Michael Dickens is a realist. It took a while, but after charging into the building realm a quarter century ago with innovative ideas borne from his European heritage and early career in the auto industry, Dickens soon came to understand one immutable truth about the American home building industry: It changes you, not the other way around.
"I was probably a little brash, a little too judgmental about what I saw as a backward industry," he says of his earlier self. “There was no integrator of the process, the codes were fragmented, manufacturers just made their widgets. No one was putting it all together as an integrated system.”
After quickly realizing that a vision of a highly sophisticated industrialized housing model for America (at least as the predominant method) was a fool’s errand within a highly diverse industry, Dickens refocused on a track that could be applied to any type of building construction; that is, a systematic approach to achieve better and more reliable building performance. "All building systems have their place," he says, whether it be stick-built or HUD code. “That’s the beauty of our industry.”
Today, Dickens and his team at IBACOS in Pittsburgh work closely with home builders and other industry professionals to research, apply, and refine processes that deliver the best building performance results for a given system.
A primary goal, he says, is to give builders the knowledge and tools to assume the mantle of “integrator” of high-performance processes and products and to properly recognize and apply their particular circumstances—a custom combination of climate conditions, marketability, price points, available labor and materials, competitive forces, codes, and culture—to the building system that will deliver the best results.
It’s a performance-based approach that resonates far better with a fiercely independent and generally conservative industry that bristles at prescriptive solutions and mandates. "A builder has to be allowed to follow his own business intentions and processes," says Dickens. “Our role is to help improve those processes.”
The IBACOS team, often in partnerships with builders and other stakeholders through its own Best Practices Research Alliance and the DOE's Building America program, also sees (and seizes) opportunities to look more closely at specific systems, such as HVAC equipment and its various delivery schemes, for ways to improve its integration within an ever-improving thermal envelope. "The industry needs to bring those systems up to par with improvements in the building shell," says Dickens. "That’s going to be a hot topic for the next five years."
Ever the innovator, Dickens would like to see HVAC and other systems manufacturers rethink and retool their products to suit an improved dynamic, but the realist in him understands that, as with building systems in general, the industry will work to incrementally push the performance of the status quo instead of making wholesale changes. “We need to do better with what we have,” he says. “The answer is in improving the process, not remaking the technology.”