Doing something new or different is always a little scary, at least initially. Builders are understandably cautious when it comes to anything that alters the spec list, requires a new supplier or installer, or might lead to warranty work and a bruised reputation.

Like a house, a builder’s business is built on a solid foundation that doesn’t shift too much… any movement in this foundation can lead to problems in the whole structure of the business. However, like a house, this foundation and structure must evolve and adapt to the times, to meet the needs of the social, economic, and environmental realities of the current age… and, we propose, to anticipate unfolding trends and create opportunities for your customers and your business.

Let’s explore this concept through the challenges and opportunities presented by incorporating alternative building materials, products, and technologies into your construction process. On one hand, the unknowns of a new product or material can be daunting, and many builders conservatively choose to mitigate the potential risks by simply sticking with what they are currently using. But the flipside of being conservative is complacency. No one grows their business or sales by standing still, except maybe in the boomiest of boom times.

On the other hand, there is innovation and change. Scary and risky, yes, but inherently ripe with opportunity. Can you fail? Yes, that is a possibility. But those who have the vision to see beyond the horizon and have the conviction and confidence to bring real innovation to the homebuilding industry will own tomorrow’s world.

A new idea to many pros, building information modeling can help save time and money in the construction process. Click here to see how Oakwood Homes is pioneering the use of BIM.
A new idea to many pros, building information modeling can help save time and money in the construction process. Click here to see how Oakwood Homes is pioneering the use of BIM.

Would it take the edge off if I told you that you didn’t have to innovate everything at once?

A measured approach to using an alternative construction product, material or system certainly doesn’t eliminate risk – something as seemingly simple and innocent as a new-fangled deck screw can cause problems. But done right, even in small doses, a better mousetrap can solve real problems, deliver better performance, improve homeowner satisfaction, and maybe even lower your costs.

As you look for (or, more likely, are approached with) alternative construction materials or methods, run them through this filter first:

· Does it solve a problem we’re actually experiencing, either on site or after occupancy?

· Do I understand it? Does my site super, lead carpenter, warranty service manager and sales manager understand it?

· Does the material allow for better performance as well as lend itself to easier design or installation?

· Is it, or will it be, readily available locally from a reputable source?

Solar is another technology that many home builders are just starting to embrace. Courtesy Dow Chemical Company
Solar is another technology that many home builders are just starting to embrace. Courtesy Dow Chemical Company

· Are there local people trained (ideally certified) to install it and/or is training offered?

· Does the economics make sense for the home builder and ultimately the homeowner… to the point of influencing their buying decision?

You probably can’t answer all of these questions completely right away, but they are worth asking up front. Something that survives this initial gauntlet is sure to boost your confidence and allow you to take on a more intense evaluation. And if it doesn’t make the grade, you can get it out of your head and move on.

If an alternative makes the first cut, look for ways to road-test it before you integrate it into your regular practices and systems. Maybe a model home or an in-house mock-up; I know a builder in Pensacola that uses his own home to try out new stuff, from low-flow toilets to vacuum-glass windows, even structural products. His crews install it and his family lives with it.

To that point, ask around. Get the names of other builders outside your market but close to your profile who have made the switch or are in the process. You know they won’t pull any punches.

Bottom line: Spend some time to evaluate an alternative material or method in a real-world context. Don’t look at it in isolation; take a systematic approach. Does it replace something within the system or augment it? Does it slow the system down, reduce flow (water, air, work), or require new tools? Or does it seamlessly and simply make the system work better than before?

And you don’t have to go it alone, either in learning curve or cost. Get the manufacturer and local supplier (or whoever is pushing you to use it) to share the expense, or even front it for you. If it’s that good, they should put some skin in the game… and also want to learn from it.

The ultimate goal is to get your crews and managers familiar and proficient, allow time to gather and hone actual costs, and – not to be neglected – get your sales story straight. I mean, if you’re going to go to the effort to innovate, you’d better be able to sell it to a homebuyer and reap the value.

And suddenly, innovation isn’t so scary after all.