On July 4, 2020, the Cooper family started a journey they will never forget. The couple, Dave and Jennifer, had already dedicated themselves to housing and the progress and evolution of better construction techniques, but decided to level up during COVID by buying a motorhome to tour the country to find the most compelling case studies and bring them to the rest of the world.
The Coopers sold their home by December, convinced their two 12-year-old twin girls and 4-year-old son to join them, and chose a 38-foot motorhome to be their home and office studio for live broadcasts on housing innovation.
“Our hashtag is #BuildItBetter and that’s our criteria for shows,” said Dave Cooper. “We want to understand what a company is doing different that is going to move the industry forward, and that’s our filter. Our purpose was to learn for ourselves, but then we had this incredible need to share it with others. What happened was magical—all of a sudden, this community was born and people started asking questions and we felt like we wanted to go find answers. There was a mutual thirst for an open source approach and the ability to connect with others.”
Motivated by an unquenchable thirst for change, the Dave Cooper LIVE Show has traveled nearly 21,000 miles covering 28 states and broadcasting six LIVE shows a week on Linkedin, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Twitch. The live shows have a growing audience that actively engages in the conversation, adding comments and questions. Plus, all the shows are recorded and are available on the Dave Cooper LIVE YouTube channel to view on demand.
“Because we have visited the four corners of the country, we saw very different regional needs from a design perspective, but there are two major problems that are rampant across the country – the lack of housing stock and affordability,” Jennifer Cooper said. “Both of these trends are coupled with the regional requirements and health and wellness design requirements.”
The learnings have been extensive, and fortunately for the needs of the housing industry, the Coopers share the most fascinating, critical, and relevant innovation that they have seen.
Process Optimization And Automation
What the Coopers discovered is that there is a vastly different level of automation across the country in home building factories, and factories that have little to no automation are able to compensate with process optimization that takes productivity to a higher level.
“You hear about high automation, but what we are finding is it is the process and the simplification of the process that is creating productivity,” said Cooper. “The fact is that while there is a need for our industry to invest in technology and automation, the sequence needs to be right for the business. Process optimization and the appropriate technology to design and build a market-ready, high-quality product should be considered first, then the robotics, the automation and the volume that comes with it.”
Idaho-based modular builder Autovol redesigned the manufacturing line using proven systems, such as construction technology like digital twins and BIM, to create a product to meet market demand.
Others leading the way in this regard are South Carolina-based Impresa Building Systems, Louws Truss in Washington, and Entekra in California.
The processes these innovators were using also had a direct influence on fund-raising capabilities.
“We learned that as people raised money to open new factories, it wasn’t always about how much they could raise,” Jennifer Cooper said. “It was about how they would spend it, what they would spend it on, and most importantly, what they would invest in first.”
Modern Building Techniques
The Coopers saw many new building techniques from companies that were either trying to separate and solve a specific issue or trying to solve multiple challenges at the same time. Some examples that they were most impressed with include accessory dwelling units (ADUs), 3D printing, and advanced framing.
Companies that are leading the way on these innovations include Black Buffalo 3D, a New York-based organization, actively working on the ability to print with hemp-based construction materials; Nevada-based Boxabl is a space-efficient ADU that is affordable and puts housing within reach for many who have been priced out; Colorado’s Simple Homes uses panelized construction that can be created in just a number of days; transportable living spaces from G-Pod in Texas; and California-based Jupe’s off-the-grid homes designed by a team from SpaceX and Tesla.
“These companies couldn’t be further apart in terms of backgrounds or their approach to construction,” said Jennifer Cooper. “What they each share is an insatiable appetite for bringing a new product to market that solves multiple problems like supply chain, the cost of construction, and reducing risk.”
More Sustainable Solutions
Many of these innovative designs and processes were inspired by the need for more sustainable homes that have lower operating costs. The Coopers found solutions that were environmentally friendly, plus they were durable, safe, healthy, and stylish.
For instance, New Hampshire builder Unity Homes uses panelization and digital processes to offer five unique net zero ready home designs. Across the country, homes designed by world famous architects combine modularization and panelization from California-based Plant Prefab; Colorado-based Sage Mountain offers completely off-the-grid cordwood and straw bale built homes with EV charging stations; and, Montana’s The Moonlight Ranch offers net zero homes built from containers combined with stack wall construction.
The Coopers also saw projects that were designed specifically to address future living needs that stray from traditional design principles and that also offer a new point of view.
They spent time visiting The House That SHE Built project, which is a home designed and built in Utah completely by women. The floorplan and design respond to a woman’s point of view, and incorporate design elements that are part of the remote work and home school environment.
Based on a long-term health study, Tavistock Development set out to create the community at Lake Nona in Florida. The project addresses health and wellness, access to education and healthcare, innovation centers, transportation, and a cultural mix of homeowners.
The House that SHE Built not only offered design insights, but also had messages about workforce trends. The goal for the project was to hire only female contractors, which turned out to be a struggle. The project owners had to recruit from outside the local area, even to a national level, to get the exclusive team of female builders.
“It was a different statement on the labor and workforce that exists today and that we’re trying to cultivate for tomorrow,” Jennifer Cooper said. “Our daughters couldn’t understand that a home completely designed and built by women was newsworthy. From their perspective, an all-women workforce is normal, something that could and should happen every day, everywhere. We had to explain to them in detail how and why this was not normal. Their lens changed after that. They have inspired us to do better when we were already working hard on our series ‘Herstories in Housing.’ We still can’t do enough on this topic.”
The Coopers also noticed people coming in from outside the industry. For instance, Garrett Moore was a US Navy Seal before seeing the need for a better team culture, less trade warfare, and better technology to improve home building. Inspired by what was needed in housing, he founded the custom home building company Agorus in California to focus on leveraging the digital process for more efficiency.
Another modular advocate is Anthony Gude, an early supporter of the Dave Cooper LIVE Show, and the director of modular construction at the Los Angeles real estate development group Leap of Faith Partners. He immersed himself in the community, connected with and learned from others, and has expanded his industry influence.
“I directly credit Dave’s coverage of the offsite industry with opening up a world of opportunities for me when I first started exploring offsite and modular solutions,” Gude said. “I was lucky enough to be tuned in from the very first day Dave and Jennifer went live. Since then, I am in awe of how their content continues to drive awareness and brings the industry together. The Coopers will agree that change starts with ownership groups championing the offsite industry, and in my work, I apply the same passion and drive to make that change happen.”
Yet, one person doesn’t make change.
“If there was a theme to tie this all together, there is the true story of collaboration and unification that we’re trying to promote in an industry that has traditionally been very fragmented,” said Dave Cooper.
The technology these cutting-edge companies offer also helps attract new workforce. Cooper points out that Washington-based Louws Truss has a unique truss-building model that puts them in the position to compete with other shop building companies, like Boeing, for employees.
“They are competing with them in terms of workforce and they are winning, which was impressive in terms of mindset and leadership,” he said. “The technology and process optimization allows each of these new factories to scale and to attract and retain top talent.”
Two Overriding Themes And A Lifetime Of Memories
The award-winning Dave Cooper LIVE show continues to expand and to share what is discovered. The collaboration in this community and others will be necessary to start addressing the global deficit of affordable housing and the aggressive goals of carbon-smart building technologies.
“Ongoing education and awareness in the built environment are crucial to the growth and success of the community as well as the health, comfort, durability and resilience of our homes and buildings,” Jennifer Cooper said. “Much of this work is happening around the world and we look forward to sharing more of these global stories so that we all may learn and grow together.”
While solving for these massive challenges, the family also created an experience that few will ever have, including visits to Mt. Rainier, whale watching in the Pacific Ocean, holding mammoth tusks, birthday celebrations at Craters on the Moon National Monument, visits to Yellowstone and Grand Teton.
Through the many thousands of miles and hundreds of unique experiences, what sticks with the Coopers is that homelessness is everywhere and that families just like theirs live in poorly built, unhealthy homes. These facts are what motivates them to keep on their journey.
I send a huge, heartfelt thanks to the Coopers for elevating the industry!