Transcript of Episode 21
David Supple: All right. I’m here with Mr. Ted Benson. Thank you very, very much for being on the show. This is the Design Build Show where we’re trying to educate folks on Design Build and very, very fortunate I think the world of this man … This man is pushing our whole industry forward and it’s known who this man is. Ted Benson, Bensonwood homes, Unity Homes, Tectonics. This guy has written several books. He came up from timber frame building. He is on record for the most valuable home ever built in the US in Nantucket, but at the same time this guy is … The part of the thing I think is incredible, you come from that, but then he’s seeing what needs to be done in this industry and he is pushing the industry forward to that, and thank you. I just want to thank you to start things out. It’s incredible.
Ted Benson: Well that’s a generous introduction. I’m not sure I deserve all of that.
David Supple: Well, you do. I think your legacy is going to grow over time because you are pushing the industry in the things you see and they’re implementing are incredible. So I wanted to just start briefly on your background. I got to know you from a talk you did a few years ago, and then what I was telling some colleagues, they’re like, “Oh yeah, I’ve read all this timber frame books.” So I picked one up in the intro or forward. You talk about how you came up as a carpenter and then you started to … you learned the craft of timber frame and then you started to do it. How did you get into the design build from that?
Ted Benson: Well, I started out doing a pretty conventional carpenter in Southern Colorado. I learned then that I liked the process of building, but I also didn’t like some of what got built. The standards of building are not particularly high and the track building, and the new parts of the suburban areas.
David Supple: You told story they were doing like drywalls, plywood. It’s plywood drywalls.
Ted Benson: Yeah. A lot of shortcuts, and bad attitudes on the part of the carpenters and the builders. They weren’t elevated in their thinking and they certainly were elevated in their knowledge about building. So that might’ve been an indictment on them, but I can actually take it even as a young carpenter as an indictment of the industry that something was missing, otherwise, these people would be more motivated and more interested in bringing the best quality, but later I had, out here on the East Coast as I was intending to work my way through school, I had the opportunity to work with some really good crafts and builders and kind of saw the other end of the spectrum. These were the types of builders who would do everything from the foundation to the furniture. That was a real almost designed build as you were very connected to the architects who did the one who did the design part, but relied on them for the craft part. So that was kind of a design build model as architects kind of knew where the skills were, and where the knowledge was, and they didn’t kind of over draw.
David Supple: They would take it to like schematic design.
Ted Benson: Yeah.
David Supple: And then they would work together a lot on projects, right?
Ted Benson: Yeah.
David Supple: So it was like a design-build team.
Ted Benson: Yes. One of those early projects. I know that there was this common reference to what we call WOOJ, which was W-O-O-J.
David Supple: On the plants.
Ted Benson: On the plants were notations all over, WOOJ, with an arrow to it. Basically it meant, workout on job. That was kind of funding at the time for me, but it was really the architect relying on the skills of the craftsman.
David Supple: Right. But it was set up that way. It wasn’t like … I think folks like verify and feel that can be joked as like, “Oh, he’s just not taking any responsibility.” But that’s how it was set up as a design-build team. The architect there was just acknowledging the craftsmen more or less, right?
Ted Benson: Exactly. They were more connected. You hear stories about Frank Lloyd Wright work, that was same that he really relied on the skills of good craftsmen to execute his projects. It wasn’t the brilliance of the architect by himself, he was an architect together with the skills of people who were actually doing the work. So later as I got into timber framing and really wanted to revive the craft of timber framing as a way to elevate the process and embed craftsmanship with the building product, I realized-
David Supple: Why didn’t you see that timber and timber framing specifically?
Ted Benson: Because what I learned about timber framing here on the East Coast, it really didn’t exist.
David Supple: Okay. So that was the change you saw?
Ted Benson: Yeah.
David Supple: Okay. And I saw the old buildings in Concord, Massachusetts, in Lexington, in Colorado, and then here in New Hampshire, Walpole, and Keen, and Westmoreland and Halstead, this area that we live in right here. That place Concord, New Hampshire or Concord, Massachusetts and Walpole, New Hampshire as examples, are still defined by the timber frame buildings that are really iconic and are still used, and preserved, and loved, and actually define the architecture of and town who say, “Well, that’s pretty sustainable.” So my question as I was discovering this was why did it die? What’s wrong with it? And the answer was, it’s too labor intensive and requires too much skill. But as a young idealistic carpenter in my 20s, I was perfect. I said, “Well, but this is the 1970s, and we have new technology, and we have tools, and we have equipment. Why couldn’t we apply that and make it efficient?” Honestly everybody I talked to, the architects and the builders, thought it couldn’t be done and that was a fool’s errand. But I’m pretty stubborn and decided to try it.
David Supple: As I got into it and got my first opportunities to execute timber frames, one of the things I discovered is that I actually needed an architect to design the building.
David Supple: Why is that?
Ted Benson: Because there was no architect out there designing buildings to be timber frames. And if I wanted to build them, which I wanted to do-
David Supple: The clients wnated to see a design, right?
Ted Benson: Yeah, they wanted to see the design, I had to become an architect.
David Supple: So it’s just out of necessity.
Ted Benson: Just out of necessity. Surely, I was not an architect, but I relied on my knowledge of the old buildings and how they were designed. I used architects I knew from the area to kind of oversee my work, but by being pretty conservative in my designs, I could do it. I could actually design and build. So that defined our early days, I designed many buildings back then. But pretty soon, I knew I needed the skills of an architect. So in the mid 1980s, we hired an architect-
David Supple: You replaced yourself.
Ted Benson: I replaced myself with somebody better.
David Supple: Yeah. That’s really good.
Ted Benson: That’s another story of the company. Then the same thing with a structural engineer. A timber frame building is really engineered timber structure. So I also realized that we needed engineering skills and staff, and so the architect and the engineer were among our first hires on the professional side.
Ted Benson: So knowing that I needed to tell on the engineering and knowing that I needed help with architecture, we became a design-build firm out of necessity. If we’re going to refine the craft, we had to have those skills in house.
David Supple: So you’ve really been designed build since you started out of the practical, just necessity of being able to do what you wanted to do, and then you started to bring on others within the team for almost 40 years ago.
Ted Benson: Yeah.
David Supple: Architecture engineers separate, you stopped doing the work at some point, all the time in the field, I’d imagine.
Ted Benson: Right. And so all of those stories are finding people better than I was, but also becoming knowledgeable enough about that sector of the work to be able to kind of lift the company and design the company.
David Supple: Yeah, right. You designed and build your company.
Ted Benson: Yeah, exactly.
David Supple: I want to get some things out. We are just start a little ahead of time and these guy is saw ahead that he doesn’t think what design-build so much because it’s inherent in the significance of that. It doesn’t really matter, he’s going for a product. The product this guy’s going for right now is really to … He’s up here on this high level of trying to push the industry forward. I want to give this judge juxtaposition here of two things you mentioned to me. You said about from just conversations with architects, you said about 20 to 30% of the buildings they designed to get built.
Ted Benson: Yeah.
David Supple: Maybe it’s less, maybe it’s more.
Ted Benson: Yeah, maybe it’s less, maybe it’s more, but-
David Supple: But compare that to you.
Ted Benson: In conversations is with a lot of architects which you understand is that their fees are based on the design side. That’s really where their profession is embedded and not necessarily on the build. That’s not a necessary outcome, and there are many reasons why projects get derailed. Maybe the design didn’t work out, maybe it didn’t get permitted. The usual cases that it’s over budget and it doesn’t get built for one reason or another. So I’ve heard from architects that 30% might be a pretty good number for the numbers of designs that actually get built.
David Supple: Conversely, what’s yours?
Ted Benson: Ours is way above 90% yeah.
David Supple: Why is that?
Ted Benson: For the simple reason that in our design build structure here, we need the outcome to be a build, we need to satisfy the client on the quality of the design and also meeting their budget.
David Supple: That’s your problem, you need to build the building.
Ted Benson: We need a building.
David Supple: It’s not a design.
Ted Benson: … as an outcome. In fact, in our early era, we gave them a design because all we really wanted was the build side. So we did work on the front end to do the schematic design and then when we signed a contract for the build, we already had a sense of meeting the budget and we designed … we signed the build contract and that’s where we’d actually do the DDNC under the build contract-
David Supple: Yeah, makes sense.
Ted Benson: … and then turn that into build. But we had to meet the budget and we had to set as far as their designed curriculum.
David Supple: Yeah. So you have these architects who are designers, that’s their profession. The profession of an architect is that of a designer now, but they’re also … you’re on the cutting edge of technology, prefabrication, sustainable green design and build, and so are these architects. That’s where in academia, that’s where that stuff is taught, but on the builder side conversely, you mentioned that the real … the most resistance to this improvement on a way … better way to build this building science technology are the builders, right?
Ted Benson: Yeah.
David Supple: What do you see there?
Ted Benson: The building profession unfortunately is a little bit stuck in the past and it has to do with a few things. Number one, the industry is extremely fragmented. The builders I told you that I worked with who did everything from foundation to furniture, now it’s 25 [inaudible 00:14:43], and they don’t even talk to each other in the process. So if you are going to change something dramatically about the typical build process, how do you communicate with all those different entities that this is a different thing, this is a different process, this is a different product that you want to do for them. So the industry is really resistant to change simply by structure, simply-
David Supple: The fragmentation of it.
Ted Benson: I think it’s also really important to understand that, a successful design-build culture depends on mutual respect. So in our structure here where we have architects, and engineers, and project managers, and administration, kind of a professional side and we have woodworkers and building systems experts, and building scientists and the people who actually execute the work. The mutual respect is embedded in that process.
David Supple: Why is that?
Ted Benson: Because the architects also understand that the people executing the work are saving the day so to speak. They’re actually going to make it happen.
David Supple: They’re helping them. They have a component which they’re bringing to the table that they don’t necessarily have and conversely, the same thing the other way around.
Ted Benson: So an architect can be telling a client, “We can do this, whatever that complex, difficult, finished detail might be.” And it’s true, not because he can do it, because we can do it.
David Supple: That’s powerful.
Ted Benson: It’s really powerful. So the respect that the people, the woodworkers and the building systems people actually building the structure for the architects is there too. They need them in that creativity on that design side and that design execution, but the professionals need the execution on the craft side. That’s a critical part.
David Supple: It is. And it’s different than what folks have come to know as the traditional separate set up where it’s separated, because that breeds more of instead of this team ship and respect, it breeds more adversarial relationship because they’re not our team. It is the client’s hiring one and then another separate and if there’s any discrepancies, only the greats and I think you’ve experienced this. There are those architects and those builders who are so … they just want the product and so they know they need to collaborate, but it’s not set up that way.
Ted Benson: No, it’s not set up that way. Little funny thing to point out, I’m a carpenter, at least I still think of myself in my fond self analysis. I hope I’m still an architect … a carpenter, and we have really good craftsmen in this company and really skilled talented craftsmen at all levels. I will point out to them that the architects aspire to be carpenters more than the carpenters aspire be architects. Because they can see the joy of the craft and the self fulfillment of having spent a day doing something and looking at it, and architects need that too.
David Supple: Yeah totally. I mean, that’s sets my background. I had a void for that and I had to fill that.
Ted Benson: But I don’t see the carpenters actually aspiring to be architects.
David Supple: But I think also because they do have the opportunity to design some stuff. You did it in-
Ted Benson: In details.
David Supple: Even within your own system, you mentioned that you have a plan and probably even though it starts with the architect engineer or probably 50 people in your company touch it and have no impact on that.
Ted Benson: And have a lot of control over actually what happened. So I think the closer you are to the work, honestly the more satisfaction you get from the work. So I think that’s why architects like to be close to the work. They’re drawing all day and creating ideas. They can actually go to the shop and see it happening and take at least vicarious pleasure from it and occasionally actually get to the site and help with the assembly and installation.
David Supple: So let’s talk about that because as technology advances, I just told Mr. Benson’s pre-fabrication shop is incredible, but the lines between design and construction started to block and as technology advances, that’s going to continue. I mentioned to Mr. Peter Gluck that [inaudible 00:21:13] tours the country speaks to a lot of architects and encourages them to get into design-build. What I’ve observed is a resistance to that. They don’t take the guy’s advice as much as they should necessarily. But you have developed a system that is a solution for … Can you talk about that because it goes back to this point of the architects are the ones who are most primed to be able to do this.
Ted Benson: Well, I do think that there’s a solution for the industry in technology, that in … with software that’s connected to manufacturing components, architects can connect to that technology through the software and therefore the building systems, whether they’re structural systems, or finish, or mechanical systems that are embedded in the software, and almost without realizing it, they are a part of a design-build process when they do that because-
David Supple: Because of the nature of the software?
Ted Benson: Because of the nature of the software and because of the necessity that if the process is going to be efficient, the systems have to be embedded in the software, and it’s harder for an architect to recreate the systems that are going to be manufactured. They can tell our craftsperson on the site this time I’m going to do it this way, the next time I’m going to do it that way. But we’re using software as a kind of a front-end method for more efficient, higher quality building. A lot of the solutions are in the software, and the software has the intelligence of the craftsman built into it.
David Supple: It’s all worked out into that.
Ted Benson: Yeah.
David Supple: So those components are within that software so it can be designed with those in mind.
Ted Benson: Exactly. So we actually work now with a lot of architects who are not a part of our company.
David Supple: Okay. Through tectonics?
Ted Benson: Through Tectonics and Bensonwood.
David Supple: And Bensonwood. Okay.
Ted Benson: They are actually a part of a design-build process because we are determining building systems and the finish details that we’re going to execute. It’s their design, it’s our building systems that makes it design-build. They’re telling us what the design criteria need to be, we’re telling them what the building system solution will be to fulfill that design criteria. So that’s very much the way things work in the house. Because of that, the architects that tend to work with us come back, do their job, got a little
David Supple: Then how has that project executed? That they designed using your components … I mean, do you-
Ted Benson: Who is the builder?
David Supple: Yeah. How is it executed?
Ted Benson: So several different ways, but if we had done, for instance, the shell and the millwork, then there’s an architect, then there’s us doing a scope of work and there might be a local builder. It’s kind of a triumph for that.
David Supple: But the architect in that setup is able to really be the design builder. You enable, you’re empowering an architect to go beyond the typical, “Okay. I’m done.” Or this person is now responsible to be able to see it through.
Ted Benson: Exactly. The same thing happens too, because that architect is telling their client we can execute this on time, on budget, and the, we that they’re referring to is, us and them. So we became a design-build entity and they knew that we could execute the quality, and the time, and the budget that they … we’re represented.
David Supple: That’s incredible because I feel like design is very powerful. It can uplift just in a space, as well as the use of it. That’s the beauty of what we do. It’s not just an art, but it’s a use it, but if you can design at a high level and bring the accountability for costs and schedule, I mean you could have the world. That’s really what design build is, it’s just a win-win proposition. It’s not just for the client, it’s for the team within it, because it’s just part of how it’s set up.
Ted Benson: Exactly. I’m want to give you a tease.
David Supple: Okay.
Ted Benson: So the tease is, we’re launching a new sector of the company in Spring of 2020. The idea of it will be our collaboration with two of the country’s premier architects.
David Supple: Wow. Can you say it?
Ted Benson: No.
David Supple: Okay. All right.
Ted Benson: But you’ll know soon and we’ll start.
David Supple: Man, that is incredible.
Ted Benson: So the idea is that with them we will have … we’ll extend this stuff design-build methodology, because they’re designing products that these are kind of prefabricated products with lots of different configuration possibilities, and we’re determining the building systems and the finishes with them. So these will be it kind of extending the design-build concept, kind of outside of our boundaries. We’ve been working with them for almost a year now developing a product concept to deliver to the market. It’s going to be quite high-end. It’s kind of what we’re calling the no compromise concept, it’s called Open Home, and so it will be the best of everything. The things we think are missing in home building, for instance, passive house level performance-
David Supple: So that’s the standard.
Ted Benson: That will just be a standard embedded in it, and a health level of performance that we think nobody else has quite achieved in terms of air quality will be embedded in acoustic to be measured and monitored. So that homeowners know that their home is the safest place they can be, and it should be that way. But this was a little bit inspired by the fact that we had some fairly wealthy clients who came to us because they’re leaving a home that had such bad mold problems that one of their … well, their oldest son almost died from mold exposure. That was in a high-end, high quality home, but these homes today have a lot of problems, a lot of defects, we talked about that too. Those defects generally go to either structural problems or health problems as being the number one issue or at least the issue that most affects homeowners and health is a really big one people … that is often overlooked.
Ted Benson: I gave a talk in Seattle about eight years ago and the speaker before me was a physician, and he said that his expertise is … was with respiratory issues, and he said there was an epidemic in the Seattle area, and most often he treats people for respiratory problems and sends some back to where they got, which is their home. So anyway, the idea of this Open Home concept that we’ll be talking about in the Spring is no compromise and helps structure craftsmanship energy performance. We think that’s where the industry is going to go, kind of more embedded in a-
David Supple: Thanks to you. I wasn’t lying on that intro. It’s beautiful. I just want to recap what this guy’s doing. He’s taking a segregated industry and bringing it together. He’s taking architects who can design beautiful things, but don’t think with the execution. So you have a 20 to 30% build ratio of design projects, then you have this build side of the industry, which doesn’t give a shit about the energy efficiency and the things that you’re just talking about where somebody’s son almost died, a child almost died. It’s like that because they’re segregated and they’re disconnected and he’s bringing them together. I just want to thank you again. It’s really incredible. It’s an honor to be able to speak to you, and yeah.
Ted Benson: It’s been good to have this conversation today. Thank you.