Friday, March 4, 2011

A Different Outlook

Josef Mayr is a long-time friend, an Austrian, and one of the owners of BuildSense. I was set up on a blind date with Josef's sister, Christina, an au pair in Oak Park, Illinois, when I was 19.  Through Christina, I became fast friends with Josef. There is a lot more to this story but I'll save that for another time. I just wanted to introduce Josef. For now, jump forward a few decades…

When Josef and I toured housing component prefabricators and CNC wood cutting equipment makers in Bavaria and Austria a few years ago, the thing that I remembered most clearly is European's reaction to prefabricated housing.  Instead of the perception that you most often see in America, which is: "I don't want a poor quality tin-can trailer, " Europeans will say: "oh my, they are expensive but that is one nice house." Okay, it was actually some other variation of "oh, my," possibly not appropriate for a family-friendly blog. After visiting four different companies and several completed projects, I understood why. The houses delivered through this process are so well built, so carefully detailed, so comfortable and efficient, and so focused on the long term that they are completely unlike 98% of the best housing in the States.

The concept of flipping a house is fairly alien to Austrians and Germans as is the idea of a starter house, the next one, and the next one. The best translation of the "ownership" of Josef's family farm (in Mutters, outside Innsbruck) is that the farm and surrounding forest owns the family, rather than the other way around. Permanence, durability, and stewardship figure prominently into the equation.  Their family house is few hundred years old.  They store apples and farm supplies in the old house after they built an adjacent new home (in the 60's).  Multiple generations of the family live in the house.  Josef and his sister built their houses on family land. Josef's brother will have the family house. They all plan to stay.

This mindset translates seamlessly to the building choices that they make.  They pick for comfort, for efficiency, and for very long-term returns and value. Too often, Americans consider only initial cost.  If we go beyond initial cost, we might consider just a few years of operating costs. The impact of the choices that these different mindsets yield is astonishing. This is the crux of the argument for (and against) building a quality house (or a sustainable house, which I understand is the same thing). Do we make a higher investment in our houses now and enjoy the benefit of comfort, health, low (or non-existent) energy bills, low water bills, and a healthy environment? Or is the investment in our home so transient and short-term that we build a barely acceptable code-standard house and pay significantly more over time to energy companies and health care providers? Unfortunately, our banking, real estate, building code, and appraisal stakeholders all support and perpetuate the initial-cost-focused model.

Two places stood out on this tour.  One, the Hundegger factory. They make CNC (computer numerically controlled) machines that mill wood, engineered lumber, and SIPS (structural insulated panel systems).  These machines figure prominently in the construction of prefabricated house components. They crank out prefabricated components with speed, precision, and controlled repeatability that a master crafts person cannot touch. Two, the Baufritz house factory. The wall panels, roof panels, floor panels, and house components that they produce on their immaculate and fully automated production lines are crafted like fine cabinetry. The Baufritz factory uses Hundegger equipment (as well as other brands) to create their products.

Take, for example, a Baufritz house wall section. The studs are dovetailed into the siding. This is unbelievable. There is simply no way to tear this house apart short of a bulldozer. Water, necessary for life and pleasant as it may be, can destroy a building faster than almost anything else. Note the flashing and details around the windows.  These details and level of care is a fine defense against the war that water will wage against your home.

Builders often order precut studs for standard wall heights. This saves time and is an efficient use of materials (they are ready to go and there is little waste in cut-offs). A CNC process follows that same course but exploits the benefits to the nth degree. Imagine sill plates notched to squarely accept wall studs only one way and in one place. Imagine every opening for conduit, ducts, or pipes precisely drilled and cut in a place that optimizes system performance and structural strength.  Imagine a system where everything fits precisely, plumb, and dead level. With precision and fit comes strength. With strength comes efficiency and a reduction in bulk materials.  With a reduction in bulk materials comes resource efficiency and reduced cost.

I walked away from this experience with two primary ideas. One, buildings are a product of our mindset and culture.  Two, we have in hand better ways to build houses than the 140 year old unmodified stick frame.

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