COLUMBUS, OHIO - Processors hungry for a piece of the $500 billion-a-year U.S. construction pie should start with just a narrow slice, aim new products at subcontractors and home buyers and back them up with warranties, speakers at a Battelle conference advised. About 50 people attended the seminar, ``Challenges to Polymeric Materials in Construction,'' held March 30. Battelle, a major industrial research organization, hosted the conference at its Columbus headquarters.
Construction is the second-largest user of plastic materials, behind only packaging. Unfortunately, most builders, as small regional firms, are slow to adopt innovations, especially new, un-tested plastic products, speakers said. Processors face high product development costs and a complex distribution system that can discourage new technology.
``It's fragmented in many ways,'' said Kathleen Almand, director of research applications at the Civil Engineering Research Foundation in Washington.
``You have to choose your sector. You have to choose your customer,'' she said.
Builders are afraid of being sued. Architects fear losing their licenses over a building failure. Tort liability ``hangs like the sword of Damocles over this industry,'' said Douglas Barno, director of market development at the Composites Institute, a unit of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. of Washington.
Manufacturers' liability is much greater in the United States than in Europe and Japan, he said.
Several speakers said the U.S. building code system itself inhibits new products, especially the 33,000 different code authorities at the local level.
But an official of the Building Officials and Code Administrators International Inc. code defended the system.
``We do not want the codes to be a barrier to innovation,'' said Tom Frost, BOCA vice president of engineering services. The BOCA code is used as a model in the Northeast and Midwest.
Frost said the three model code organizations have drafted a single national plumbing code.
``About the turn of the century there'll be a single model building code promulgated by the three groups,'' he predicted.
Before blaming code bodies, manufacturers should make sure they submit detailed technical information about a product, Frost said.
Builders shy away from alternative products that suffer from a lack of standards, said Alice Parsons, a Battelle research scientist. Plastic lumber, for example, competes against an age-old product.
``A two-by-four is pretty much the same whether you buy it in Maine or whether you buy it in Arizona,'' Parsons said.
Battelle's 50-person Polymer Center is conducting a confidential study of construction for 14 major plastics companies.
Trends driving plastics in construction include new government energy codes, plastics' low maintenance and recyclability and the reduced availability of lumber, according to Shalendra Porwal, Battelle's building market manager.
Porwal said the ultimate consumer, the new-home buyer, might want new plastic products but often has no input. Buyers are the last leg of the distribution chain.
``We need a trade show for home buyers,'' Porwal said.
On the other hand, plastics products have experienced explosive growth in remodeling products, such as vinyl siding and windows. Do-it-yourself retail outlets, some of which buy direct from manufacturers, give homeowners full authority on product and material selection, said Burton Goldberg, senior analyst at the National Association of Home Builders' Research Center in Upper Marlboro, Md.
Goldberg said manufacturers also should target subcontractors, not builders.
``Many of the manufacturers in our focus groups complain it's the subcontractor that pulls the innovations, not the builder,'' he said. ``The builder is increasingly a man of finance, accounting or sales. He knows very little as a general contractor, a coordinator. He's more interested in the business practices of the firm, not the technology.''
But Porwal said subcontractors, with a substantial investment in tools to install products that have been on the market for years, are not an easy sell.
``They don't like to switch over to something brand new unless they are very confident about it,'' he said.
Playing off the Republican Party theme, Porwal proposed a Contract with Home Buyers of America that includes a pledge to service products and offer extended warranties. He also said the plastics industry should create a ``superfund'' to handle products from development through disposal.