Eight shipping containers arrived in at the Southern California port of Long Beach, and began clearing customs on May 9th and 10th of this year—each a standard measure of 8-feet wide by 8 ½ - feet high by 20-feet long. The containers were packaged in a factory in Kanto, north of Tokyo, a facility that manufactures Sekisui House’s semi-custom SHAWOOD line of single-family homes in both Japan and in international markets.

All eight were filled. There was literally zero room to spare, each smothered with hundreds of carefully-bound and packaged engineered wood structural posts and beams, some weighing as much as 2,000 lbs. By design, they each were to unload in a particular sequential order once they landed at BMC’s North Las Vegas distribution facility.

That sequence fit an even grander color-by-numbers design. As each separately-packaged cluster of building members came out of one of the shipping containers, the crew unloading the containers noted that every one of them carried a number. Each number corresponded, in turn, to a single position in the blueprint of the home, that further, tied to engineering documentation where every one of the home’s parts and pieces came out of the Kanto factory in Japan and would navigate 3,000 miles to its proper spot in the 5,400-foot structure, with millimeter precision in the new Chōwa—Living In Balance house.

A kit of parts, compliments of building information modeling taken, perhaps, to its most advanced application in residential single-family construction …

  • … for a custom-designed, almost 6,000-square foot, home never built before.
  • … for a house whose enclosure and building technologies have never been applied in the US market before.
  • … for a building that a team of framers never before encountered the likes of, but which they completed from “sticks-in-the-air” to the start of nailing down the roof in eight-and-a-half days, not counting a couple of days lost to high-wind delays.

If the crew members proceeded as instructed by the numbers, and staged each cluster by following the proper order at the distribution center, they could forward the pre-engineered materials—a proprietary post-and-beam enclosure from Sekisui House’s Kanto facility—to Sekisui House operating unit Woodside Homes’ building site in the Talon Ridge neighborhood of the Las Vegas-area Summerlin Master Planned Community, exactly in the order of on-site assembly.

By the time BMC’s trucks arrived at the building site, Lot 17897 at Hawkeye Lane, in Summerlin’s Talon Ridge, and crews—supervised by Sekisui House construction site specialist Shigeyoshi Morishima and construction department manager Shotaro Kumazawa—staged out the first load in the delivery, local American, mostly Spanish-speaking framing crew members knew this job was going to be different than anything they’d done before.

“This is a custom home, and our crews’ experience up to this point has been just about 100% production volume building, much smaller, simpler home designs,” says Las Vegas BuildWithBMC market framing manager Rudy Castro. “Our guys had never done anything like this before, but with the Japanese team member helping and the way those materials were labeled, they picked up the gist of it and were putting pieces together within a couple of hours.”

Three stark realizations occurred to those supervising the project, whose customized building enclosure with kit pieces were never assembled in precisely this way in the United States before, went from foundation to the start of roof nail-down in eight-and-a-half days, with six workers and two Japan-team members orchestrating the process:

  1. No circular saws. No cutting on-site was necessary, as every structural detail had been pre-built digitally, and then physically in the Kanto, Japan, factory.
  2. Tri-lingual job site. English, Japanese, and Spanish were spoken on the site, and despite many common terms and interpretations getting “lost in translation,” what translated perfectly was how to follow the numerical, labeled system of positioning, orienting, fastening, and connecting each post to its pre-designated location and orientation (with the SHAWOOD branding invariably facing the front of the building—think of a massive Ikea project—and each beam fitting perfectly where it had been designed, engineered, and factory-cut to millimeter precision in Japan.
  3. Velocity. Not simply speed but, rather, speed with accuracy, productivity gain, and profitability from a building system both precisely executed and easy to implement.

These three realizations—and a fourth we’ll mention in a moment—added up to an “aha moment” for builders who’ve put 20, 30, almost 40 years of experience into building homes in the Las Vegas Valley.

“We did not need to cut anything here,” says Woodside Homes Las Vegas division president Kent Lay, whose divisional team, with Michael Salerno as Woodside project director, took on the Chōwa—Living In Balance building program a little over a year ago. “The kinds of planning, building systems, proprietary tools, and processes Sekisui House brought to this project for the first time, resulting in a framing crew that didn’t even speak the language being able to understand it and do it … that’s what amazes me about this endeavor.”

A fourth realization, first mentioned by the Latino framers themselves, and affirmed many times over right up the chain of command, was this. The frame and enclosure—the joinery involved in the post-and-beam building envelope, with its massive glulam beams and trusses and joists, were as aesthetically striking as they were structurally sound. “We heard it again and again, and I kind of felt it myself,” says Salerno. “Why drywall over this? Why don’t we just leave this beautiful wood exposed and just stain it? When you look at the way the pieces come together and connect, it looks like cabinetry, it’s so flush, so perfect.”

Japan-based Training
Now, a few days after those eight containers passed through customs in Southern California and traveled to BMC’s North Las Vegas center, it was “sticks in the air” time on May 13 at the site. This would not have been possible—nor an outcome eight-and-a-half working days later for craning-on and nailing down the roof of a custom home—without months of pre-planning, engineering, digital construction, and manufacturing on this particular project, and years of experience designing and building SHAWOOD homes personalized to customers’ individual specifications and preferences in Japan and Australia.

In March, BuildWithBMC’s Castro and market framing superintendent Kenny Anderson flew to Japan, and headed to Sekisui House’s training site in Shiga, north of Osaka, for three days of training in the SHAWOOD framing system.

As BMC’s John Osborne, vice president for National Builders and Innovation notes, his organization and Sekisui House recognized similarities in process with the BMC READY-FRAME system. BMC was excited to explore what its team could learn from the Chōwa venture.

“With Sekisui House, BMC had an opportunity to get involved from ‘the inside’ rather than watch ‘from the outside,’” says Osborne. “We are honored to be chosen and included as part of the team responsible for this transformative project. While overseas, Rudy and Kenny trained and their experience was identical to how Sekisui employees are trained. They walked away with a new perspective on pre-planning and design, specifically, the untapped value of both concepts in the U.S. Our ability to unlock the potential of pre-planning and design is what will drive home building efficiency stateside.”

Importantly, what differentiates the SHAWOOD post-and-beam framing system from typical enclosures built in the U.S. is the way that the structure handles lateral load capacity to the foundation. This difference—developed under conditions of severe stress and shock to structures in Japan from both wind shear and seismic activity—causes buildings to safely endure such stresses and shocks, but not exactly the same way most U.S. buildings do.

While most structures in the U.S. gain lateral load capacity through a firm, solid, and continuously direct connection to the foundation, the proprietary SHAWOOD system anchors each post to a metal, shock-absorbing stand whose “fin” slides into the post like a sleeve before bolting in place.

“When we were all said and done, even with the limited contact to the foundation, the Sekisui House system has capacity at least up to U.S. code to ensure we can absorb different forces that stress lateral load capability,” says Kent Barber, senior VP at L.R. Nelson Consulting Engineers. Barber actually converted the entire Sekisui House-SHAWOOD structural engineering system into terms U.S., state, and local code and inspection officials could understand and approve as equal to or even superior to U.S. building codes. “The difference is, whereas U.S. frames rigidly lock to foundations to ensure that lateral load capacity, the Japanese system is designed to rock and give, and then fall back into place.”

SHAWOOD’s track-record for performance amidst seismic shocks and stresses provides evidence for Kent Barber’s case that the technology would stand up to adverse conditions in the U.S. market equally well. After a magnitude 6.9 earthquake hit Kobe, Japan, in 1995, no SHAWOOD houses were lost. Likewise, even the massive 9.0 earthquake that struck in northern Japan in 2011 did not collapse SHAWOOD homes—although the resulting fatal tsunami took its toll on some of them.

Las Vegas Training

A noteworthy outcome of the blend of BIM, hyper-disciplined planning, and a construction process and a handful of bracket and pinning systems that create both durable and beautiful joinery in each load-bearing structural member--which Sekisui House has evolved for more than a decade on its SHAWOOD line of homes—is that experienced builders can begin working with the system almost sight unseen.

“We explained the process to the local crews—using our digital translator tool we called ‘Jennifer’ on the site, translating from Japanese, to English, to Spanish,” says Salerno. “Even though some of the words got lost, and the crew members didn’t know what the Japanese team members were saying, they instantaneously knew what they meant, and were raring to go after about 45 minutes of demonstration.”

The entire structure is set up on a X and a Y axis, Salerno explains. Each X axis location has numbers, and each Y axis location has a letter.

“The Japanese supervisors divided us into two groups, front of the house and back of the house,” says BuildWithBMC’s Kenny Anderson. “From 1 to 370, and from A to Z. They told us it would take our crew of 6 up to 15 days to complete the frame, but you see we got it done in a little over half that time. Before this, none of my guys had ever framed anything like this. They were proud to work on this project.”

For BMC, where we get a viewpoint of the potential impacts and implications of the Sekisui House approach, systems, and disciplines, the takeaways as expressed by John Osborne are these:

  • “We learned a tremendous amount. Incalculable opportunity exists in the U.S. market to unlock the value of the design, which in turn will significantly reduce waste and increase efficiencies throughout the “home building system.” Using advanced 3D modeling and virtual building allows builders to not only optimize how they plan for projects, but also allows them to build better, faster, smarter and greener in the field.
  • Sekisui specifies every product in the home using BIM. This ensures a high-degree of coordination, collaboration and efficiency on the jobsite. Combining our experience from this project with the thousands of READY-FRAME® projects we’ve delivered – I’m confident BMC has the experience and expertise to partner with builders in the U.S. looking to drive similar efficiencies.
  • An illuminating anecdote I recently heard from an executive at a national builder is this: “Today, we have 40,000 parts and pieces, put together by 285 humans, hired by 40 companies all of whom are the lowest bidder.” Ventures like the one BMC has engaged with Sekisui House on will help builders in the U.S. design a better system for building homes--one that is more efficient, faster, and requires less people and companies, while enabling the delivery of an end-product that is both higher quality and more affordable than traditional systems currently allow.
  • Sekisui’s BIM technology provides a higher level of detail than most 3D model-based process systems used in the U.S. Their BIM drives more decisions and efficiencies during the design phase of the project, which correlate to smarter building on the jobsite. Collaborating with Sekisui House affords BMC the opportunity to learn and speed up what is possible in the U.S.
  • In terms of home design, there are structural products, and there are finished products. In the U.S., it is not uncommon for the two of these concepts to clash during construction. Instead of investing in preplanning (i.e., using BIM to detect where parts of the building may interfere with one another, builders simply order more product for a given job than is necessary, knowing these may need extra to fix issues “on the fly.” This art vs. science approach creates excess waste.

Now, contrast that methodology to a precise structure such as the Sekisui Chōwa Concept Home. No decisions were made “on the fly” during the project. The project’s kitchen had the exact right amount of lumber, moldings, windows and cabinets, etc. ordered and delivered. Smarter preplanning creates less drag on cycle time and removes the need to over-order / worry about have enough product on the ground.

One more take-away Osborne does not list here, but is materially important, especially given the chronic challenge around securing skilled labor. It came out in the form of the bonding that took place between Sekisui House’s Japan-based team members and the local Las Vegas framing crews brought on by BMC.

“The way the Japanese ethic of care and precision rubbed off on our guys, it was contagious, and they really connected despite the language barriers,” says Anderson. “When the job was done, and it was time for the Japanese team members to head back after we got done, we had a group dinner with the crew and the other team members. All the guys were actually in tears, of pride, of friendship, of working on something amazing together.”