Innovation and home building are not synonymous

A recurrent observation here has to do with how slowly new technologies emerge in home building. While so many on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and research labs like M.I.T. are obsessed 24/7 with applying advanced materials science, automation and artificial intelligence, big data, and disruptive innovation in real world work places, residential development and home building continues to plod along in a parallel, virtually offline universe of materials, practices, and processes?

Sometimes--as we see here--that's not a bad thing. Occasionally, because of the erratic, random chronology of discovery, builders piece together new answers for parts of the puzzle that makes up a home's systems, and they create new stresses, failures, imbalances, and dysfunction in so doing.

Scarcely anywhere could there be a more profound example of this than in the pursuit of thermally "tighter" buildings that got underway in the 1970s with the "innovation" of blown cellulose insulation. Journal of Light Construction staffer Ted Cushman quotes Northern Vermont-based Jim Bradley on how cruel time can be as a stress-tester of builders' sometimes misguided efforts to improve their results:

“The worst decades for building science weren’t in the 1800s,” says Bradley. “It was the late 1970s through the 1990s, and even continuing to the present day. People were using new building products that hadn’t been vetted in the field, and they didn’t have the understanding to do so. Even in this century, builders are creating problems. You have building products that are more susceptible to moisture, and people are just thinking about making their buildings tighter, but they’re not dealing with the inherent moisture drive and the vapor drive, and unknowingly, they’re setting up ticking time bombs for their customers. That’s why we’re having such a high incidence of rot, mold, health issues for people, and structural failure within five or ten years of buildings that people thought were well thought out.”

Infrared images showing thermal failure.

Fortunately, innovation has made great strides in the four decades since, especially as applied scientists have teamed with builders to understand more about the forces- and-matter interrelationship between air, temperature, and moisture and the materials that shelter people from the outside elements.

But as Bradley says above, "even in this century, builders are creating problems."

Some of the problems arise as higher volume builders seek ever more efficient materials, systems, and labor to produce new homes. Research and development among manufacturers must fill a forward-rushing vacuum of lower unit pricing to sustain competitive position and marketshare as power consolidates greater and greater clout in the hands of fewer players. Our BUILDER 100 and the Next 100 now produce, sell, and settle on about 60% of total new home sales in the United States.

What are the chances that manufacturers and labor forces would get high-road leverage to innovate when the makers of three out of five new homes in America are pressing so hard for outcomes that deliver reliable quarterly rewards to institutional investors?

This week upcoming, we'll see a parade of home building enterprises report their earnings and operational performance for the critical second calendar year quarter, and below the headlines that focus on orders growth, will be a complex struggle by each organization to wring profit margins out of the soup of asynchronous labor supply, lumpy materials pricing, rising manufacturers' costs, and uncertainty on the ultimate price tags of each home closing.

Fact is, most of the innovation will continue to happen in boutique, niche-like instances in pocket-tracts and custom home sites, where the bar of ambition in improvement, design, and engineering excellence gets set, and others can only aspire and imitate, and attempt to replicate in some semblance of a scaled model.

This makes an analysis like this one, released in January 2004, by a combination of research and building science experts from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia, and the erstwhile NAHB Research Center (now called the NAHB Home Innovation Research Labs), as relevant and true today as the day it came to light.

This suggests two take-aways, one from business philosopher Seth Godin, who's got this nugget of wisdom on an alternative way to look at change vs. "Because it has always been this way" type of thinking.

The other take-away might be to start looking with more than passing interest at homes we've built in the past 10 to 15 years. Look hard at them as an opportunity to use them as labs for what we need to learn about innovation, including the cost of innovation we pursued ostensibly to save home buyers money in their initial cost of ownership.

Innovation and dollars will ever be intertwined. So, it's worth it for us to keep in mind a home that looks perfectly fine on the outside, that's actually a "ticking time bomb" in need of a $130,000 in mitigation repairs to retain its value.

What better time than now, when people are actually thinking about living in their new homes for a while, rather than buying them simply as a terraced stairway to a move-up or a cash-machine for vacations and new cars. Homes need to live, they need to last, and they need to speak to the pact you make with owners today, tomorrow, and 20 years from now.