Housings? Technology Roadmaps

Research is drafting the future of home building technology, and industry better step to the plate

By Liza Bowles | April 27, 2000
As president of the NAHB Research Center, Liza Bowles has focused the Center’s activities on innovative technology; energy and resource conservation; application of quality methods to home building; affordable housing; accessible housing; expanded programs for laboratory testing of building materials; certification of installers of building products; construction of research houses; recycling and reuse of construction waste; and the use of new communications media to distribute information to builders and the public. Liza holds a Master’s degree in urban affairs from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

So many technologies exist or are in development to improve the houses of tomorrow. New home builders, remodelers, manufacturers and government agencies could go down so many different roads into the future. As an industry we need maps to help us choose the best roads to affordability, energy savings, improved durability and safety.

These maps are what the NAHB Research Center and the Partnership for Advancing Technology (PATH) are drawing for the home building industry. The theme of a recent meeting in Kansas City was "Forging a New Trail for the Home Building Industry." Below that description was a picture of the Oregon Trail that American pioneers forged many years ago, starting in Independence, Missouri, not too far from Kansas City.

Just like those valiant pioneers, people in the housing industry need roadmaps to find their way in the technology wilderness. Useful technology roadmaps include a graphical depiction of a series of steps starting from today’s state-of-the-art and progressing to the availability of a desirable new technology. They also include background information on past and current R&D, an analysis of the technical obstacles separating the present from the future and an analysis of the costs of individual steps.

In the case of PATH, it also is important to consider the best place to perform and the best way to fund R&D. Answers will depend on the amount of work necessary, the skills required to perform it, and the degree to which private-sector firms can realistically hope to protect the results and realize sufficient returns at a pace that motivates up-front investment.

The roadmaps to be developed will include short, intermediate and long-range technology developments over the next 10 years in areas that will help achieve the PATH goals. Depending on the nature and outputs of the necessary R&D, specific activities will be classified into four categories:

  • Private sector, proprietary research (e.g. funded and performed by a single manufacturer);

  • Private sector, collaborative research (e.g. funded by a group of manufacturers);

  • Government/industry partnerships, where each sector provides part of the funding;

  • Government-funded research, where the results belong to the public domain.

    Roadmaps will focus on research and development, but in most cases should extend beyond product development to include demonstration and possibly even deployment or initial commercialization. The process does not really end until new products are brought to market and are available for use. The ultimate extent of their utilization is, of course, to be determined by the market.

    The PATH Process
    Technology roadmapping for PATH is particularly challenging for the following reasons:

    1) PATH is focused on the pursuit of multiple goals. Roadmapping activities frequently begin by developing a vision and ultimately pursue a single goal or narrower set of goals.

    2) PATH is addressing the totality of the home and all the products and systems that make it up.

    3) One of the PATH goals calls for improving affordability by reducing the overall monthly cost of housing. That goal makes explicit what is only implicit or altogether lacking in other roadmapping activities.

    4) While PATH is focused on the future, that goal specifically includes addressing the existing stock of homes as well as housing that is yet to be produced.

    PATH Goals
    The PATH program has a very ambitious set of goals that were set forth by President Clinton when the program was launched in May 1998. The foundation for PATH was laid in 1994 when the White House convened representatives from all segments of the nation’s construction industry to consider a broad set of National Construction Goals. When a separate group was formed to represent the residential segment, the Research Center served as the secretariat.

    Each of the PATH goals is defined in performance terms, without attempting to specify the technology or other means used to realize them. The specific goals, to be achieved by the year 2010, are to put technologies in the marketplace that makes it possible to:

  • Reduce the monthly cost of new housing by 20 percent or more;

  • Cut the environmental impact and energy use of new housing by 50 percent or more and reduce energy use in at least 15 million existing homes by 30 percent or more;

  • Improve durability and reduce maintenance costs by 50 percent;

  • Reduce by at least 10 percent the risk of loss of life, injury, and property destruction from natural hazards and decrease by at least 20 percent residential construction work illnesses and injuries.
  • There clearly are multiple approaches for pursuing and achieving the PATH goals. Some involve institutional change. Others revolve around education and training. Still others rely on expanding the use of products, systems and technologies that are already commercially available. All of these approaches are being pursued in one way or another through five working groups. In addition to the Technology Roadmapping Working Group (TRWG), which met for the first time in Kansas City, there are working groups charged with addressing financing issues, labor/quality issues, barriers/insurance issues and consumer education.

    Major progress in PATH likely will require R&D that leads to the demonstration, market deployment and eventual diffusion of new technologies. Work also must be done to enhance other technologies that have yet to achieve market success. An aggressive, but thoughtfully structured approach to R&D, together with systematic follow-up, will make a major contribution to the ultimate impact of PATH.

    There is another consideration as well: PATH goals are expressed in performance terms. They are quantitative goals, intended to be reached by multiple activities pursued in parallel. Each of the goals corresponds to some type of underlying problem. Documenting the problem or setting a "baseline" is necessary to access whether any successfully completed project would help meet the PATH goals. The Research Center has compiled baseline information for each of the PATH goals that can help in evaluating and comparing different ideas about the kinds of R&D that PATH should pursue.

    Making A Difference
    With all of these parameters in mind the TRWG met for a two-day "brainstorming" session to identify technology options for areas including integrated wall systems, innovative foundations and improved heating and cooling equipment, roof systems and mechanical systems. Also discussed were utilities, information technology, home interior cost reduction and whole-house design and construction.

    TRWG, which includes small and large-volume builders, manufactured housing producers, remodelers, materials suppliers, product manufacturers, trade contractors and related interests, exists to apply creativity, expertise and rigor in identifying and assessing technological options for achieving broadly defined strategies.

    If you are not involved in PATH but are interested in having a role in this program, the door is open.

    For more information on TRWG, log onto www.pathnet.org or www.nahbrc.org.

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