Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Future of Construction, an Obeservational Approach

The construction site will, in many ways, look very much the same in the future as it does today. Dirt will still be moved for foundations and infrastructure, and materials will be stockpiled around a site as they are prepared for application. Staple materials such as wood and stone will still be in use, and skilled labor will be required to put these materials together in a way that lends itself to functionality. I would also venture to say that, although they might look a little different and run on different fuels, the workhorses of the jobsite (excavators, dump-trucks, cranes, hammers) will still be essential. However, the methods and technology employed during this construction process will be drastically different. The rapid modernization of construction technologies and project delivery methods, combined with an influx of young professionals from construction education programs is having a revolutionary effect on the complexity that projects can achieve and setting records for the timeframe in which these projects can be delivered. The twin forces of globalization and sustainability have combined to push the construction industry to new heights. It is this integration of technology and processes combined with resource scarcity that will revolutionize the construction industry as we know it today.

Technological innovation and integration pose the greatest opportunities for construction. The single technology that shows the most promise is Building Information Modeling, or BIM software. BIM programs, such as Revit Architecture, allow all aspects of a project to be constructed digitally before going to the construction phase. This allows “clash detection” that lets designers see where different systems are in opposition so that time is not wasted on deciding what course of action to take on the fly. The time and money that will be saved by these techniques is huge. On the future construction site, these types of software will be integrated with the project manager’s smartphone for real-time data monitoring and clash detection. It will be able to interface with materials inventory, employee records and project schedule to allow a streamlined approach to project management that reduces time and materials wasted and improves performance for the entire project. According to Garrison Associates, “the average construction craft worker today is only about 40 percent productive” (Garrison, 1). With integrated smart technology on the jobsite, managers can more effectively monitor and improve this dismal statistic.

The development and deployment of integrated BIM software will eventually pave the way for integrated processes on the construction site. This will allow new methods and materials to be used that might have previously been thought of as too complex. The modular construction technique is a great example of a process that is being refined and used to push the limits of what was previously thought impossible. Using integrated design software, a company in England was recently able to build a modular skyscraper and come in over 10 months ahead of schedule compared to a site-constructed facility (Guthrie, 1). The design process will also be refined as the construction industry moves into the future. Collaboration between all members of the design, construction and maintenance teams will lead to smarter, more efficient projects (Garrison, 1). Project delivery methods such as design-build, design-build-operate and design-build-finance-operate will replace the traditional methods as firms become more complex and systems are put in place to process these complicated systems.

The third major factor shaping the future of the construction industry is resource scarcity and its effects on project process, delivery and operation. Global demand for construction resources is already having dramatic effects on the price of steel, and this trend will begin to manifest itself in other markets (Ying, 1). Energy prices will continue to rise until renewable sources can be brought online in adequate supply, and both scenarios will fundamentally affect the construction process. Government’s willingness to enact climate legislation will only add further scrutiny to construction resources. With these factors under consideration, a major push has been underway to reduce the resource intensity of construction and to reduce the operating costs of buildings through energy efficient design. By utilizing more efficient project delivery processes and taking advantage of integrated technology on the job site, life-cycle cost analysis will enable buildings to perform better and with fewer resources than ever before (McDonough, 1). In the long run this will have a tremendous positive impact on the environment, the economy and society in general.

My goal for this project is to integrate myself with a general contractor that is looking to the future and incorporating the best technology, practices and people into its operations. The company I have chosen is Breakell Incorporated out of Roanoke, Virginia. They have been a medium sized contracting firm in the area for over 50 years and have seen some of the major changes that have taken place over that time period. Breakell has also begun to prepare itself for the future changes in the industry and is aggressively seeking an advantage on this front. The company’s new sustainability initiatives include sustainable design principles, integrated project delivery approaches, and advanced technology to help deliver a more comprehensive product than others in the region. I have been in touch with the president and several project managers with Breakell Incorporated and they have agreed to let me monitor and report on developments as they unfold over the course of the semester. Several exciting projects that I will witness over this time period will be the installation of a green roof and solar array, as well as the adoption of the Revit BIM software and EnergyPlus energy modeling for commercial buildings. These systems will demonstrate Breakell’s commitment to sustainable building practices and position itself as a leader in the region.

By first-hand observation of a medium sized general contracting firm undergoing dramatic changes to prepare itself for the future, I will be in a better position to judge the speed and comprehensiveness of change within the industry as a whole. To document my experience with Breakell, I have set up a blog account at Through this medium, I will post my observations, reflections and experiences over the course of the semester. It is my intention to post to this blog at least bi-weekly as I monitor Breakell’s office transformation. By keeping these in one place, it will be easier for classmates, as well as any other interested bloggers, to follow my activity. In so doing, I hope to share valuable insight into the transformation of one of the region’s oldest general contractors.

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