Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Here's what Getting It Right looks like...

My partner was at a one-day conference last week, convened by Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. One of the speakers was John Abrams of South Mountain Company, a small design-build company located out on Martha's Vineyard. She was impressed with his talk, so I started poking around their web site (www.somoco.com). Now I'm impressed, too. Here's at least eleven ways they get it right.
  1. They're employee-owned. Any employee who's worked there for 7500 hours or five years is eligible to become an owner; of their 32 employees, 15 have an ownership stake, and they think four or five more will this year. And this isn't just financial partnership; the owners all have decision-making responsibility. This does a couple of things. First, there's not the situation where one person's driving and everyone else follows. Second, every time they hire a new employee, they're hiring a potential co-owner, so they take pretty good pains to bring on people who share their values.
  2. They do their work locally. They'll never become Skidmore Owings & Merrill, because they do their work in the community that they understand and that they value. They're building for their neighbors.
  3. They use reclaimed building materials, found objects, and very selective site-clearing practices. One of the ways that buildings fit their environments is when they're actually made out of their environments.
  4. They do the whole job. The company does the client work, the design work, the site work, the construction work, the finish work. They have subcontractors and suppliers with whom they have long-standing relationships. They never "throw it over the fence," as we used to say in the consulting world; they're responsible for every element of the work.
  5. They turn down work. They accept work that fits with their values (and state their guiding principles very clearly).
  6. They have a transparent pricing process. They bid the job (materials, labor, subcontractors, etc.), and add a profit number. If they come in at or under bid, they get the whole profit amount; if they run over without owner-approved changes, the overrun comes out of their profit envelope. The client knows every number in the process.
  7. They have a simple and thorough programming process. And they're not asking their clients to do any design work; the only "traditional" programming question in their script is an approximation of how many square feet the client is after, and answering that question is clearly labeled as optional. Instead, they're building an emotional program, a set of criteria that fulfills the deeper stories we build from.
  8. They keep going after the building is done. They provide their homeowners with owner's manuals; they include post-occupancy work in their costing; they do a walk-through with the homeowner a year after handover.
  9. They're politically engaged. They have a stake in the Martha's Vineyard community, and work to facilitate strong discussions about its future. They strive to develop public transportation options, help the elderly to remain able to live there, and try to keep the economy vigorous enough to keep kids from having to depart in order to make their living.
  10. They're educators. Aside from going to conferences like the VBSR, they publish in design/build magazines, Fine Homebuilding, local newspapers and magazines, materials magazines (Timber Framing, Solar Today, etc.), and small business magazines.
  11. They build with craft and endurance in mind. As their website says, "If our buildings are not designed to last at least 250-300 years, we're not asking the right questions. Our industry is making buildings designed to last the life of a mortgage - they should last at least as long as ten."
I'll definitely need to make a site visit and have a talk with these folks as I start to build the list of practices that will revitalize the profession.

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