Why we should build our homes the way we build cars

Bensonwood factory
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter/ Bensonwood/ Unity Homes factory

It's almost 2018 and we are still building our homes like it's 1918. It's time to fix this.

It's hard, finding a good contractor. The Washington Post describes a certain Daniel W. Jamison, who ran out on a $41,000 renovation and was sued by the homeowner; instead of coming back and finishing the job, he hired a hit man to take out the homeowner.

Jamison agreed to pay $500 for the murder weapon and $10,000 for the killing and then falsely told the hit man that the homeowner had stacks of cash and Rolex watches in the house that the killer could keep after he committed the murder. All of this information is on video, because the hit man was actually a Fairfax County police officer.

That is more extreme than most contractor/client relationships, although I know many contractors who might have been tempted to resolve the issues this way and were more restrained. Part of the problem is that the entire process of construction is so messed up, and the product is so terrible, with everything being built out in the field by a pile of unrelated sub-trades.

Refabricating architecture© Refabricating Architecture

Years ago I heard Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake talk about how they were trying to change construction to where we build buildings more like cars; they questioned why one could drive a cheap Hyundai straight into a driving rain at 70 MPH and not get a drop of water inside, yet we have trouble building a house that can stand still in the rain and do the same. They note in their book Refabricating Architecture that the way we build has to change to be more like the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) who make cars:

Compared to the OEMs in the automotive world, building contractors, as well as architects and product engineers, are still in the nineteenth century. Buildings continue to be assembled largely piece by piece in the field, in much the same way as the car was put together before the advent of mass production. Where is the evolution in building construction? Why is it that large parts of our buildings are not assembled as fully integrated major components, off site, in controlled factory conditions? Were this the norm rather than the exception, the building contractor, like the OEM, would become an assembler, liberated to concentrate on quality and speed.

Writing behind the paywall in Green Building Advisor Allison Bailes III looks at the problem of how the contracting business works. "When you see how homes are built, it's kind of amazing that they turn out as well as they do." One of the biggest problems is that the contractor in charge doesn't have the kind of control that the car manufacturer does. Instead, she deals with:

A whole lot of independent companies working on each project — builder, framer, plumber, electrician, HVAC contractor, drywall installer, painter, cabinet installer, and on and on. Each company comes in with a greater or lesser degree of expertise in their own field but usually without a more general understanding of building science. And to make it worse, each company may have several crews. You might work with one of their crews and get them up to speed on one project and then get a different crew on the next project.

There also are issues of different codes, degrees of code enforcement, and what he calls "the buy-in problem" where trades just don't take building performance seriously. Like Kieran Timberlake (and me), Bailes thinks prefabrication is one of the answers.

Factory-built housing has a bad name in this country because people automatically think of mobile home parks. But factory-built housing includes a lot more than trailers. There are some really good modular builders and panelized construction companies who can reduce a lot of the problems of building on-site.

Greening HomesGreening Homes/ A drive-by energy audit/via

Homeowners and home buyers can also demand proof that the work was done to an appropriate standard with blower tests and thermographic evidence. But then there has to be an agreed standard; I was recently sent this photo of a pair of semi-detached houses in Toronto, renovated simultaneously by two different contractors; the one on the left was completed by the green-obsessed contractor who did my house and the one on the right by another. You can just see by what we used to call a "drive-by energy audit," that one cared about insulation and the other didn't, by the amount of snow and the icicles. As Alex Wilson of Building Green once described doing a drive-by, before thermographic cameras were as cheap as they are now:

The principle is pretty simple: the less insulation in a house attic or at the rafters, the more heat escapes through the roof. That escaping heat melts the snow. As I'm driving into town, if I see that most of the nearly two feet of snow we received is still sitting there and the depth even, I can be pretty sure I'm looking at a well-insulated and tight house.

Every car design is tested for crash-worthiness and fuel efficiency, and the standards have improved dramatically; imagine if home performance had increased as much as car performance in 50 years. If car manufacturers lie and cheat and get caught, it costs them a lot of money. In buildings, there isn't even a universal standard; there is the base building code, and then there are who knows how many optional standards. The homeowner on the right didn't care, or didn't ask, or didn't want to pay for high performance. Most don't. But the purchasers of cars don't have a choice about buying seat belts or airbags; they are the law. The purchasers of Volkswagen diesels expected a certain level of performance and didn't get it; they got new cars.

It's almost 2018!

It's time to get serious about building our homes more like cars, with more off-site construction, higher performance and universal minimum standards, better buy-in from trades, better testing, and better warranties.

Really, that should be our New Year's resolution: to build like it's 2018 and not 1918.

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