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Toby Long Interview

In October 2004 Clever Homes LLC unveiled an example of their NowHouse at SBC Park in San Francisco. In December 2004 we spoke to Toby Long AIA, designer of the NowHouse in addition to several other Clever Homes products.

fpf Can you tell us about your professional experiences as an architect? Where does your interest in systems-built housing come from?

Toby Long, AIA

I suppose, like many architects, I could say architecture has always been "in my blood" and I have been surrounded with design and construction for most of my life. I learned about building from an early age, helping my stepfather, a contractor, with several of his projects. I also started working for an architect when I was about 13, shuttling from school to the office. As I grew up in Pennsylvania, I worked on "both sides of the fence" building homes in the summers, while simultaneously working for an architect in the evenings and during the school year. This persisted through my college education. These early experiences were invaluable in forming my perspectives of design and construction and continue to influence my work today. I found quickly, as I started to practice professionally, that the tools and skills I had developed early in my life were useful in guiding my projects, touching on both the design-related concerns of my clients and the construction concerns faced by the general contractors. I leveraged my early experiences into the development of my personal practice fairly quickly in my career.

My interest in systems-built housing comes largely from my continued sense that most things in construction are too complicated. Through traditional delivery mechanisms, I have too often shared in the frustration of developing a project with our clients. The unpredictability, quality control issues, poor specifications (not "green"), and the extreme costs of construction are substantial challenges to any project, and I have always sensed that a more systemized process could alleviate some of these conditions, while affording us the cornerstone for a business model.
fpf Your NowHouse design utilizes SIPs technology. Tell us what you like about SIPs in general and also what you think could be improved - given that nothing is perfect…

Structural Insulated Panel (SIP)

We use SIPs because of their profound simplicity, inherent modularity, and tremendous potential to add great value to the construction of a home. This technology affords our projects and our work a great number of benefits, that all play into our mission providing of technology-driven, sustainable and quality home construction. SIPS resolve many of the current problems and complexities related to inferior framing materials and too many custom connections in a conventional "stick-framed" building. They provide a process that can be up to 50% faster than conventional construction and the final product is of higher quality and tighter tolerances. The energy efficiency of SIPs is substantially higher than most conventional constructions, which benefits a home owner over the long term, especially in the face of rising energy costs. The material is created from renewable and recyclable resources, generates no on-site waste, and is a more healthy construction material; the systems we use do not off-gas or emit harmful chemicals into the home after construction. The technology is versatile, ductile, and is compatibility with all wood framed tools, techniques, and connections. SIPS are stronger than conventional construction, and provide great benefit to wind and seismic loading considerations, while simultaneously reducing the number unique connections within the home. The end result is material that provides an assembly that is easier and faster for builders and home owners and that provides for a "greener," safer, and more energy conscious home.

Additionally, we have embraced SIPs as an integral part of our systems-based design and construction process. SIPs can be produced quickly and provide our work with simple replicability in the context of the "components" which form the basis for our effort. We see SIPs as a starting point for more a technologically integrated construction process, and have been working with our manufacturer to develop new specifications and strategies to improve the product. These improvements address everything from the design process, which we are further digitally integrating to the fabrication process (bringing the architect closer to the factory), to the materials used to make the panels themselves. We would like to see SIPs become stronger, become more pre-finished, and to include more prefabrication of ancillary components (M/E/P, etc). Additionally, we are working to develop some new tools that will make the construction and assembly process for panels faster and more effective.
 fpf   Can you tell us about the Clever Homes relationship with Premier Building Systems?
TL   Our relationship with premier is based on about 4 points of negotiation. Firstly, we have a long term, volume-based supply contract with them, affording advantageous pricing that drives further economy into our systems. We have sought to leverage their strong brand position within the panel industry and mutual support for our current and future endeavors, into our work. We have developed a close working relationship with their marketing teams, distribution channels, and sales divisions. Lastly, we have an exclusive joint venture with them developing and introducing new panel technologies and design strategies based on the patent filings of Clever Homes.
fpf   NowHouse is positioned as being “green”. Can you tell us what this means to you?

NOWHouse on show at SBC Park, SF.

The "green-ness" of this project starts with our personal objectives and goals, and the mission statement we defined when we started Clever Homes. The partners of the company began the effort with a commitment to fuse nobility and profitability. We see this in the market, and believe that you can not successfully have one without the other. The commercial opportunities for the project revolve around the integration of good design, good materials (from a building efficacy point of view) and good value (price to quality relationship), combined with our "green" notions of environmental responsibility (impact on the environment) and healthy living (impact on habitat). This translates to "green-ness" in the form of the specifications of the materials used in the project, both inside and out. The house is constructed using materials that are entirely renewable and recyclable, generate little or no on-site waste, and that use very little lumber in the construction. The house contains no harmful chemicals or materials which off-gas VOC's or formaldehyde. Finally, the integrated technologies are very energy efficient and the construction details have been organized to provide the highest degree of continuous building insulation across the entire building envelope.


fpf NowHouse has a somewhat fixed floor plan – presumably this helps you predict/control pricing. How did you arrive at this plan?

NOWHouse on show at SBC Park, SF.

Frankly, we threw a bunch of plan ideas against the wall, and this was the one that "stuck." It was the easiest to build, of the designs we explored, and yet provides a tremendous amount of flexibility given the set of integrated components and materials used in construction. We see the design as complete on one hand, and as a great starting point for other design strategies, on the other hand. We employ the predictability of this simple design to accommodate the economies and price points sought by our market. We also promote the project as a "launching point" for a design process with a pre-defined set of construction parameters, and them employ the flexibility of the design to accommodate any site condition, budget, program, or context-based consideration. Simple is generally better.
fpf   Can you tell us about the structural properties of NowHouse in the context of SIPs?

NOWHouse on show at SBC Park, SF.

The NowHouse was designed such that the predominant structural system in the house is SIP technology. The exterior walls, the first floor, and the roof structure are all built with these panels. The house was designed to maximize the benefits of SIP construction, and the house contains no structural wall framing, no shear walls, no threaded hold downs, and no additional supportive purlins. The panels used in the home are extremely strong and when properly engineered and installed can provide a home with a completely diaphragmatic structural system. The gravity and lateral loads of the house are distributed uniformly around the entire skin of the building allowing for a tremendous loading capability. The NowHouse exceeds code requirements for lateral force resistance, and our panel technology is currently being tested for extreme wind loading, largely in response to this year's devastating hurricane season. By positioning the loads of the building exclusively at the exterior walls, we have designed a great deal of flexibility into the house, with non-structural partitions also accommodating the distribution of the mechanical and electrical systems of the home.
fpf What is the relationship between Clever Homes, the General Contractor and the client under your model? In what way is your model different to the traditional role of architect?

NOWHouse on show at SBC Park, SF.

Clever Homes is a materials and technologies integrator and process management company. We work with our clients to provide material integration strategies from the earliest stages of our design process, coordinated by the architectural arm of our team. This process follows through to the construction stage, at which time Clever Homes provides and coordinates the acquisition of the materials and technologies onto the site. In a way, we have developed a new delivery mechanism for construction projects; rather than "design-build," we are a "design-supply" company. This process affords us the ability to seek the volume based pricing strategies important for our delivery of economical materials and allows us to also address the uniqueness of each of our projects without losing the benefits of prefabrication and modular construction techniques. Additionally, I have always found that my clients are more effective at decision making with fewer choices. As such, this method of project delivery affords our clients an opportunity to work within a given set of materials, all organized around our mantra of efficient and sustainable specifications. They have a "one-stop-shop" with us, and we have leveraged this into our business model. We do, however, still employ the resources of local general contractors, who, under our model, serve more as installer. We are finding that this is attractive to many builders. It is a faster, easier, more efficient, and simpler construction management experience. Our owners have all of the materials, so the GC doesn't have to invest any time into the materials management process.



What are your thoughts on selling directly to owner occupiers as opposed to builders/developers. Clearly the sales process/cycle is different but is either customer type key to your business model?


NOWHouse on show at SBC Park, SF.

We sell to both but utilize a different approach for each. The owner-occupier has different needs that require more service support that we provide to their projects through the various arms of our company: architecture, finance, and project management. The builder/developer needs little to no support in terms of their process but can leverage off us to get a great, integrated design, the parts of which are pre-sourced at a great price they usually cannot attain, and have those materials arrive when and where they need them to build a quality home, faster, and with less overhead development time. We are currently working with both groups, and have come to understand that both groups are important for our sales effort. We endeavor to be a "well-rounded" sales force, with a capability to market the benefits of our process to either side. Currently, we have received attention from each group equally, although most of our current projects are with owner-occupier.
fpf   The CleverHomes marketing material refers to proprietary technology. What part of your process is proprietary and what advantages does it confer?

Currently, our process is the most unique aspect of our intellectual property, it is behind the scenes to our effort, but affords many advantages visible in the quality product that we deliver at a great price. We continue to refine and improve this process, and it has afforded us the foundation for our effort to develop software systems to manage, coordinate, and enhance our relationship with the factory. Additionally, our systems integration strategies are unique. Through our process of project delivery we continue to attract vendors and manufacturers, as well as furthering our ability to improve pricing and sales for both the end users and the manufacturers, subject to our goals of both nobility and profitability for all sides. Lastly, as we work with our partners and vendors, we have established relationships that provide us with the opportunity to develop both new technologies and improvements to existing systems. We hope to see some of our patent pending products introduced to the market within the next few years, we have intentionally sought manufacturers who are interested in working with us to develop joint IP, and we are developing new construction systems as well as tools for these systems. The R&D and testing processes are arduous and lengthy for new construction materials, so we hope to be through this process with our manufacturers within the next few years - stay tuned!

    What do you see as the geographic boundaries of your market and how did you arrive at this definition?
    We adjust our process, designs, and materials selections to cater to regional distinctions, needs, economics, tastes, and values. Climate differences are an obvious factor. Although the majority of our current projects are located in the west, we really see our market as the entire US. We have carefully selected our manufacturers for their nationwide distribution and support capabilities. However, since our homes are site assembled, we can go almost anywhere, and intend to expand into international markets soon. We are excited about exploring the relationship between our process and the ability of these systems to service emergency shelters, low income housing, and third world housing/development opportunities. We are currently working with several groups to expand the possibility of constructing on-site fabrication facilities, which would fuel local economies and provide for a more effective and efficient method of developing many homes in one location. By building regional facilities, we have an even deeper ability to provide our construction solutions anywhere.
fpf   Thank you for talking with us Toby, we will continue to follow your work.

Thank you fabprefab.

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