Building for the Future
Innovative construction materials are both eco-friendly and resilient.
July 16, 2014
It’s easier to adopt new techniques when you’re building from scratch, so the new-home market tends to have more than its fair share of inventive products to offer.
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Before these new products come to market, they often come to Michelle Desiderio. As the vice president of innovation services for Home Innovation Research Labs—a wholly owned, independent subsidiary of the National Association of Home Builders—she works with manufacturers to test building products and appliances. At the manufacturer’s request, the lab’s technicians will do everything from open and shut a door 10,000 times to drop cast-iron pans onto sinks to build a model house to test the impact of high winds on a new framing technique. “Our goal is to remove barriers to innovation in the housing industry,” she says.
So what kinds of advances are buyers looking for? “Builders often are under the assumption that consumers are focused on green products exclusively, but study after study shows that’s not the case,” says Desiderio. “Durability usually ranks very high.”
Brent Ehrlich, products editor at publishing company BuildingGreen, which examines environmentally friendly construction, says that manufacturers are taking notice of the desire for resilience. He’s also seeing more use of natural materials such as stone and cork, which he says represents the “what’s-old-is-new phenomenon” taking hold. One example of this trend is the use of mineral wool for insulation. Ehrlich says this material is replacing spray foam insulation systems that “contain some fairly nasty chemicals.” Also, the natural alternative is both flame-retardant and difficult for insects to penetrate.
Another product Ehrlich is excited about is fungal mycelium. A company called Ecovative combines what are basically mushroom roots with agricultural byproducts in controlled lab conditions. The product that emerges is currently being used as an eco-friendly packing material, but the company is working to market it as a strong, lightweight, flame-resistant insulation for homes and commercial buildings.
But Ehrlich warns that in the effort to make homes more energy-efficient, home owners need to be careful not to seal the structure’s envelope too tightly. He’s says he’s seen cases where home owners try to retrofit their insulation for energy efficiency and end up having to tear it all out and start over because they hadn’t considered healthy air exchanges and letting a building breathe.
Innovators in new construction are also looking for ways to protect home owners from catastrophic events. “Many places in the country have experienced one natural disaster after another,” Desiderio says. “So we have this relatively new goal of how to make homes more resilient in a disaster.”
Ehrlich says that, despite the great work of Home Innovation Research Labs, no amount of testing can fully replicate the pressures of real-world use for some of these brand-new products: “We really don’t know how they’ll last. Longevity is still going to be a question.”
Because defects in new homes can directly affect the entire system of a house, builders tend to be wary about new products. “As a society, we change phones frequently, but product manufacturers have a much more difficult time getting their clients to switch in the world of home construction,” Desiderio says.