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Technology?s Fast Track
Achievement Award winner PATH is speeding up the process of bringing new technologies to the industry.
The introduction of new housing technology in the United States is a notoriously slow and costly process. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it takes 17 years to research and approve a new product or technique and deliver it to the marketplace. In 1994, the White House charged representatives of the home building industry with the task of developing a program that would accelerate the creation and widespread use of next-generation housing technology. The end result was PATH—the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing.
Officially launched by President Clinton and NAHB president Don Martin at a joint press event in 1998, PATH brings 13 federal government agencies together with members of the private sector, including home builders, product manufacturers, financial and insurance organizations, utility companies, labor organizations and university and research laboratories. PATH is a true partnership between government and industry. A PATH steering committee chaired by former NAHB president Roger Glunt develops and coordinates private sector participation. The Department of Housing and Urban Development manages the Federal side, with Elizabeth Burdock, PATH’s federal director, coordinating the various government agencies.
"It’s always difficult when coordinating large entities such as federal government agencies to get everybody on the same page at the same time," says Burdock. "But through different projects and activities, PATH has brought agencies together with industry."
For its efforts to promote new ways of building houses that improve affordability, durability, energy efficiency and environmental performance, Professional Builder honors PATH with its Achievement Award.
The PATH partnership aims to do no less than change the way Americans live. By 2010, PATH technologies will:
PATH actively works with builders, remodelers and manufacturers on three types of projects: field evaluations, demonstrations and national pilot projects. At present there are about 20 sites across the country that are PATH-specific.
In field evaluations—the first step in the introduction of new technologies into the home building industry—the NAHB Research Center fills in gaps where information is either vague or nonexistent. Demonstrations are comprised of subdivisions with 25 or more homes, and are used to illustrate and evaluate how PATH technologies perform on a community-wide or production scale. These sites primarily focus on technologies with well-documented cost and performance data. National pilot projects, unlike demonstrations, are large-scale developments that incorporate highly innovative technologies.
Technologies are categorized as either emerging, on the horizon or mature. The ones that have been tested so far in the mature category include structural insulated panels (SIPs), tankless water heaters, in-floor radiant heating systems and insulated concrete forms (ICFs). One emerging technology that will soon be tested at a site in Detroit is an alternative energy source called a fuel cell.
PATH is a continuum which potential entrepreneurs or product manufacturers can enter at different points, says industry chairman Glunt. They can team up with a university to research and develop new products, with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Or, they can work with the PATH Cooperative Research Program (PATH-CoRP), which provides the monetary assistance necessary to get emerging technologies to market within 18 months. PATH-CoRP research projects are administered by the National Institute of Standards Technology (NIST).
PATH has given money to the National Evaluation Service (NES) to evaluate new products and determine protocols to get new products to market quicker. The completion time for NES protocols is about a year. Field evaluations take about 18 months, and projects funded by NSF take about two years.
The PATH web site, www.pathnet.org, serves as the program’s information resource. The ToolBase program, jointly funded by the NAHB Research Center, industry partners and PATH serves as the Internet gateway for the latest housing information.
The program has experienced a few speed bumps along the way. Builders have been very receptive to the advanced technologies introduced by PATH, however, "incorporating the new products and techniques into the building process is still very difficult," says Glunt. "Trades won’t do it, or builders say it will cost them more. First-time cost is still a concern, as well as the risk. But they’re coming around. Consumers are becoming much more energy and environmentally conscious, and builders want to meet those demands."
Within PATH are five working groups that study finance, consumer education and expectations, quality and labor issues, insurance and technology roadmapping. The consumer education group focuses on finding out what needs to be done to convey the benefits of a house built to meet PATH goals: a more healthy, comfortable house, and environmentally friendly house.
Although PATH is only 2-1/2 years old, there is already a widely held view in the housing industry that PATH has made a lot of headway in getting people to think about changing the way they build. The program’s success results from its structure—it is a true partnership. More than 300 private and public organizations are involved in PATH, as well as the federal government agencies. With continued industry support, there are great opportunities for the program to grow and meet its goal to improve the affordability, energy efficiency, durability and environmental performance of our nation’s housing.