What's the Missing Component in Housing Construction?

Originally published by: ProSales MagazineJanuary 8, 2015

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If you were a child in the 1960s, you witnessed the U.S. mission to put men on the moon. The challenges of the mission were enormous, particularly given that many of the engineering materials used in space had to be created from scratch. To go to the moon, NASA had to become a space-travel design facility—one that could learn the sophisticated design properties needed to create all the materials that went into the rockets and capsules. Without first acquiring those precision design properties, the precision engineering required to make the rockets and capsules wasn’t possible.

In contrast, what has changed in the last 50 years in construction? There is a good video on YouTube from Footage Farm, a channel that provides footage of public-domain material, that is about 1950s home building. Viewing it, it’s easy to assume that not much has changed. When we compare the construction industry with NASA, or even the auto industry, the following concepts and questions emerge:

1. Everyone assumes the lumber and OSB we use for truss and wallpanel design has precise raw-material properties that can be input into American Wood Council National Design Specification equations to safely resist all applied loads. But what if this design value precision isn’t really present? And what if we’re making the same unfounded assumptions about design values for, nails, screws, and hangers?

2. The auto industry and NASA are sophisticated on many fronts. In contrast, the manufacturing of many housing components remains primitive. Why haven’t construction professionals componentized everything that can be componentized and built in a more precise manufacturing setting?

Constructing buildings would take less time and be of higher quality if the manufacturing process involved connecting the components in a sequential, systematic order. This seems to be common sense. So why aren’t we applying such common sense?

3. As we head into the future, we see professional construction labor as a major constraint that’s hindering efficient, systematic building construction. At what point does the cost of labor begin to justify the investment in more mechanization of the construction process at all levels? Is this even possible? Why or why not?

Reliable, safe building performance is predicated upon accurate design properties, engineering precision, an understanding of the raw material engineering considerations needed for successful application or installation, and a skilled labor force. It may be surprising what we can learn to create the next housing innovation revolution.