March 5, 2018

Introducing HUD’s Innovative Building Technology Guide, An Interview with Michael Blanford

Innovative Building Technology Guide: Selecting the Best Solutions for Your Project

In this column, Michael Blanford, a research engineer in HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research, highlights how HUD’s Innovative Building Technology Guide can assist public housing agencies, building professionals, and consumers in making informed decisions about building technologies.

What motivated the development of the Innovative Building Technology Guide?

Our office (HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research) had recently worked with the Office of Public and Indian Housing on how to make the best choices when considering new building technologies. Some decisions are simple; if you swap out a window, you often replace it with something that you can get at a home improvement store, and that’s fine. But decisions can be more complicated when the technology changes, for example, going from a tanked hot water heater that you would traditionally see, to a tankless hot water heater. We wanted to provide some guidance to help public housing agencies (PHAs), building professionals, and consumers think critically and make informed decisions about building technologies.

I think that PHAs are doing a lot of major renovations rather than just small projects here and there. They’re doing some moderate rehabilitation work or a bigger energy performance contract, some larger project that really would lend itself to a more methodical approach, and I think those are the kinds of projects that could benefit from this technology guide.

How will this guide assist building professionals?

This guide is really meant for someone who might review a spec sheet from an architect or builder and has some responsibility for determining what technologies they will use. For someone who wants to do some moderate rehabilitation in a building with HUD-assisted units, the guide gives that individual a methodology for evaluating the new technologies and determining how those technologies might affect their building in both the near term and long term.

What considerations are important when selecting new building technologies?

When selecting new technologies for new construction projects, it is important to consider two types of costs. One is the upfront cost and the second is the long-term cost or life cycle cost that you incur over time, like your utility bill. Both costs should be considered because sometimes new technologies raise your upfront cost of building but reduce your long-term cost over time, generating savings. Life cycle costs include replacement costs as well as utility costs, which is why durability and energy efficiency are important considerations.

For example, the quality of roof coverings is an important consideration when buying or constructing a new apartment building built. You need to weigh the costs of a traditional shingle roof that might need to be replaced every 20 years, against the costs of a metal roof that might have a higher upfront cost but lasts 3 times as long as the shingle roof. So it’s a tradeoff, and again, this guide provides the methodology for looking at those long-term costs versus the long-term cost of building the units.

Let’s use the water heater for example. What are the considerations associated with the tankless versus the traditional water heater?

The tankless is usually a little more expensive, but there are benefits to the builder in that it’s easier to install and it takes less floor space, so you don’t have to have a dedicated room like you might with a tanked water heater, and it’s very small, so you can put it on the wall. There are also benefits to the tenant as they have endless hot water, which could be a good or bad thing; if they have young kids who are taking very long showers, that could increase costs in terms of water usage.

What barriers exist to implementing innovative design and building methods?

The experience of the builder could certainly be a barrier. It could be the first time that a builder has used some of the new technologies. Let’s say you found some really cool building technology in a magazine that you would like to try but you might not find anyone locally that’s used the product before, or they might not have it available for you to purchase. I don’t know if we’ve touched on that enough in the book, but it’s certainly something to think about.

How do innovative building technologies impact costs for builders?

Using the example of a builder that doesn’t have much experience with a new technology, the builder might actually charge more for using the new product to cover any unexpected extra expenses. Let’s say that since the builder was inexperienced with the technology it was installed incorrectly and then had to be reinstalled; that’s additional costs incurred that weren’t planned on. But the builder may choose to pass the higher cost of the new technologies on to the buyer, who may eventually reap the benefits of those new technologies.

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