Many years ago I worked construction as a teenager, and I recall the framing lumber I used to see as a framer’s helper. My teacher was a gentleman by the name of Otho Tew. Otho was a seasoned experienced homebuilder who had learned his trade from his father and probably his father before. Mr. Tew would scrutinize each piece of lumber looking for defects that could impact the performance of his construction. He would lament how lumber just wasn’t as good as it was in the old days. He would say “in the old days the lumber would actually be 2 inches by 4 inches” and would make other comments about an occasional knot. Wane was virtually non-existent back them. Appearance said it all.
Wow, things have really changed. It’s partly due to the way lumber is cultivated using methods that increase yield, but the situation also reflects a better understanding of what is necessary for the specific duty the lumber will perform. Back in the day, only clear lumber was used. Clear = Better. Often, perfectly suitable lumber was discarded or downgraded. With today’s technology, we have methods that actually test the lumber for strength. We have cameras that check for visual defects, and we have genetically selected progeny that create the best materials. Until recently, I believed the near faultless lumber I remember was a distant memory.
Recently, however, I traveled to Japan to visit some residential construction projects and manufacturing facilities. The purpose of the trip was to learn as much as I could about Japanese techniques, framing methods, and materials. What I found has completely shifted my way of thinking about homebuilding and our industry in the United States.
The material used in the construction of components I encountered was all shipped from Canada. These materials were the best quality I have seen since those days as a carpenter’s helper. The cream of the crop is selected from the harvest, bundled, wrapped, and shipped to Nippon. Just like the fantastic lobsters harvested in Maine, the nice ones are shipped to Kansas City where they yield the best price helping to defray shipping cost. I guess the Mainers get the seconds.
The studs used in Japan were virtually flawless. The knots were small if any. Of the several projects I visited, twist, bow, and wane were nonexistent. It was amazing. The quality of construction was impressive. Tight joints, square wall panels, and immaculate jobsites all contributed to a phenomenal home built with care and attention to detail.
The quality of the construction was not only due to the quality of the material. I believe it was impacted more by the culture of the Japanese people. In order to explain, let me give you an example of what is different.
The typical litter one finds along our roads and highways in the US is nonexistent in Japan. Graffiti is extremely rare. All along public roads, in malls, bus stations, and fueling stations, vending machines are everywhere. They are prolific. The machines dispense cold drinks in the warm months and hot drinks in the winter. Just like our vending machines, they have a typical selection, except Japanese machines have a huge variety of offerings. Where we usually have 6 or 8 choices, the Japanese machines have 30 or 40. Many of the machines have beer and Sake, an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting rice. One of the Americans traveling with me asked a question to our Japanese guide. “What keeps the kids in the neighborhood from draining the beer out of the machine?” The response was embarrassing to me. “Because it’s against the rules.” Plain and simple, Japanese children are brought up to follow the rules.
I realized immediately the major reason for the cleanliness, organization, and politeness of Japan and their residential construction. Everyone operates as a team member not an individual. Care and pride guide the Japanese culture in every facet of their lives. It’s the reason their jobsites are clean and organized. There is absolutely no trash anywhere because everyone picks up after themselves. They don’t leave it to the next guy. The key to improving our quality in the US needs to come from values instilled at an early age. These values need to be taught in the home, elementary school, as children. On a recent plant visit in the US, I was struck by the signs management had to place on the urinals in the truss plant. The signs admonished workers about throwing chewing tobacco and gum, trash, and other debris in the toilet. That’s not necessary in Japan’s factories. It’s basic.
Glenn Traylor is an independent consultant with almost four decades of experience in the structural building components industry. While he is a TPI 3rd Party In-Plant Quality Assurance Authorized Agent covering the Southeastern United States and performs 3rd party safety auditor services, these articles represent his personal views, knowledge, and experience. Glenn serves as a trainer-evaluator-auditor covering sales, design, PM, QA, customer service, and production elements of the truss industry. He also provides project management specifically pertaining to structural building components, including on-site inspections and ANSI/TPI 1 compliance assessments. Glenn provides new plant and retrofit designs, equipment evaluations, ROI, capacity analysis, and CPM analysis.