Making an Exhibition of Ourselves

At the end of April I gave a short presentation as part of the Conference programme at the ‘Materials 2017’ show.

Held at the ILEC Conference Centre in Earls Court, London, the two day exhibition was conceived as a showcase for the familiar materials that make our built environment today, and the cutting edge ones that will shape it tomorrow.

Specifying materials for the right reasons, using them in the correct applications, and understanding the impacts of those choices on building users and the environment in general, is a core principle of good design and sustainable construction. As a hook, then, the theme of materials was a good one on which to create a brand new show; only time will tell whether it’s enough to become established in a competitive marketplace.

Asked to propose a topic for the insulation segment of the programme, I chose something on which a lot of my time has been spent recently: cavity wall construction, and the development of new insulation products for it. Masonry cavity wall is the most popular method of building external walls in the UK, so it seemed a natural fit for the show’s target audience of architects, specifiers and developers.

During the twenty minute slot I covered:

  • How cavity walls came to be the way to build;
  • The traditional insulation solutions that met historical Building Regulation targets;
  • Drivers that led to insulation manufacturers developing new systems;
  • The installation techniques that guarantee correct performance of new products;
  • Other areas where cavity walls are likely to further develop, such as masonry manufacturing.

Rigid full fill cavity wall insulation has been greeted with plenty of positive feedback, and is proving a popular solution in a competitive housebuilding market. In the complete spectrum of ‘insulation’ it’s a relatively niche area, but one I was confident would be relevant to the day-to-day activities of the audience.

When focussing on one product type or solution for so long, it’s easy to live in a bubble and not be aware of what is happening in the real world. But the presentation was effectively FAQs in PowerPoint form, written in response to genuine queries from design professionals, experienced surveyors and conscientious contractors. It was a surprise, then, to see the most substantial reaction afterwards was this tweet from the Conference programme chair:

Unfortunately, it seems, the audience’s familiarity with cavity wall insulation didn’t match where the presentation was pitched. Perhaps more time spent on the context of it as a method of construction, and less about specific detailing, would have fit better with the theme of the exhibition.

Based on similar presenting experiences in recent years, however, I’m also left wondering if a level of … mistrust … towards manufacturers remains, regardless of the ratio of educational content to overt promotion. No type of construction product appears to be immune to a muted reaction, even if the content is genuine and well-intended.

That contrasts with a receptive attitude to experts perceived as unbiased, who are nevertheless capable of propagating misconceptions and, in rare cases, even downright untruths about their area of specialism.

Manufacturers want to grasp opportunities to showcase themselves, but I’d argue that the exhibition environment and seminar format is rarely achieving what is hoped. Much comes down to the presenter’s individuality, of course, and I’m at risk of letting my preference of teaching style cloud the assessment I want to offer.

However, cementing a reputation for market-leading product knowledge and expertise is easier if you can address customer queries direct. When it became clear that my Materials presentation wasn’t hitting its target, I’d have liked to turn a one-sided presentation into a more open forum. Better to address the questions the audience on the day actually have, rather than the ones I had already assumed they'd have.

Is it time for trade shows and exhibitions to work with manufacturers to develop alternative formats? Classroom or workshop arrangements could offer a greater level of freedom and interaction, delivering a higher quality, better value experience that might even generate increased interest from the intended target audience.

Presentation slots are failing to fill the generous seating areas laid out in the exhibition halls, so where’s the harm in experimenting with more exclusive sessions, held away from the noise and distraction of the main hall? Manufacturers are quick to describe themselves as innovative, and show organisers want their event to be the next big thing, so why are we all carrying on doing the same old thing and expecting different results?