If the walls and ceilings we install could talk, what would be said? What would one ask them? Professor Chang Liu, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, led the team that developed a "smart brick," which may monitor a building's health.
"We are living with more smart electronics all around us but we still live and work in fairly dumb buildings," Liu says.
Liu and graduate student Jon Engle have combined the use of sensor fusion, wireless technology and standard construction materials into a sensor that will diagnose a building's condition. Information is then sent to a remote operator. Liu says the sensor could be embedded into concrete blocks, laminated beams, structural steel, drywall, as well as many other construction materials.
Lunar landingOn July 20, 1969, the human race accomplished its single greatest technological achievement when a human first set foot on another celestial body. Not only did our astronauts land on the moon, they returned safely to earth. Yet, I wonder why an industry as large as the construction industry still builds somewhat "dumb buildings," as Liu states. Although the U.S. may have the best technology, I don't know why the techno brains focus on other industries. Maybe the AGC chooses to spend its money devising complicated subcontracts rather than funding useful technology. Other than a laser, what other revolutionary technology does a construction company use? We use the same drywall, screws, mud, tape and steel.
It's time our science whiz kids begin spending more time on practical products such as "smart bricks." After reading about an inexpensive sensor that could report a building's condition, my mind is doing gyrations trying to estimate all the applications.
If sensors are placed in the wall, floor and ceiling cavities I believe this technology would allow for immediate detection of a water intrusion. As well, I would hope this technology would report the date in which the sensor first detected the water problem. Liu stated, "Our sensors can be designed to collect a wide variety of information."
Owners, contractors and homeowners, as well as insurance companies, could benefit from this technology. Identifying and locating water intrusion sooner than later could save our industry, as well as our insurance companies, millions of dollars. As well, this technology could identify resulting harmful molds.
When I think about stucco, I firmly believe that plastering contractors should include language in contracts and warranties that guarantee that the stucco will crack. Wouldn't it be interesting to know if the building that was just plastered or drywalled is settling? Would you like to know if a home is having a moisture intrusion problem? Contractors don't have X-ray nor know what's happening in concealed areas unless an invasive inspection is done. Most rely on "tell-tale signs" of a developing problem and then rip into the wall or ceiling only to find the problem is in the next stud cavity.
NanoscienceIn the last several years, there has been a boom in the building inspection business. People are paying private inspectors hundreds of dollars to inspect a building before purchasing it. These inspectors generally do a visual inspection of the exterior, interior, attic and crawl space looking for problems. Generally, a visual inspection of a building may not tell what's going on inside. A building is somewhat like that person who is thought to have it all together: lots of money, perfect kids, a great spouse and a beautiful home with a four-car garage full of toys. Then the unthinkable is heard: the money was borrowed, kids are on drugs, house was mortgaged to the hilt to pay for all the toys and other tragedies. It can never be known what's really going on inside a person or in the guts of a building.
Nanotechnology is the science and technology of building electronic circuits and devices from single atoms and molecules. I don't care what they build these sensors out of, as long as they give us the information we need.
If one was buying a home, wouldn't he like to know what's going on in the guts of the building? Wouldn't it be nice to have a visual inspection of what can be seen, as well as a report on what cannot be seen? Wouldn't it be great if the homeowner insurance company could connect to the sensor board to determine the insurability of the home before it is bought?
Liu says, "Our sensors could be installed in existing homes using very low invasive methods of installation."
As we take part in building residential and commercial buildings, we accept liability and that liability continues after the project is complete. Contractors and insurance companies are bound to the terms and conditions of a subcontract, as well as state laws. If water intrusion or mold occurs, the subcontractor, as well as his insurance company, is going to be involved in litigation. Many insurance companies are excluding mold coverage because the claims are astronomical due to the health impacts on human beings. If mold-related coverage is not had, how will the GC be defended and held harmless in the event the company is involved in a mold litigation lawsuit?
The process of waiting for tell-tales signs, visual inspections, hiring specialists, and coming to a settlement is similar to negotiating a price on a used car. The science stinks, as well as the process, because contractors are forced to insure the GC, as well as the owner-and subcontractors are the ones who take the biggest hit.
The construction industry needs a scientific approach that discovers serious problems when they happen-not one, two, or five years down the road when the damage compounds itself several times over. We need a scientific determination when the problem first occurred, the location of the problem, and what the problem consists of. By having accurate scientific evidence of a problem, I believe the attorneys and claim writers would find it much more difficult to contradict the evidence.
Sniff thisA company called ChemSensing has developed a digital extension of litmus paper that identifies odors. This technology allows a piece of meat to be tested before it is eaten to determine if it has E-Coli bacteria.
Dr. Ken Suslick, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, states, "It is very likely that we could develop a simple test paper that would identify mold or toxic mold. We really haven't spent any time on mold detection as yet."
I also spoke with ChemSensing CEO Joel Dryer, who says, "If the construction industry is concerned about mold, ChemSensing has a program where they accept grant money to develop the test, as well as manufacture the finished product." He also says that phase-one testing for such a product could run from $5,000 to $15,000 and that a rough estimate for a completed test system ready for marketing could be as much as $100,000.
The technology developed by Liu and Suslick is revolutionary technology because it could greatly limit subcontractor liability for moisture intrusion, as well as resulting mold. Additionally, it provides scientific evidence and support for subcontractors. Most important is the sensors' ability to notify the building owner immediately of the problem, be it water, mold, heat or movement.
The construction industry needs this type of technology in order to provide higher quality smart buildings, as well as to help limit the liability of subcontractors and insurance companies. Sensor technology is a scientific cost effective immediate notification system that could revolutionize, as well as reduce, liability.
The following Web sites offer information about sensor technology, as well as the many opportunities that exist. Go to www.chemsensing.com and www.otm.uiuc.edu.
I would hope that our many subcontractor associations would take the opportunity to investigate and possibly invest in sensor technology. If our subcontractor associations find it too expensive or difficult to fight for fair subcontracts maybe another angle is to invest in technology that may limit a subcontractors liability.
Remember: Teamwork begins with a fair contract!