Friday, January 07, 2011

Letters from Sweden - The path lies in revising our roles

Scott, my partner is studying Swedish housing, posted a comment at the Green Building Advisor blog post on my look at Swedish walls. His comment was very thought provoking, so much so I thought it important to repost it here. It is all about how the roles required to build houses in Sweden are different than they are here. As such the expectations are different, and coming to grip with that will probably be more important than any of the hammers and nails involved in changing what we do. In the end buying a house in Sweden is more like buying a kitchen in the US.

I think that any benefits from the Swedish methods are going to be because guys like the ones reading this figure out how to make all this both profitable and beneficial to their lives - because it is good for customers, profits, and their own sense of enjoyment of work. There are some important cultural and trade practice issues. James mentions "replacing skilled labor" by the idea of ordering his walls ...

I wanted to comment about how I saw this kind of factory based building impact the lives of the people who build houses in Sweden, as far as I could tell from my time there.

The Swedes had managed to change the supply chain in light residential construction and consequently they changed the nature of the work involved in building a house.

The closest way I can describe it is to compare it to the work of cabinet installers in the USA. The builders in Sweden come to the job with the same level of "kit" to build a house that we would take to install a kitchen. It is not that cabinet installers in the USA are unskilled - they just need different skills than framers.

The builder I worked for would get calls from the factory to bid on the installation of a house, the rates of what was involved were more or less given and the factory was always looking at this as one in a series of jobs (ie everyone involved expects to work together again next week) so I think bidding really just meant agreeing to take the job, meeting the schedule and price on offer -factory was not competitive bidding so much as getting agreement to perform. The factory for its part was selling houses, so they were bringing the customers to the builder.

This was not unlike the way a kitchen design show room has a PM - who work with the customer order the job and see it into the hands of the installer, who is though not an employee often a trusted sub of the kitchen company.

In fact the way that a family would buy a house in Sweden, was a lot like the way a person in the USA would buy a kitchen. They would go to a "store" where "salespeople" would talk to them about the features of their products. In Stockholm there the house factories had all built an "expo" so the customers could see all their choices and what the various factories had on offer. The Swedish market is small and ultra competitive. They are very "customer centric" as a result of this.

The builder I worked for did a base line business in "installing houses", and then he did additions and remodels he had about 10 guys working for him, his remodeling work was exactly like they way we do it and he could and did build stick homes, but he did what I thought of as a "baseline" trade in working for the factory who was selling houses to customers to build "on their lots" - his crew would meet the factory trucks, the factory would send a guy and the truck driver who would work with the builders to get the house up and closed in. All the material that the "installer" would need was supplied by the factory. The effect of this was a massive elimination of PM responsibility on the part of the builder.

The role of "GC" therefore on a new build in Sweden is radically different. The only people who build houses they way we build houses are doing something for instance very fancy or that is outside of the what the factories think of as "housing".

The way you buy and build a house in Sweden has been rationalized away from our model (which we should be clear is looked up to world wide, and has given Americans a very high standard of housing because of our pioneering in our building systems think Chicago and the light wood frame in 18??) ... so I'm not in the "we suck at houses camp - I'm more in the how to we get better at houses camp). My view is that the Swedes took all our innovation and innovated it even more.

The effect of this on a "build" is that there are guys in offices, and there are guys on the tools, and the guys in the office are invested in the build in ways that lumber yards and our modular factories aren't - all because they have different conceptions of their jobs too.

There was a lot of "waiting" in a one off Swedish build. The work would happen in intense bursts, but there was very little wasted effort. Everyone would leave and do something else.

So my view is that the Swedish builders are different skilled, and I thought the life of the guys I worked with was good, they didn't grumble about the old days when they used to frame houses, if anything they seemed to like the fact that all the work they had to do was rationalized. There was this sense of efficiency, that is recognizable no matter our language. We all can tell when things are "flowing" or when we are working slow and wastefully or don't have the tool or material we need or have to go find out something or spend our time talking or arguing ... when the walls would arrive they were connecting them, and that took skill, just like when cabinets arrive in boxes to make them all look like a perfect fitted kitchen.

This whole system is much more "interdependent" than the "GC" model ... I think the biggest obstacle (if this offers some "green building benefit") is how we change our understanding or roles and habits (all of which are hard won and valuable to us and help us survive where we are) but also prevents change and evolution ... so this kind of discussion is really the way we have to go, a factory guy, a field guy an architect, have all got to be open to "new ways" ... the useful thing about the Swedish example is that if you are going to try something new, it helps to have an example so you aren't off in "prototype" land inventing the wheel

This is fully mature industry, full of normal people and real businesses in real competition working for real customers with the same dislike of paying too much as customers everywhere.

There aren't many of these "alternate realities" for us to learn from, partly because we Americans are playing at a very high level ... so most of the world looks up to us. There are only a few cultures, like the Nordics, who take our example and improve on it. that is what has happened here.

No comments:

Post a Comment