Sunday 10 May 2020

Innovations with Building Materials

I wrote a literature review on the innovation of  materials in the building industry some time back.   Then period architecture, especially Victoriana was considered more desirable than contemporary builds in popular culture.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world was on the start of a technological wave involving the internet, information technology and world wide communications.  The innovative products of this were conspicuous in their intent to introduce us to their brave new world.  By comparison, innovations in building materials were often hidden behind more familiar or traditional materials with reference to the past.  Other industrial sectors such as aircraft, train and car manufacturing appeared more confident about displaying a design aesthetic which marked their place in the present, looking forward.  

With the current generation of technological innovations progressing with the involvement of A.I., automation, genetics, 5G networks and nanotechnologies, it is worth taking a look at the position of the building industry in this context, to speculate what the affect might be on Architecture. 

Barriers to Innovation

Barriers to innovation arise from the balance of the relationship between producers and consumers.  The products of this relationship provide evidence of how innovation is managed and tells a lot about the producer / consumer relationship.  Back at the turn of the century, there was a strong reliance on design as a tool to reinforce the values of known materials rather than experimenting with the possibilities of the new.  There were and have been since, lots of innovations in building materials and building systems, but the finishing layers usually default to a familiar material with a commonly held value, with the innovation hidden behind.  There are many excuses that might be given, such as a building has a long design life so designing it to fit in to a known period style is safer than exposing innovation that might look dated in years to come, and innovative design presents a risk because new building systems can fail with serious consequences, but I believe the key issues lie within the structure of the building industry which and its knowledge and understanding of its consumer base and stakeholders. 

The building industry is very fragmented with a lot of independent business entities involved.  Clients appoint Architects to represent their requirements and aspirations with aesthetic designs.  Architects also have one eye on their position within the Architectural profession and standing with their peers, PI insurance, resource schedules and project risk assessments.  Other design team members are similar.  It is difficult to establish an integrated and cohesive R&D programme to a relationship which gathers for one project over the course of a year or two, then disbands.  Instead, design is used as the key tool to balance functional requirements and aesthetic aspirations, largely with materials and building systems available to the industry; products developed specifically by companies to ensure a successful uptake. 

Innovating with building materials

Knowing the market place and the customer base is a key item.  Typical examples where bold innovation has changed societies and industries are often characterised by single businesses which have carefully controlled their innovation processes and managed their risks to achieve great results.  The public face of these companies looks simple and understandable, even though the processes and supply chains behind are not. 

Brand value and standing within the market place reportedly accounts for a lot of credibility with the public.  It is hard won and easily lost, but represents customer loyalty and trust.  With the public's engagement in a company brand, the risk associated with bold innovations can be greatly reduced and more effectively managed. 

Opportunities for Innovation

Developments in technologies are progressing at an ever increasing rate and we are on the verve of a next wave of changes to society with Tier 0 technologies.  This will no doubt have an affect on the building industry with regard to how we design and produce buildings, how the services will operate, how they will be maintained and lots of stuff to do with what goes into them, but hopefully it will also mean more than a smarter way of producing a brick wall.  It's a chance for the building industry to catch up to other industrial sectors but for this to happen, it might require a new business model in the industry to present an integrated and cohesive offer; a Google or Netflix of the building industry.

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