Technology Transfer

Building that Grow On You?

"DARPA is launching the Engineered Living Materials (ELM) program with a goal of creating a new class of materials that combines the structural properties of traditional building materials with attributes of living systems. Living materials represent a new opportunity to leverage engineered biology to solve existing problems associated with the construction and maintenance of built environments, and to create new capabilities to craft smart infrastructure that dynamically responds to its surroundings."

What a clever acronym, ELM.  Imagine, plant a few seeds and 75 years later you can harvest the lumber and build with it.  That's not what the US Army is considering, however.

“The vision of the ELM program is to grow materials on demand where they are needed,” said ELM program manager Justin Gallivan. “Imagine that instead of shipping finished materials, we can ship precursors and rapidly grow them on site using local resources. And, since the materials will be alive, they will be able to respond to changes in their environment and heal themselves in response to damage.”

With DARPA's mission of building better killing systems, I doubt their first agenda is providing shelter to populations displaced by global warming. But maybe they deserve the benefit of the doubt.  Consider, for example,

-- Spreading a tarp seeded with spores that grow into a thick moss bed that insulates and even supports the structure.

-- Quick growing, thorny vines that grow into almost impregnable fences, but more quickly than the bougainvillea or cactus hedges now used for that purpose.

-- Airport runways that don't need mowing.

-- Toilets that make it possible to actually "shit bricks".

Frankly, most of the stuff DARPA does terrifies me, and this program is no exception.

"The long-term objective of the ELM program is to develop an ability to engineer structural properties directly into the genomes of biological systems..." (Emphasis added.) 

In other words, they propose to genetically modify ecosystems for the battlefield.  But don't worry,

"Work on ELM will be... carried out in controlled laboratory settings. DARPA does not anticipate environmental release during the program." 

The same reassurance was offered about atomic bombs.

More about ELM can be found at:

Cross-Cultural Marketing

Taking a product from one market into another with a different culture can be fraught with challenges. Consider the following story:

A disappointed salesman of Coca-Cola returned from his assignment to Israel.

A friend asked, "Why weren't you successful with the Israelis?"

The salesman explained, "When I got posted, I was very confident that I would make a good sales pitch. But I had a problem. I didn't know how to speak Hebrew. So I planned to convey the message through three posters.

First poster : A man lying in the hot desert sand totally exhausted and fainting
Second poster : The man is drinking Coca-Cola
Third poster : Our man is now totally refreshed
"And then these posters were pasted all over the place."

"Terrific! That should have worked!" said the friend.

"The hell it should have!" said the salesman. "No one told me the Israelis read from right to left!"

Thanks to Alan Glassman for sharing this with me. Do you know original creator?

Innovations at International Builders Show - Day 2

Observations today relate to environmental impacts of building products

1. Only a few exhibitors had booth signage proclaiming, "sustainable" or "green". This is not to say they are not promoting green products -- energy and water conserving products were there in abundance. But the market, at least the home builder market, is no longer painting itself green. Few booths had signage tauting recycled material content, VOCs, LEED, or other green buzz words. It is just a part of regular business now.

2. Not withstanding the above, IBS and the co-located Kitchen and Bath Industry Show are full of signs of conspicuous consumption. 12-tall doors. Shower drains that automatically light-up with colored LEDs when wet. Ironing boards and irons with digital controls -- for $3000. And more. Or, in the spirit of excess, more and more and more...

3. Many foreign manufactures were at the show testing the market or introducing products. I was shocked, however, that several of them would not disclose ingredients in even general ways. A Polish company, for example, has an innovative dry-stack masonry system made from perlite and binders. Other than saying that it did not contain portland cement, they would not disclose anything about the binder. There reluctance to disclose will hinder their introduction at a time when the US construction industry is increasingly asking for transparency.

Sponsoring Scholars

Many of the advances in material and building science emerge from academia. Here is how one company seeks to stay at the leading edge and attract talent while generating goodwill for the firm.  The following is from the website of Danzer, an major producer of wood products:

Final dissertation or thesis

Does your final dissertation deal with a topic of interest to Danzer? If so, we can assist you. Danzer will be happy to consider topics that you propose. You will be assigned a mentor from our company who will advise you when required.

Mentors do more than just answer questions related to your topic. They also see to it that you are fully integrated into the company. We will also support you financially while you are working on your paper. Students seeking a career in the wood processing sector should contact us before beginning work on their dissertation.

There are mutual benefits to completing your final dissertation at Danzer. It gives us an opportunity to get to learn you. At the same time, we offer you first hand insight into how our company operates. All doors will be open to you while you are working on your dissertation. And if we can offer you a job, the successful completion of your studies could also mark the beginning of a successful career at Danzer.

Concrete Bolt Challenges Conventional Thinking

"You can't do that!"

These words are challenge every building product manufacturer to rethink their attitudes about the limitations of their products. A threaded bolt and nut made from concrete is a good illustration of this principle.
Concrete Plant International 2012-01 page 40
 "Everybody knows you need metal to make a high strength bolt!"

Everybody, apparently, is wrong.

In a recent "Concrete Canoe" competition in which engineering students design and construct boats from concrete, one team even build impellers, gears, drive shafts, and ball bearings from concrete. The components were joined with bolts and nuts made of concrete.

Imagination, is a fundamental principle of technology.  I think.

Why Building Products Fail: The case of Autoclaved Aerated Concrete

A recent article in Environmental Building News discusses the environmental credentials of Autoclaved Aerated Concrete and then asks, "Is there space for AAC in the U.S. market?"

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote an article for Progressive Architecture magazine in which I called AAC, "the best building product you can't buy." That is still true in most of the US. Despite numerous attempts and millions of dollars spent to build plants in several parts of US, there are only two producers in North America.

AAC is an ultra lightweight precast concrete product that is 80% air by volume. It has good structural, environmental, fire, and other performance characteristics. It has been used for 80 years in Europe, and is one of the most widely used building materials worldwide.

Chusid Associates has been a consultant to many companies that looked at AAC as an investment opportunity. Most of my clients decided not to invest. Those that did invest either bailed soon after, or went broke. From that experience, I offer the following reasons why AAC has had only limited success in North America:

1. While Europe was developing AAC, the US construction industry was developing metal buildings, light gage steel framing, concrete masonry units, and prestressed concrete. Those industries are now mature and a formidable competitive barrier to an innovative product with high start-up costs.

2. More recently, new technologies offer many of the benefits of AAC without the high capital costs of building and operating an AAC factory. Consider, for example, stay-in-place concrete forms, prefabricated light gage steel panels, and ultralight aggregates that can be used to make a cellular concrete that does not need autoclaving.

3. The high cost of an AAC factory creates a huge debt burden. While lighter than conventional concrete, AAC is still bulky and heavy, limiting the practical size of a distribution territory. These factors drove businesses into bankruptcy when demand didn't grow as quickly as expected or when the regional economy slumped.

4. Many of the European firms that invested in US factories did not understand the US market and made major strategic blunders. These blunders tainted the industry in the eyes of many investors and builders.

5. Even with increased appreciation for environmentally sound buildings, most construction in the US is still not very interested in green. Most home builders will continue to build with wood, for example, even though it burns and rots, because it is less costly.

In theory, AAC is such an attractive product that people get dazzled and become true believers. I call this, "Tobermorite Fever," named for the mineral that makes up AAC.

But let's look at it from another perspective. The construction industry in North America is fragmented into many regional markets. The failure rate for all innovative construction products is high. So the fact that there are viable producers in Florida and just across the Texas-Mexico border, plus designers, engineers, and installers that are well versed in the product, should be seen as a success for the AAC industry.

An online search on "Chusid" and the words Autoclaved Concrete will return links to several articles I have written on the topic.

Sun Believable Solar Paint

Experimental paint generates electricity.
Building product manufacturers must keep an eye on emerging material science that may impact product planning. Here is an example in recent news.

A research team at University of Notre Dame is developing an inexpensive "solar paint" that uses semiconducting nanoparticles to produce energy. They have incorporated power-producing nanoparticles, called quantum dots, into a spreadable compound, to make a one-coat solar paint that can be applied to any conductive surface without special equipment.

"The best light-to-energy conversion efficiency we've reached so far is 1 percent, which is well behind the usual 10 to 15 percent efficiency of commercial silicon solar cells," explains one of the scientists. "But this paint can be made cheaply and in large quantities. If we can improve the efficiency somewhat, we may be able to make a real difference in meeting energy needs in the future. That's why we've christened the new paint, Sun-Believable."

Their work uses nano-sized particles of titanium dioxide coated with either cadmium sulfide or cadmium selenide.Nano titanium dioxide is already used in "self-cleaning" concrete, where it acts as a semi-conductor to convert sunlight into electrical charges that convert pollutants into relatively benign compounds.

If the solar paint can be successfully developed, it will potentially impact many building finish and cladding materials. One of our clients, for example, has developed an electrically-conductive concrete that, when used with the new paint, could draw the electricity into a structure's grid or act as a storage battery.

I caution, however, that nano technology has unknown environmental risks when used in large quantities in the exterior environment. For example, the nano particles in self-cleaning concrete accelerate the deterioration of the concrete and leach potentially harmful compounds into the soil. More, the release of nano photo-catalytic titanium dioxide could be detrimental to ecosystems if released into the environment through erosion or improper disposal.

Sun-Believable Solar Paint. A Transformative One-Step Approach for Designing Nanocrystalline Solar Cells`zMatthew P. Genovese, Ian V. Lightcap, and Prashant V. Kamat*
Radiation Laboratory and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana 46556, United States
ACS Nano, Article ASAP
DOI: 10.1021/nn204381g
Publication Date (Web): December 6, 2011
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

Reliability and Safety

A new study suggests that the introduction of verification and checking procedures can improve structural safety and performance. While the article focuses on the role of engineers in assuring successful outcomes, building product manufacturers can apply the same principles by verifying the proper fabrication and installation of their materials and systems.

A reviewer has this to say about the study:
Engineer Franz Knoll of Nicolet Chartrand Knoll Ltd., based in Montreal, Quebec, writing in the International Journal of Reliability and Safety explains that faults and flaws in any industrial product almost always originate from human error, through lack of attention, communication, or competence.

Knoll points out that scientific testing and analysis are increasingly removing doubt as to what is to blame for problems and errors that arise. Natural events can be quantified and the probabilities of their occurrence predicted. While early-warning systems for earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunami and volcanic activity are in place, it is often human shortcomings that lead to the worst outcomes during and after such events.

When it comes to the construction of buildings and bridges, human failings are often most apparent. As Knoll says, in the construction industry, human shortcomings trickle so that inferiority ultimately leaks from the bottom, as workers endeavor to comply with strict budgets under pressure to perform well.

"In the pursuit of quality in building in the sense of an absence of serious flaws, a targeted strategy for the apprehension and correction of human errors is of the essence," Knoll says. In this context an absolute requirement is that at critical stages during construction, highly qualified and experienced engineers must attend to the task of checking for mistakes so that problems are not buried in concrete or plastered over only to resurface later. Such personnel being in short supply would suggest that directing them towards the details that matter, rather than encumbering them with administrative chores would be appropriate.
More information: "Of reality, quality and Murphy's law: strategies for eliminating human error and mitigating its effects" in Int. J. Reliability and Safety, 2012, 6, 3-14

Don't use trade show to evaluate US market.

It is easy to get lost among the other exhibitors
at a trade show unless you know what
you want to achieve and have a plan.
Foreign manufacturers sometimes exhibit at North American tradeshows, "to see what are our prospects in the US?" This is seldom an effective type of market research.

There is a classic parable about two sales reps sent to a distant country to peddle shoes. After a day, one sent a message to company headquarters, "Coming home on next boat; no one wears shoes here." The other cabled, "Send lots of shoes; no one wears shoes here." But neither would have a valid impression of the true market if they formed their opinions while visiting the beach.

A company from the Netherlands, for example, exhibited at a recent World of Concrete. Not only is their brand unfamiliar in the US, their product category and technology are also foreign to US contractors without international experience.  The staff working the booth were unable to address technology transfer issues such as US building codes. Even their booth and sales skills reflected a European aesthetic and approach to business that does not communicate effectively to North Americans. Yet they were trying to judge the attitudes of American customers.

The Dutch exhibitors were frustrated since they did not know how to explain their product to American contractors. They were trying to "sell" instead of trying to "learn". Their mission may have been more successful if their effort was designed as a real market research opportunity.

For example, they could have conducted "aisle intercept" survey, asking people passing their booth to stop and answer a few questions. A drawing for a trip to Holland would have caught attendees interest and begun the process of building goodwill.

An Italian exhibitor had invested in a 400 sq. ft. island booth in which they had assembled a structure built with their building system - a material costing more than domestic products. Their system may have had benefits that justified the costs, but we will never know. That's because none of the eight executives working the booth spoke fluent English. While they had employed a translator, the individual struggled with the technical jargon of construction.  More, the firm built their demonstration project around the perimeter of their island, then sat inside the display as if they were hiding behind walls. One hopes that, at least, they enjoyed their junket to Vegas.

What are the alternatives
Before investing in the expense of exhibiting at a trade show, do some due diligence. It can be helpful, for example, to attend the trade show as a participant before deciding to exhibit. This gives you the chance to see your potential competitors. And informal discussions with people attending the show can also help you understand the market. Some of Chusid Associates' clients go further, hiring us to "walk the show" with them, so we can point out trends and identify key players.

You can also use a show for private presentations. One of our clients had us recruit targeted prospects to private demonstrations where our client could hold brief but highly informative interviews. Similarly, trade shows are a great opportunity for focus groups, since you can recruit a panel that reflects regional diversity.

One final suggestion: If you are exhibiting at a trade show to "stick a finger in the wind" as a way to judge a market, have your signage and literature translated into English. And avoid using idioms like "sticking a finger in the wind," an expression that might not translate well.

Journal of Advanced and High-Performance Materials

The first issue of Journal of Advanced and High-Performance Materials was published this winter. The new periodical introduces readers to the recently formed Advanced and High-Performance Materials Program, which the National Institute of Building Sciences manages for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science & Technology Directorate, Infrastructure & Geophysical Division.

JMAT is one of three periodicals, along with the Journal of Building Enclosure Design (JBED) and Journal of Building Information Modeling (JBIM) published by NIBS.

While it is unlikely to become a major industry publication, it reaches industry leaders in government, research, and academia. It will also reach leading engineers and technical consultants working on advanced materials. These thought leaders will be interested in advanced materials and technologies being developed by building product manufacturers and their suppliers. It accepts contributed articles and advertising.

Red Listed Products

Living Building Challenge Version 2
Acceptance is growing for a "Red List" of materials that are considered environmentally hazardous. The Red List, created by Living Building Challenge, precludes usage of the following:
  • Asbestos
  • Cadmium
  • Chlorinated Polyethylene and Chlorosulfonated Polyethlene
  • Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)
  • Chloroprene (Neoprene)
  • Formaldehyde
  • Halogenated Flame Retardants
  • Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)
  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Petrochemical Fertilizers and Pesticides
  • Phthalates
  • Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
  • Wood treatments containing creosote, arsenic or pentachlorophenol
These compounds are found in many building materials; finding and adopting suitable alternatives will require a significant investment for many manufacturers.

The investment may be worthwhile, however, since the number of developers prohibiting Red List materials is increasing. For example, Google is among organizations that have banned the use of Red List products. Google is alleged to be building facilities at the rate of 40,000 sq. ft. a week.

Anthony Ravitz, Google’s project coordinator for real estate and workplace services, says the firm's decision is based on an economic analysis of the true costs of using a material, including the health and vitality of its employees and avoiding expensive claims for illness due to exposure to potentially dangerous materials. He calls upon manufacturers to provide better transparency about what is in their products, saying, “We don’t have complete information about what’s in our products. It’s not readily available. Until we have that, it will be difficult to make the best decisions.”

Product Life Cycles

This is an encore of an article by Michael Chusid that was first published over a decade ago.  The specific examples cited are no longer accurate, but the principles remain the same.
An awareness of building product trends can contribute to an architect's ability to stay in the forefront of design and technology. The marketing concept of  "product life cycle" provides a  useful tool for this. By evaluating where a product is in its life cycle, an architect can anticipate  changes in its availability, recognize new channels of promotion and distribution, assess the risks associated with its use, and make sense of the rapid evolution and introduction of new products.

Product life cycles are typically divided into four phases based on sales performance, and form a characteristic "S"-shaped curve. The introduction of a  new product is marked by slow sales growth. It takes time to train salesmen, build distribution channels, overcome reluctance to change established behavioral patterns, and get the new product into the specification pipeline. Manufacturers must identify innovative customers and work closely with them during this phase to persuade them to give the product a trial. Because of heavy start-up costs and promotional requirements, little or no profit is realized by a manufacturer during this phase, despite typically high prices. Intelligent building systems are in this introductory phase.

During the growth phase, a product obtains rapid market acceptance and improved profitability. "Where has the product been used?" is a question architects often ask, and in this phase the majority of firms will follow the lead of the early-users. Increased demand will stimulate competitors to introduce new product options. Although manufacturers continue to provide high levels of promotion, prices tend to remain stable, while profitability increases as the cost per sale drops and the economies of production increase. Exterior insulation and finish systems are in such a growth phase.

Mature products are marked by a slowdown in sales growth and profitability. Market saturation occurs when the product has been accepted by most of its potential buyers. Sales volume is affected more by the level of construction activity than by sales activities, and manufacturers may reduce their sales force to control expenses. To maintain market share, manufacturers cut prices, look for market niches to exploit, and make other modifications to their product or marketing mix. Most building products are mature, and basic materials such as gypsum board are "commodity" products with little or no difference among manufacturers' products.

As a product starts to decline, sales and profits erode. Architectural porcelain on steel was once a popular material for service stations and curtain walls, but faced with changing tastes and improved organic coating systems, demand for the product has declined dramatically.

Such a product can often obtain a rejuvenation as a result of major improvements, new channels of distribution, or changes in fashion. Glass block is a dramatic example of a product repositioning. Popular in the 1930's and 1940's, glass block declined in sales as insulated glass and fluorescent lighting gained in popularity. The last U.S. manufacturer was ready to close its plant, but recognizing that a new generation of designers was finding new aesthetic and functional uses for glass block, the company repositioned the product and dramatically increased sales.

Within many product categories, various items may be at different phases of their life cycles. In roofing, for example, low-pitched, standing seam metal roofs are no longer limited to pre-engineered metal buildings, but are being introduced as an architectural product. Modified bitumen roofing is still in a growth phase, single ply roofing has matured, asphalt built-up roofing is declining, and coal-tar built-up roofing is attempting a rejuvenation. Among glazing materials, fire-rated ceramic glazing has only recently been introduced, and low-emissivity glass is growing in sales. Sales of insulated glass remain strong, but it is a mature product since it is already used in most building types and climates. And plain float glass is declining in use as tempered, laminated, and other specialty glasses have seen a rise in popularity.

Product life cycles also influence specification writing. When a product is new, extra care must be taken when investigating it for a particular project. Performance or descriptive specifications are appropriate at this stage to clarify exactly what is required. During a product's growth phase, proprietary specifications can be used because advertising will have built widespread awareness of it. And since the product's initial success will frequently have encouraged competitors, "or equal" specifications become feasible. As a product matures, industry standards typically emerge, allowing the use of reference specifications. As a product declines, brand loyalty deteriorates and the product becomes increasingly prone to substitutions.

The rate at which building products are introduced and the speed with which they grow, mature, and decline continues to increase. Building products do not cycle as quickly as many types of consumer goods or high tech industrial products like electronics. Still, almost every category of building materials goes through a complete cycle several times during an architect's career. In many instances, the pace is even faster. As recently as two years ago, for example, high performance water repellents based on silane and siloxane were still in their introductory phase. Only a few brands were available, the price was relatively high, and distribution was often limited to qualified applicators. Heavy sales promotion was required to differentiate the product from acrylic sealers and other pre-existing types of water repellents, and to interest innovative specifiers likely to give the product a trial.

Since then, the silane and siloxane water-repellent market has changed so rapidly that it appears to be entering its mature phase. A key factor in this has been the publication of a federally financed research report establishing criteria for water repellents. This test demonstrated the effectiveness of silane and siloxane water repellents, stimulating increased demand and a proliferation of manufacturers and private brand labels. As competition increased, prices fell and suppliers shifted their emphasis from promotion to cost-efficient distribution. Brands now struggle against each other to create niche markets and other competitive advantages, and mergers and other forms of market consolidation are occurring. Meanwhile, research and development continues on new types of water-repellent chemistry. While silane and siloxane products may not decline for a number of years, I would not be surprised if a new product type starts the cycle over again in the very near future. 

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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Progressive Architecture, © 1989

10 Best New Building Products of 2010

At the end of each year, the staff at Chusid Associates nominates and votes on its list of the Ten Best New Building Products of the year.  Our intention was to blog about all ten, but we got busy and only managed to write about a few of the winners. Without delaying the project further, here is our truncated list:

The pace of innovation continues. The tough economic times are actually proving a boon to some companies, as they use the opportunity for research and launching new products that, in the continual press of sales during a good year, would normally get buried. Several of this year's entries are innovations on ages-old problems, while others represent the intersection of several cutting-edge technological developments. A few were included not because the actual products were significant, but because of the trends they represent.

1. Plasma Lighting: Solid state lighting, in the form of LEDs, have been a major trend for the past few years. Now plasma lighting is taking the spotlight, offering in some cases twice the lumens per Watt of LEDs. Right now most of the plasma lighting available is for stadium and street lamp-sized installations, but miniaturization to commercial and industrial scale seems inevitable.

Multiquip's H2LT Hydrogen Fueled Light Tower drew a lot of attention at World of Concrete for combining low-energy, high-intensity light with quiet, low-polluting hydrogen fuel cells. The plasma light bulb produces 22,000 lumens while consuming only 255 watts, with a life expectancy of up to 50,000 hours. Beyond its energy efficiency, the tower made our list for one simple reason: it is sparking imaginations. At the show, people were walking away from the Multiquip booth discussing new ways and places they could use this technology, sewing the seeds for the next generation of innovations.

This all-glass wall is energy efficient.
2. Phase-Change Insulated Glass: Another ripe field for innovations is combining multiple successful technologies into a single high-performing system. This becomes especially important in sustainable design when building systems often need a higher level of flexibly to meet multiple design objectives simultaneously; natural daylighting is advantageous, for example, but too much interferes with the building's thermal performance and energy use.

Glass-X, from Greenlight Glass, addresses exactly this problem. The core of the system is phase-changing glass that stores or releases thermal energy in the process of converting from solid to liquid states. Glass-X controls thermal transfer, essentially creating virtual thermal mass to help warm or cool the interior as needed. A prism system takes advantage of seasonal changes in the sun's position to reflect hot summer light, while allowing more light, and heat, transfer in winter months.

Glass is one of our favorite building materials around the office; the amount of versatility and innovation in glass construction is staggering, and the trend looks set to continue for the next few decades. The next winner is another glass product.

3. Bird-Visible Glass: When I was five I once ran full-speed into a closed glass door, face first, so I have a lot of sympathy for birds flying into windows. The problem is so prevalent that it has become embedded in our culture; birds hitting windows is an instantly recognizable slapstick troupe. But the real-world side is not funny; estimates are that almost 1 billion birds are killed by window collisions in the US each year.

Ornalux glass has special ultraviolet patterns that are visible to birds, but not detectable by the human eye. This means birds see the window and identify it as an obstacle, and humans get to enjoy natural lighting and an unobstructed view.

Click here for our 2009 list. And stay tuned for our best of 2011 list.

Structures Magazine: New type of Structural Monitoring

Existing jetty is 20m high.
An article written by Chusid Associates appears in the April 2011 issue of Structure Magazine. "Inside Information Through Real Time Dynamic Structural Monitoring" describes work done by our client, STRAAM, to investigate the condition of a jetty at a major harbor. The analysis performed by STRAAM saved the port authority approximately 90% of originally estimated costs by pinpointing where remediation work was required. Download pdf.

While STRAAM's protocols have been under development for thirty years, they are only now being offered as a commercial venture. The authors had to assimilate STRAAM's complex technology in order to be able to explain it in terms that would be meaningful to structural engineers and individuals responsible for managing infrastructure projects.

The Lighter Side of Concrete - an occasional series


Concrete is the most heavily used building material in the world.  In many applications, there seem to be no practical alternatives.  But concrete, like every other material, is being re-evaluated in terms of its environmental impact.  The concrete industry is working on ways to green its products.

In the meantime, I would like to suggest a widely available, rapidly-renewable-resource-based concrete alternative: oatmeal

The possibilities of this product were suggested to me late one night during World of Concrete, in the bar of one of the lesser-known Vegas hotels. I awoke the next morning with the question pounding in my head: Could it really be as simple as adding a heating element into the mixer of a concrete truck?

The purpose of this article, then, is to examine the feasibility of converting the North American readymix industry to construction-grade oatmeal.

The Material
Construction grade oatmeal should not be confused with the more common, wimpy "rolled oats" materials such as Quaker Oats (which are only acceptable for stucco and other non-loadbearing applications), nor Instant Oats, which are more suitable as a drywall-mud substitute.  Only steel-cut oats, frequently sold as "Irish Oatmeal," achieve sufficient structural properties to be considered a true concrete alternative.

The similarities are obvious.  Both materials are mixed into a viscous slurry that can be placed with a shovel, poured, or pumped (although pumping requires very high pressure equipment in the case of Irish Oatmeal).  Both contain a combination of a cementitious material and hard aggregate (if you've ever chewed Irish Oatmeal, you know about the aggregate.)  Both harden into an artificial stone within a few hours, and keep hardening for weeks or even years.

Vive La Difference!
To the casual observer, they seem like almost identical materials.  The differences are significant, however, and should not be overlooked.

First and foremost, portland cement concrete is a setting-type material, whereas oatmeal is a drying-type material, achieving hardness as its internal moisture evaporates.  This means that, as long as a cover is placed on the ready-mix truck to prevent evaporation, the oatmeal mix never gets too old to be used, no matter how bad traffic delays get.  In fact, due to the normal cooking time of oatmeal, any mix younger than 45 minutes is probably not ready for placement.  In some of our more congested cities, oatmeal may soon be the only viable readymix product.

Water can be added freely at the jobsite to keep the oatmeal workable without compromising ultimate strength.  This is in stark contrast to concrete jobs, where adding water is sometimes the stuff that lawsuits are made of.  In hot, dry regions, where concrete is often negatively affected by high placement temperatures and premature drying, oatmeal just becomes a rapid-hardening material at a bargain price.
Admixtures are sometimes used with concrete to accelerate or retard set-times, or to make the mix more workable; none of these are necessary (or useful) with oatmeal.  A common oatmeal admixture is CSH (cinnamon, sugar and homogenized milk), which actually functions both as integral pigmenting and additional cementitious material.  All three constituents are rapidly renewable resources, so that while the admixture is making the product more brown, it's also making it more green.
Fiber is sometimes added to concrete to enhance tensile strength and control cracking. Fiber is already naturally present in oatmeal, not only improving strength but, according to some studies, possibly lowering cholesterol.

Another important difference is mix design.  The strength of concrete is determined by controlling the ratio of water, cementitious materials, fine and coarse aggregate.  A high cement ratio yields stronger concrete, but cement is also the most expensive ingredient.  This gives both contractor and producer an economic incentive to use the lowest-strength mix acceptable, to save on cement costs.  Oatmeal includes both cementitious material and aggregate premixed, and all excess water evaporates, so the only strength-determining factor is how long it's cooked.  Any strength-related economic incentive, therefore, revolves around cooking-energy consumption.  Undercooked oatmeal releases an inadequate amount of cementitious material, so the mix lacks strength.  However, overcooked oatmeal breaks down the aggregate, also compromising strength.  As The Three Bears told you long ago, medium cooking is optimal.  It could be standardized throughout the industry, allowing equally high strength for every batch, with no financial disadvantage.

It is worth noting another difference.  Cement hydration in concrete releases heat, which increases after placement, sometimes creating cracking problems.  With oatmeal, the heat is put into the material during mixing, and gradually drops from then on. 

Oatmeal does undergo considerable drying shrinkage.  However, it is less of a problem than with concrete, since additional wet oatmeal can be added subsequently, and it will bond fully with previous pours.

Supply is an issue.  North America has vast amounts of land suitable for oatmeal agriculture.  However, in many regions, suitable aggregate for concrete is becoming more scarce, and price is on the rise.

It can be readily seen that oatmeal offers numerous advantages over conventional portland cement concrete.  Probably, the slowness of adoption is only due to the industry's notorious suspicion of new technologies, and the general tendency towards caution among the institutions that promulgate building codes.

The one possible downside to oatmeal is that it can be vulnerable to moisture.  Large quantities of water will tend to soften it (although, if you've ever left the pot to dry overnight and then tried to clean it, you may doubt this claim).  This means that oatmeal may be unsuitable for some extremely moist environments such as the Pacific Northwest, the ocean floor, or along the Gulf Coast.  In some of those places, however, it may offer an unexpected plus: a homeowner wiped out by flooding won't starve, since his family can always eat the foundation.

For the previous installment of this column, click here.

Environmental Risks Not Immediately Apparent

Manufacturers often rush to launch new products, hoping to gain a competitive edge. Yet the environmental risks of a new material or technology are not always apparent until the product has been on sale for a period. This is a problem even in industries such as pharmaceuticals in which products must undergo extensive testing and regulatory review for both effectiveness and safety.

It is an even bigger risk in the construction products industry. New building products may require testing to demonstrate certain aspects of safety -- such as fire resistance -- in order to comply with building codes. Yet there are not industry-wide  protocols for testing the environmental impact of a product, nor regulations mandating prior approval before marketing.

A case in point is nano-sized particles of titanium dioxide. The material has impressive potential for reducing airborne pollutants and making concrete self-cleaning. A marketing director promoting the product once assured me the compound is inert, and saw no reason to delay the product's introduction until it could be tested for impact on ecosystems. When he boosted that he could eat a spoonful without ill effects, I responded, "Yes, but you are not a coral polyp."

Now, new research suggests my concern was not unwarranted:

According to a new Northeastern University study, titanium dioxide nanoparticles (nTiO2) can disrupt photosynthetic organisms vital to aquatic ecosystems. Long used in paints, coatings, cement, and tile to create bright white coloring, titanium dioxide is now used in nanoparticle form in cosmetics, sunscreens, food coloring, and even building products, particularly white concrete products that are claimed to clean the air.

April Gu, Carla Cherchi, and other environmental engineers studied how nTiO2 affects one blue-green algae organism that contributes to aquatic nitrogen and carbon cycles. The researchers found that algae growth was reduced by 90 percent and nitrogen fixation activity was diminished when the organisms were exposed to nTiO2 at levels similar to those found in wastewater. Effects increased with exposure time and nTiO2 concentrations. The laboratory study did not evaluate the effect of titanium nanoparticles in the environment, or whether such particles are released from common products. For more information visit
Elsewhere, I have suggested prudent measures that can be taken to use TiO2 in building products, even while further environmental safety research is being conducted. The point of this post is to urge all members of the construction industry to proceed with caution when investigating new materials that have not been rigorously tested for environmental safety.

Product Inspiration from Neocon

I salute the spirit of innovation that moves the building product industry forward. Here are just a few of the things I saw at Neocon that suggest new opportunities and may inspire innovations in your product line.

Chairs from TMC Furniture with digitally printed graphics remind us that new options are available for decorated surfaces.

White LED light continues to be improved, more affordable, and more practical. Look at how even and brilliant these cove lights from Tempo Industries are. Watch for LEDs to be inserted into all sorts of building products.

The design of this table lamp is not what interests me, it is the design process. This was stereolithically printed by the designer, Kevin Willmorth, as part of his campaign to design and produce a lamp a week for 52 weeks.

In addition to LEDs, there are other new ways to play with lighting. I think you have to see these Sensitile panels in person to appreciate how they play with light and create the illusion of motion.

New installation methods abound. For example, ceramic tile with an interlocking, floating installation to keep tiles aligned, reduce installation time, and protect against cracks in a concrete slab from telegraphing through the tile.

I have written before about the trendy use of tessellations, and they were very evident at the show. This product, Clouds from Kradrat, is composed of stiffened fabric tessellations of triangles joined together by elastic bands. It can be used as an acoustical wall or ceiling covering, or just for fun.

Also see my earlier post about the growing variety of dry erase marker boards.

Engineering Design and Its Relationship to Product Liability

Guest post from Mark Pasamaneck, PE 
In this article, I will explore the relationship between the engineeringdesign process and the failure of a plumbing component as it
relates to product liability.
     In the litigious society in which we live, everyone connected to
the life-cycle of a plumbing component should be concerned with
its long-term suitability as it exists in any plumbing system. As an
engineer or designer of a plumbing component, you should have
a desire to go beyond just limiting liability. As described in the
codes and most engineering ethics documents, a designer must be
concerned with protecting the people and property exposed to his
design from seen or unseen damage and hazards.

While the political, social, and legal reasons are beyond the
scope of this article, the decade of the 1970s was largely considered
the decade of safety awareness. While a few federal
acts were aimed at safety in the 1950s, the majority of the
safety acts in use today were developed in the late 1960s and
first published in the 1970s, including the Consumer Product
Safety Act of 1972. The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act of 1975
gave broad powers to the Federal Trade Commission regarding
product warranties.
     Of particular interest to the plumbing community is that
the majority of the plumbing components in use today were
conceived of and designed well before the 1970s. Many manufacturers
have never evaluated their components or designs in
light of the safety acts and standards implemented in the 1970s
and after. While the building codes commonly grandfather in
outdated technologies, there is no such provision for an old
product design that was produced in the modern era. It is also
obvious that courts have held that the “product” for which a
designer or producer is responsible includes such items as the
warranty, instructions, packaging, labels, and warnings (note:
not an all-inclusive list).

While the topic of engineering design in general would take many
articles, this discussion on product liability requires an overview of
the engineering design process. The design process commonly is
called iterative since it is very rare that an idea can go through the
steps of concept to finished product without changes. The design
process outlined below is considered the standard in all types of
industry. While many more steps may be encountered in a complex
part or system, the following serves to define the general steps
useful in the design iteration. This process also incorporates the
cradle-to-grave responsibility of the designer and manufacturer.

1. Define the function of the product within a system or as a
stand alone.
• If the product is itself a system, define each subsystem and
initiate an independent design iteration until each component
is uniquely defined.
• If the product is within a system, define system parameters
and environments in which the product will operate.
2. Identify prior designs that may assist or preclude (patents)
the design process.
3. Identify all laws, codes, or standards that apply to
the product or system.
4. Brainstorm possible design concepts.
5. Remove concepts that are not viable due to manufacturability,
regulations, cost, hazards, complexity, integration,
functionality, or aesthetics.
6. Choose a design concept.
7. Create the design using accepted design practices applicable
to the field of interest. These will necessarily include
factors of safety, dynamic loads, static loads, wear, compatibility,
environment of use, durability, cost issues, and
materials (suitability, durability, strength, degradation,
fabrication, identification of failure modes, and predictable
failure locations).
8. Evaluate functionality: geometry, motion, size, complexity,
and ergonomics.
9. Evaluate safety: operational, human, environmental, and
failure analysis.
10. Evaluate energy: requirements, created, kinematic, thermodynamic,
and chemical.
11. Evaluate quality: marketability, longevity, aesthetics, and
12. Evaluate manufacturability: available processes and new
13. Evaluate environmental aspects: materials, fluids,
wastes, interactions, phase changes, flammability,
and toxicology.
14. Iterate the design. (Redo steps 7 through 13 based on
the analysis.)
15. Lay out the design.
16. Obtain manufacturing criteria.
17. Create a prototype and test (optional).
18. Create the product.
19. Test the product.
20. Reiterate through the entire design process based on
testing and analysis.
21. Produce the product. Some changes may occur, but they
should not impact the actual design.
22. Perform quality control, which is used to evaluate the
compliance of the produced product with the design.
23. Deliver the product. Packaging, labeling, instructions,
and warnings are included in this step, but they also
must be considered throughout the process.
24. Consumers use the product. The producer must consider
the environment of intended use as well as anticipated or
probable misuse of the product. These must be addressed
appropriately throughout the design process.
25. Dispose of product. The end of use must be considered
by the designers. Fail-safe designs should be incorporated,
and any hazards associated with disposal and/or failure
must be addressed appropriately as well.

Steps 7, 8, 9, and 19 are where a defect or hazard (such as that
shown in Figure 1) should be detected in most cases. When
detected, the question must be answered as to whether the
defect or hazard was foreseeable or unreasonably dangerous.
If it was, the commonly held approach in the engineering community
to solve the problem is known as the safety hierarchy.
This process is based on sound engineering principles coupled
with economic considerations and human factors. The first
reasonable item in the hierarchy must be utilized, and skipping
steps is not appropriate.
The steps are as follows:
1. Design it out.
2. Guard it out.
3. Train it out.
4. Warn it out.
5. Don’t make it.
    The hierarchy is intended to evaluate if the problem can be
corrected by engineering measures. However, those measures
also can be evaluated in and of themselves. For example, were the
warnings understandable, sufficiently broad, or used as a substitute
for design or guarding?
    The design process and the safety hierarchy outlined above
almost always include other sub-processes and evaluation techniques.
Severity indices, fault trees, failure mode and effect analysis
(FMEA), root cause analysis, and design checklists all are tools
that if sufficiently designed and used within the design process
will aid the designer in his goal to make a safer product.

When product liability theories are evaluated, three general areas
are considered.
1. Design defect:
• Was the product designed to do the job based on the reasonable
expectation of a consumer, without undue risk?
• Was it designed for the environment of intended use?
• Was the design properly engineered and tested?
2. Manufacturing defect: Despite a sufficient design, was there a
flaw in the:
• Processing?
• Assembly?
• Raw materials?
3. Warning defect: Did the manufacturer fail to properly advise
• Assembly?
• Use and maintenance?
• Hazards?

Hopefully, if you have made it this far, you now are asking yourself
how you can improve your products to both reduce liability and
improve safety. Much of the general information on design is
contained herein, but a more in-depth understanding obviously
would be beneficial for the designer.
    Let’s look at design defects first. It is important to document
what sources of information were used or considered in the design
process of a component. The specific issues for the plumbing component
designer that account for a large number of design-related
defects are related to stress concentrations and material selection.
ASPE publishes the Plumbing Engineering Design Handbook,
and Volume 4 covers plumbing components and equipment. I
have utilized this reference for years to illustrate what a designer
“should” have included in a design. While a lot of good information
is available online, if you use it in a design, be sure to properly
record and document the source. Materials, machinery, and
design handbooks are prevalent and should be sourced for relevant
design information. One of the various texts on design and
product liability (see Figure 2) also should be included. One of the
best for a general understanding is Managing Engineering Design
by Hales and Gooch.
    Manufacturing defects come in two main areas: assembly
and cast/mold defects. This is an area that the designer typically
cannot control, but can influence. Some issues of quality control
and tolerances have to be determined within the design, and
others will be left to the assembly workers, a quality control (QC)
department, or line design. When it comes to casting and mold
defects, those processes should be considered and properly speci-
fied in the design. Then a QC program to ensure compliance must
be implemented (see Figure 3).
    The third area is related to warnings. Step 3 of the safety hierarchy
would be evaluated in this step as instructions for installation
and maintenance (training). It is the responsibility of the
design engineer and producing company to ensure that a product
brought to market is reasonably safe and suitable for the environment
of its intended use. A product subject to degradation,
corrosion, catastrophic failure, or other risk of damage to people
or property should adequately warn of the risk or danger if there
was no other reasonable way to eliminate the risk or failure mode.
The product instructions might address, but not be limited to,
warnings, providing maintenance instructions, and warning of the
consequences of failing to heed the instructions.
    The design of warnings should follow American National Standards
Institute (ANSI) standards regarding the identification and
warning against potential safety hazards. In 1979, the ANSI Z53
Committee of Safety Colors was combined with the Z35 Committee
on Safety Signs to form the Z535 Committee, which develops
the standards that must be used to design warnings, labels, and
instructions intended to identify and warn against hazards and
prevent accidents. The relevant standards for products are:
• ANSI Z535.4: Product Safety Signs and Labels
• ANSI Z535.6: Product Safety Information in Product Manuals,
Instructions, and Other Collateral Materials

    For a warning to be effective, there must be a reasonable degree
of certainty that the end user will receive and understand the
warning (see Figure 4). The use of warnings also must follow the
safety hierarchy. Since warnings are the fourth step, available
design alternatives must be considered in the design process.
Guarding out of a hazard and subsequent training must be undertaken
before warnings can reasonably be considered or designed.
    Our society, as stated in the various plumbing codes, relies on
the engineer, designer, and manufacturer to produce products that
are safe and durable. Society also recognizes and accepts some
level of risk, provided that they know about it beforehand and that
companies must be economically viable to survive. Don’t shirk your
responsibility to the public, your profession, yourself, or your company
by producing a product based on an insufficient design.

This article was reprinted with permission and all copyright remains with the American Society of Plumbing Engineers.

International Technology Transfer

I recently had two encounters that remind me how difficult it is bringing a building product technology from one part of the world to another:
  • I had a discussion with a rep from a company that claims to be one of the leading European suppliers of accessories for planted, "green" roofs. The concept may be well established in Europe, but it is in its infancy in the US. The rep, taking clues from her European boss, had difficulty understanding that Americans want a roofing membrane manufacturer to warrant the planting accessories as part of a total roofing system. In Europe, apparently, the "waterproofing" and the "green roofing" are considered two completely separate trades, like we might consider the floor slab and carpeting to be almost completely separate. I tried to explain some of the differences, including a different legal system that assesses risk and liability differently.
  • Today, I went through the sales and technical literature of a Turkish company that has an innovative, thin ceramic sheet. While the bilingual documents were translated into "English", possibly into "American," they were still in a foreign dialect with regards to the language of American construction. I will forgive them the use of metric -- Americans should get their head out of the sand on that point. But the tools the related materials such as underlayments and sealants were unfamiliar, the types of assemblages, and even the drawing conventions used in their details were all "weird".
Fortunately, Chusid Associates has had experience with many other off-shore building product manufactures coming to North American. We have been able to assist them to understand US markets and plot their best course.

In some cases, once they understood the market conditions here, they have decided to not risk coming to the US. But when they have decided the investment was worthwhile, we have been able to act as their guide through the maze of acculturation, testing and regulatory hurdles, and start-up.

The Six Construction Industries

"The construction industry is like a great big gray glob. Just when you think you have your arms around it, it squeezes out somewhere else."
My mentor, Harold Simpson, PE, was fond of saying this. His point was that every building product marketing strategy has to begin by segmenting the industry so you know where to aim.

For example, John Eberhard says what we typically call the building "industry" should really be thought of as the building "industries," and describes six different industries or segments:

1. HOUSING INDUSTRY: Converts raw land, usually purchased on a speculative basis, into dwelling units that can be sold or rented.

2. MANUFACTURED BUILDING INDUSTRY: Manufactures off-site units that can be anywhere from whole units to sub-assemblies which can be transported to the site.

3. COMMERCIAL DEVELOPERS: Buys raw land and converts it into buildings other than housing, without having a client in advance.

4. "THE BUILDING INDUSTRY": All the institutions and actors that builds a building for a specific client. The client determines the requirements, usually purchases the land, then selects the designers and builders through bidding or another process.

5. THE REMODELING INDUSTRY: Characterized, in many cases, as work done with short-term financing. While Eberhard does not go into detail on this sector, remodeling can be further subdivided into residential and non-residential, DIY, and maintenance services.

6. HEAVY CONSTRUCTION: Highways, dams, railroads, utilities, etc.

Eberhard was Executive Director of Advisory Board on the Built Environment at the National Academy of Sciences. He describes these industries in Chapter 11 of Technology and the Future of the US Construction Industry, Congress of the United States Office of Technology Assessment, 1986.  I highly recommend this short essay. It is available on Google Books and as a PDF download.