The Evolution of Projects, Processes and the Profession
The construction industry has transformed significantly in the last quarter century—and technology is only part of the story
Smart phones and iPads have supplanted pagers and desktop computers. Email and file sharing have replaced faxing and overnighting documents. Dynamic 4D models are starting to displace blueprints.
“There was no Internet, no email” in the industry in 1990, says Martin Fischer, director of Stanford University’s Center for Integrated Facility Engineering (CIFE), who has taught there since 1991. CIFE aims to improve the productivity of teams involved in designing, building and operating facilities and enhance the sustainability of the built environment. “The FedEx pick-up deadline and fax machines were the drivers of the day. Even a single computer on a jobsite was a big deal.”
While technology certainly has had a notable impact on the industry, a look back over the last quarter century shows different types of projects, processes and, of course, people have been major drivers of change and are a big part of what lies ahead.
COMPLEXITY OF BUILDINGS
A host of innovations and pressures in the past 25 years have added profound complexity to projects.
Advances in science and technology have changed the type of facilities that are built and the infrastructure within them. For example, think of the amount of data that flows through today’s hospital with electronic medical records, digital imaging and use of robotics. Now, consider the infrastructure (wiring, power, cooling, etc.) needed to support that data and communications network.
More challenging project site conditions today are also adding complexity. Many projects involve modernizing existing structures while the facility remains in operation, such as the North Austin Medical Center. Brownfield redevelopment and adaptive reuse have also become increasingly common. And more projects are located in tight, infill sites, requiring coordination to deal with space limitations and minimize traffic and disruptions in the area.
In addition, the democratization of technology, market forces, consumer expectations and data digitization have contributed to more complicated—and more urgent—client requirements. The growing sense of environmental responsibility among owners increasingly requires optimizing sustainable practices, and new products and systems for building and maintaining facilities. Owners are also looking for ways to increase the productivity and well-being of their occupants.
Highly technical projects will continue to demand innovative thinking to:
- Shorten delivery of product to market.
- Reduce the cost of occupying or operating a building.
- Predict and improve the productivity and well-being of building occupants.
- Guarantee the performance of a building.
- Conserve resources and improve sustainability.
“We have to start thinking about the bigger picture when building projects, not just for serving the client and building occupants, but for what happens to everything when they’re done with the building,” says CIFE’s Fischer.
PROCESSES ARE MORE COLLABORATIVE AND COORDINATED
Project delivery has also shifted from a process in which design and construction work is performed separately with little or no communication to a more coordinated and transparent approach in which communication and collaboration are key.
Virtually all projects in 1990 used design-bid-build (DBB). Under that project delivery method, owners devise separate contracts for the design and construction teams, and the project proceeds in linear sequences of design, procurement and construction.
Since then, other approaches have emerged as the industry and owners have come to recognize that better communication, collaboration and coordination improves efficiency, productivity and profitability. Coordination and information sharing have become crucial as buildings, systems and equipment have become more technically complex.
Architects and contractors expect DBB to continue to decline in the next three years, while other methods are expected to rise, according to a McGraw-Hill Construction survey conducted last year. Integrated project delivery (IPD) still has a low adoption rate, but one-third to one-half of practitioners surveyed considered it the best method for maximizing efficiency, productivity and profitability. IPD is structured so that the owner, designers and contractors work with the same goals, risks and rewards. This approach fosters better communication, transparency and collaboration to reduce waste and maximize efficiency during design, construction and the operational life of the facility.
Technological innovations—most significantly building information modeling (BIM) and cloud storage and computing—have also enabled massive data sets to be culled and analyzed for optimizing and better coordinating the design, procurement, schedule, construction and operation of a facility.
For example, billions of design possibilities based on a project’s site and the owner’s criteria can be analyzed, and the best options determined in a matter of hours. Specialized parts or entire sections of a building can be efficiently fabricated in a controlled factory environment, as was the case with the more than 4,500 prefabricated light gauge structural frame panels used on a senior-living community project for MonteCedro.
The evolution of technology tools will continue to change the industry, creating new roles, practices and business opportunities. The ability to tie the virtual world to the physical one, accurately analyze big data and automate functions will yield further improvements—as well as require deeper coordination and collaboration—in design, construction and building operations.
“A whole wave of automation is still yet to come,” says Stanford’s Fischer.
ATTRACTING YOUNG PROFESSIONALS IS CHALLENGING
When DPR was founded in 1990, the construction industry had an abundance of experienced baby boomers within its ranks.
Many of those baby boomers have since retired. Attracting young, creative minds to an industry with a reputation for being resistant to change and what Fischer calls a “command-and-control” approach is challenging. In fact, 74 percent of construction firms reported having difficulty finding workers, according to a 2013 survey by Associated General Contractors of America.
The industry is working to dispel the outdated view of construction as dangerous, dusty, backbreaking work. But it also must make it more appealing to today’s generation by better leveraging technology and adjusting its culture to value transparency, creativity, new ideas, collaborative approaches and environmental stewardship.
“You still need to know how to build and how to manage people,” Fischer says, “but now, you need to know how to build in the field and on a computer. You need to know the broader impacts of the things you do and build.”