CONVENTIONAL WISDOM HOLDS THAT BUILDERS ARE slow to change their ways of doing things—“glacial” is a word often heard when the pace of change in the housing industry is described. If innovation—in design, construction techniques, materials used, and other aspects of the home building process—were seen as a timeline, it would, in popular perception, be very long, with very few marks where shifts occurred.
Is this a fair assessment? A participant at the BIG BUILDER '06 conference last month said that he thinks builders are getting a bad rap in this regard. His company's perspective on trying new technologies, he said, “has been partly shaped by our experience many years ago with fire-retardant treated plywood. The product, which tested well in the lab, ultimately failed in the field due to ‘real life' conditions. Repairs to more than 3,000 homes ran into the millions of dollars.” Not a risk many would be willing to take—even one time.
Risky new products, combined with the installation difficulties associated with non-English-speaking workers and the reluctance on the part of municipalities to accept changes—including ones that have already been made part of the code—add up to a huge stumbling block for builders when they consider pursuing innovative practices. But you and I both know a lot of builders do it anyway.
Every now and again, someone outside of the industry will acknowledge that fact, too. For instance, a study published in 1993 in the Journal of Construction Engineering and Management stated that, “Innovation in the construction industry occurs to a much greater extent than is usually recognized, and the sources of these innovations are more likely to be people working on site rather than manufacturers or research laboratories.”
So, given the risks and the obstacles, why do they do it and, more important, why should you? The benefits of innovation and new technologies can be immediate and far-reaching. They can help you to become more competitive. You may be able to build homes faster or cheaper; you may be able to offer your buyers more of what they want for less money; or you may be able to make improvements that impact not only your buyers but also the community at large, in areas such as sustainability, affordability, energy efficiency, and the ability to withstand natural disasters.
Although often portrayed as a relatively simple and straightforward business, building and selling a home is extremely complex, involving thousands of decisions that are made by hundreds of people. But while dealing with a process requiring so many decisions can be daunting, it also provides an astonishing number of opportunities for change and innovation.
Here at BUILDER, we'd like to acknowledge and encourage innovation in all aspects of home building. This month's story “Change Agents,” by John Caulfield (see page 86), takes a look at five companies that have embraced change—in supply-chain management, construction efficiency, quality control, customer service, and marketing. For the most part, the innovations these companies put in place have not been large and didn't cost them a lot, but they have, in every case, tangibly and measurably improved their business practices. And, in many cases, the changes were conceived and implemented by a handful of people.
Change of any kind is not easy, and bucking an entrenched system takes guts. But it's important to keep improving your processes, both for your business and for the industry as a whole. Even after describing his company's failed attempt at change and reciting a litany of other difficulties encountered, the builder closed his remarks at the conference by saying, “That said, I think we should implement all the new technology we possibly can, as quickly as it can be done.”