Is Construction America’s Least Innovative Industry?

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Article by Dan Noble, Director of Design at HKS Inc.

Buildings today are conceived and constructed in much the same way as they were hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. A design team envisions what can be and draws this up conferring with a builder on how to get it done, the builder sets out to build the design and confers with the design team about intent, there is much conflict and camaraderie and moments of exhaustion and exhilaration, and then one day the building is finished and put to use.

This could describe a process today or in the time of Queen Hatshepsut, perhaps the most prolific of all the Egyptian Pharaohs. It could describe how we designed and built Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in 525, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 1250, The Empire State Building in 1930 or The Burj Khalifa in 2010. We’ve cleaned things up a bit, leveraged research findings, brought more people into the mix, utilized the power of technology and generally put a 21st century spin on things, but it could be argued that the basic relationships and processes have evolved at a snail’s pace over the last two or three thousand years.

We believe we are on the cusp of a quantum leap in the design and construction industry; that the basic fundamental core relationships, the end product of design and the processes of imagining and building the places we inhabit are in the midst of a monumental sea change.

If you can shape it, you can build it. Parametricism, the science of advanced computational design and digital animation in the creation of fluid forms, envisions a new aesthetic, claiming relevance on all scales from architecture and interior spatial design to large-scale urban design projects. Through the use of parametric design we can input prescribed variables that determine space efficiencies, overall sustainability attributes, building skin performance, and virtually anything you can measure. We can then develop a prototypical virtual model of the design and predict how a building will perform before it is erected.

Incorporating powerful software applications such as Grasshopper and Rhino, we can take these measured and prescribed building designs into a Revit model and collaborate with all the design consultants to eliminate conflicts between the various trades. Structural beams, ventilation ductwork, electrical raceways and cable tray conflicts will be identified and solved within the virtual building information model (BIM) before ground has been broken.

Sun-shading devices can be designed to allow only reflected north light to enter into a building 365 days a year. Departments can be laid out to maximum efficiencies and most effective grossing factors. Precise material takeoffs can drastically reduce waste, fabrication models can be coordinated direct with the fabricator cutting out the need for time sapping shop drawings. The resultant model becomes a shared knowledge resource to support decision-making about a facility from the earliest conceptual decisions through design and construction, and throughout the building’s operational life.

BIM extends traditional two-dimensional drawing beyond 3-D, augmenting the three primary spatial dimensions (width, height and depth) with the fourth dimension – time and information – and adding the fifth dimension, cost. Therefore, BIM covers more than just geometry, but also spatial relationships and key information such as sustainability attributes, geographic information, and product information (manufacturers’ details or scheduled information).

Our work continues to rely more and more on collaborative lean processes utilizing integrative teams and IPD (Integrated Project Delivery). We are now working on projects through tri-party agreements where the architect, contractor and owner are contractually bound to one entity promoting teamwork and shared success fees in the form of distributed profits at the end of a project. This promotes the whole team to be responsible for design and methods of construction in an organic, integrated way and eliminates the opportunity for the ensuing finger-pointing.

Our staff freely collaborates with their peers across the world, in real time, on issues that percolate to the surface on a daily basis. We have in-house and public blogs to help disseminate information at an ever more rapid pace. We now have HKS Design Fellowships in several of our offices, developed to nurture the creative spirit and tap into potentially hidden talent. We have the DIG (Design Innovation Group) Boot Camp, where young designers meet to learn from each other on current and future thinking and best practices within our technology groups. We recently concluded HKS Design Green Week where leaders from across the planet converged in our Dallas office for an entire week to discuss sustainable strategies and current thinking in this important and emerging space.

So the times they are a changing … we are, right now, in the midst of a design and construction paradigm shift where the architect, contractor and owner all operate under one contract within an integrated team eliminating the adversarial and litigious relationship that has been an all-too-familiar trademark of the building process. Our buildings can be completely built, virtually in a model that predicts its performance, detects system clashes and nails the schedule and cost before a spade of dirt is moved. We have the ability to advance ideas within the construction industry itself through rapid prototyping, modular prefab design or having our digital designs move directly to the end manufacturers thereby eliminating the need for working drawings or shop drawings, saving time and eliminating waste. Totally LEAN! We are immersed in research and development initiatives that inform our designs and allow us to be partners with our clients in their business at hand. Our employees are learning from us, our colleagues and our competitors. We need to embrace technology and infuse our design process with all the fury this information age has to offer in order to fully realize the immense gravity of this ensuing sea-change. This is not your father’s design industry or his great, great, great, great-grandfather’s.

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