Atlantic Cities

How to Fix America's Least Innovative Industry: Construction

How to Fix America's Least Innovative Industry: Construction
Reuters

Buildings are essentially constructed the same way today that they were 50 years ago, whether they house single families, multi-story offices or commercial high-rises. Some architect comes up with an idea. He puts it down on paper. He hands off those paper diagrams to the building contractor. And that building contractor, once he agrees to a price, is then charged with converting someone else’s two-dimensional vision into a functioning home or office building – on budget, on time, and by code.

“The process is almost exactly the same,” says Phil Bernstein, a lecturer at the Yale School of Architecture and the vice president of industry strategy and relations at the engineering software firm Autodesk. “The way we build a skyscraper today is not radically different from the way the Empire State Building was built.”

OK, the new Renzo Piano New York Times Building has more complex internal systems and structural design. And no one died building it (which can’t be said of the Empire State Building). But the actual process used throughout the industry – architect cooks up idea, draws it, hands over paper, contractor eyeballs it, building goes up – has not fundamentally changed with time. And this isn’t a compliment.

Construction may be the least innovative industry in America, or at least, the least innovative industry that makes up a sizable chunk of our national GDP. And this is a problem in a world where technology is rapidly revolutionizing everything else about our daily lives, from how we communicate information to the way we receive medical care. Everything around us is technologically evolving, even the features inside our buildings (from solar panels to energy-efficient appliances) and yet the construction industry itself largely is not.

The reasons for this are many, and a panel discussion hosted by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation in Washington got together this week to lament them. Construction is a fragmented field, where the people who design buildings are different from the people who construct them, who in turn are different from the people who operate them. The industry is dominated by disconnected, small firms, nearly all of them with fewer than 100 workers each. And, on the whole, the industry invests just about nothing in R&D.

Exactly what, though, would our cities look like if we innovated in construction the way we do with semi-conductors? Could places rebuild from disasters faster? Could we streamline the building permit process so that proposals are measured against local regulation by algorithm instead of bureaucrat?

For starters, Bernstein says, we need to replace all those paper drawings with three-dimensional digital renderings, with models that could simulate a building’s energy consumption or fire resistance or traffic flow.

Today, small tripod-mounted lasers are coming online that can scan rooms and buildings in a single day and turn them into digital models. Such models can then be compared against digital plans for a building’s construction, replacing the old-fashioned method of eyeballing it.

“During construction, you could laser-scan this room,” Bernstein says, sitting in an otherwise unremarkable lounge in the National Press Club, “and have a three-dimensional photograph of this room, which you could then compare to the digital model, which would say ‘hey, she built this column 3 inches to the right, she put wood up here when she was supposed to put up steel. And that yellow color on the wall, by the way it’s off, it’s supposed to be purple.’”

Imagine scanning a construction site at the end of each day for such a precise diagnosis (and then paying the contractor for exactly the 8 percent of the project his firm had completed that day). “That’s a huge idea,” Bernstein says.

It’s also an idea that would alter the paradigm of how buildings are built. When we change the means of representing a building from paper to digital, Bernstein says, that changes the responsibilities of the players, too.

“Let’s say we design a fancy custom garage door,” he says. Normally it’s the contractor’s job to execute his paper plans. “But if he screws it up, it’s his fault. If he takes my digital model to construct the custom garage door, suddenly I have responsibility for construction, and architects don’t have responsibility for construction. Architects design and builders build, and that’s how it’s supposed to work.”

In an innovative construction industry, the roles of everyone would change. Every decision – where to place a window, when to pour the concrete, how to design for crowd flow – could be made by precision.

“All of this stuff is done by rules of thumb right now,” Bernstein says, “or experience.”

And when we no longer construct buildings that way, what will we have instead?

“It’s pretty straight-forward,” he says. “I think we get much better, more responsible, more appropriate, more beautiful artifacts.”

Top image credit: Reuters/Mike Blake

Keywords: Construction

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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