If there was a single word that was overused at IBS this year, it was innovation. On every aisle at least one company was billing its product as an ‘innovative solution’ to a common problem. While there were plenty of interesting products, I didn’t find too terribly many of them as truly ‘innovative.’ Obviously, there is a hunger for innovation to solve how embarrassingly inefficient the construction industry operates. The solution isn’t going to appear in the form of a product, or even a wide-ranging combination of products, but in the processes used to build structures.
A few players leveraging changes in processes are making moves to showcase their companies as potential solutions to what ails the construction industry. Katerra is the most obvious and by far the best funded company looking make waves. While it’s difficult to find a Katerra critic, at least in print, I’m not as bullish on them as everyone seems to be. They exhibited at IBS to show off a variety of their panel products, which was a mistake. The window rough opening was out of square by at least ¾” and the framing was inconsistent. The Katerra rep I talked to blamed the poor quality on the convention center’s union labor which may or may not have been the culprit. Regardless, it wasn’t a good look for the company claiming to have all the answers for construction.
Another process gaining traction is what’s being dubbed ‘offsite construction’. Only the construction industry would repackage a process that has been around for decades and call it ‘innovative’. While I believe it is the most efficient solution to framing, it looks very familiar to those who have been in component manufacturing for any length of time. One area where offsite framing could differentiate itself is through the adoption and propagation of BIM technologies.
The problem with BIM is everyone utilizes the software in parallel tracts opposed to a hub and spoke system that maximizes efficiency and reduces redundancy. Builders aren’t necessarily incentivized to use BIM as they are typically an aggregator of trades, so their efforts are spent driving down the subcontracts opposed to building an integrated system. Material dealers are in a position that could benefit the most from BIM; touching the components (in certain markets), cabinets, windows, trim, etc. However, there is a huge disconnect among material dealers and the value of information. I spoke with one builder who said his lumberyard gives, GIVES, him house plans for free as long as he buys the framing package. Component manufacturers are the next logical stakeholder to provide BIM but they similarly have difficulties charging for their design services. Beyond that, anyone else involved with the process is too far downstream or too specialized for whole house modeling to make sense.
Nobody has figured out the million, or should I say billion, dollar question. I believe all the pieces are available, its just a matter of how they are put together and how it will be done. I believe streamlining material procurement and reducing the redundancies material suppliers are plagued with is a great first step. LBM Supply aims to be in a position to help builders receive better material pricing while reducing overhead for material dealers. Once we’ve executed that initial strategy, look for us to help tackle the bigger issues!