Nearly 90 people, most of them local business owners and CEOs, piled into a Subaru dealership in Plano, Texas, last Friday night to hear how constructing a house in under three hours offers clues to running their companies better.
The featured speaker that night was Brian Conaway, whose family owns Conaway Homes, a builder of first-time move-up homes based in Whitehouse, Texas. Conaway achieved a measure of celebrity in 2005 when he raised money for charities by organizing 800 volunteers to build a 2,249-square-foot house in 2 hours, 52 minutes and 29 seconds, which is considered a world record. The 34-year-old Conaway is now attempting to parlay what was essentially a stunt into something more: He’s currently selling 2 Hour House: Leadership From The Ground Up, a 142-page book he co-authored and self-published. Conaway has also launched a company called 2 Hour House LLC, whose products and services include a DVD of the build, workbooks, workshops, a builder apprentice program, and leadership coaching.
Conaway, who once drove racecars, certainly has his eye on a faster track: one of his goals is to appear on Oprah. But his experience does offer legitimate lessons in perseverance, organization, management, logistics, and how to fix problems when they arise.
The genesis for this project dates back to 2002, when Conaway was elected to the board of the HBA in Tyler, Texas, and was looking for ideas to raise money for local charities. He had seen how quickly Habitat for Humanity put up homes and thought that speed building could be a hook to draw donations. (Aside from the land, which was purchased, all of the labor and most of the building products were donated, including lumber from pro dealer McCoy’s Building Centers.) The original plan was to build two practice houses and two homes to be sold. But the first practice house “was a disaster,” recalls Conaway. “We never made it past the foundation.” And the crews for the second practice house eventually were sent home, with the house not even near finished.
With only two weeks before the main event on October 1, 2005, Conaway had to rethink the entire process. So he color coordinated each trade with different T-shirts to more easily identify who was where. Barriers were set up around the job site to reduce the number of people milling around doing nothing. The house itself had only four entrance and exit points, so that its flow pattern could be controlled. And, perhaps most important, “everything was timed out,” says Conaway, so that trades weren’t falling over each other. (For example, to quicken the pace, the house was sheetrocked from inside out, with the exterior done last.) Supplier Transit Mix devised a fast-curing concrete. And value engineering minimized the amount of wood that needed to be cut, thereby reducing time and waste.
The construction — which more than 2,000 spectators watched from bleachers set up at the jobsite — produced a house that sold for around $125,000. All told, the HBA raised $10,000 each for five charities. (Conaway says that total would have been more were it not for an unforeseen shortage of cranes and generators that needed to be diverted to the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita swept through that region.)
The HBA, at Conaway’s urging, produced a professional-looking DVD of the event (a three-minute clip of which can bee seen on YouTube), for which it spent around $40,000, and sold for $252.29. However, the association didn’t do much to market that video, so Conaway worked out a deal to buy them back, which he’s now marketing through his new company.
Conaway hasn’t given up his day job at Conaway Homes, which built 130 houses last year, and he’s not sure where his fledgling consulting firm might take him. But the finished house (and one of the practice houses that was eventually completed) have had only one callback between them, which leads Conaway to believe that the construction methods he used could have practical applications. “I think you could easily build a house in a week.”