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How Collaboration in Housing Leads to Innovation

(as posted on Builder Online 8 October 2020)

Innovation in construction has always taken a linear approach: identify the next opportunity and produce a product that wins market share. This conventional wisdom guides us to design or develop products that improve our companies rather than improve the whole ecosystem. 

Why should we care about the ecosystem? Because the biggest problems in construction are systemic: low productivity growth, resistance to technology, non-standardized training, high labor costs, and inefficient supply chain management, to name a few.

On the other hand, the systemic approach guides us to look beyond our own company’s immediate needs for the answer. What if we collaborated to create more markets rather than compete in the same market?

How might that approach impact our opportunities to offer better products for our clients?

How would teamwork across companies impact the conventional narrative of our industry? It might just give us a new definition of the term “competition,” and therefore, a new narrative entirely. 

A Twist on Competition

On a sunny (but windy) summer day at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, competitors scramble to build the best sandcastles of their lives. But this isn’t your average sandcastle building contest where young children haphazardly wield sand-filled, castle-shaped buckets in between bites of sandy PBJs. The youth are present, however they are paired up with unlikely team members: some of the best custom home builders, architects, and engineering firms in the region. This competition, called the Leap Sandcastle Classic, is actually a fundraiser for a local non-profit education organization called Leap Arts in Education

Aside from all the fun and the charitable donations raised, one of the biggest spectacles is seeing some of the housing industry’s best companies working together to improve the education of local youth in San Francisco. 

The participating builders spend months in preparation for this incredible, weekend-long, annual event. 

Wouldn’t it be great if this collaborative effort could be applied to solve problems in the industry within which these professionals are working every day of their lives?

While this type of competition is unique, the Leap Sandcastle Classic challenge follows a common model in philanthropic fundraising. For decades, ever since nonprofits have existed, corporate and for-profit competitors have worked together in the name of social and environmental service. 

Another example of construction industry collaboration is the Dreams Happen Playhouse Challenge, put on by the local chapter of the national nonprofit Rebuilding Together. While the Playhouse

Challenge is similar to the Sandcastle Classic in that it’s an annual collaboration event for charity, the products of the Playhouse Challenge are rather impressive and might even give you a design idea for your next custom home build.

Push, Pull Explore - by Walker Warner Associates with Daedalus Structural Engineering and Lencioni Construction

If we kick it up a notch, to the international and systemic level, we find the US Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon. This event challenges the industry’s narrative by encouraging university-level youth to join a nascent clean energy workforce. Since its inception in 2002 it’s worked with 23,000 students and 465 universities in 23 countries. Within the context of the global housing crisis, such a challenge is truly catalytic. It provides the next generation of builders, designers and engineers with training and hands-on experience in delivering much needed solutions to the residential building industry’s biggest challenges.

Credit: Dennis Schroeder/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon (Team: Washington University - St. Louis)

Collaborate to Innovate

Competitions, or “Challenges” as these events are often called, that are designed to raise money for charitable institutions are great ways to bring our fragmented industry together in the short-term. We walk away from these events with an increased humility and respect for our competitors. 

Clearly, collaboration is necessary to address our planet’s housing needs. However, Challenges that go beyond charity do much more than just raise money and awareness about a particular social issue. Instead, they offer the industry clear guidance on how to approach systemic change, as well as actual solutions in the case of events like the Solar Decathlon. 

And there are more examples..

The International Living Future Insitute’s (ILFI) Living Building Challenge (LBC) is another catalytic initiative we can learn from. They bring systems design into the built environment by asking the question, “What does good look like?” In the way that LEED became an ambitious standard for architects and builders to achieve in their buildings, the LBC, is having a major impact on the industry with most innovators recognizing that LEED is just not “good enough.” Understandably so, we’ve learned a lot since LEED certifications launched about 20 years ago. The LBC has been around for about 10 years and is in it’s 4th version.

We Can Do Better 

Of course, when it comes to Challenges that encourage and reward innovation to solve world problems, there are a handful of recognized institutions calling for brilliant engineers, designers and makers to feature their big ideas. Among them is Buckminster Fuller Institute’s Fuller Challenge and Qualcomm’s XPRIZE, to name just two of many. 

The housing industry can learn at least two lessons from these Challenges:

  1. That collaboration produces scalable  innovation; and

  2. That while charity can be used to rally people, Challenges designed to solve problems can produce longer term and systemic impacts.

What Challenges have you been involved in that catalyze real change in the housing industry?

If you haven’t been involved in a housing Challenge, you may be interested in leading or entering an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) Challenge. These have become popular over recent years - from Kentucky to California there are a number of past events you can model. 

What could ADU Challenges learn from ILFI and the US Department of Energy, or even the Dreams Happen Playhouse events?

Rather than design a Challenge to innovate on style or cost savings, perhaps we design these to innovate on the social and environmental impact of our built environment and other systemic issues our industry faces.

For example, we might design an ADU Challenge that calls for products to:

  1. Sequester CO2

  2. Offer a more equitable home ownership model 

  3. Increase local jobs

  4. Increase the use of local materials

Do you have other ideas? The Center for Infrastructure and Society wants to know. Let’s collaborate :)

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