ahead of schedule, while reasserting the promise that is inherent in the very idea of “home”: that it can be beautiful, enduring, and generally the healthiest and safest place that its owners can be.