Originally written: Nov 2001
If SIPs are the greatest thing to hit the construction world since sliced bread, why hasn't the design community - architects, engineers, and other design pros - embraced them and pushed them as they have with some other newly developed building materials in recent years? Two examples of successful introductions and adoptions are composite joists for floors and roofs, and EIFS - Exterior Insulation and Finish Systems. Both have found acceptance and widespread use in both the residential and commercial sectors. What is behind the resistance to SIPs or any other new material by the design community and how did the Composite Joist Industry and the EIFS Industry breach this resistance?
Architects and other design professionals run businesses just like any manufacturer or builder organization. Their first concern is to maintain a black bottom line - or they cease to function, again, just like any builder or manufacturer. They too have the combined overhead of both a physical plant and staff, whether small or large. They are perceived as selling their expertise, but they are selling their time within a competitive environment. Their expertise or reputations may help them land a job and negotiate a contract, but the time to produce the finish product becomes the determining factor as to whether or not the job is profitable. Just like a builder estimating from a set of plans, the designer has to guess the amount of time it will take to deliver product. His experience is his best guide and here is the catch: just like a builder; how do you estimate the time to produce the product when you have no experience working with it? This is a huge "driver" in the building world. It is the largest single cause of the construction world's acknowledged conservative behavior. A large company may have some fiscal room to take a chance with a small project, where the potential for a large loss is limited. But most large design firms don't handle small projects, it doesn't pay. The likelihood that a firm would take a chance with a large project, where the potential for a huge loss is very real, is obviously very small. How is this cycle broken?
Verifiable support from a known, strong entity is the way it is usually done. We have recently been specifying boilers new to our region that have claimed superior performance with additional safety features. Before we suggested this to our client, we had to check out the company to see how long it has been around, was it large enough to back up its warrantee, etc. In other words, if all hell were to break loose - total product failure - would my client (and not so incidentally, my firm) be protected and made whole again?
If the answer turns out negative, we can't afford to specify this product. Note that this investigation takes time and resources. If we went with "the standard product," what we used last time with no problems, we would make out better on the project. How much costly and unbillable time can we afford to spend on such investigations? See what is happening here? We also have to convince the builder to competitively bid the installation of the product and back it up with service - in essence - absorb the cost of his learning curve.
The product must deliver on large performance and value characteristics that offset the investments that both the designers and builders make. A rare client will assume these additional costs, but in most cases also will opt for the status quo. The underlying operative here is that building in general is going up in cost at a rate that well exceeds the average national rate of inflation. Therefore, buildings cost more than they used to (it is irrelevant that they perform better) and have become so dear that we can't afford to write off failed experiments.
A large building material manufacturing company must charge sufficiently for its product so as to cover the obvious costs of physical plant, labor and materials, but also pay for warrantee costs, marketing, research and development. To get back to EIFS and composite joists, we see that the first EIFS company here, STO, had built up a large successful business in Europe since right after WWII. The company then used the strength of its size and history to launch an intensive marketing blitz on US design firms through their regular magazine channels. The advanced combination of features of the product, which existed nowhere else, soon brought in new clients. Of course, price point played a role in the process as well. A similar story is behind the introduction of composite joists. They were launched by a large company that had a successful history of delivering other construction materials to the building industry. Sufficient creditability and capital assured the specifier that the client and his company would be protected if necessary.
So a brief accounting shows us:
1. The launching company or consortium should be creditable in terms of its ability to provide proper support.
2. The product must have features that constitute a large improvement over the status quo.
3. The design community must be able to specify and integrate the product into its ordinary practices and procedures without having to pay for a steep or prolonged learning curve.
4. Experienced users and their case histories must be easily accessible.
5. Price point must be acceptable for the demonstrated features.
With SIPs our experience has been that items 1,3 & 4 have been problems with the SIP Industry expecting to fly ahead on the strength of items 2 & 5 alone.
Leaving the issue of capital aside for the moment, the design community has come to expect rather large and complete support mechanisms to be in place when being "wooed" by industry to specify its new product. We expect:
1. Easily demonstrable Code Compliance.
2. Engineering and design guidelines and details that are complete and simple to use. For example, many manufacturers issue interactive CD's with full catalogues and design software for load/span conditions.
3. Warranties are creditable because the resources of the company are perceived to be substantial.
4. Case histories and references of published and recognized projects of high merit.
5. Industry-wide standards and certification programs.
6. Quality control is perceived to be a non-issue.
Of course, there are exceptions. Pioneering firms with a missionary-like zeal will be willing to take some limited risks. We need the SIP industry to recognize the needs of the design community and commit to meeting them. We need a design community to look more at societal needs - the same society that grants them licenses (protected monopolies) - and reach out for improved construction materials and technologies for the benefit of their immediate clients and the built environment as a whole.
Originally written: Nov 2001