Building Technology Research at PD&R
Since the 1970s, HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) has been committed to conducting and assisting research on building technology, especially as it relates to building codes, energy efficiency, and land use. Past research studies have covered disaster-resilient building materials and adaptation as well as the ways in which building technology can address the disparate needs of children and seniors, various income groups, and people with disabilities. The Affordable Housing Research and Building Technology Division at PD&R manages this research, often in collaboration with the Offices of Public and Indian Housing, Community Planning and Development, and Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control.
Growing Interest in Building Technology
Building technology is a topic of increasing interest to policymakers, researchers, academics, and students. In fact, for more than five years now, building technology has been the most frequently searched-for report topic on the HUD USER website. A good starting point for those looking for upcoming research is PD&R’s strategic plan, the Research Roadmap, which guides HUD research over a five-year period and incorporates extensive feedback from internal stakeholders, representatives from other federal agencies, and external practitioners and researchers. Building technology studies have long been among the many anticipated projects that the Research Roadmap has placed on HUD’s research agenda. Despite reduced funding for building technology research, HUD has continued to study building technology in assisted housing, mixed-income housing, and market-rate developments.
Changes in the housing stock in the United States occur slowly because the number of homes built each year (in 2016, 1.06 million units were completed) is quite small compared to the over-130 million existing homes.
Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing
From 1998 to 2008, PD&R researched building technology through a HUD program called the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH), which aimed to improve the safety, efficiency, and durability of American homes. As a public-private partnership, PATH connected home construction companies, materials manufacturers, researchers, and government agencies to fulfill its mission. One success of the program was the building code recognition of innovative building materials such as steel framing, structural insulated panels and insulated concrete forms that reduce energy costs, improve in-home comfort, and strengthen homes against natural disasters.
PATH explored more effective methods for heating and cooling homes such as radiant heating. Low-power electric cables are installed under flooring to heat the floor. Because a large area is heated, the room is more comfortable, and the temperature is steadier. Because radiant heat does not move air around the home, some feel it is cleaner and more preferable. There has been some exploration of using radiant systems for cooling as well.
PATH also led to several other research activities. The 2008 Flood Rehabilitation Guide helps contractors determine whether a home is safe to enter after a flood and offers mitigation techniques to return a home to a habitable state and make it more resistant to future floods. In 2007, HUD completed the first Concept Home in Omaha, Nebraska, which featured efficient building materials and operating systems that showed how innovations in building technology can make housing more affordable in the long run.
In 2007, at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, PD&R began an evaluation of FEMA’s Alternative Housing Pilot Program (AHPP) to determine the effects of different strategies for constructing disaster recovery housing among four states receiving grants. The evaluation concluded that while it is possible to rapidly construct and install high quality housing, getting such programs started requires significant planning. It also highlighted the value of these homes as permanent housing. In addition, HUD created the Regulatory Barriers Clearinghouse (RBC) in 2001 as an online, searchable resource that disseminates information on state and local policies influencing affordable housing development. The RBC database features numerous documents such as reports and city ordinances focused on strategies to preserve and develop affordable housing across the United States.
Most recently, the PD&R research team collaborated with the New York City Housing Authority and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to determine how to use messaging to reduce residents’ energy use. This research project uses a behavioral economics method called “nudging” to give residents incentives to adopt energy-saving practices. Nudging involves influencing people’s decisions by offering them choices rather than a mandate. The Innovative Building Technology Guide, published in October 2017, offers building owners, architects, engineers, and contractors steps for evaluating the building technologies that are best for their property based on cost-benefit, feasibility, and performance analyses. In 2015, a small study of nine public housing Energy Performance Contracts (EPCs) — a method for financing energy retrofits using cost savings from reduced energy use — paved the way for a large-scale national evaluation in 2017 to determine the effectiveness of EPCs in creating incentives for housing agencies to reduce energy. This evaluation examines the reasons for the limited number of housing agencies using EPCs.
Building technology is a growing area of interest in light of efforts to mitigate damage from natural disasters and reduce the operating costs of affordable housing. As the existing housing stock ages, renovation with innovative products can help the performance of those units. HUD information on this topic remains critical for helping property managers determine which strategies and materials will best suit their needs. PD&R’s longtime track record of building technology research has provided designers, construction managers and housing officials with tangible resources for preserving and constructing affordable housing.