Whenever I hear someone tell me a trend is inevitable, the critic in me immediately replies, "If your idea is so good and so obvious, why hasn't it happened yet?" If I dislike the idea, I suppose I do it out of cynicism. But if I like what I heard, I still ask the question out of a desire to be supportive: I want to identify the barriers that slow or stymie a great idea.
I've been been a questioner lately because of all the talk about how construction is poised to make some of the biggest changes since indoor plumbing was invented. Modular construction can put renters into apartments 20% to 50% sooner than current building methods, we're told. Mass timber enables us to erect structures that are lighter, cheaper, more attractive, and more environmentally friendly than concrete and steel buildings. Offsite manufacturing will improve construction quality, waste fewer resources, and attract a new generation of workers. And so on.
They're all great. Then again, component manufacturing has been around since the days of the pyramids. So what's holding back these ideas today? I believe you can reduce them to three concepts, all beginning with the letter C. If it can get over these hurdles, construction might be able to race ahead.
The first is Communication. Putting up buildings today is like running a relay race, with each participant concerned primarily with just its part rather than how what's being built will look when it reaches the finish line. Homes and offices would be so much better if all parties involved were working together from the start, making contributions and suggesting ideas that can help the group. Construction is full of people who are supposed to be partners in the building project but often end up feeling like the circus clean-up crew after the elephants have passed by. Those folks can be much more; often, they can do more for the project than the people who get the glory.
Go to events such as the Industrialized Wood-Based Construction Conference (IWBC) and you'll hear lots of calls for communication. Intriguingly, though, most of the examples of inter-community conversation that people cite take place in companies that are partly or completely vertically integrated. At Katerra, the architects care about the production people and the material loaders not (just) because they're nicer, but because they all have the same boss and they work with a common objective. We need to find a way to all the key figure in the building process working more closely together, even if they hail from different companies.
The second hurdle is Components, a category that ranges from ink-jet labeled 2x4s to intricately engineered, ready-to-plug-in hotel rooms. There's abundant evidence that using ever more sophisticated, offsite-built components will result in better homes ... provided all involved 1) communicate, 2) don't change plans in mid-build, and 3) do their jobs properly.
Just as the failure of a simple O-ring gasket caused the multi-billion-dollar Challenger disaster in 1986, a truckload of expensive framing components can be useless if it turns out the concrete slab was poured wrong. At the Building Component Manufacturers Conference (BCMC) last month, a California framer used to working with big builders said concrete crews accustomed to pouring 10 foundations in a housing development in a day have to slow down to just three per day when told they have to be as accurate as the factory components being brought to the site. The entire industry gets away with such sloppiness now because most of the framing materials brought to the jobsite aren't shaped until after they arrive. That has to end if we ever hope to improve.
And that leads to the third, perhaps biggest hurdle: Caring. And for this one, I'm looking mainly at you, Mr. Builder. You might not like to hear it, but from what I heard at IWBC and BCMC, it's easy to conclude that there's no group in this country that cares less about the end product they produce than big builders. For many big builders, it's finding the land and developing the concepts that provide all the fun and profit. Everything after that is outsourced, and what's produced only has to stand up long enough to get past the warranty date. That attitude can't last.
But builders aren't the only problem group here. Architects are encouraged to draft concepts that basically dare engineers and developers to turn into real places. Framers typically contract for work based on linear feet of product installed, so there's no incentive to work faster or use less wood. Manufacturers, naturally, have to promote the bottom line.
Each of these C's links to each other, and all are vital. Get over these hurdles and I believe the vision of a better construction industry has a much better chance of becoming a reality.