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A Swedish Building Model

Lessons from a Small Builder, Volvo, and IKEA
(1950 words on the way we work and why - a long sermon)

Working in Sweden exposed me to a way of organizing home construction that differed from what was typical here in Canada. Sweden's west coast is demanding on homes: wind-driven rain and salt water from the sea combined with cold winter temperatures and high energy costs force builders to develop excellent building practices. The default home cladding is wood, so construction details and painting methods have to be top-notch or walls will be saturated and prone to rot in short order.

To understand the comparison, you need to know what is typical for Canadian home construction. A builder works as a project manager, sometimes doing some of the actual labour, or doing none of it. The home is built by a series of 'subs' or 'sub-contractors' who work independently. The builder's job is to coordinate the subs, monitor the quality of their work, make sure supplies are on hand, etc. Many builders run more than project at once, often working from a half-ton truck with a cell phone and a laptop. A house project can involve many subs - excavation, foundation, framing, window installation, siding and soffits, roofing, eaves troughing, drywall installation, drywall taping, painting, kitchen cabinets, stair pre-building, stair installation, wall and attic insulation as well as the mechanical trades: electrical, plumbing, and heating. More subs may be involved to provide a driveway, landscaping, a deck, and so-on. Sub-contractors succeed by being quick - the faster they finish their work, the faster they get to the next job and increase their income.

Clearly, the Canadian system works - lots of houses get built, and customers are more or less satisfied. However, the system has some serious deficiencies. The builder, typically someone with years or decades of experience using tools and handling materials becomes essentially an office worker doing paperwork, taking phone calls, sorting out problems with subs, etc. Sub-contractors have no stake in the finished house - their work needs to be acceptable, but no more. Mistakes are often left for the next guy to fix or cover up. Only the most diligent builder can actually coordinate 15 to 20 independent workers to produce a good final product. But most of all, everyone involved in the process misses the psychological satisfaction of building a home, of producing a finished product with your hands. The builder who got into construction because he or she enjoyed the process of building something is now simply dealing with coordination and paper-based problems day in and day out. Each sub-trade uses the same small set of skills on job after job - a boring prospect at best.

Perhaps the best indication that the Canadian system is not working very well is the rise of New Home Warranty programs. It is now accepted that homeowners need to buy a warranty to ensure that their new house is going to perform as expected. And with a 5-year warranty period, builders only need to produce a home that holds together for 60 months, or until the original owner sells it. Meanwhile, the homeowner has a mortgage of 25 years or more. Damage from water infiltration can easily take more than 5 years to show itself. Even the least expensive window will hold it's seal for 5 years, but not likely 10 or 20 years. And the warranty program only requires the builder to fix whatever fails in the first 60 months. Any deficiency after that is the homeowner's problem. Are we likely to produce any durable homes that last more than 50 years or have we developed a system that offers disposable houses?

Tanums Hus och Grund (Tanum's House and Yard) - a small independent Swedish home builder

The small builder I worked with built homes on Sweden's west coast, near the Norwegian border. The company consisted of the owner/builder and a helper. A house was built essentially by 2 people, with an electrician and plumber involved for the mechanical specialties. The builder was always on site because there was other work to do when the electrician or plumber was doing his work.

TH&G mtgThe builder had the philosophy that "man skulle kuna göra allt! Från betong till lister." (You have to be able to do everything! From concrete work to mouldings.) For residential construction, this a manageable amount of technical information for one person to master. Certainly one or two specialized trades might be required for an unusually complex house or a very difficult building site, but the vast majority of homes can be constructed the the builder himself and up to three mechanical trades.

This micro-crew approach had three very important benefits. The first was that any errors or problems were fixed as soon as they occurred. If we produced a foundation that was not level or was out of square, it would only make our later work more difficult, so we were careful to avoid problems and sloppy work, and to fix any errors right away so that the next step would be easier. Secondly, we could do the work in the best possible order. If there was a bit of framing to do in the foundation work, we didn't wait for the framers to show up, or leave a job that would be more difficult later, we just did that work at the most opportune time. Sometimes it was as simple as framing out a space for the plumber's work, or drilling some holes that we knew the electrician would need later. It was easy to have a smooth transition from job to job and to be sure later work was easy because there were only 4 people to coordinate (builder, helper, electrician, plumber). There was a strong probability that we would work to complement each other's tasks rather than get in each other's way, or to do things that frustrate the workers that follow. But the third benefit was perhaps the most important: we had the immense satisfaction of producing something from start to finish with our hands. We had the pride of accomplishment, and we were proud to put our names to the work. That is the psychological benefit that carries a worker through a particularly difficult or boring task and onto the easier and more enjoyable parts of the work. Is that not a healthier and more productive way to organize work?

Advanced Design/Build works very much in the style of the Swedish independent small builder - we tend not to use sub-contractors at all. We often handle our own electrical and plumbing work because local sub-trades cannot or will not do the work to our standard. Especially important is the insulation work, for which we have our own specialized equipment and methods. We simply don't trust anyone else to do this critical work to the high standard that ensures our homes have the lowest possible heating and cooling costs for the homeowner.

We won't achieve sales of 5 or more units per year because we do one project at a time. But we enjoy the building process and we are very sure of the quality and performance of our final product.

How Volvo Modified the Assembly Line

Some years back, Volvo, one of Sweden's two major automotive manufacturers, reorganized its basic assembly method. Like its American car making cousins, Volvo found it difficult to maintain a high level of quality with the work done on the assembly line. Depending upon the day of the week, cars were coming off the line with no defects, a few defects, or many defects. It was costly to fix these discrepancies - errors made early in the assembly process were especially troublesome. As well, it was difficult to keep good employees - the assembly line work was boring and repetitive. The most desirable cars were produced early in the week, but not Monday morning when the line was re-starting and problems were frequent. Friday afternoon cars were to be avoided.

volvo logoVolvo's innovation was to create a team environment rather than a traditional assembly line. A group of workers would assemble the entire car rather than an individual doing one small job over and over. Assembly errors were reduced and workers showed a higher level of job satisfaction - they had the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing an entire job. The assembly labour cost and time required were the same - the difference was in how the work was organized.

Canada's typical residential construction method is not unlike an assembly line - many people do one small task and, eventually, a house is built. But it has the same problems as an assembly line - the work is boring and repetitive and workers struggle to stay involved and enthusiastic about their work. Just keeping ahead of the schedule is sufficient - no need to try any harder or do any better. They rarely see the finished product or have any connection to the home buyer.

Advanced Design/Build uses the small team approach to residential construction - having the same workers build the entire home allows an attention to detail and a level of quality that simply isn't possible with an assembly line method.

Why does IKEA Offer So Many Wardrobes and Free-Standing Closet Units?

If you look closely in IKEA's annual catalogues, bedrooms are always shown with a free-standing closet or wardrobe. This makes no sense for a typicalwardrobe Canadian home - all bedrooms have a closet built into the room. In fact, the closet is supposed to be included to meet the building code.

IKEA is showing the European standard - rooms do not have a built-in closet. A Swedish bedroom is a rectangular room with an entrance door and a window. Closets are chosen by the homeowner for size and finish, purchased separately, and placed where desired in the room.

In terms of house construction, the European practise is eminently more sensible. Why not let the homeowner choose a closet sized to their needs and placed to suit the other furniture in the room? If a bedroom is to be used a guest room or home office, a closet may not be required at all.

The North American custom is to build closets in the same manner as other interior walls, that is, 2x4 construction with drywall on all surfaces. This wastes a huge amount of square footage and uses a wall construction system capable of supporting 3 stories of load. All this material and labour to keep dust off clothing! Closets are difficult to finish - no one enjoys trying to get drywall onto the inside of a closet. There is inevitably an area high up in the closet that cannot be used. And a permanent closet cannot be moved to a different position in the room if the owner prefers a different room arrangement.

An IKEA wardrobe uses the minimum amount of material to accomplish the task of providing a bar for clothes hangers, a dust barrier, and a visual barrier. Doors are always full width - there is never a part of the closet that is beyond the door opening and hard to reach or see. Hinged doors are the simplest and most reliable doors available - they are not heavy to open, prone to leaving their tracks, or obstructing access when open. An IKEA free-standing wardrobe is an elegant solution to the need for closet space.

Advanced Design/Build has adopted a European approach to closets - we don't waste time, materials, and energy in building traditional North American closets in bedrooms. There are several other common sense details that we use based on observation of better housing construction techniques in other countries. Typical Canadian builders are extremely slow to adopt more sensible practises, like free-standing closets, even when the logic of a better system is obvious.

(End of Sermon - go forth and find housing)

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