New technologies: what an old timer said today

I received a call today from a roofer who needed a price on some GFRC fascia for an addition to a school. Neither GFRC nor fascia was normally in his scope but he was stuck with it in his bid package. He’s been at this for 40 years and we chatted. We went over some of the known industry issues. He said he was glad he did not own the company because he did not see how you could price work high enough to cover all the assorted risks. He has been around so long that he could complain about the decline of drawings as the industry moved to CAD. I had forgotten that people could still complain about that. I commented on this over two decades ago in Ralph Grabowski’s CAD blog. He mentioned it on the occasion of the blog’s15th anniversary – my post was the most controversial editorial they had in 15 years. (See below for his mention of it; for my original post follow this link.

I loosely follow the constructech news. Without delving into the details and interviewing and studying user experiences, you mostly get veiled sales pitches. Forty years ago, when I was a minor pioneer in a different industry (IT – focused on what was then called “office automation” or word processing, integrating text and data, etc.) it became clear that sales effort focused on the benefits of new technology and glossed over or omitted the steep implementation costs. This is still true in tech sales.But the big issue in much of constructech, especially the segment related to design (CAD, BIM, generative design, etc.), remains knowledge, or the lack of it embedded in a design. The complaint that CAD made drawings worse is based on the observation that the knowledge embedded in the drawings declined. This is undeniably true. Whenever I worked on restoration projects I was struck by how the original drawings of century-old structures were so much more detailed and in better correspondence with what was actually built, than modern drawings are. The challenges created by all the complex knowledge that is embedded in the built environment are typically underestimated by those who have not spent a lot of time and effort in the muddy, swampy waters of the physical realities of materials and structures. I clearly recall, with fondness, how and engineer who was the salesman of admixtures (chemicals) for concrete, sitting me down at lunch and patiently explaining to me that “sand” is not one thing, not a simple, homogenous material but a source of lots of relevant complexity. Everywhere you turn in this business, you run into that sort of complexity. Software people are not used to it, because “data” is an abstraction and computing is full of wonderfully controlled interfaces; construction is a collection of physical realities that may not be nicely consistent and homogenous and that change with changes in moisture and temperature and are subjected to environmental forces (wind, rain, hail, lightning, earthquakes, soil settlements, etc.); in turn these complicated materials have to interface with other materials. Data does not have to deal with this sort of thing. Some of the interfaces are well understood and standardized; others are not and are a common point of failure.

Since starting this post I ended up, in conjunction with an extremely seasoned and knowledgeable fabricator, delving into the project manual and searching for photos of the existing school to better understand the limited information in the contract documents. Turned out they made little sense; there was zero correspondence between the detail (called out as one kind of GFRC but we thought it should be the other type, or maybe cast stone) and no spec for GFRC. Before being 97% retired I dealt with this regularly. Now I am astonished and reminded that the industry has made so little progress in the problems of design-bid-build as-it-exists in the real world.

In the 15th anniversary issue of the CAD blog, my 2001 short post was mentioned

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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