Leadership

This Woman's Job: Reignite The Future Of Housing Construction

Joining VBC as it merges with Polcom to become a global manufacturer of housing, hospitality, and commercial structures, Helena Lidelöw's first task at hand as CTO is to breathe life into what was Katerra's Tracy, CA facility.

Leadership

This Woman's Job: Reignite The Future Of Housing Construction

Joining VBC as it merges with Polcom to become a global manufacturer of housing, hospitality, and commercial structures, Helena Lidelöw's first task at hand as CTO is to breathe life into what was Katerra's Tracy, CA facility.

January 21st, 2022
This Woman's Job: Reignite The Future Of Housing Construction
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An apple – partly eaten – sat there on the desktop, frozen in time.

The scene was right out of zombie apocalypse, recalls Volumetric Building Companies founder and ceo Vaughan Buckley of the first time he visited the vast, 600,000 square foot echochamber, where it all stopped mid-sentence, mid-gesture, switched-off and captured in stillness like an Instamatic snap-shot of a shred of time in homebuilding.

This was Tracy, California, and it – of course everyone knows -- it stood there, a wholly inert testament to how stubbornly early-21st Century practical business realities stand in the path of the future of building, of vertical community development, of housing.

The day Katerra halted its operations in concession to those present-day realities was June 1, 2021. Buckley and VBC's due-diligence team touring the facility in late July in advance of his bid to buy the factory out of flash bankruptcy and sudden shocking total disuse felt a powerful tug of human emotion.

Some of the people there that day left their workstations with a sense that their effort was incomplete; they believed they would succeed," Buckley imagined as he surveyed the scene of a construction Futurama gone-off-the-tracks. Hundreds of millions of dollars had gone down the drain, and what remained were motionless robots, self-guided forklifts abandoned in midstream, the 87 separate servers, a physical applied genius network of cabling, CNC technologies, software engineering, all powered down. And the building itself was a dark, hollow, quiet proof case in point. Construction will only reluctantly meet its future. Buckley's mind was on the people, the talent, the pursuit of that future against the odds.  "Some of them, of course, deleted their usernames and passwords."

Enter Helena Lidelöw.

No pressure. But arguably construction's most manifest proxy for all that is "frighteningly ambitious" and prone to failure -- because of the upfront money, time and, talent that need to fuse together harmoniously in a messy trial-by-error process for building to pivot from its past to its future – now plays out on Lidelöw's watch.

The News

On the heels of its announcement of VBC's new strategic merger with Poland-based Polcom to power a vertically-integrated manufacturing-driven global housing, hospitality, and commercial construction empire, Buckley unveiled news this week of Lidelöw's joining as a critical part of that plan.

Volumetric Building Companies (VBC), a global leader in the construction sector with a focus on building the future through volumetric modular techniques, announced today the addition of Dr. Helena Lidelöw to the executive leadership team in a newly created role of Chief Technical Officer. Lidelöw brings decades of experience and leadership to support VBC's global growth trajectory and to further enhance the company's design and production process.

We'll get to Dr. Lidelöw's resume momentarily.

But first, the matter of greatest interest. Can Helena Lidelöw free the Tracy plant's future promise and potential from the literal pathos of what it might have been?

Context

In a definitive post-mortem on Katerra, engineer and author Brian Potter, whose Construction Physics explores solutions to building and construction economics chronic challenges, and who worked at Katerra from early 2018 to late 2020, writes:

Ultimately I think Katerra’s struggles can be traced to a lack of product-market fit. The company scaled up massively prior to having a product people wanted to buy, and it spent several fitful years (and painful pivots) trying to find one. Katerra started out heavily CLT focused, shifted more towards light framed wood, took a quick detour to cold formed steel, then went back to wood. An entire division was hired to self-perform construction work, then later eliminated. The engineering department was tasked with selling outside consulting services, then cut by 75% after we had lined up a backlog of work.
Each change stretched out timelines, and consumed massive amounts of resources in capital expenditures and design budgets.

As Potter acknowledges, a banal and obvious briefer explanation boils down to a common denominator cause for start-ups of all kinds to go under: "Expenses are too high; and too many people are on the payroll."

The marker Potter leaves in his own account of the rise and fall of Katerra is that few if anybody outside Katerra's privileged inner circle of knowledge really understood the business. Almost nobody on the outside, he'd say, appreciated the meteoric assemblage of architecture, engineering, construction, software development, bill of materials-based vertically integrated supply chain management, and revenue platforms' best and brightest minds.

In Jack Nicholson's portrayal of Charlie Partana in Prizzi's Honor, one of his two classically unforgettable lines starts, "If he's so ---king smart ... "

The point being:

It now falls to VBC's new CTO Helena Lidelöw to put the all Tracy's separate pieces of throughput promise and potential– talent, robots, precision saws, piece-level materials, software development, supply networks, subcomponent cost accounting, architecture, shop-level designs, construction documents, attachment and connection and clash detection, and interoperability, etc. together again for the first time.

Here's an important reveal in how Vaughan Buckley believes Lidelöw can succeed in the Tracy reboot:

She is solution oriented and thrives in dynamic environments where skills and knowledge are shared among all teams and disciplines, [bold italics added for emphasis]" said Vaughan Buckley, CEO of Volumetric Building Companies. "She'll work closely with our design and technical teams, as we continue to drive the industry forward with collaborative, efficient and cost-effective innovations and build the future of construction."
  • Technical chops? Check
  • Proven applied real-world impact at scale? Check
  • Understanding of design, construction, and economics as inseparable? Check
  • Track-record of causing epic partnership and collaboration? Check

Without gushing, Lidelöw's business, manufacturing, development, engineering, and management record speaks for itself. Prior to joining VBC for her first challenge – pivoting the Tracy facility from potential to actual, flywheel-level value creation – here's her professional bio in a nutshell.

Since 2010, Lidelöw worked for Lindbäcks Bygg, Sweden's leading industrial producer of apartment buildings, and arguably one of the world's most admired modular companies, as the Chief of Design, among other leadership roles during her time at the company. While at Lindbäcks, she oversaw the growth of the design department as part of the company's lean operations strategy, while playing a critical role in expansion initiatives including setting up the world's most advanced wood-frame modular factory in Sweden. Lidelöw also led the research and development team of experts that developed modular solutions in acoustics, fire, energy, moisture, structural, and life-cycle issues.
Starting her career in academia, Lidelöw has a Ph.D. in timber engineering and previously was an associate professor of industrialized construction at Luleå University of Technology in Sweden. While there, she headed the architectural engineering program for master level students in addition to teaching several subjects and working as a key leader in the Luleå research group. One of her many academic accomplishments includes writing a textbook on Industrialized Construction that continues to be used at several Swedish universities today.

Her stock in trade is production logic, integration of trades and expertise disciplines, and supply chain cohesion. For Lidelöw's new boss, Buckley doesn't downplay the challenge he's put on her shoulders. He recognizes the complicated, moving chaos of interdependencies, fragile balances, Rube Goldberg adaptations, and thick walls of hesitation, suspicion, and resistance to untangling she faces from the start, which is to transform the Tracy plant from its trickling output today of wall panels, cabinets, trusses, and flooring into the full-fledged multisystem design, engineering and production system it can be.

The success of each literal component of this plan relies on the success of all the others that interrelate," says Buckley. "With Helena, we've got someone who gets both how to make the complex simple technically, and more importantly, proves she does that with people, experts, interests that need to collaborate for this to work."

Lidelöw's secret sauce, one way or another, needs to traffic in velocity (speed plus accuracy and repeatability), constructability (design that solves for performance, resiliency, and aesthetic value and can be done on time on budget), and capability (the ability to achieve throughput, generate financial profit, and do so offering predictable costs from end-to-end.

When the first step you take is to stop looking at what we're doing as this venture as construction, and start looking at it as manufacturing, the tasks, and challenges, and opportunities open up and look differently," Lidelöw says. "The world I come from is one that takes things systematically, and it's led to thinking of manufacturing as a science that requires data, and systems, and people from separate expertise and knowledge areas – sales, design, factory engineering, purchasing, and the rest – levering together for the outcomes. For each knowledge, expertise, and financial interest area, the data needs to clarify the value gain precisely so that we can optimize the output."

The moment Lidelöw heard that VBC had put dibs on the Tracy facility and planned to resuscitate operations under a new business and operations model, she felt drawn to the the challenge.

In my visits through the years to learn about modular and industrialized precision manufacturing of buildings around the world, I've gotten to know Vaughan, and respect how he's applying these principles in his business," says Lidelöw. "When I caught wind that VBC was buying the Katerra Tracy factory, I thought, wow, what an opportunity!"

Lidelöw has struck up conversations with some of the plant's talent pool from Katerra days, some of whom felt the work was only just begun, and some of the ones Buckley noted had "deleted their passwords," resigning to present-day obstacles in the path of the future.

There are so many amazing people who made that place a hive of learning and possibility," Lidelöw says. "While my background is more systematic and studied, I'm energized by the 'can-do' resolve, and the strong desire many of those people have to transform the business. So that will be my first commission, and I'm excited, although I'll be living a lot of my life on a plane."

One might imagine that former Katerra engineer and kindred spirit in his deep, rigorous, eloquent relationship with how construction may evolve into its future, Brian Potter might look soon at Helena Lidelöw's approach to solving what Katerra's venture, vision, execution, and real-world experience failed to do.

That would be a fun conversation to be a fly on the wall.

Join the conversation

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John McManus

John McManus

President and Founder

John McManus, founder and president of The Builder’s Daily, is an award-winning editorial, programming, and digital content strategist. TBD's purpose is a community capable of constant improvement.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John McManus

John McManus

President and Founder

John McManus, founder and president of The Builder’s Daily, is an award-winning editorial, programming, and digital content strategist. TBD's purpose is a community capable of constant improvement.

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