Here’s an insider’s look at launching a project whose planning, processes, and building performance could alter American home building in the months and years to come.
Builders are pulling new residential single-family permits at a rate of 815,000 for the current 12-month period, in a U.S. market buoyed by fundamental demand, but struggling in fits and starts with a host of mostly supply-related dead-weight constraints.
A single permit for one of those new homes, currently under construction in west Las Vegas, may one day be looked back at as a step-change moment in how builders in North America can solve for some of the critical constraints they contend with on a daily basis. Many of those constraints—on the cost of land, securing labor, and smooth access to capital—don’t act in a steady state, but rather, they get worse.
Here’s what builders need to know about the groundbreaking earlier this Spring on a new home whose building processes, whose operational performance, and whose human-centric design make it a first-of-its-kind habitat in North America. The home, known as Chōwa, Living In Balance, represents, first and foremost, research and development commitment and investment into how builders in the U.S. can fix what most of them know to be a flawed, friction-filled, overly complicated process to build homes and communities for people who need, want, and aspire to live in them.
Let’s time-travel to the groundbreaking moment for Chōwa, and explore some of the particular challenges. Fixing what is flawed in the U.S. home building process won’t happen with a single permit, a single start, a single groundbreaking. However, this one case example is an opportunity for builders all over the country to see how their own unique and exclusive processes could change—i.e. improve for the better—in the next few years, based on what’s happening at this very moment in Las Vegas.
Here’s where we begin.
At 6 a.m. local Las Vegas time on March 18, excavation and dirt moving crews and their equipment arrived to check in at the gate at Summerlin’s Talon Ridge neighborhood. They head for nearby Lot No. 17, at 38 Hawkeye Lane in the masterplanned community’s The Ridges tract for custom and semi-custom homes, to break ground on a new home.
By pre-sunrise twilight, the teams review documents that lay out the job at hand: to dig the foundation for a new home whose front would face West, directly up to the panorama of Red Rock Canyon, marrying 190-million year-old Jurassic period Aztec sandstone in lustrous red bands through white limestone ridges that date back to half a billion years ago, when Nevada was submerged beneath the Panthalassic Ocean.
To the east, a bit lower in the valley, in all its iconic skyline glory, The Strip.
They’re moving dirt for a home that, by this Fall, will sit majestically astride the .4-acre lot, with both compelling curb appeal and a commanding “clear view” connection to the Red Rock Canyon on the west and mystical, magical downtown Las Vegas out the backside. Its built-space length will stretch just shy of 128 feet, and a depth of almost 66 feet. The foundation, dug out evenly 35” deep, would accommodate the home’s base footers, the slab, a stem wall that would run the circumference of the footprint, and a subflooring crawlspace through which many of the home’s operating systems would travel.
It all may sound normal, like any number of the 820,000 single family homes builders are on pace to start this year. Like any number of luxury homes built to high-end spec and an elegant finish level.
This one’s different, however. It’s groundbreaking day for a home that aims to break new ground in home building in North America.
- This home’s entire exterior wall system, its flooring system, and exterior cladding were manufactured to precise, within-millimeter accuracy in Sekisui House’s Kanto factory north of Tokyo, and shipped in containers to the U.S.
- This home’s post-and-beam style structure—unlike any in North America—undergoes a rigorous, proprietary pre-site engineering, design, and manufacturing process that assembles on-site at high velocity and with ease and accuracy by crews that do not need extensive technical skills, with virtually no modification necessary.
- This home’s foundation, the very literal reason for the speed, precision, and quality of the structure that sits on it, follows another proprietary system Sekisui House developed for fool-proof execution, simplicity, and unerring accuracy. It’s square to within millimeter accuracy from the northwest corner of the foundation to the southeast corner, the entire 128-foot breadth of the home as well as the 66-foot depth.
- This home will introduce, as well, principles of Japanese architecture and design adapted to U.S. dimensions, sensibility, and values, a marriage of simplicity, seamless indoor-and-outdoor living, and sanctuary.
We introduced the BUILDER Chōwa Concept Home project here in March. The initiative, which is real-world proof that home builders are committed to investing in innovation, research and development, brings together an international design, development, and construction team from Japan-based Sekisui House and its wholly-owned home building company Woodside Homes. This concept home will introduce technologies, best practices, and a new approach to “improving society through housing,” to North America-based home building enterprises.
When the home is complete, home building in the United States will have a living real-world laboratory example of some of the world’s most advanced building, engineering, design, and development systems—never before assembled or witnessed in this part of the world. Of course, the lion’s share of the innovation, in the durability, high-performance, sustainability, and health-and-well-being featuring, will go on inside the walls, not transparent to the homeowners.
For that reason, we’ll spend the next few months with you, unpacking the process and zero in on some of the development and engineering processes that make the value stream on this project so different, and how all of that impacts the on-site assembly of a home whose essential, singular purpose is the happiness of people who live there. We’ll deconstruct the development, design, engineering, and construction process in a series of posts and progress reports to try to help you with what you need to know about Chōwa, what it means, and why it matters to how you go about your own business.
Given that, for this 5,400-plus square foot home, sticks-in-the-air began Monday, May 13, and the roof was nailed off on May 24 (eight-and-one-half working days, including a couple of wind-delay days), many will want to witness, learn about, and adopt technologies Chōwa introduces. Mastery of these details has made Sekisui House the world’s Number 1 home builder, and a construction leader in commercial, multifamily, and public sector buildings as well.
In light of the clarity, specificity, and detail of the documentation, and the way every building member, post, beam, metal joint, pin, sheet, panel, truss, sub-part, fastener, hinge, hanger, support, etc. has a single, correct, perfectly fit place to go in the a home that offers 5,400 square feet of interior living space, Chōwa will serve as a discovery laboratory for North American home building of tomorrow.
“This is the way it should be done, and we know that here,” says Kent Lay, division president for Las Vegas at Sekisui House’s Woodside Homes. “It’s just a question of the investment in the technologies to bring this process here, and the training to put it into the field. That time is overdue, and it’s amazing to see in real life how it can work.”
Off-site factories have already begun to prove themselves out in the real, messy, otherwise inefficient real-world in U.S. residential construction, but Sekisui House’s methods and processes have been decades in the making, and are regarded by many to be among the most advanced, having dealt for years with labor constraints, exorbitant materials costs, scarce real estate, natural hazards such as frequent earthquakes, environmental challenges, and an aging population.
The challenges that faced the Sekisui House and Woodside Homes team have been intense, offering their own array of lessons learned.
Here are some of the noteworthy challenges that both preceded and continued beyond the March 18 groundbreaking:
Timing: The genesis of the project dates back about 12 months. Before that moment, no concepts, plans, development, or designs for Chōwa existed. From that point, pre-concept, to the present--where teams are finishing interior shear walls, drop ceilings, fascias, soffits, and the subflooring system—the project’s timeline might be regarded as a minor miracle, especially in light of some of the turmoil-filled trade dynamics currently playing out on the world political stage.
- Japanese (Sekisui House) and American (KTGY Architecture & Planning) architects had to complete the architectural plan, from concept to finished integrated plans, by the late Fall of 2018.
- The challenge: Capture “essence and nature” of original Japanese design, and apply “American market preferences” in dimensions such as typical ceiling heights and floorplan flow from room to room, code compliance, etc. in a single architectural plan.
- This hard-stop deadline was for two reasons, one, being Clark County permitting for a project that would be using materials, building processes, and structural systems engineered to comply with rigorous Japanese building codes, but not directly covered under any U.S. or international structural codes. The other, was Howard Hughes Corp./Summerlin design guideline approval, for a home with Japanese features unlike any house in Summerlin’s The Ridges neighborhood.
- The challenge: Part 1. Japanese construction practices, materials, and structures typically exceed U.S. and international building codes, but engineer Kent Barber of Vegas-based L.R. Nelson needed to serve as an official representative of the city of Las Vegas and Clark County to ensure that all Japanese design, engineering, building materials, and processes aligned with and either meet or exceed all codes for safety and structural and operational performance. This permit was a first-of-its-kind.
- The challenge: Part 2. Howard Hughes Corp. design guidelines for Summerlin and its The Ridges high-end neighborhood, as it turns out, tightly constrain design latitude in order to manage consistency and the quality of its streetscapes. This matters, because some of the architectural intention of Chōwa is its genuine simplicity, that happiness and a sense of sanctuary in a family happen under one single roof. Masterplan guidelines, however, require various materials, massing, and dimensional variation from the curb view, which meant architects had to add complexity to the design, but keep its essential simple nature.
- At the same time, even before those approvals went through, engineers at Sekisui House began working on creating construction documentation from the architectural plans, in order first to build the home digitally, and then to send the code for the digital version into its factory-processes in Sekisui House’s Kanto factory, just north of Tokyo.
Transportation: All the materials engineers and pre-built in Sekisui House’s north-of-Tokyo-based Kanto factory shipped by truck to the company’s staging warehouses in coastal Yokohama port, and by container ship from Tokyo to Long Beach port in Southern California. Now, builders have been importing materials and products from overseas for years, and have even taken to shipping components and panels manufactured in places like Ireland, Scandinavia, Japan, China, etc. to North America. But, shipping the entire building envelope—from the foundation, to the walls, flooring, and roofing—pre-engineered for fast assembly on-site.
Sekisui House and Woodside arranged with BMC’s Las Vegas-based SelectBuild Nevada operations to receive the 20-some shipping containers on the U.S. port of Long Beach, and transport them to Select Build’s distribution node in North Las Vegas. The challenge: Many of the materials, products, and content in the Sekisui House shipping containers were entering the United States for the first time and needed U.S.D.A. and customs approvals to move along to the Las Vegas distribution site. This was not a slam-dunk, and ensuring that all critical-path materials arrived to on time was an early learning-curve white-knuckle moment.
Language: The Chōwa Lot 17 job site at Talon Ridge in Summerlin is a first-of-its-kind workplace in another way as well. Given that the foundation and framing of Chōwa involved technologies, products, materials, and processes brought directly from Sekisui House’s Japanese factories and operational models, the Osaka-based enterprise sent a team of its experts in foundations and framing to oversee, train, work with, and assure quality during these first-time processes on the project. What this means is that at 6 a.m. every morning crew members whose first (and only) language might be English, Japanese, or Spanish.
- The Solution: A pocket-sized multi-language translator crew members nicknamed “Jennifer” helps out in cases where gestures, images, and demonstrations do not suffice to keep information from getting “lost in translation.”
- Japan-based Sekisui House foundation experts, Yoshiyuki Matsubara and Kazumasa Matsukuma worked with local crew members from Colvin Construction, on the footers, the rebar installation, the proprietary metal stem wall forms, the leveling, etc. for the foundation.
- For framing, Sekisui House construction department manager Shigehyoshi (Yoshi) Morishima and certified architectural engineer Shotaro Kumazawa have worked with both the BMC-SelectBuild Nevada team and local framers on the enclosure, internal walls, roof, and flooring.
- “Jennifer” gets use multiple times a day, but the universal language among skilled job-site workers makes for a tri-lingual team environment characterized by respect, humor, and focus on excellence.
Measures: 100% of the Sekisui House grid system for construction documentation, and all of the precision-cut materials that go into the structure from the foundation up are developed using the metric system. Calculators to translate a one-meter-by-one-meter grid system into inches and feet and square feet and the like are constantly in use to ensure that U.S. and Japanese crew, supervisors, architects, engineers, etc. are all on the same page.
Geography: Bigtime time zone and geographic distance challenges separate key stakeholder members in the Chōwa initiative: 16 hours, 5,485 miles, 20,350 nautical miles, 8,827 kilometers, and a host of cultural differences, business practices, workflows, etc. to blend, integrate, and reconcile.
Here are key milestones of the project through mid-June:
- 3/18 Groundbreaking
- 4/8 Underground plumbing, county inspection
- 4/9 Sekisui House Ltd., foundation team arrives
- 4/9 Dig out base footers
- 4/16 Install rebar
- 4/17 Form boards for the base footers
- 4/29 Pour footers
- 4/22 Stem wall forms
- 4/24 Pour stem walls
- 4/26 Surface stem walls with self-leveling concrete
- 4/29 Begin interior backfill
- 5/2 Waterproof foundation
- 5/3 Pour concrete slab for interior crawl space
- 5/10 Receive and stage framing material from BMC
- 5/13 Sticks in the air
- 5/24 Roof nail-off
- 5/24 to 6/15: Sheer wall/interior walls, drop soffits, eves, floor system, etc.