The Tyrant’s Rules

If you ever have the opportunity to visit the International Builders Show, you’d be amazed. The last show I attended had over 1,900 exhibitors in one million square feet of floor space. Walking fast, it’s hard to cover all that territory in two or three days. It’s a huge extravaganza overflowing with new product developments, technologies and miraculous claims. Tempting you to come hither with freebies, dancing girls and headphone-bedecked hucksters, booth after booth screams that a whole new world of possibility is on display. They can’t seem to avoid using grand, nation-changing, continent-shifting terms to describe things that you and I might think are, well, just not all that exciting. Can a new way to drive screws or another profile for vinyl siding be truly “revolutionary?” I don’t think so. Even the products I liked, such as environmentally-friendly sheathing, high-quality insulations and open-web joists began to disappoint against the excessive backdrop of fanfare and hyperbole. Of course, it may have been my fault for expecting too much. I was there in search of something that might be really revolutionary and so wanted to believe the hype I was hearing. Instead, I went away with a bag full of product information that I haven’t looked at since.

My disappointment stemmed from the disconnect between the supposedly cool new products and the torpid inertia of the same old building process. The constraints imposed by the methodologies and skills of typical builders and their subcontractors loom over inventors, researchers and product engineers like an old, ossified tyrant. The tyrant’s rules are clear: “Houses are built one piece at a time by mostly semi-skilled or unskilled labor. That’s an immutable fact. Therefore, don’t propose anything that would disrupt their process, cause them to think or learn something new. And especially, don’t even think of bringing an innovation that would have an impact on more than one subcontractor because that would grind the whole operation to a halt.”

As a result, nearly all the innovations for home construction are one-for-one replacements of other materials or products, and even then it can take decades for the innovation (often not an improvement) to find common use. Whatever the innovation, its potential value will be limited by the fact that it is typically only a material or a part that will be thrown into the same process, to be cut and installed by the same people in the same habitual way. Because of this, it is usually unlikely that a new innovation can save time or money unless, of course, it’s just cheaper, which usually means it’s also worse.

Over the years, there’s actually been quite a bit of hand-wringing (for example, see this Rand report.) about the lack of innovation in housing, but the rules of the tyrant haven’t been overcome. It’s widely acknowledged that other industries have developed and improved their processes and products much more rigorously. It has been said that if automobiles had developed at the same pace as computers, you could travel at over 1,000 miles per hour and get over 500 miles per gallon. If that is true, it could also be said that if homebuilding had developed at the same pace as cars, a house would be built in a week at half its current cost, and contain so few defects, require so little maintenance, and offer so much comfort and technology, that leaving it would be a drag. So, the incredible pace of innovation with computers gives us a peek at tomorrow, automobile technology lives up to our expectations for today, and the slow progress of improvements in home construction is an accurate view of yesterday.

Still, I have no respect for the rules of the tyrant and believe, instead, that new house rules will eventually prevail.

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