Five Reasons ConstructionTech & PropTech Leaders are Focusing More on Building Materials

As we prepare for the Buildings Conference, the next up in our annual series of four conferences and three summits, we are in the midst of our survey period, gathering data from our community to inform the discussions at the conference. Topics under the Buildings Category at BuiltWorlds typically include innovation in planning and design; building materials, products, and systems; operations, management, and maintenance systems; sustainability, energy management, and carbon footprint; and modularization, prefabrication, and 3D printing. Although we are only halfway through our survey period, it is clear that one topic currently has the industry's focus above all others in terms of emerging tech — innovations in high-performance materials. While it may seem odd that a community typically associated with software is becoming infatuated with the nuanced topics of innovation in material sciences, we see several obvious explanations for the trend.

#1. Weariness of Productivity Gains that Come Solely Through Digital Workflows 

For most of the past decade, innovation and emerging technology in the Proptech and Construction Tech sectors have been focused on the digitization of paper-based processes and building workflows for various forms. Companies like Plangrid, Textura, Aconex, eBuilder, Procore, Levelset, Fieldwire, and more have garnered nine and ten-figure valuations for their digital workflow solutions. Through all of this excitement, however, there has been a growing chorus of complaints that, although we certainly can capture efficiency by moving off of paper forms and disparate spreadsheets, all this innovation may not be making the industry that much more productive. Instead, we may actually just be institutionalizing the actual causes of our inefficiency, as many of the workflows in place today are a symptom of the industry’s underlying dysfunction, and the industry would not need those processes if it were able to find approaches that truly were more efficient. So, as the industry looks beyond workflows to address productivity, it is increasingly prioritizing developing and identifying lighter, easier-to-install, more cost-effective materials. Further, it is looking for materials that are less prone to defects, delays, and other challenges that increase the cost of construction and negatively impact productivity.

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#2 Increased Focus on Sustainability and Carbon Footprint Reduction

While we are still collecting responses to our Building Tech Benchmarking Survey, one pattern is already clear from feedback. Those surveyed overwhelmingly responded that they see high-performance materials as the path to carbon footprint reduction as well as achieving other sustainability objectives. As compared to other ideas for how to achieve sustainability goals, high-performance materials are central because the industry perceives the design of the buildings as having the greatest impact on the overall carbon and energy footprint of buildings. There is a sense that the carbon and energy footprint during the process of building is a lesser factor and one that is dependent on the materials selected for each building. Similarly, what can be done in the operations of the building is also significantly dependent on the materials incorporated in the design of the building itself.

#3 Materials Companies Have Significant, Dependable Money for Innovation

Another important reason why materials are coming to the fore for the industry is simply that, more than ever, the industry’s materials and equipment manufacturers have budgets for the development of new solutions that simply dwarf those of the sector’s venture capital community. Additionally, they have the patience and muscle for the arduous process of bringing new materials to market. Arcelor Mittal, one of the world’s largest steel producers, reports spending $300 million a year on R&D, while Holcim listed almost $200 million in spending in 2020, and Saint Gobain has been cited as $500 million. With annual expenditures in the hundreds of millions of dollars, major building materials companies are outsized players in the ecosystem, even as funds have steadily grown in the sector. 

#4 Innovation in Materials Enables other Emerging Technologies and Techniques

As the industry looks past software to find new means and methods — involving potentially labor-saving approaches such as robotics, 3D printing, and modular fabrication — it is becoming increasingly apparent that these approaches require new materials to achieve their full potential. Adhesives replace mortar in robotic bricklaying, 3D printers leverage an array of different types of materials beyond traditional concrete, and modular builders look to uproot traditional supply chains in a variety of ways, including sourcing globally and leveraging mass timber materials. In some respects, the industry’s software explosions seems to have created the context for an equal swell of interest in emerging materials.

#5. Recent Shortages, Price Hikes, and Delays Put Materials in the Crosshairs

Beyond these points, the industry’s intensifying focus on materials likely comes from a variety of recent factors, including recent spikes in prices for materials and delays in delivery. Even the hike in interest rates could have an impact, as firms prioritize shorter construction schedules and materials that support those condensed schedules.

We will dive deeper into the ecosystem’s perspective on materials at our Buildings Conference in May and other related research. However, with materials in the US comprising 40 percent of project costs, on average, and firms still not seeing major increases in productivity, cost reductions, or quality gains from software, the focus on materials that is evident in our survey seems likely to intensify.