How do you make building procedures more efficient and more coordinated in order to reduce the cost of housing? TIAX, a collaborative product and technology development firm, has been selected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to look into this question.

The HUD project was commissioned to examine procedures and technologies to improve the overall building process in an effort to make housing costs more affordable. To address this goal, TIAX is teaming with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to look at various construction techniques - including the installation and integration of plumbing, HVAC systems, etc. - to identify ways to make the construction process less cumbersome and reduce costs for home buyers.

Explaining his company's involvement, Dick Topping, director, Appliance & Building Technologies Group at TIAX, noted, "We provide engineering consulting, R&D, and product development services for clients including the government and also HVAC and appliance companies." Formerly Arthur D. Little's Technology & Innovation business, TIAX has had a long relationship with MIT, he said. Since the college's Department of Architecture studies advanced housing concepts, the department joined as TIAX's subcontractor on this project.

"HUD is looking for new concepts, new ideas, and new people to aid their program," Topping stated. "We view our role as navigating the gap between R&D and commercialization."

Dick Topping

Improving Home Construction

According to Topping, the new project, called "Disentangling Utilities," is aimed at trying to "develop ways to be more efficient and more rational in the ways that utilities are installed in the home - primarily single-family construction."

He said that right now the home gets framed and the contractors come in, such as plumbing and HVAC, and start doing their work without any planning as to the best process and procedure for coordinating their work to provide the most efficient installation.

"When you want to make a modification to the house, you may not even know where the utilities are and how they're running through the walls," said Topping.

Besides considering the most effective way to run utilities through the structure, the project is also looking at and comparing construction techniques in the United States and Europe, to identify the best methods and the resulting challenges to implementing them.

"The job is to determine what attempts have been made in this area," said Topping, "and what have been the barriers."

He noted, "The barriers are often not technological. They tend to be institutional in terms of the way the building industry operates."

Because of the fragmented nature of the construction business, with the variety of developers, builders, and contractors involved, there has been no coordination of the home building process.

TIAX and MIT will look at things like quick connects for wiring systems and snap fit for plumbing components. They will also attempt to learn from the methods that other industries have used.

The housing industry "has not made the transition to more standardized processes," Topping said. "This one assignment is not going to fix that," he admitted, adding that it will help find a better way to deal with the issue.

To assist TIAX and MIT in this project, an advisory team - comprised of experienced builders, developers, and contractors - will provide their input and feedback. The team's industry expertise will help ensure that the most feasible recommendations are offered.

"Our charter from HUD is to cast the net as wide as we can and make sure we don't miss anything," said Topping.

Sidebar: PlaceLab To Provide A Living Laboratory

Another project that TIAX is involved in with Massachusetts Institute of Technology is PlaceLab. This is a living laboratory, aimed at looking at concepts such as a cleaner indoor environment, with people actually residing in the lab.

"PlaceLab is a one-bedroom apartment that is very highly instrumented, not only in terms of air quality but also in terms of being able to observe people's behavior," said Topping.

Test subjects will volunteer to live in the lab for weeks, possibly for months, he said, and they will be evaluated in how they interact with various new technologies.

From an HVAC standpoint, the lab will have the ability to precisely control humidity, temperature, ventilation rates, and other factors to determine the best approaches for an optimum indoor environment.

PlaceLab is expected to be up and running in the spring.

For more information, visit

Publication date: 03/15/2004