I have a lot of personal friends and business associates who take great delight in trashing the building industry in general and architects in particular (this latter critique being a bit of bashing for my own personal pleasure). The conversation goes something like this; I can’t believe it, during the course of a building project, stupid sh#t keeps happening—often, the same stupid sh#t happens more than once—How does this keep happening?

Despite the rather unrefined language of its delivery, their basic criticism has merit. There are a number of problems inherent in the traditional building process. A thorough discussion of all of them would go well beyond the scope of a single blog post. For now, I’d like to focus on the mismanagement of information. An analogy I developed way back in the 1990’s nicely illustrates the essence of the issue—and, thanks to the inertia of the industry, retains its relevance today.

The phone book is the key to my analogy—some of you may recall this strange object from a bygone world, an enormous mass that sometimes doubled as a doorstop—and I would often use the real thing to drive home my point.

When the topic of the building process came up in conversation, I’d respond by tossing a phone book at someone (very gently) and explaining that the contents of the book represent the data contained within all project documents for a new project. We would then simulate the process of searching for project data by looking up a name, number or address. Depending upon the mental focus and manual dexterity of the chosen person, this would typically take 10-20 seconds. Next, I would remove the spine of the book and spread the sheets out on a tabletop, leaving them only slightly disordered. This time around, it would take a bit more time—say, 45 seconds—to look up a piece of data. The exercise would progress to higher degrees of disorder: mixing up the pages; cutting the pages in half; ripping the pages into small pieces; etc. At each stage of the process, everyone would agree that the time required for this simple task steadily increased. The total amount of data remained on the tabletop (contained within the pages of the phone book), but the data structure had changed (the pages were now shredded and randomly sorted). Only a few minutes earlier we could have accessed any name, number and address within a few seconds. Now, due to “lack of structure integrity,” no one in the room could predict how long it would take to retrieve a single bit of data—that is, if successful retrieval was possible at all.

In actual fact, the building process is even more problematic than my analogy suggests. In the analogy, all the data is always accessible (even if disorganized). In reality, the obfuscation of knowledge often offers a competitive advantage over transparency. The building world is filled with walled off silos of knowledge. Companies are often rewarded for zealously guarding their project data—even if this secrecy is to the detriment of the project itself. Furthermore, while the data contained in the phone book remains static, the typical building process features a constant variation in information due to ever-changing project input.

To complete the analogy: this would be like searching for a name or number in the phone book when all the names and numbers are constantly changing and all the pages have been thoroughly shredded and randomly sorted and hidden in a hundred different hiding places.

I must admit, their criticism has merit. Welcome to the real world of building.

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