Building Industry Overdue for Disruptive Innovation

I recently finished reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, who also authored the  Steve Jobs biography. Both books are amazing reads of the “who’s who” among digital pioneers who are behind the technology driving everything we now take for granted. The digital age exploded with the invention of the microchip- and Moore’s Law, which predicted that the complexity-factor in micro components, read ‘capacity’, would double at a factor of 2 per year, while the costs would halve. This has proven itself out and led to us all carrying around complex micro-computers in our pockets everyday.

“…a key lesson for innovation: Understand which industries are symbiotic so that you    can capitalize on how they will spur each other on. If someone could provide a pithy and accurate rule for predicting the trend lines, it would help entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to apply this lesson.

The Innovators, p. 183

So what does all this have to do with the Building Industry? Unfortunately, not much. While new products are being developed with newer, lighter, stronger and more energy efficient materials, and there have been leaps in the technology and software to design and model new buildings, there have been exactly zero disruptive changes to  the way buildings actually get built.

I heard once at a seminar that a new building is composed of tens of thousands of parts brought together for the first time. So unlike cars, computers, and home appliances; each building is custom made. This is the most significant factor in why change is so difficult in the building sector. All the players in the construction industry bring many divergent goals to the process. Hundreds of manufacturers of components, and parts within components; suppliers and distributors, all with territory to protect; contractors given little time to digest very complex sets of instructions we call Construction Drawings, Specifications and Bid Documents; Architects and Engineers all interpreting their roles for each project each time, with each unique client and project type, and asked to deliver their services faster; banks and investors putting limits as to what they are willing to finance.

“Product and process innovations in the building sector are continually being developed, yet only innovations that fit within the current industry supply chain diffuse. “Integral innovations such as radiant heating/cooling cross professional and trade specializations, break industry standards, and redefine how existing modules fit together. These innovations diffuse three times more slowly than innovations that fit within the existing supply chain.

– The Role of Integrated Project Delivery Elements in Adoption of Integral Innovations

Read that again slowly and reread the credit at the bottom. The best ideas for innovations in our industry are buried in obscure academic studies! Integrated Project Delivery, Integrated Design and Delivery Solutions, LEAN Construction Procurement, Building Information Modeling (BIM)- raise your hand if you are not an Architect and have heard of any of this before? I didn’t think so. I know that there has been some success utilizing these processes for very large projects, with sophisticated clients, large general contractors and world-renowned design firms doing some of the largest cutting-edge projects in the world. But most of our clients have most likely never heard of such a thing. And most local and regional contractors doing our work would not have the capabilities to integrate and deliver a project using BIM. The idea of integrating the stakeholders in a Commercial or Institutional building project is key to innovation, but something must come along to simplify the process if true innovation is to take hold for the average consumer of Professional Building Services- Design and Construction.

Here is what I know and have learned in 30 years of working with clients in the Midwest: they want predictability and accountability in four key areas: Function, Quality, Performance and Cost; both Capital and Operational. My experience shows that this is extremely difficult given the way most commercial projects are procured. The culture of soliciting and selecting the lowest bidder, with few additional qualifiers, is primarily to blame for this in my opinion. There is a long-standing humor in the design and construction industry that says: “Good, Fast and Cheap, pick two”. The primary method of procurement has led to this being more truthful than humorous. I think this is further amplified by the distance between the design process and the construction process. Many believe that BIM, while primarily thought of as a technology, is a social communication tool that can transform the way we build:

“BIM will integrate the construction process and therefore, the construction industry. But   it will also have many additional benefits for the nation. It will enable intelligent decisions about construction methodology, safer working arrangements, greater energy efficiency   leading to carbon reductions, and a critical focus on the whole life performance of facilities (or assets). Of even greater importance are the benefits for the economy that will accrue from better buildings and infrastructure delivered by the construction industry.”

– Graham Watts, OBE, Chief Executive Officer, Construction Industry Council (UK)

I believe that as the Technology becomes absorbed into the industry, gets simplified to the level of a smart phone app, and gets adapted beyond just the specialists, it has a chance to transform the complex communication involved in the design, procurement and construction process.