The Harvard Home Builder Study

It’s a few years old, but I am just catching up with the 2012 book Bigger Isn't Necessarily Better: Lessons from the Harvard Home Builder Study, by Frederick Abernathy, Kermit Baker, Kent Colton, and David Weil. For those interested in the US home building industry, it’s a vital resource with significant findings.

The authors surveyed 88 home builders in 2005. This was the peak, when home construction “surged” from 1.2 million units/year in 2000 to 1.7 million in 2005. In other words, the industry had just grown by 142% in six years! It was “wildly profitable” to be a large home builder.

What did they expect? The authors figured that, during this boom time, large US home builders would take advantage of their scale to innovate and become more efficient. This is a basic principle of capitalism. Think of Ford in the 1920s, or Walmart in the 1990s. So large home builders should have improved their construction management processes, and developed better supply chains, and adopted new technologies, both in the field and the office.

What did they find? The title is the conclusion: Bigger Isn't Necessarily Better. The large home builders simply did not pursue innovation, and “did not outperform their smaller competitors” based on key measures such as construction costs, construction project time, and customer satisfaction (p. 29).

“For many of the nation’s largest builders, efficiency was simply not a priority” (p. 69).

In construction management, for example, large home builders should have consolidated their subcontractor base in order to drive efficiencies. But “no major home builder experimented with even small modifications that might have improved construction cost or cycle-time performance” (p. 57). Likewise, contrary to expectations, few large home builders developed specialized software for cost estimating (p. 84). The phrase “entrenched practices” is used frequently.

In other words, if you’ve ever encountered a home builder justifying a poor practice by saying “we've always done it that way,” it may be comforting to know that Harvard research says, in essence, that this attitude is characteristic of the whole industry. The culture of home building is deeply conservative, resistant to innovation. This is a fundamental problem.

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You might wonder: Since the study was conducted in 2005, and the bubble burst in 2007–09, hasn’t the home building industry likely changed quite a bit? While there is some evidence of innovation (or at least, interest in ‘disruption’), I’d argue that the salient features of the home building industry—decentralization and low-productivity*—haven’t changed much since 2005. Additionally, most home builders, large and small, are more properly characterized as land developers because they make more money on the land than on the houses. This too is a fundamental problem.

These are the largest (publicly-traded) home builders in the US, by market cap, today:

Homebuilder chart.jpg

That kind of capital could drive tremendous innovation, if the right kind of leadership existed.


*Construction productivity has been flat for decades, according to a 2015 McKinsey article. The National Society of Professional Engineers said the same in 2014 (link to pdf).

Brutalism and Solar

Brutalism and Solar Architecture—two architectural movements which co-existed in the 1970s and 80s—are not like peas & carrots.  You don't necessarily think of them as complementary.

Yet behold the Central United Methodist Church, built in Milwaukee in 1982.  It was designed by William Wenzler and Associates.  The bell tower has tall south-facing windows to accommodate a solar heating system which was to be installed behind them.  A solar campanile!  Also, south-facing rooms designed for passive solar heating, with proper shading.  Plus earth berms. 

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The Next Solar Decathlon

 2009 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Friday, Oct. 09, 2009. (Photo by Stefano Paltera/US Dept. of Energy Solar Decathlon)

2009 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Friday, Oct. 09, 2009. (Photo by Stefano Paltera/US Dept. of Energy Solar Decathlon)

The U.S. Department of Energy has changed its plans for the next Solar Decathlon.  Previously the event was planned for 2019 in Denver. It was held in 2017 in Denver.

Instead the next iteration will occur in 2019–2020, in a new format.  It will include 3 tracks:

  • Design-only (the former Race to Zero competition)

  • Build Local (a new option)

  • Build National (similar to previous Solar Decathlons)

The Build National contest will return to its original home at the National Mall in Washington, DC; it will occur in June/July 2020.  The plan is to have a more modest Decathlon, with only 6 teams competing, after an earlier Design Challenge.  I don't like the idea of holding the contest in summer in Washington, when heating will not be needed.  As I wrote here, passive solar heating ought to be central to the challenge and to the definition of a 'solar house' and a 'net-zero' house.  

The Build Local contest will offer 6 other schools the opportunity "to build a house to meet a local need."  I interpret this to mean these structures can be permanently site-built, rather than temporary and transportable, and that students might build affordable housing in their local community.  If so, this is an excellent new direction for the Decathlon (and a suggestion I offered in 2015).

For both the Build National and Build Local programs, there will be a stage 1 Design Challenge.  Winners who advance to stage 2 (construction) will be awarded seed funds.  The purpose of this format is to "reduce university logistics burden."  As I have reported (in The Solar House, and here and here), some schools participating in previous Decathlons have found it to be a very expensive endeavor, and some have dropped out.  While it's not clear how the seed funds will compare to the total costs, it's nice to know that the Decathlon organizers are aware of the burden to schools.

More information from the Department of Energy is here.

Architectural Forms

 Magazine Restaurant, London, by Zaha Hadid Architects. Photo © Anthony Denzer

Magazine Restaurant, London, by Zaha Hadid Architects. Photo © Anthony Denzer

A big subject.  Form-making is central to the task of architecture.  Patrik Schumacher likes to say that the architect's chief competence is form-making, and that architects are in charge of the form of the built environment.  

New forms can be thrilling.  We live in an exciting time of folds, blobs, twists, swoops, and swirls.  However, form-making is only a small part of the enterprise of architecture, and I would submit there are more important architectural competencies which can be crowded out by excessive formal invention.  Plus, architecture is already rich with suitable forms, and these forms are supported by a common culture of building with well-established methods and techniques.

So why invent new architectural forms?  Here are some good (altruistic) reasons.

To improve the lives of people...

...by improving social conditions.  Examples of new forms which accomplish this persuasively are quite few.  I would mention van Eyck's Amsterdam Orphanage and Aalto's Baker House.  This objective is fraught with past failures, especially in the realm of public housing/council housing, suggesting that form alone is not likely to solve social problems.
...by addressing health/safety/welfare issues.  Again I think there are few examples.  (Comment if you have nominations!)  Stanley Tigerman's now-forgotten school for the blind was a touchstone when I was a student, but was it a new form?  Hopkins' Portcullis House is all about clean air and shows it.
...by accommodating a new function.  Saarinen's Dulles Airport was the first to fully reimagine, in new form, the young activity of commercial flight.  How about the Nakagin Capsule Tower?  Also, I'd nominate the wonderful Alpine House by WilkinsonEyre (pictured below), so different from the conservatory tradition.  This justification is rarer than you'd think, because new forms stemming from new functions tend to evolve slowly, or to be borrowed.  
...by creating a new aesthetic experience.  Architects and students use this justification a lot I think.  To be persuasive, the outcome must be transcendent.  To fall short is to come across as self-indulgent.  My favorites are Scharoun's Berlin Philharmonie and Utzon's Bagsværd Church.

To improve the quality of the built environment... 

...by addressing environmental concerns.  A great example is the Halley VI British Antarctic Research Station by Hugh Broughton.  So is the Gamble house.  Today, managing energy use and comfort is a most compelling reason to create new form. 
...by making construction more efficient or more durable.  Gaudi is the exemplar of ingenious formal invention for construction efficiency, though it should be remembered nobody else followed his methods of building based on hanging chain models.  Darkhorse: Downland Gridshell by Cullinan Studio.
...by transforming the urban condition or the landscape.  Snøhetta's Norwegian Opera and Ballet is a new form which accomplishes this.  In past times, Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott building.
...by creating new iconography for a place.  Classic examples are Sydney Opera House, Eiffel Tower.  This imperative often begins with the client or the opportunity, rather than the designer.  The tail wags the dog in a sense.  When the dog wags the tail (Pereira's Transamerica Pyramid) it's especially noteworthy.

 Alpine House at Kew Gardens, by WilkinsonEyre. Photo © Anthony Denzer

Alpine House at Kew Gardens, by WilkinsonEyre. Photo © Anthony Denzer

Dubious answers to the question: why invent new architectural forms?  These are either dispositional or simply selfish.

To express...

...a spectacle.  Essentially to attract attention for the client or the architect or the place.  I was hesitant to name any names here, but why not.  MVRDV.
...an anti-establishment message.  Here I think of Eisenman, Libeskind, Tschumi.  In my opinion this approach leads to closed styles which don't age well.
...a utopian vision.  Maybe you'd classify this as altruistic with the group above.  Not me (Solarpunk notwithstanding).

To innovate... 

...for innovation's sake.  Often new generative tools are involved, and often the construction must be figured out later by someone else.  Charles Eames stated the counterargument: "Innovate as a last resort." 

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Why avoid inventing new forms?  In my view there are some good reasons to work with the vocabulary of existing forms. 

First, to improve or refine existing forms.  One of my favorite figures from architectural history, Irving Gill, worked principally with Spanish-style forms, and advanced them through abstraction and simplification.  For any architect, the objective of working with established forms may be to 'fit in', to operate within the established common culture, in a thoughtful manner.  Similarly, there is plenty of creative room to use existing forms in an inventive manner, through juxtaposition, pastiche, or other methods of transformation.  Postmodernist projects like Stirling's Neue Staatsgalerie jump to mind, but I believe this practice is widespread within all styles and periods.  Richard Rogers' Millennium Dome was a clever adaption of the (lost) forms of the Skylon and the Dome of Discovery from the 1951 Festival of London. 

Second, the Eames position, if there is no compelling need or justification.  In the New Yorker cartoon of a Frank Gehry-style doghouse, the subtext is that there's no reason for a doghouse to be shaped differently.  Where formal invention is not a priority, other forms of refinement and technical excellence can come to the fore—see Mies, and Swedish homebuilders.  Herzog & DeMeuron's early work was famously "starved" in terms of form but focused on the "cosmetic" invention of surface effects (Kipnis).

Third, to ensure the success of the project by avoiding costs, risks.  Probably most projects in the built environment, certainly most housing and corporate architecture, follow this logic.  This is more pragmatic than altruistic, but there is something to be said for earnest professional responsibility. 

And there are certainly poor reasons to work with existing forms, stemming from lazy work habits or lazy thinking.  It can be lazy to reflexively use forms which 'fit in' and reinforce the established common culture, without a clear and sincere commitment to its virtues, like making a craftsman bungalow without a porch.

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What's the conclusion?  As a teacher, I don't mind if students create new forms, and I don't mind if they work with existing forms.  But they must know why they're doing what they're doing.  Integrity means clarity of reasoning, and the reasons must not be selfish or lazy.  For professionals too, I think the danger is in self-deception.  I sense that, for many new forms, the creators would claim to improve the quality of the built environment, when in fact the true motivation is to attract attention.

Tools: The Globoscope

Say you want to evaluate a piece of land for its solar potential.  Maybe it's surrounded by buildings or trees.  You can use a device called the Solar Pathfinder (see below).  It essentially reflects the surrounding features to create a map of the sky—a hemispherical projection—corresponding to all the hours of the year.

I believe the Solar Pathfinder is a direct descendant of the Globoscope, an instrument created by Swedish architect Gunnar Pleijel in 1947.  Pleijel described the Globoscope in 1963 as "a paraboloidal mirror with a vertical axis of revolution, which is photographed from above through a lens."  The "little-known device" was resurrected by Penn State researchers in a 1977 paper in Solar Energy.

Pages from The globoscope.jpg