Long before McDonald's launched into the fast food industry, another burger chain was serving up some home-grown innovation. As loyal White Castle fans know, it patented the five-hole "Slyder," which channels steam up through a ground-beef patty to heat the burger and bun with- out flipping. The design created a unique flavor that had economic benefits—faster cooking times meant more sales per hour.
Today, the construction industry is cooking up its own innovative products by tapping into an ever-growing supply of dazzling new building materials and systems. Designers, who now are more sensitive to environmental causes, want to create buildings and infrastructure that perform well, look good and blend organically into their surroundings.
Many hurdles stand in between. Codes that do not yet address new materials threaten to limit their marketability. And many project owners and contractors resist change in materials and construction methods that puts them at greater risk. Some inventors believe that more vertical integration in the design and construction process would help speed up the adoption of new technology, but that is a glacial process.
The industry also has a hard time innovating because projects often have too many cooks in the kitchen, each watching out for their piece of the pie. New types of steel, concrete and glass with super-performing properties, hold great promise of architectural, structural, economic and "green" benefits. But they also are complex and require careful attention by the entire project team in order to work properly. Because of this dynamic, many teams shun major innovation because they don't want their project to become a laboratory experiment—or a collapsed soufflé.
Manufacturers of new products need to stop blaming construction and reflect on their research and marketing messages. While some materials look stunning, their value proposition is less clear. In this case, the industry is right to proceed cautiously and develop a body of knowledge. Eventually, many new materials have the potential of becoming just as common as plywood, while others probably will vanish. How they are sold to the industry and the public will have a huge impact on that outcome.
The new material world brings great promises of building faster, cheaper and more beautifully. As owners, designers and contractors open their eyes to the possibilities, they will deliver structures using new materials and systems that are so valuable that end users develop a taste for, and even a craving for, the recipe. As Billy Ingram and inventor-cook Walter Anderson discovered in 1921 when they formed White Castle, you can do things entirely differently and be a big hit.