Monday, October 29, 2018

BUILDING TECHNOLOGY: You Go First

The metaphorical equivalent to how we build buildings,
even today.
Incredibly, amid the dazzling advances of so many other technologies, the way we build houses remains essentially medieval.  If transportation progressed at the same pace, you’d still be riding in an oxcart.  

One reason construction methods haven’t changed much in a thousand years is plain old fear:  Architects and contractors are slow to adopt new ideas because the consequences of failure are expensive. While a flaw in a car or even a computer are easily rectified, a mistake made on the scale of a whole building can be catastrophic. Or, as Frank Lloyd Wright put it, “The sins of the architect are permanent sins.”  

Frank Lloyd Wright's S.C. Johnson Administration Building
in Racine, Wisconsin (1948): Brilliant, but those spectacular
skylights leaked like a sieve. (Image: S.C. Johnson)
Because of the high stakes involved in trying out new technologies, most architects and contractors prefer to stay well clear of the cutting edge. Time pressure, and the fear of litigation, usually make the known product more expedient than the gamble. So, perhaps understandably, they play a game of you-go-first with new technology. They’re not willing to have their buildings, and hence their reputations, serve as guinea pigs for untried building methods or products.    

The Catch-22 of this situation is obvious, however:  New products can never become proven if people are afraid to use them.    

Modernist architects were among the notable few who were truly gung-ho on cutting-edge materials, but unfortunately, their trust in the emerging miracles of modern technology usually wasn’t repaid: their flat roofs and skylights inevitably leaked; their glued-laminated beams rotted; their steel sash rusted. 

Hot and cold water supply system using
PEX high-density polyethylene tubing.
which features a central manifold for
shutting off plumbing fixtures. A great
idea, but it sure had a rough start.
But it’s not just the failure of new products that makes architects and builders cling to the tried and true. Even products with decades-long track records can develop unexpected shortcomings. Who, for example, could have predicted that problems with outgassing would affect a longtime staple of construction such as particle board? Or that health concerns would banish that longtime standard of fireproofing materials, asbestos?  

It took almost a hundred years—
and the Second World War—to get
builders to switch from lath and
plaster to gypsum board ("drywall").
Today, as ever, there are a host of new products trying to shoulder their way into the hidebound building industry. But it’s an uphill battle. One example: flexible polyethylene tubing, which was designed to replace rigid copper water pipe and its fittings. Cheaper and simpler to install than copper, it had just started catching on during the 80s when leaky fittings brought a spate of lawsuits and a hasty retreat from the market.  

I-Joists are extremely strong and always straight and true,
but only the skyrocketing price of solid lumber has
convinced builders use them in place of good old sawn joists.
Today, flexible tubing is back, apparently leak-free, but it’s a brave contractor or architect who’ll stake his reputation on it a second time. And more’s the pity: the idea, in theory, is an excellent one. Instead of soldering dozens of copper fittings, one simply snakes a single flexible hose to each fixture—one of the first real plumbing advances in centuries. Still, as is usually the case with new building materials, it will take decades for the building industry to adopt it wholeheartedly.  

When new products do manage to prevail, it’s usually due to inescapable  economic pressures. This is what led to the adoption of drywall in place of plaster after World War II, for example. More recently, skyrocketing lumber prices have finally brought engineered wood products such as I-joists and laminated beams—at the fringes of the market for decades now—into mainstream use for home construction. I’m happy to report that they’re rapidly gaining the trust of architects and builders.

And it only took fifty years.

1 comment: