Photo: Katherine Lambert

It may feel like deja vu all over again, but we have not all been here before. Just a fortnight ago, we hosted the Big Builder '08 conference in Washington, D.C. Just guessing, I'd say that the average age among the 300 or so industry executives who participated in the event was around 40. I wasn't alone in that observation.

“They haven't been through anything like this before,” an industry friend said to me of the dozens of under 40-year-olds at work trying to develop initiatives for 2009 that would improve their companies' odds of survival.

True, many of home building's senior level management came of age at a time when the Resolution Trust Corp. was meting out land and projects to willing and able entrepreneurs and operators for pennies on the dollar during the early 1990s, following the Savings & Loan meltdown.

Even those years pale in comparison to the dislocation and uncertainty we face today.

What's more, an entire new crop of the business's best and brightest have taken charge during a 15-year period in which the word “downturn” has been used mostly to describe geographically finite economic disruptions or brief market hiccups in the aftermath of the tech bubble's bursting or 9/11. Thanks to the fiscal or monetary policy wand of former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, downturns were toothless phenomena, almost ignorable.

Today's is not. Today's literally will wring the industry into its next form. Companies as casualties will go down, and as they can and will one day, their leaders will reconstitute and resurrect. Bankruptcy, done well and classily, will be a badge of honor and learning. Debt will be just a hole to dig out of. A home will be a place to live and pay for rather than a place to buy and sell for a profit.

For those who have and haven't been here through anything like this before, and for those who have, here's a pre-holiday reflection.

Where history and struggle converge as they do only every lifetime or so, there are two distinct thoughts that etch themselves into each and every conversation we have with a home builder of any size company. Two traits make you different from any other business professional. Two specific passions and purposes brighten every one of your eyes and lighten every one of your voices as you ponder them. Two strands of your very DNA seem to make you who you are, which is why we believe you will do what it takes to fight it out, work through the obstacles, and finally triumph.

One is this. Your joy at seeing a family—a couple, a single, a pair of partners, one at the relative beginning of a long career, and one in the sunset of their years—take hold of the keys and step into their dream, their own American Dream.

The other is this. You make neighborhoods, communities, homes. This is where we can expect our ultimate recovery—economic, psychological, social, and cultural—to spring up and take hold. It is a home that offers safety, cleanliness, quiet, security, schools, and it is neighborhoods and communities that usher in change in our lives and our thoughts. It is a home where trust and confidence regenerate.

You are not mere business leaders. Your companies are not merely an amalgam of manufacturing and marketing skill sets. Your products are not merely rooftops, curbcuts, elevations, floorplans, warranties, or financial investments. Your industry community is not merely the sum of its starts.

Resiliency and ingenuity come in all ages. We can be confident in that. Safety and health in the days and weeks ahead. We'll need that.