Is the U.S. design and construction industry about to experience a radical, transformative and critical technological revolution?
The answer, according to some industry leaders, is “yes” — as the industry’s inefficiencies and intermediary-loaded framework experiences stress as owners press for greater efficiencies and disruptive integrated organizations are changing the meanings of modular design-build to much more comprehensive and wide-scale applications.
To learn more about where the industry is heading, I accepted a media invitation to attend the TECH+ Conference in Manhattan in May, sponsored by the The Architect’s Newspaper. (In exchange for a secondary media sponsorship status, we received an attendee pass, but I paid my own travel and accommodation costs).
During the day-long event, several speakers outlined critical issues, including collaboration/BIM, sustainability and visualization, as a variety of industry technology businesses demonstrated their products and services.
Several speakers observed that the AEC industry is near the bottom of the bell curve in technological adaptation, only slightly better than architecture.
Perhaps the biggest “wow” moment occurred for me when Chris Meyer, Boston-based general contractor Suffolk’s chief information officer, displayed a graph showing the sudden and dramatic market decline for newspaper advertising in the last decade. We’ve published a story in our US publications about Suffolk’s multi-city Smart Lab concept, but I didn’t connect the dots until his speech that Meyer had previously been the Boston Globe’s publisher.
Meyer displayed a graph that showed that, while the newspaper industry was well aware of the Internet’s rise and developed different models to cope with the change, it could not stop the steep and dramatic crash that started about the turn of the millennium, as Google and Facebook grabbed most of the advertising market. In fact, newspaper advertising revenue has declined by about four-fifths in the past decade, so advertising revenues are now even lower than they were in the 1950s. Newspaper digital sales have made the slightest gain; but the data is clear – the conventional newspaper industry has been pushed over the cliff, and in just a few years.
Meyer suggested that AEC, like the newspaper business, is an “intermediary” industry – that is, most practitioners are serving others int he value chain rather than end users — and he suggested this could create a situation where there will be major disruptions as new technologies capture market presence and share.
Will this happen anytime soon? That is the big question. And the AEC industry may be saved (or ultimately destroyed) by its current structure, where various professionals often work in their own silos.
Keynote speaker Dennis Sheldon, director of the Digital Building Laboratory (DBL) at the Georgia Institute of Technology, shared some insights into the challenges (and opportunities) that the technology creates for linkages and collaboration between the various AEC industries, including BIM, virtual and augmented reality.
Meanwhile, Phil Bernstein, the associate dean at the Yale School of Architecture, said current trends suggest big data, computational design and integrating machine learning could “eventually help architects design more optimized buildings and reduce the waste that comes when expectations don’t line up with how a building actually performs in the real world,” The Architect’s Newspaper reported.
But BIM and virtual reality have been around for several years now, and while they have certainly influenced design and construction practices, they haven’t changed the universe, it seems. Something else needs to give – and the suggestion from some speakers is that it will come from highly capitalized new integrated industry organizations, and individual owners demanding greater technological adaptation and accountability.
The disruptors, such as Katerra, combine modular/factory building with a beginning-to-end design, engineering and construction collaboration process, meaning that the owner places the order, architects and engineers (often in remote locations), prepare the design, and the work is scheduled in factory settings, with modular components shipped to the actual construction site for rapid assembly.
If these services catch on – and billions of dollars in investment capital have been staked on the proposition – the traditional design and construction model will be upended as designers, contractors and subtrades either need to buy into the new competing mammoth building organizations, or fight for a shrinking market share where traditional practices and relationships remain in place.
Another drive for change is happening at the ownership level. Jeremy Munn, a senior capital project manager for the design and construction department within the facilities division of Northeastern University in Boston, for example, described how the university is finally getting all the pieces together in a digital procurement/building cycle, but not by using a one-size fits all system, and with plenty of training and support to encourage compliance (and this progress is coming because the owner is driving the agenda, not the architects, engineers or contractors).
Munn said his department manages 250 new projects a year, of varying size and complexity, from minor retrofits to multi-million dollar new structures.
His goal: Build an e-procurement and building system that has consistent templates, reporting dashboards, automated project delivery processes, and advanced document management capabilities. There are different software packages that do some, but not all, of the tasks the university is seeking – but the solution is not to force everything into a single piece of software, but rather to integrate the different tools and software resources appropriate to the different stages in the design, construction and operation cycle.
He said the university had 206 active users in its e-management system in 2016; by 2018, the active users had increased to 660. “Most are consultants,” he said. As more capital projects have been managed by the system, he said the number of automated processes increased from nine in 2016 to 27 in 2018. There’ll be more changes including managing capital expenditures and operations, moving from a manual to automated deferred maintenance program, better BIM integrations, more robust and consistent laser scanning of existing conditions, and the introduction of virtual reality to present projects to senior leadership.
“Our value proposition is not to build faster and quicker,” he said. “It is to get students into classroom seats and researchers into labs so they can spend their NIH (National Institute of Health) grants.”
Meanwhile architect Jan Leenknegt of BIG hinted at how working as an architect for Google on a massive new million plus square foot office complex in Sunnyvale is challenging traditional design practices with new technological resources. (I may be able to see the site first-hand this fall when the search-engine giant invites me to the northern California community for its annual Google Product Experts summit/meet-up. Leenknegt could only allude to the building’s design challenge because he, like most contractors and others with some direct access to Google staff, including me, are required to sign non-disclosure agreements).
However, speaking generally, he explained how collaboration is pushing “interoperability across contractural boundaries” as the number of design tools is declining through consolidation, and documentation is becoming increasingly automated. He also said BIM is becoming increasingly important, and is vital for complex architectural designs.
However, technology doesn’t replace the human element. Owners, designers and contractors need to “bring (software) tools to the teams and empower intelligent humans,” he said. “The tools are not the same for every project.” There needs to be training, standards and templates, annual BIM model audits, and feedback.
Can we draw any take-action conclusions from these observations? The answer, I think, is we need to be aware of the technology adaptation drivers/disruptors – namely forward-thinking owners and disruptive technology service/building companies, and develop our own awareness on how to integrate and implement the new tools in a more collaborative environment. Otherwise, we might be caught in the newspaper industry trap, through which only a few nimble, creative and technologically astute businesses are surviving.
Mark Buckshon is the president of the Construction News and Report Group of Companies, which publishes North Carolina Construction News and several other publications. See his blog at www.constructionmarketingideas.com.