One company that aims to lower those costs is Vantem Global. The company is a Greensboro, North Carolina-based manufacturer of prefabricated modular structures made with the proprietary Vantem Structural Panels.
By Jason Hartman
In many large cities in the US, there is a crisis caused by a shortage of affordable housing options. This has led to a host of social challenges. In this series called “How We Are Helping To Make Housing More Affordable” we are talking to successful business leaders, real estate leaders, and builders, who share the initiatives they are undertaking to create more affordable housing options in the US.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Anderson, CEO of Vantem.
Chris is the founder and CEO of Vantem Global, heading the team that developed the Vantem System and pioneered its implementation. His career as an entrepreneur has been focused on creating innovative, sustainable solutions with a global footprint. Prior to Vantem, he co-founded and headed \an international construction products manufacturing business for 20 years that was a pioneer in the use of sustainably harvested timber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The company grew to 1,600 employees with operations in six countries.
Chris grew up between South America and the United States, where he developed a broad international network and a multi-lingual, multi-cultural life and family that has been an important part of his success. He has a BS from Park College and master’s studies in International Relations at the University of South Carolina.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Thank you for having me! My story starts in South America — my parents were in the Peace Corps, and they moved to Bolivia, where I grew up initially in the Amazon Rainforest, then nearby. I left to obtain my bachelor’s and master’s studies in the U.S., and when I returned to Bolivia to visit, I could see how deforestation was advancing rapidly. It became clear to me that part of the problem was that the forest did not have an economic value for those in and around it, while crops and cattle did. So, along with a good friend, we decided to start a company aimed at bringing value to the forest by making products with sustainably harvested wood. We built a company that eventually employed almost 2,000 people making quality doors and windows for the global marketplace. This venture nurtured a passion for sustainability, which carried over to my current company, Vantem.
Some years ago, we built homes in a remote area of Brazil that is very hot. The families were quite humble and were used to living in precarious brick structures that were so hot during the daytime they could have baked bread without the help of an oven. One of the attributes of the homes we build is that they have a very high insulation value, so when one of the homeowners first walked into his new home and felt the cool air even though there was no air conditioning, he ran back out, fearing there was a ghost in his house! It took some words from the local priest to get him to take the keys.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
There was a tipping point, but it was born out of what others might call a failure. When I co-founded my first company, I was in my early 20s and fresh out of graduate school. The products we developed were in high demand, we grew really fast and were quite profitable. We felt invincible. We kept expanding throughout the late 1990s and into the early 2000s. However, along with the rest of the world, we were not prepared for the events of September 11th, 2001. We were vulnerable to a downturn and paid the price. We almost lost the business, and it took five years to dig back out.
I see this as a tipping point; it was a hard but very important lesson. Now, I am constantly scanning ahead, thinking of what can go wrong. As we have built Vantem, we’ve been very deliberate, making sure every step we take is solid before moving forward. This approach has helped us build more than three million square feet of construction worldwide and recently expand into the United States.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
John Preston, our longtime investor and Chairman of Vantem. He has been a huge part of our success to date and has been extremely generous with his time, network, and great business sense. He spent 30 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, bringing intellectual property to market, and is a real visionary. He brought important investors on board, including Quadrant Management, and most recently, was instrumental in the investment made by Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV). He has great foresight, from which we are very lucky to benefit.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
One book, The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken, impacted how I think about business and its relationship to the environment, which is a cornerstone of what Vantem is today. Published in the early 1990s, Hawken raised the alert that capitalism and industrialization have provided progress for humans, but ecology and the environment were left out of the equation. He provides a framework and examples of how companies can make money while being responsible stewards of the environment, which I think is incredibly important in today’s world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure” — Mark Twain
I love this quote because its hyperbole perfectly captures how people who know an industry well seldom innovate. It usually takes an outsider because a degree of ignorance of the industry’s obstacles is needed to embark on reinvention. For example, I was not a construction expert when we set out to reinvent the construction industry, but that is exactly what we are doing!
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the shortage of affordable housing. Lack of affordable housing has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities. I know this is a huge topic, but for the benefit of our readers can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?
The origins of today’s affordable housing crisis are found in the 2008 mortgage crash. Over the following 10 years, there was very little new residential construction, which accumulated a deficit that today is around 4 million homes. Current construction rates are not eating into that deficit, and most new homes being built are not affordable. An increase in land prices and the cost of materials has made it difficult to build affordable starter homes, which used to cost roughly $200-$250,000. At the same time, city and local government policies have become more restrictive, further impeding the progress on how many starter homes are being built.
To rectify this, we need to increase construction productivity and lower costs. This will not be done using the same old construction methods. The entire way we build needs to be rethought so we can increase the number of homes being built and do so at costs that the average American can afford.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?
Vantem has created a new way of building that reduces costs and increases energy efficiency. Our homes are, on average, 20% lower in price than traditional construction and up to 70% more energy efficient. Homeowners pay less for their homes and save money on energy costs, further improving affordability and reducing the carbon footprint of their homes, which is also tremendously important. We achieved this by re-thinking how houses are built and developed a simpler, more productive system where they are made with large structural panels. These panels are thermally efficient, so homeowners aren’t spending extra money on energy costs, and can withstand extreme weather events like fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes. We build our homes in factories, like cars on a production line, which further increases productivity and reduces costs. This allows us to build affordable, energy-efficient, climate-resilient housing at scale, including Net Zero homes that use no net energy from the grid.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
We built a home in Freeport, Bahamas, that was hit by the strongest hurricane on record, Hurricane Dorian. I went to Freeport a few weeks after the storm, and the devastation was staggering. But the house we built was still there, standing out like a beacon. It was the only house in the area that was not blown away or severely damaged. I got to meet the homeowners who were doing some clean-up, as the house had been under 3 feet of water during the storm, but they had moved back in and were living in it. They told me that most of the people they knew were homeless after the storm. I got a great big hug.
In your opinion, what should other home builders do to further address these problems?
I believe home builders who want to lower costs and increase efficiencies need to break the mold. The lack of productivity gains in construction goes back decades, so home builders can’t expect to keep following the same processes and hope for different results. To catch up to the gains other industries have made, the construction industry and home builders must take revolutionary steps, not small evolutionary ones.
Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?
The first item is zoning and planning. Local and state communities need to prioritize affordable housing when discussing plans for the community at large. If a community doesn’t have a place for middle-class citizens to live, it leads to a lack of diversity and a gap in important jobs that need to be filled, such as public service posts.
The second item is energy efficiency. As much as communities need to prioritize affordable housing, they must also promote energy efficiency. By treating it as a desirable attribute when discussing plans for the community, everyone wins. Energy-efficient homes reduce the investment communities need to make in the electric grid, and citizens save money on monthly energy bills that they can leverage elsewhere.
Lastly, developers and builders should focus on these aspects. When city and local communities realize the benefits of building affordable, energy-efficient homes, they’ll prioritize working with developers and builders who do the same, prompting a chain reaction in the home construction industry.
If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws which you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
First, I’d like to see new zoning laws that prioritize affordable housing. As we’ve discussed, restrictive zoning laws have been a contributing factor to the lack of affordable housing, and I believe with less restrictive zoning laws in place, we could help solve the issue.
Next, I believe we should allow net-zero metering, meaning that homes with solar panels can pump electricity into the grid during the day and take it back at night when the panels don’t generate power. This is a complicated issue that is being battled across the country right now. We want to incentivize home construction in which the home can make its own power.
Lastly, we should allow and incentivize the consideration of net-zero homes in the mortgage payment compacity. The current rule of thumb is that a homeowner’s mortgage should not exceed 30% of the total income. However, if a home makes its own power, a higher percentage of a person’s home could theoretically go towards a mortgage. By doing so, more citizens could become homeowners.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started leading my company,” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Write a good business plan: It helps to have a good map and compass when you start the journey.
Be ready to throw the business plan out the window: Even the best maps do not predict the weather and everything that will come at you along the way. You must be prepared to adjust to reality as it develops.
It will take longer than you think: It took us 20 years to build our first business, we are 12 years into growing Vantem, and we have plenty more to do.
Just because you can do something does not mean you should: Staying focused is critical.
Hire people that are smarter than you are: It takes courage to bring people into your company that knows more than you do, but that is what you need in order to grow and succeed.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Big change needs personal accountability. I think that it would make a big difference if every person had a “carbon footprint score,” similar to a credit score. And that score would allow those with the best scores to access benefits such as lower taxes. Personal accountability married to incentives is a powerful combination.
Is there a person in the world or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
I’d love to meet with Wade Davis, an ethnobotanist from Harvard. He studies the complicated symbiosis between plants and humans and how that has evolved over time. He is an expert on the peoples, plants, and ecology of the Amazon region where I grew up and wrote one of the best books I’ve ever read, One River, about his time and work there. His work intersects with many of my interests, and I’m sure we’d have a fascinating conversation.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Check out our website vantem.com
Thank you for the interview. We wish you continued success!
Originally published on December 1, 2022