IT is the Foundation for Better Building

Cranes Over Downtown Washington, DC
We live in a wireless world of tablets, 4G networks, and cloud computing. But on construction sites, where the future is actually being built, making sure there’s place to plug in a microwave to heat up an abandoned cup of coffee is too often about as high tech as it gets. Despite innovations in recent years such as virtual design models, building innovation modeling and laser scanning, the construction industry may have the distinction of having lower productivity than it did 40 years ago. At best construction productivity lags far behind other sectors. “You really have to work at that,” commented ITIF President Rob Atkinson.

Atkinson was speaking at “Bits and Bricks: Transforming the Construction Industry Through Innovation,” an event ITIF co-hosted with the Information Technology Industry Council and Autodesk, that explored how IT can play a crucial role in making the construction sector more productive, innovative and globally competitive. Even in these recent bleak recession years, we spent some $1.3 trillion on “things that are built and how they are used,” according to S. Shyam Sunder, director, Engineering Laboratory, NIST – that is roughly 4.5% of U.S. GDP. When the country embarks on the inevitable new round of building activity, it is critical to get started on the right foot. The message from the event was clear: With IT, we can erect better but less expensive buildings, expand employment and raise and incomes. But will that be possible?

There is an array of structural challenges to overcome – pun intended. As Atkinson pointed out, the industry is very fragmented, with 98% of construction firms employing 100 people or fewer. Many firms simply manage subcontractors and there is little integration between these different players. There is hardly any R&D to speak of in the industry – about one tenth of what is spent on R&D by manufacturers. These characteristics are hardly new. As far back as the Johnson Administration, there have been efforts to marry technology and construction but they never got off the ground, at least not in the United States. Korea and many countries in Europe have seized on the power IT to modernize, integrate, and enhance efficiency and productivity in the building process. Typically, policymakers the United States have seen this as statist and assume necessity will sire invention when the situation warrants.

Whatever merits about this assumption in general, it is flawed when applied to construction for many reasons. One is the obsession at each stage of construction to keep costs low.  In an industry where profit margins are quite low and deadlines very tight, managers have a mindset that looks at high-tech as a luxury, not a way to reduce costs. “We can write the coolest software until the cows comes home, but if there is not a discussion of the structural process, we aren’t going to solve the problem” said Phillip Bernstein, a vice president at Autodesk. Added to that are external pressures. Robert C. Wible, senior project manager at the consortium Fiatech, said the regulatory regime the industry faces is stuck in the 1950s at best.  He said only ten percent of the 30,000 regulatory jurisdictions even apply IT to the process. This contributes to confusion or lack of accountability on issues such as liability among architects, engineers, builders, owners and managers.

The government has and can play a role in driving the adoption of IT in the construction since it builds and operate buildings on such a massive scale. Dorothy Robyn, the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Installations and Environment, overseas a portfolio of 300,000 buildings adding up to two billion square feet. She said government can play the role as a “demonstrator and validator” and DoD has an excellent track record in innovation because “the stuff has to work for us in the field.” The challenge is getting the private sector to adopt what has worked in public building and management. That is where more public-private partnerships can play a role.

Construction is a physical undertaking of getting bricks, beams, pipes and glass to sites and putting them together but IT can help us better design, coordinate and revolutionize the process. When we start breaking new ground literally, we should also do so in our thinking and consider the economic footprint of a more productive and innovative construction sector.

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About the author

Steve Norton joined ITIF in 2010 as communications director, bringing over 20 years experience in economic policy and communications. Norton came to ITIF from Stewart and Stewart, an international trade and government relations firm, where he was senior communications advisor. Prior to that, he served as speechwriter and assistant press secretary for U.S. Trade Representatives Susan Schwab and Rob Portman. His service at USTR came after a 10-year career as a journalist at Congressional Quarterly, National Journal’s CongressDaily and other publications where he covered taxes, trade, and other economic policy issues.