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By: Karen Gilliams

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Sunday, 7-Apr-2013 13:11 Email | Share | Bookmark
Japanese technology builds Duluth home

Five East 5th Street is a narrow lot a few blocks above Duluth's downtown. A new basement juts out of a hole in the hillside. From the front yard, there's a spectacular view of Lake Superior.

Most of the houses in this neighborhood are at least 80 years old. They're small houses built for working families. A few vacant lots show where dilapidated houses were torn down.

From the bed of the semi, Santos Martin hands parts to workers on the ground. Martin works for the Japanese company that invented this system of homebuilding. He calls out the part numbers as half a dozen apprentice carpenters carry the pieces off the truck. Soon the lot is covered with stacks of house parts - corner posts 16-feet long, and insulated wall panels in various sizes, as big as 4 feet by 9 feet.

Then the workers start to build.

James Brew watches closely as the house starts to take shape. Brew is the architect who had the dream for this house.

"Every component is numbered," he says. "Every component has a specific place and an internal metal connector that allows you to put it together like you would a TV entertainment center or a bed frame."

Brew was fascinated by Japanese culture since he was a kid. He's traveled to Japan several times, and hosted exchange students in his home. Two years ago he learned about a Japanese company that created a home-building system that allows even inexperienced workers to frame up a custom-designed house in a day,

He points to the progress. "People who haven't built with this system. there they are, pounding together a beam and a post," Brew says. "And with a little bit of weather cooperation, they will probably have this entire house framed today.

The beams are made of laminated strand lumber. Instead of cutting big trees into 2x4s, laminated strand lumber uses smaller trees and even waste wood, glued together like plywood. The beams are four inches square. They have slots in each end for metal connectors. Workers match the connectors in the beams to slots in the floor.

They pound a metal pin into pre-drilled holes in the beam. Then they pivot the beam until it's standing upright. They slide the insulated wall panels into the spaces between the beams. Everything is supposed to fit precisely because it was cut to order in a factory.

The assembly is mostly a matter of matching the right parts. So it's an ideal project for people who are just learning how to build.

Lisa Lyons is one of the crew members. She and her co-workers are part of a job training program for battered women. After a year of learning standard construction techniques, Lyons says this job is fun.

"Before, it was a lot of framing, a lot of measuring. And this, you just pound in some pegs and stand it up and it's just like Lego blocks. It's really cool!"

The Japanese system offers not only speedy construction, but the potential for more affordable housing. The parts for this house were made at a factory in Minnesota. They were cut by hand, which took a couple of days. Architect James Brew says they could be cut in a couple of hours in a fully automated factory.

As the house takes shape, visitors stop by to watch. They include businesses thinking about the Japanese system as a possible new industry for Minnesota. James Brew says it would cost about $1 million to buy the equipment to make the house parts. And he's talked with a lot of lumber and construction firms that are intrigued with the idea.

"So there's many interests in the system and the idea, the technology," he says. "But it's chicken and egg. Which is first -- sales without a factory, or factory with no sales -- or together? It's very difficult."

Brew is hoping the house on Fifth Street will provide the demo that will spur some Minnesota business to decide there's a future for the Japanese system in the United States.

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