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The Future of Construction: Getting the U.S. There First


Good afternoon. Thank you for this opportunity to tell you about the National Institute of Standards and Technology and how we work with CII and your industry.

Before I do, I would like to add my congratulations to CII for its 25 years of excellence. Clearly, the institute is on a course to grow in value over the next quarter century and beyond. The strategic importance of a collaborative organization like CII was made clear during today's sessions.

Speakers provided a fascinating look out onto the industry's technology horizon. They scouted out pivotal, game-changing challenges and opportunities. From wrestling with climate change and sustainability to leveraging amazing new materials, many of these challenges and opportunities are best addressed through collaboration—through cohesive responses rather than piecemeal reactions.

CII is well positioned to respond effectively.

NIST also has a strong tradition of partnership with your industry and with CII. And we are tackling many of the priority issues highlighted at this conference.

Our work in the construction area dates back to NIST's earliest days. Since 1912, for example, NIST has been providing thermal resistance measurements to the insulation industry.

We have had many valuable interactions with CII. For example, we worked successfully with CII to complete our study on the costs of inadequate interoperability in the U.S. capital facilities industry. Issued in 2004, the report was both an eye-opener and—considering the billions of dollars lost due to redundancy and other sources of inefficiency—a real tearjerker. Most important, the interoperability study has served as a catalyst for real industry action. For one, it has helped to further the development and adoption of building information modeling technologies.

CII and NIST also were instrumental in the creation of the FIATECH Consortium. Since its launch in 2000, FIATECH has sharpened the industry's focus on the development and application of new technologies.

NIST looks forward to continuing this tradition of collaboration. That's a given. But, frankly, we have to improve our partnership and aspire to do more. The status quo is not sufficient to meet the construction industry's growing need for innovative solutions—as has been made abundantly clear at this conference.

Global competition, technological complexity, resource constraints, societal demands, and other factors have upped the ante. At NIST, we recognize that we also must raise our performance as a source of innovation and technical support for the U.S. construction industry.

NIST R&D Sampler

For the next few minutes I'll introduce you to some of the work that we at NIST are doing to help your incredibly diverse industry set down stakes on the rich technology frontier before us.

Rather than span the entire spectrum of NIST's construction-related research agenda, I'm going to home in on our work aimed at helping the industry measure and improve its productivity. Under the leadership of its director Shyam Sunder, our Building and Fire Research Laboratory is ramping up a major effort to resolve this chronically neglected need.

And because it is the nation's chief consumer of energy and its leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, this industry also will need an infusion of new technologies that are energy-efficient and draw on renewable energy sources. So, I'll talk a little bit about our work to enable a "green" U.S. construction industry that will compete successfully in a carbon-constrained global economy. I'll use our concrete research to illustrate.

I'll wrap up with a description of our newly announced competition to spur innovation in technologies for inspecting, monitoring, and evaluating the structural integrity of the nation's physical infrastructure—our roadways, bridges, and drinking and wastewater systems. This is the first competition for cost-shared R&D support under NIST's Technology Innovation Program, which was established by the 2007 America COMPETES Act.


NIST infrastructure

Before I describe some of this work, I'd like to put the NIST role into context.

NIST strives to improve the nation's platform for discovery, innovation, and commercialization. This is another kind of infrastructure—the nation's science and technology infrastructure. The vitality and sophistication of the nation's S&T infrastructure, although invisible to most, is a critical determinant of our innovation performance and economic competitiveness.

The term "measurement science" conveys much of what NIST does. Our job is to advance measurements and standards so that the next wave of innovation can peak and reach its full potential—in the marketplace and in terms of practical application and social utility.

Measurement Science Supporting Construction

We perform basic measurement science research that helps to open technological frontiers. This new knowledge produces possibilities for exciting new applications. So, NIST also provides measurement tools that help to translate technological promise into genuine commercial prospect and industry practice.

Let me explain. When a novel area such as nanotechnology emerges, there is a lack of a common vocabulary, and there are differences in how new phenomena are characterized and communicated. Lack of widely accepted measurements, test methods, and reliable performance data delays new materials and new technologies from reaching the market.

AND, their adoption in building codes and standards.

For the record, NIST is a non-regulatory agency. Our measurements, however, often are the basis for scientifically sound regulations issued by others—and they enable industry to demonstrate compliance.

NIST Laboratory Pie

NIST's 10 laboratories span a wide range of topics, from building and fire research to nanoscale science and technology.

In each of these labs, we are constantly striving to stay at the forefront of new technologies. Our goal is to have measurement methods and standards in place well before products using these technologies are sold in the marketplace. And, increasingly, this requires interdisciplinary collaborations that span many NIST labs.

Supporting New Industry: White-Light LEDs

For example, to support industry's efforts to "perfect" energy-efficient solid-state lighting for use in homes, NIST has built a state-of-the-art facility for measuring and improving the quality of white light from light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.

This is but one example of how NIST is working with the Department of Energy and industry to enable a national transition to highly efficient solid-state lighting. The goal is to reduce energy consumption for lighting by 50 percent by the year 2025. Today, lighting accounts for about 8 percent of total U.S. energy consumption.

Our facility is helping researchers determine the range of colors that LEDs should produce to provide pleasing light—to make it a viable and attractive alternative to other less efficient forms of lighting.

In fact, this work has led to the first two industry standards for solid-state lighting in the United States. The standards were published only a few weeks ago.

This is just one illustration of how new measurement capabilities can support a green technology and the economy at the same time.

Measurement Science for Predicting Life-Cycle Performance of New Infrastructure Materials

We also are helping to pave a path to market for a key class of emerging materials: sustainable nanocomposite infrastructure materials. These engineered nanomaterials have a large and growing number of potential uses.

Our goal in this program is to develop the measurement science capability to:

  • predict the life-cycle performance of these materials and
  • predict release rates of nanoparticles during and after the service of the materials.

These capabilities will clear obstacles to industry adoption and market acceptance.

Across all of NIST, about 150 nanotechnology-related research projects are under way. Our interest reflects the intense global competition to attain the full benefits of this incredibly promising technology area AND, in parallel, to minimize the potential risks.

This twin focus on benefits and risks is crucial. Clearly, we must answer questions about the potential environmental, health, and safety risks posed by nanotechnology. We need this knowledge so that associated hazards—if any—can be eliminated, prevented, or effectively managed.

Failure to do so would pose the biggest risk of all—the risk that unaddressed health and safety issues will cause the public and the market to shun nanotechnology and the tremendous opportunities that this fast-emerging area can deliver.

In the construction industry, these opportunities range from high-performance, low-energy concrete—the world's most widely used construction material—to self-repairing and self-cleaning building materials.

AND, from photovoltaic roofs to super-efficient cooling systems.

The list of possibilities seems almost endless. But during these dog days of summer, cooling technology is an especially salient example.

Nanofluids: Big Boost in the Efficiency of Chillers?

Recent NIST research suggests that, thanks to nanotechnology, some significant cooling—and financial—relief may be on the way for factories, hospitals, data storage farms, and other sizable facilities that are cooled with chillers. Savings could be significant because chillers account for about 9 percent of the nation's electric power consumption.

Our research suggests that adding just the right amount of nanoparticles to standard mixes of lubricants and refrigerants could lead to dramatic improvements in the energy efficiency of chillers. In one study, copper oxide nanoparticles were dispersed in a standard lubricant that was then combined with a common refrigerant. Our researchers reported improvements in heat transfer that ranged as high as 275 percent. Nanodiamonds may do even better, according to preliminary results.

Just how these so-called "nanofluids" transfer heat is not thoroughly understood. The NIST research effort aims to fill the knowledge gaps so that, ultimately, chiller manufacturers and building owners will be able to predict optimal combinations of ingredients.

Success in optimizing these recipes for chillers would pay immediate and long-term dividends. If they prove reliable, nanoparticle-laced mixtures could be swapped into existing chillers, resulting in immediate and substantial energy savings. And, because of improved energy efficiency, next-generation equipment would be smaller, requiring fewer raw materials in their manufacture.

Sometimes technology innovations follow a winding path. In the case of nanotechnology overall, there is a growing sentiment that a decade or so of public and private investment should begin to yield even more returns. In its recently passed bill to reauthorize the federal government's National Nanotechnology Initiative, for example, the House Science Committee has called for increased emphasis on translating discoveries at the nanoscale into applications and products.

That, in fact, is the number-one priority of our newest organizational unit, the NIST Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, which is housed in our state-of-the-art Advanced Measurement Laboratory. This facility, by the way, is perhaps the most advanced general purpose research building in the world. It is but one example of the exceptional capabilities of the U.S. construction sector.

Strategic Priorities: Building & Fire Research

Moving up from the nanoscale to the macroscale, here are NIST's strategic priorities for building and fire research. They map directly to key issues examined at this conference. And they should, because you are NIST customers and stakeholders. Clearly, there is plenty of work to go around.

We view ourselves as a node on a network, because partnership is critical to our success in addressing these enormous challenges.

As I said, I will focus on productivity


Enabling Breakthroughs In Construction Productivity

What matters is measured. And, what's measured, gets done. These business school tenets are particularly relevant to the matter of construction productivity.

Well, it turns out, as you well know, that construction productivity is notoriously difficult to measure.

Yet, we need to do it because, in the end, one good measurement is worth, as others have claimed, at least a thousand expert opinions.

What is the Problem?

On their own, independent studies have taken a crack at this challenge. Though they vary, the results generally are not cause for celebration. One of the most widely cited of these assessments asserts that construction productivity has declined over the last four decades.

Studies also have uncovered inefficiencies and excess costs that are drags on productivity at several levels.

In the end, however, the magnitude of the productivity problem in the construction industry is unknown.

There are understandable reasons for this blind spot, which, by the way, is not unique to the United States. In nearly every developed nation, economists and industry experts bemoan the lack of productivity metrics for construction.

And the good news is that, when the piecemeal information on productivity is assembled, the United States construction industry comes out at or near the top.

Why Is the Problem Hard?

But, if productivity is the ultimate source of competitive advantage, which few would dispute, then you must conclude that we need to sharpen our focus on productivity performance in our largest economic sector.

Productivity is about getting the best value across all of the many varied links in the complex construction value chain. So, this is a systems problem of incredible complexity.

Large construction projects involve the design, selection and installation of millions of individual products. Commissioning, designing, and constructing a building involves hundreds to thousands of contractors, each with unique roles and relationships to the others. Contractors use unique processes and tools to execute their portion of the work. And, just as each building project is a unique combination of myriad inputs and actors, construction site conditions change almost continuously.

Some observers have suggested that the construction industry has failed to leverage information and automation technologies to corral and manage this complexity. After all, these technologies credited with driving above-average gains in productivity in the manufacturing sector. According to one estimate, the manufacturing sector invests $6 in information technology for every $1 invested by the construction industry.

That would seem to suggest an opportunity, one that CII already has recognized in its strategic vision to achieve fully integrated and automated project processes. However, before investing thousands or millions in information and automation technologies, construction industry firms will want evidence that the investment will pay off with productivity and other performance improvements.

So, the industry needs compelling metrics and decision-support tools if it is to achieve breakthrough improvements in productivity—and not only through integration of information and automation technologies.

NIST has launched a multi-year collaborative research effort that aims to supply the measurement science capabilities necessary to guide the pursuit and realization of major gains in construction productivity.

Measurement Science for Breakthroughs in Productivity

This new program has four key elements, which are listed here.

First, we will develop productivity metrics at the task and project levels. Today, such metrics exist only for discrete tasks, but even these can be enhanced so that changes in task productivity can be tracked over time. Partnering with CII, we intend to establish baseline measures of task- and project-level productivity.

These metrics will make it possible to zero in on targets for leap-frog advances in productivity.

Second, we plan to improve "situational awareness" at the usually cluttered and constantly changing construction site. This will entail a type of "open innovation"—a general-purpose architecture for real-time sensing and control. The result will be end-to-end monitoring and control of construction processes. In addition to continual on-site vigilance, another payoff will be more rapid—and more efficient—insertion of innovative sensing and automation technologies into job-site processes.

Third, NIST will ratchet up efforts to beat the interoperability problem. This problem is especially acute—and costly—in the construction industry with its incredible variety of information systems. The goal is automated access and integration of all systems, beginning with conceptual design and continuing through building operation and maintenance. NIST will concentrate on the measurement science that facilitates integration, such as: validated data models, data exchange protocols, and conformance and interoperability testing.

Finally, we will develop—and share—capabilities for pilot testing experimental construction technologies and evaluating their potential impacts on productivity. Now under development, NIST's Intelligent and Automated Construction Testbed will enable standardized, repeatable testing and evaluation of new construction methods, processes, and information and automation technologies. It will employ modular packages of sensing, communication, control, and simulation equipment.

NIST will make these technologies available remotely for implementation at other research centers or actual construction sites.

Goals & Impacts

We expect this multi-year R&D effort to yield important practical dividends for your industry. And, through better-quality and lower-cost construction, your customers also will profit. Anticipated benefits will be divided among four categories:

  • Reduced construction costs and delivery times;
  • More rapid identification of opportunities for improving productivity;
  • Reduced uncertainty and risk in construction processes; and
  • Innovation in construction processes and capabilities.

We intend to leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of productivity improvements. For example, NIST has engaged the National Research Council to organize a workshop devoted to scoping out and prioritizing technological opportunities with greatest potential to improve the competitiveness and productivity of the U.S. construction industry over the next two decades.

The first planning meeting was held two weeks ago, when we also distributed a NIST-prepared white paper that reviews studies of construction-industry productivity and frames key issues on productivity metrics. The workshop will be held later this fall. Findings and recommendations will be issued early next year. These will help to guide our quest for breakthrough improvements in productivity.


Toward a Sustainable U.S. Construction Industry

Clearly, there is no shortage of tasks that need to be accomplished if we are to achieve our ultimate goal of a net zero energy, sustainable building and construction sector.

But it's clear that—whether evaluating choices for upgrading existing building stock or pursuing next-generation energy-saving technologies—investors and other decision-makers will require a science-based measurement framework.

Measurements Lead to Better Decisions

Good decision-making begins with accurate reliable measurements. This slide summarizes key decision-support capabilities we hope to enable in collaboration with industry, university, and government partners.

Concrete production and concrete performance are obvious areas of strategic focus. It is, after all, the world's most widely used construction material. Unfortunately, one U.S. ton of cement produces about one ton of carbon dioxide. In 2006, the U.S. produced 96 million tons of cement and imported an additional 37 million tons. Annual world production of cement—2.5 billion tons—is equal to between 3 and 9 percent of global CO2 emissions.

Over the next two decades, global production is predicted to increase by as much as 80 percent because of growing demand for new and replacement infrastructure.

Foundations of Sustainability—Toward "Greener" Concrete

In the U.S., the energy efficiency of cement production is quite high. So, we are concentrating elsewhere. First, we aim to reduce the CO2 that is given off by the raw materials in cement by enabling industry to substitute greater amounts of waste stream materials such as fly ash—a by-product of coal combustion—for limestone. We believe that we can eliminate technical barriers to the more widespread adoption and use of waste stream materials to harness the greatly improved properties of concrete, especially its durability.

Second, our growing knowledge of how cement and concrete actually work—from nanoscale to macroscale—should lead to improvements in the production of concrete that could save hundreds of millions of dollars in annual maintenance and repair costs for infrastructure renewal. Better performance and increased service life, in turn, should yield additional energy and resource savings while reducing CO2 emissions.

Our research points to opportunities to double the service life of concrete.


Technology Innovation Program

I'll wrap up with a quick overview of the inaugural competition of NIST's new Technology Innovation Program—TIP, for short. Congress created TIP to foster development of cutting-edge technologies that respond to critical national needs and societal challenges. It is a merit-based, competitive program. TIP funds cost-shared R&D projects by single small-sized or medium-sized businesses or by joint ventures. Universities, government laboratories, and nonprofit research organizations also are eligible for TIP support.

Addressing Critical National Needs

As I mentioned the critical national need that TIP will address in its first competition is the Structural Integrity of the Civil Infrastructure.

The objective is to promote innovative technologies for inspecting, monitoring and evaluating critical components of the nation's roadways, bridges, and drinking and wastewater systems.

The ultimate goal is to cultivate the advanced sensing technologies that enable accurate, cost-effective assessments of the integrity and condition of critical elements of our physical infrastructure. This infrastructure has become an increasingly shaky platform of aging transportation and public utility systems, including roadways, bridges, and water and wastewater pipelines.

Symptoms of Decaying Civil Infrastructure

Here are some symptoms of this national problem. The collective toll is tremendous, and it is mounting.

  • Poor road conditions cost U.S. motorists $54 billion a year in repairs and operating costs.
  • More than one-third of the nation's 600,000 bridges are rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
  • Nationwide, we lose about 15 percent of our treated drinking water—6 billion gallons a day—to leaky pipelines.
  • The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that an investment of $1.6 trillion is required to bring the nation's infrastructure to a good condition.

What TIP is Seeking

Nearly all municipalities, counties and states face growing challenges in fighting infrastructural decay. The mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, told a Congressional committee in June that the deterioration of our infrastructural foundation amounts to "a quiet collapse of prosperity."

Today, there are very few cost-effective tools for monitoring infrastructure integrity and for prioritizing renovation and replacement projects.

We expect to fund about nine projects and award about $9 million in first-year TIP support for R&D projects focused on innovative, cost-effective sensing and monitoring technologies.

The current competition opened on July 9, 2008. The deadline for proposal submission is September 4, 2008, at 3 p.m. For more information, go to the TIP Web site at


In this new program, in our laboratory research, in our partnerships, and through our services, NIST aims to be a critical enabler. We work to extend the technical limits of what U.S. industry can accomplish. In a way, we are the equivalent of a lubricant in the high-performance engine that is the U.S. economy. And our economy—as well as the quality of life it supports—is largely powered by innovation.

Over the last six decades, advances in technology are credited with driving about half of the nation's economic growth and about two-thirds of our productivity growth, which has made the United States the envy of the world. But that was yesterday . . . and, as the song says, yesterday's gone. Today, the international competition is stronger, and many of the challenges we face are stiffer.

Yesterday's lessons and today's circumstances should make one point crystal clear: Sustained progress in research, development, diffusion, and integration of new technology is absolutely essential to ensuring that the construction industry will remain a world leader so that our economy and our citizens can benefit from your success.

Achievements beyond incremental or piecemeal improvements will only be possible through effective collaboration. NIST, which plays a major role in construction-related research, and industry, which accounts for one-seventh of the U.S. economy, must become agile and determined partners who demand the best of each other.

Thank you.

Created October 7, 2009, Updated October 10, 2016