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Back to the Future: Advancing Innovative Technologies To Build Better, More Affordable Homes


Keywords: Affordable Housing, Housing Technology, PATH, AHRT, Housing Construction, Sustainability

PD&R at 50
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Back to the Future: Advancing Innovative Technologies To Build Better, More Affordable Homes

Regina Gray, Director, Affordable Housing Research and Technology Division, Office of Policy Development and Research

(Left to right): Michael Freedberg, Dave Engel (Director), Regina Gray, Ed Stromberg, Dana Bres, Luis Borray, and Mike Blanford.
AHRT staff in 2005 (left to right): Michael Freedberg, Dave Engel (Director), Regina Gray, Ed Stromberg, Dana Bres, Luis Borray, and Mike Blanford. Photo credit: Photos provided by AHRT staff

The history of housing technology research at HUD is long and storied. Kent Watkins’ recent commentary on lessons learned from the Operation Breakthrough experiment illustrates the importance of continued investment in innovative housing technologies to address housing supply challenges and disseminate effective approaches through policy and practice. When the Affordable Housing Research and Technology Division (AHRT) first launched under the former Office of Housing Technology, its mandate consisted of two primary responsibilities: to sponsor research demonstrations addressing the cost benefits of solar heating and cooling and to assist HUD in its efforts to adopt building performance standards. However, significant concerns over health and wellness in housing — along with a new focus on community-level practices in urban development that improve housing affordability — eventually led the division to adopt a broader research role. Since the 1990s, the division has studied and supported research on issues related to building codes, health and safety standards, lean construction methods, “greening” affordable housing, brownfields remediation, do-it-yourself guidance, and environmental justice.

Over the years, our research portfolio has expanded to include investigations of growth management policies, regulatory barriers to affordable housing, energy consumption in public housing, and affordable housing design. AHRT has also examined the application of multiple academic disciplines to address energy efficiency; accessibility; transit-oriented development; and the creation of more equitable, livable communities. As increasingly frequent and severe climate events test the resilience of U.S. communities, our division's research agenda has expanded to include disaster preparedness and mitigation strategies, durable construction practices, community planning, and environmental justice.

A structured insulated panel.
Here is a sample of a structured insulated panel featured in one of PATH's earliest publications exploring various types of panelized wall systems. Photo credit: Photos provided by AHRT staff

The Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH), however, was the program that established our division’s current research agenda on innovation. From 1998 to 2008, PATH pursued its mission to research building technologies that would improve the general quality and performance of housing as well as expand and preserve the nation’s supply of affordable housing. PATH partners collaborated to improve the quality and affordability of homes, strengthen U.S. technology infrastructure, and create the next generation of American housing. Along the way, these PATH partnerships generated numerous technology successes, including the introduction of steel framing, improving energy usage in housing, advanced panelized construction methods, technology roadmaps for manufactured housing, insulated concrete forms, and a collaborative process to improve construction methods.

The research PATH generated garnered widespread recognition among industry leaders. In fact, even after the program's termination, PATH research has consistently ranked among the top 10 most-searched documents on the HUD User website. PATH's most noted research and initiatives include the following:

  • ToolBase. PATH administered the ToolBase program, which served as a portal to give builders and remodelers access to the latest information on innovative building materials, processes, and systems. ToolBase disseminated objective information on residential building technology information; it remains accessible and is a valued resource for industry professionals.

  • PATHnet. PATHnet provides homeowners with guidance on such topics as high-performance window systems, heating and air conditioning systems, insulated paneling, indoor air quality, and do-it-yourself strategies to improve the quality of homes.

  • PATH Concept Home. The Concept Home demonstrated a vision for the future of American homebuilding by showcasing advanced technologies and innovative building practices. Through the design, construction, and marketing of Concept Homes, homebuilders learned technologies and building practices to improve the durability, affordability, safety, and energy efficiency of housing in the United States.

  • Durability Research with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. AHRT partnered with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop a testing methodology to assess the effectiveness of construction techniques that improve durability. This research focused on innovative approaches to sealing the building envelope to reduce excess moisture and improve indoor air quality.

  • Building Code Development and Advocacy. HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) sponsored the research necessary for developing prescriptive building codes for the three main alternatives to wood framing: light gauge steel framing, insulating concrete forms, and structural insulated panels. Before these framing alternatives were included in the building code, builders needed to hire a licensed engineer or architect to create designs, which increased construction costs while adding little value.

  • Diffusion of Innovation Studies. These reports were intended to help researchers understand the formulation and uptake of new housing technologies, the barriers to market acceptance of these technologies, and strategies to encourage their adoption and reduce risk.

A 2002 independent assessment, “Promoting Innovation,” revealed that, although PATH produced considerable amounts of quality research and policy guidance, empirical evidence that the program had a meaningful impact on the housing industry’s adoption of innovative technologies was insignificant.

Promoting Innovation: 2002 Assessment of the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing

By 2008, PATH activities had waned, largely because of the assessment's findings along with increased concern over the rising housing costs brought on by the Great Recession and the associated housing crisis. These events led AHRT to shift its focus from its building technology research program to other division priorities such as regulatory barrier research and the Sustainable Communities Initiative. Three recommendations from the PATH assessment, however, would serve as the basis for AHRT's current building technology agenda: (1) remove barriers and facilitate technology development and adoption; (2) improve technology transfer, development, and adoption through information dissemination; and (3) advance housing technology research and foster the development of new technology.

By the turn of the decade, the nation had recovered from the worst impacts of the housing crisis. AHRT began to work toward reestablishing a building technology research agenda that incorporated the PATH assessment's three recommendations but also included strategies to increase housing supply through innovative market interventions. HUD focused on two main initiatives in its mission to make housing more affordable and communities more livable. The first initiative involved reducing or eliminating land use regulations that depress the supply of available housing, especially in the middle market, which was hardest hit by the housing crises. The second initiative explored ways to incentivize the market uptake of factory-built housing and attract consumers by giving them affordable alternatives to conventional site-built housing. Removing barriers to innovative technology development and adoption, improving technology transfer, and investing in housing technology led AHRT to establish its Cooperative Research in Housing Technology program.

The Cooperative Research in Housing Technology program generated more than two dozen research projects, including an investigation into strategies for overcoming barriers to innovation, a look into the early adoption of three-dimensional concrete printing, an analysis of the advantages of new cross-laminated timber systems, market research on the cost of modular housing and developing community resilience guidance, and a grant to MOD X and its partners to develop a research agenda that would establish a framework for a strategy to expand the nation's housing supply through factory-built housing. In addition to this successful grant program, PD&R sponsored the first building technology research initiative for historically black colleges and universities that awarded projects examining the performance of energy-saving battery technology and the incorporation of cross-laminated timber in multifamily housing.

Housing accounts for a significant share of the national economy and employment and plays a crucial role in people's health, stability, and well-being. The recent rise in hurricanes and extreme heat events, however, highlights the need for improved construction methods to ensure that new homes can withstand future natural disasters. On January 27, 2021, President Biden issued an executive order on tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad. A key objective of the order is to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. HUD responded to the executive order by establishing a Climate Action Plan that sets fairly ambitious recommendations for tackling the climate crisis. In that plan, HUD gave PD&R a prominent role in research and development, policy, and technical assistance.

AHRT was one of the divisions that took the lead in developing an agenda that addresses the plan's strategic goals. The division's disaster research includes projects devoted to preparedness, such as site planning principles and techniques to be deployed in various community contexts, community resilience models, revolutionary approaches to the reuse of sustainable materials in housing, durable design standards, and fortified housing construction techniques as well as policy recommendations for addressing various natural hazards. Many of the recommendations included in the Climate Action Plan are initiatives that PD&R has recently completed, has underway or ongoing, or has planned. However, the Climate Action Plan also identifies proposed actions that were presented recently but not implemented, such as establishing an accessible array of climate risk data applications and resources to help HUD program offices and state and local practitioners prepare for and adapt to climate change.

Over the past few years, through partnerships with various national research and industry partners, AHRT has networked with international researchers and policymakers to address housing challenges. Although we have focused primarily on using offsite construction to alleviate the global housing supply shortage, these international networks have significantly improved knowledge transfer in innovation research. AHRT funded a comparative, cross-national study of construction practices in Japan, Sweden, and the United Kingdom that yielded several valuable insights. Our international counterparts confront similar challenges in their efforts to address their affordable housing shortages, such as the high cost of construction materials, especially wood and steel; high construction costs, and the persistent shortage of skilled labor. Second, institutional conditions — aggravated by economic pressures in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic — often hinder investments in new housing technologies. As a result, many governments have been forced to retrench their investments in housing technology research and development. As the postpandemic economic recovery continues, however, many officials intend to revisit their commitment to the housing technology research agenda.

Following site visits to three countries, PD&R hosted webinars to share experiences from the visits, identify successful initiatives — particularly in modular housing construction, panelized and wood systems, and strategies for aging in place. Recommendations for additional inquiry included the integration of health, wellness, and safety standards in housing; improved data and analysis of innovative practices in building performance that yield long-term success; effective decarbonization efforts; the adoption of performance-based codes; and the removal of burdensome or excessive land use requirements that impede the construction of affordable units.


What, exactly, is innovation? Is it simply a new, revolutionary idea? A novel concept? Something that hasn't yet been tried? I submit that innovation, when applied to housing, is more transformative than just these things. Innovative interventions must offer sound solutions to existing problems. These interventions should not only be transferable in various contexts but also be capable of bringing solutions to scale. The quest to build better, more affordable homes has a bright future. The innovative construction materials and methods featured in the Innovative Housing Showcase, for example, illustrate how our research is translated into practice for both the industry and the consumer. The ability to demonstrate technologies in person that improve housing performance — such as incorporating assistive devices for persons with disabilities and movable walls that allow homeowners to adapt their space for a growing family — makes a difference in closing information gaps. On the supply side, removing barriers to market entry by reducing risk and improving industrialized housing techniques are examples of how research has moved housing affordability and performance in the right direction. As we close out this final article in the PD&R at 50 series, we aim to build on the evidence that will help the industry and consumers embrace emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, enhanced three-dimensional devices and methods, and other exciting inventions that improve performance without sacrificing affordability.

A 1996 PD&R report predating PATH, “Residential Remodeling and Universal Design: Making Homes More Comfortable and Accessible,” represented one of AHRT’s earliest efforts to provide remodeling guidance to consumers. ×

See, for example, the 2000 “PATH Strategy and Operating Plan,” which created the framework for AHRT partnerships with industry leaders and others to craft a robust research agenda and policy recommendations for HUD.×

For the earliest overview of PATH programs, activities, initiatives, and research, see: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing. 2002. “Affordability and Value Through Housing Technology.” ×

The Concept Home program demonstrated advanced technologies and building practices by creating the first whole-house prototype that could be altered easily with options, upgrades, and improvements. AHRT oversaw the construction of the Concept Home in Omaha, Nebraska, which received national press recognition and was featured on HGTV. For information on PATH’s Whole House concept, which goes into further detail regarding the whole-house approach, see: Newport Partners LLC. 2004. “Technology Roadmap: Whole House and Building Process Redesign, 2003 Progress Report,” prepared for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.×

Durability by Design was one of the earliest guides for homebuilders seeking guidance on incorporating durable construction practices to sustain long-term performance. Techniques to fortify homes, such as window proofing, roof gutting, and downspouts, also reduce maintenance costs. ×

For additional information on PATH, see: National Research Council. 2008. Rebuilding the Research Capacity at HUD. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. For studies focused on the diffusion of innovations in housing, see: C. Theodore Koebel, Maria Papadakis, Ed Hudson, and Marilyn Cavell. 2004. “The Diffusion of Innovation in the Residential Building Industry,” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research; Carlos Martín and Andrew McCoy. 2019. “Building Even Better Homes: Strategies for Promoting Innovation in Home Building,” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research; Jerry Boland, Bryan Minster, Cara Grauer, Stacy Hunt, and Juliet Grable. 2022. “Overcoming Barriers to Innovation in the Home Building Industry,” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research. ×

National Research Council. 2003. Promoting Innovation: 2002 Assessment of the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing, Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; See also: Gail Mosey, Elizabeth Doris, and Charles Coggeshall. 2009. “Conceptual Soundness, Metric Development, Benchmarking, and Targeting for PATH Subprogram Evaluation,” Technical Report NREL/TP-6A2-43822, National Renewable Energy Laboratory.×

Many noted observers illustrated how uncoordinated housing and transportation planning was a primary driver of urban sprawl. This collaboration among HUD, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sought to establish federal recommendations for directing investments in transportation, affordable housing, and infrastructure that would improve the livability of communities. ×

Mosey, Doris, and Coggeshall, 3. ×

A recent Cityscape symposium features a discussion of the results from the program. See: Mark D. Shroder and Michelle P. Matuga. 2023. “Recent Findings and Results of Grants from the Cooperative Research in Housing Technologies Program: Where Do They Fit Within the Framework of the Past 55 Years of Housing Technology Innovation at HUD?Cityscape 25:1, 3–15. ×

To learn more about the roadmap, see: Ryan E. Smith, Ivan Rupnik, Tyler Schmetterer, and Kyle Barry. 2022. “Offsite Construction for Housing: Research Roadmap.” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research. ×

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 2021. “Climate Action Plan.” ×

Published Date: 19 March 2024

The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.