Technology, Construction, Purchasing, Modeling

The Northwestern University Symposium on Technology for Design and Construction  (http://www.techforconstruction.com/) was 3 days well spent with a variety of speakers, and interesting people to meet with.  Most attendees are from the software side, the design side, or the construction side, not too surprising given the very descriptive name of the gathering (what, no artists, no accountants or jail wardens?). One speaker stated his hopes for the future of technology thusly (and while I show it as a a quote, his exact words may have been slightly different as I used no reliable technology to record his words, only wet ware): “… purchasing construction products will become as easy as buying shoes..” He may have have qualified it by referencing, buying shoes online. No matter. What interests me is that if I heard the words, but knew nothing else about the speaker, I could tell you, at a confidence level well over 90%, that the speaker’s background was in technology or design. It’s almost impossible to imagine someone on the construction side talking like that.  Why this gulf?

Because commercial construction is enormously complex and much of that complexity is not simply in the individual components but in how they fit together with other products. Viewed from a distance, it seems reasonably amenable to automation and not unduly complex.  People on the construction side view it up close and are constantly (and often forcefully) reminded of the complexity.

It is no accident that the most fruitful work in this area comes more from e/p/c than from a/e/c and is focused on valves, which is a collection of products with well defined variations, constraints and interfaces.  More complex than shoes but simple compared to curtain wall.  For background see http://www.fiatech.org/procurement-supply-networkds/active-projects/751-expediting-equipment-a-material-selection-and-acquisition-emsa

I came into commercial construction from IT and it took me years to accept that the reason it seemed so messy and complex was simply because it was.  Here I am speaking solely of the technical product issues, although the process is also messy and complex.  Technological optimism coupled with oversimplification of the issues raises false hopes.   Anyone familiar with the long history and struggles toward interoperability in a/e/c knows that the path is full of abandoned (false) hopes for quick progress.  A core reason for this is lack of understanding of the actual complexity surrounding products.

If I were not so busy with bidding and today’s problem interfacing materials (oops, something else attaches to the column where you have a column cover), I’d do a parallel post on modeling.  Short summary is that BIM today is full of design models that contractors find to be far short of the construction model they need.  How come? One is way more complex than the other and requires way way more and different knowledge.  (Please do not read this as trashing architects – they are underpaid, under-respected, and often asked to do more than they reasonably can.)

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About Leo Schlosberg

Graybeard with experience in commercial construction and IT, and an interest in information flow and process. Aware and respectful of the enormous complexity, technical, legal, and other, embedded in every structure that is part of the built environment.
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