Leadership

What An Early 20th Century Architect Tells Us About Doing More With Less

When the choice is either to race to cut expense faster than revenue tracks downward, or to risk an unacceptable profit margin, a business leader's opportunity is to do more with less.

Leadership

What An Early 20th Century Architect Tells Us About Doing More With Less

When the choice is either to race to cut expense faster than revenue tracks downward, or to risk an unacceptable profit margin, a business leader's opportunity is to do more with less.

October 12th, 2022
What An Early 20th Century Architect Tells Us About Doing More With Less
SHARE:
SHARE:

Our story today aims at freeing opportunity from a trap, a challenge of financial viability during the new residential real estate and construction correction. When the choice is either to race to cut expense faster than revenue tracks downward, or to risk an unacceptable profit margin, a business leader's opportunity is to do more with less.

An illustration.

Anna Keichline, the state of Pennsylvania's first registered female architect in 1920, was born with natural talent to spare, and took to carpentry and mechanics as a young kid. She chose architecture at Cornell after a year studying mechanical engineering at Penn State, feeling that women were particularly "well suited to this field."

Why?

...  especially since they had intimate knowledge and understanding of how a household functions and how various rooms in a home, particularly kitchens, would be used by its occupants. She designed an improved, space-saving sink and washtub, which she patented in 1912, a year after graduating from Cornell with her BA in Architecture."

Among the innovative solutions for which Keichline earned seven patents included designs for clear glass kitchen cabinets to make cleaning and organization easier, and, in 1929, a bed designed to be folded into the wall of a small apartment – a forerunner of a stable of micro-apartment units today.

What puts Anna Keichline on the map in architecture and building technology, though, is an inside-the-walls invention, born of necessity: The K-brick.

Source: Pioneering Women, Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation

In his book, Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less, author/architect/academic Leidy Klotz writes:

Today, most building blocks are hollow, often shaped like a sideways and squared-off number eight. But before Anna Keichline, building blocks were solid. Solid blocks built Mesopotamian homes, Rome's Colosseum, Coba's pyramid, and the Washington Monument. If your house is more than a century old, it probably rests on solid blocks. But in her 1927 patent for the K-brick, Keichline subtracted that mass. Keichline the engineer knew that as long as the load-bearing outside parts of the blocks were solid, the insides could be hollow. And Keichline the architect knew that hollow blocks would appear exactly the same from the outside.
Not only was less possible, less was better. Keichline's hollow block required half the material compared to what was then the typical building block. This made her version less expensive to build with. The lock took less energy to make and less fuel to transport. And because of the insulation provided by the air voids in the individual blocks, the resulting buildings were more comfortable, less noisy, and less prone to fire."

What homebuilders – at the corporate, field, and jobsite level – would love about Anna Keichline was her peculiar time-and-motion take on living at home and work, almost as though she channeled early workflow influencers Frederick Taylor and Henry Gantt in her way of thinking.

She'd say:

Now after years of practice, I realize that I have never thought of hours, time is divided into jobs, a floor plan, a model, specifications, until the job is done."

Now, in October 2022, which goes in the residential construction and real estate business community as "Careers In Construction Month" at a cyclical crossroads, Anna Keichline's life and her greatest contribution – the K-brick – offer a teachable moment. The take-aways become crystal clear in the filter of a koan-like characterization of laws of simplicity by design, technology, and consumer experience guru John Maeda, especially No. 10, the "one to turn to when in doubt":

Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful."

In Anna Keichline's K-brick, the "obvious" subtraction that added meaningful value is the cement. The basic building block wasted less, improved indoor comfort, and increased safety.

In the exponential time-and-motion series that is production homebuilding business – where capital flow tends to accept short-term debt requirements for investments that deliver long-term returns –  subtracting to improve becomes a must to survive. Especially in 2022 budget planning, it's non-negotiable. If less does not do more during a downturn, you go away.

Another superior time-and-motion mind is Elon Musk, who takes classic lean production and complex systems thinking and turns them inside-out, upside-down, and backwards, and as residential builders try to secure their businesses, the big choice will be whether to secure a future that's better than before, or to go back – by cutting costs – to an operational state that's not as good as it is now, and then work to become as good as now, rather than better.

Musk, in a conversation with Everyday Astronaut host Tim Dodd, noted:

1_Make your requirements less dumb.

2_Delete the part or process step.

3_Simplify or optimize (but only after Steps 1 and 2)

4_Accelerate cycle time.

5_Automate.

Digging deeper on the second principle ...

The bias tends to be very strongly towards 'let’s add this part or process step in case we need it,'” observes Musk, “If you are not adding things back into the design at least 10% of the time, you are clearly not deleting enough. If you are not forced to add back then you are not working hard enough to remove steps.”

If you read Klotz's book, it becomes clear that while subtracting can improve things, we tend reflexively to add when we try to improve. This makes budget time painful, because the go-get for those with some budget-line management is to both improve performance and subtract resources.

Observe-orient-decide-act loops that intend to reach better outcomes more often than not mean adding resources – time, money, capability, materials, land, etc. – not removing them. It may have been counter-intuitive for Anna Keichline to sense that a building block could be as strong – and function in even more valuable ways than as a solid block – and that counter-intuitive time-in-motion thinking is what will allow some teams to survive and thrive while others cripple themselves by simply trying to cut their way to viability.

What a timely piece from the Collaborative Fund blog by Morgan Housel, Little Rules About Big Things, where lines like the following might help some of us work more positive with the challenge to improve our operations through subtraction.

A big takeaway from economic history is that the past wasn’t as good as you remember, the present isn’t as bad as you think, and the future will be better than you anticipate.

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.

MORE IN Leadership

Never Underestimate The Power Of Fun As A Key To Resilience

Exactly this time, these pressures, this pain, this uncertainty, these risks, and all of those threats can and will add up in the minds and hearts of your young colleagues as the quintessential meaning of fun.


Thanksgiving Wishes To Workers Among Workers In Homebuilding

The transformation we've seen begin in residential real estate, construction, and their ecosystem in the last several years is one with both the future of home and work at the heart of it, toward expanded belonging. So, thank you.


Tech's Disruptive Innovators Face Comeuppance: What To Learn

A wave of layoffs, business retrenchments, and shut-downs of once-vaunted game-changers steamrolls through Silicon Valley tech firms. Resist the urge to gloat and say, 'I told you so.'


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.

MORE IN Leadership

Never Underestimate The Power Of Fun As A Key To Resilience

Exactly this time, these pressures, this pain, this uncertainty, these risks, and all of those threats can and will add up in the minds and hearts of your young colleagues as the quintessential meaning of fun.


Thanksgiving Wishes To Workers Among Workers In Homebuilding

The transformation we've seen begin in residential real estate, construction, and their ecosystem in the last several years is one with both the future of home and work at the heart of it, toward expanded belonging. So, thank you.


Tech's Disruptive Innovators Face Comeuppance: What To Learn

A wave of layoffs, business retrenchments, and shut-downs of once-vaunted game-changers steamrolls through Silicon Valley tech firms. Resist the urge to gloat and say, 'I told you so.'