Back to the Future 

A brief look backward into Building’s history and an even briefer glimpse into Building’s future

A successful building process requires expertise from diverse fields of knowledge: finance, architecture, engineering, product manufacturing and distribution, construction, and many more. Unlike other industries, which typically spend enormous resources to perfect the design, material procurement, assembly and distribution of a single mass-produced product, every building project typically brings together a unique collection of people, resources, and operational procedures. Building is like the games of street football or baseball we play in our youth—every street has its own rules.

How did this situation come about?  What follows is a very brief history of building in the modern era.

Historically, from the era of primitive human construction up until the late 19th century, the vast majority of building projects may be divided into two categories:

  1. DIY (do it yourself): Small vernacular structures built by individuals, families or communities. These projects made use of local materials, traditions and geographic features, and could be completed in a relatively short period of time.
  2. Master Building: Typically, large-scale buildings subsidized by royalty or the religious elite and led by a master builder(s). A master builder typically conceived of the design, and guided decision-making throughout the building process. These projects made use of the latest knowledge and technology, and often took decades or even centuries to complete.

By the early 20th century, the role of the Master Builder had been absorbed by the modern Architect. Up until WWII, the Architecture team was the clear leader of the design and construction process. In the post-WWII era, most architects began to focus more narrowly on the design phase and yielded their project management and construction leadership roles to other players.

This led to the emergence of two primary contractual relationships in building:

  1. Traditional Owner, Architect, General Contractor
  2. Owner, Architect, Construction Manager, General Contractor

In the 1980’s, a third option gained traction in certain building markets:

3- Design-Build

Let’s briefly explore what these three building delivery methods entail and why each were brought to market.

Owner/Architect/General Contractor

In this arrangement, the Architect is seen as the Owner’s representative, protecting the Owner’s rights in all decision-making during the design and construction process. The General Contractor and his subs may offer alternative materials or design options during the project, but the Architect is the final arbiter protecting the project and the Owner’s rights and interests.

Owner/Architect/Construction Manager/General Contractor

In this arrangement, the Construction Manager assumes a portion of the responsibilities of the Architect and the General Contractor. The Construction Manager is in a controlling position, coordinating the project and protecting the Owner’s rights and interests. Modifications offered by the architectural or construction team will be filtered by both the Architect and the CM.

Design/Build:

The Design-Builder (DB) may be anyone—an architect, contractor, lawyer or business person. The (DB) oversees every aspect of the design and construction process and is the single source of responsibility for the Owner.

Over time, due to the architectural profession’s attempt to limit their risk and responsibilities—and the attempts by contractors and other consultants to expand their influence—the architect’s role as the central figure in decision making and leadership was diminished. This process began to fragment building leadership. Multiple entities began to chase the owner for the privilege and financial opportunities inherent in the project leadership role. Today, the list of those who compete for the leadership role includes General Contractors, Specialized Subcontractors, Consultants, Real Estate Brokers, Architects and Engineers, and others.

The Future of the Building Process

Today, things are changing. On the plus side, the building industry is increasingly aware of the dysfunction described above. Industry leaders are hard at work trying to identify and implement solutions.

The information which is created and exchanged during a building process is enormous in both size and complexity. Large numbers of organizations and individuals need to create, share and interpret information that evolves over the life cycle of a project. The information varies from finance, design, product selection and procurement, regulatory review to the detailed drawings required by tradesman working on the site. There needs to be a permanent, integrating complex that allows the various parties to the process to contribute the maximum possible value via real-time knowledge sharing and decision-making

The Master Builder model, in a vastly updated and technologically enhanced version, has the capability to

unify the fragmented parts of the building process, and consistently deliver High Quality and Performing Buildings within shorter time schedules and lower project budgets. In a modern iteration of the Master Builder model, the owner is provided with a single source of leadership, knowledge, skillset, coordination, communication and most importantly trust.

Who in today’s world of building will take over this leadership role?

My position is that it will be provided in multiple forms:

  1. Group One, will provide a unified, collaborative digital environment that deeply penetrates the market. It will provide a workflow and collaborative environment, for data creation, sharing and decision authorization for the entire building process.
  2. Group Two, will leverage the “Building Collaboration Environment” (BCE) mentioned in item one and focus on the existing built environment. Learning how to collaboratively optimize remodeling, renovations and addition projects, to existing buildings.
  3. Group three, will focus on new buildings and will bring new High Performance, High Quality, “Iconic”, “Optimized” and “Hybrid” buildings to the market.

Group four, will a be a big data group. As building progresses both in the Building Information Modelling (BIM) world and also accelerates the pace of measuring and tracking the performance of the real-world buildings, a huge amount of information will be gathered.  Increasingly, they will peel back the grey mist and clearly define the attributes of high quality, high performing building and equally importantly, how to implement these characteristics more consistently and effectively in new building projects.

What gives me confidence that real change will happen in the next decade or so are two undeniable facts:

  1. The twenty-somethings coming into the building market have grown up with data access and sharing as a standard feature of their daily life. As they reach positions of authority, they will insist on making innovative changes to their work environment to increase productivity.
  2. New technology companies will introduce innovations that will disrupt the traditional processes and practices of the building industry.

It is not clear to me if those who currently occupy leadership positions in the building industry will be limber enough to assess the situation and make the right decisions to stay competitive. Perhaps the twenty-somethings and other large technology organizations will provide the disruptive force necessary for change.

I do know one thing, Change is coming. So you better get ready, put on your seat belt, and hold on tight. It will be an exciting ride!

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