Never Too Late to Adapt

In an age of massive technological change on so many fronts, some things never change. High on the list is how homes are built in the US, and for that matter, most of the world. And not even the massive destruction of buildings, primarily habitation, by natural forces – wind, water, fire and earthquakes – seems to cause much change. Haiti’s predicament is a prime example. Not even an earthquake, that caused around 200,000 deaths and destroyed around 160,000 houses, has resulted in any meaningful change in building practices. This would seem inexplicable, since the vast majority of those that perished did so precisely because of the way houses were constructed. Even Haiti’s extreme poverty is not sufficient to explain why nothing has changed.

The answer, I strongly believe, and after many years of observation, is not so much money, as it is the inculcated nature of the construction industry itself. In Haiti, this is how we do it – weak concrete, weak concrete blocks, and some undersized reinforcing steel – and that’s that. Changes for the better cannot be forced. It requires creative leadership on multiple fronts. In the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake, leadership was lacking both internally and externally (the numerous agencies and NGO’s that arrived to help). Be sure to visit our Haiti page.

To fully answer why improvement in building practices is so stubborn would require a major dissertation on culture, economics and home building technology, or the lack of it. Not a project I plan to undertake, at least not here. Except I do believe that conformity and convention lie at the heart of the matter.

There is, of course, nothing necessarily wrong with conformity and convention, EXCEPT when doing things the same old way results in annual legacies of destruction and death. Certainly last year, with hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the case is made. And if this year’s hurricanes, Florence and Michael, don’t spark transformational change, I fear nothing will.

Ironically, the United States is not much different than Haiti with regards to conformity and convention. This is how we do it – concrete slab or stem wall with platform wood framing above – and that’s pretty much that. The wood products industry, and 30,000 plus home builders in the United States, have locked in a formula, beginning well over 100 years ago, making it nearly impossible for new methods to be introduced. Long live wood for building, but just not everywhere. Another long story there.

The approach I have taken began framing spec houses in the summers to help pay for college. Beginning way back then, with nail and hammer, I thought there must be a better way (since that time, pneumatic nail guns appeared; a very welcome change). In any case, it all seemed much too laborious and slow. Eventually I decided an integration of the best in wood framing, with influence from ancient Japanese post-and-beam methods, but adding steel elements, could hold the answer.

Steel is much stronger than wood. We know that. But it is not fully appreciated, certainly when it comes to homebuilding. The volume of steel to achieve required strength is markedly less than the equivalent amount of wood. So much so, that any concerns about the cost of steel v. wood disappears. The issue becomes how best to CONNECT interchangeable (like a 2×4) steel elements. Tackling this detailing problem, connections, gave rise to the HabiTek System.

After much trial and error, I invented the HabiTek System. It all started out as a passion for making home building simpler and faster. As I became familiar with steel, the idea of applying the system – and its strong bones – in places that suffer from natural disasters began to make real sense. The input of several structural engineers I engaged in the early stages of developing the system helped immensely in creating a truly resilient framework. Our early-adopters, the folks who participated in our Beta phase, including the Adapt-1, and who now reside in HabiTek steel framed houses, have also been essential to bringing the company to where commercial quantity production can now commence.

The HabiTek System is modular in a broad sense. It starts at 4 inches, then one foot, four feet, eight feet, arriving at that magical number 12 feet (I’ll resist making a case for the English system vs. metric here, except to say metric is ideal for building cars and space ships). I’m convinced the HabiTek System will make an almost seamless transition with conventional wood frame construction in the US. There is nothing about HabiTek’s steel framing system that any open minded carpenter, and craft persons of all kinds, cannot appreciate and embrace. Indeed, this is what has made the 20+ years working on the problem so engaging.

In the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, I’ve detected a newfound determination by the powers-that-be to adapt. Brock Long, FEMA Administrator, never misses the opportunity to emphasize that “housing is the biggest issue.” Carmen Yulin Cruz, Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, speaks to the need for “transformational” solutions (to their housing crisis), and speaks often to the importance of resiliency and sustainability. These are hopeful signs. In the Caribbean alone, the Enterprise Community Partners, an affordable housing advocate, has reported that around 860,000 houses were either badly damaged or destroyed in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Dominica, and Barbuda, a number beyond comprehension. Add the thousands of houses damaged or destroyed by Harvey in and around Houston, and more recently in North Carolina and the Florida Panhandle. One can only hope change is coming soon. The time for adaptation to global warming enhanced storms has come, and it should start with resilient steel framed housing.

HabiTek hopes to be part of a pro-active solution in the aftermath of these storms. Our fabricators here in the Spokane area are “shovel-ready”, and we are prepared to deliver. Ultimately, it will be necessary to set-up an operation in, say Puerto Rico, to fabricate our components there to supply the region with houses that will survive future disasters, and last for 100 years, or more. This could take place under licensing and/or franchise agreement.

The Caribbean really has no choice but to dispose of conformity and convention – or, as we say, time to think out-of-the-box. It has been reported that Puerto Rico has a severe shortage of qualified construction workers. By implementing HabiTek’s approach, just about any able-bodied person can help assemble a HabiTek chassis. As I’ve written before, grab a wrench for a day of high-tech barn-raising.

The Foundation for Puerto Rico, now active in recovery, hits the nail-on-the-head with their motto, “THERE IS NO FUTURE REBUILDING THE PAST”. I think rebuilding a new future applies to more than building technology. It also means creating a company that can genuinely work for the benefit of the community. As we ramp-up in the coming months, we will also be investigating corporate structures, such as a cooperative, not unlike REI. Check back in to see how we plan to achieve a corporate structure as transformative as our home building technology.

And keep a look out for a crowdfunding campaign we plan to launch. It should surprise no one that obstacles to introducing new building technology in the home building industry are formidable. If enough people demand safer homes, and help HabiTek grow, change will happen and we will adapt.