Whether we are architects, engineers or constructors, we're all facing an economy and environment much different than that of our predecessors. The world we're facing has many challenges. For example, the word "sustainability" wasn't even in the industry lexicon 20 years ago. Who would have thought that a ubiquitous material

such as portland cement, once considered harmless, would threaten the global environment because of its high energy demands and carbon footprint? And who would have considered that water, once believed to be so abundant that wasting large amounts wouldn't matter, would be in scarce supply?

Our predecessors built the infrastructure that defined the U.S. after World War II. They would have never imagined we would let that infrastructure deteriorate from sheer neglect. Similarly, they would be shocked to see that failure to pay for enough basic industry research has let our technological and research muscles atrophy.

This research deficit undermines the industry's relevance, future and the value our customers place on the goods and services we provide. It affects the way we're treated and respected, our ability to attract young people into our profession and, importantly, how we are compensated.

Regaining our edge and restoring our industry's health cannot be accomplished by academia alone. The best way to produce meaningful and useful solutions is through the active participation of industry leaders. We at the Charles Pankow Foundation believe part of the answer will be in forming industry-wide coalitions that are dedicated to supporting real research that enables major advances in the way we design and build infrastructure and buildings.

But as an industry, construction spends little on non-proprietary research. What does that look like? We see inefficient and disconnected technology (lack of BIM interoperability) and outdated building codes. We see practices based on 19th- and 20th-century technology (low-strength, archaic building materials) and reliance on age-old construction processes (with their carbon impacts and waste generation). The lack of research investment also translates into an increasing challenge in attracting the best and brightest young people to the industry.

Facing the Future

We do not need to reinvent the wheel. Every other major industry in the world has a robust and effective research program. The time has arrived for all members of the design and construction industry to face up to our future challenges and be a part of the solution. This challenge is not a call to abandon the valuable current efforts within segments of the industry but, rather, a call to think seriously about priorities.

The health of the industry depends on a new paradigm for research. Although a modest amount is being done by industry segments and private entities, very little of this research effort is put into the public domain for the benefit of the industry as a whole.

We believe that serious funding of significant new research needs to move to the top of the list.

The Charles Pankow Foundation stands alone as the only privately funded organization in the U.S. focused on funding research made available to the public domain to advance design and construction. It has funded more than 50 research grants totaling more than $10 million in direct investment, plus attracting another $3 million from several partners.

We're proud of what we do, but we need more funding partners and resources. We believe that coalitions of key industry players should be established to provide funds, technical expertise and the lessons learned from experience, which are all needed to support research.

Let's start with the numerous member-supported trade and professional organizations across the industry. Our foundation challenges these organizations to ask the hard questions about how they are addressing technical advancement and whether their policies are adequate to prepare current and future members for change.

Our world is changing at an ever-increasing rate. Will our industry remain in its current complacent state or will we take action to restore its health and vitality by investment in research? 

Licensed engineers Richard M. Kunnath, Mark J. Perniconi and Ron Klemencic are President, Executive Director and Director, respectively, of the Charles Pankow Foundation (www.pankowfoundation.org). Contact Perniconi at mperniconi@pankowfoundation.org.