Technical problems need human solutions

Nov 01, 2020

We must apply our human intelligence to identify the real problems and leverage technology as a platform to bridge the gaps between tools, people, and processes.

The reality of construction is changing. An industry challenged by labor shortages and the effects of climate change and increasing urbanization now has the headwind of the global COVID-19 pandemic. To thrive in the future, accelerating innovation and adopting a more dynamic approach are more important than ever.

GLY has always embraced new technology. We were one of the first firms in our region to hire an architect in-house to lead the development of BIM (building information modeling). We collaborated with AutoDesk and their partners to develop an innovative new application for one of their tools. Our growing team of integrated design managers and engineers now touches every project we work on, and our R&D manager position reflects our desire to continue to explore the application of robotics and artificial intelligence in construction.

However, we learned some hard lessons along the way. First and foremost, technology – no matter how smart or advanced – is not a panacea. In fact, to be blunt, our industry wastes significant amounts of time and energy trying to apply tech to problems fundamentally caused by simple human error.

Delivering one of today’s highly complex buildings in current market conditions has never been more challenging. It is characterized by:

  • Condensed schedules
  • Escalating finances
  • Limited time and resources available only at a premium
  • High stress
  • Inefficient legacy processes and contractual agreements that mire the industry in the past

Tech in search of a problem isn’t a solution. As tempting as it is to grab the newest shiny object, advances in technology alone will not solve these problems. The solutions lie in how we apply our human intelligence to identify the real problems and leverage technology as a platform to bridge the gaps between tools, people, and processes.

This is not a tech challenge, but a leadership challenge. We have been taking a long hard look at how we can leverage BIM not simply as a tool, but rather as a platform for greater collaboration. Rethinking the role of BIM in the construction process requires new ways of working together, a shift in mindset and a willingness to leave behind old assumptions that no longer serve.

As a general contractor responsible for coordinating multiple disciplines, vendors, and design partners to meet our clients’ expectations, the immediate question for us is, “how can we all coalesce around the problems we need to solve?” We know everyone wants the project to be successful. What if we let go of our traditional silos and pain points and took a different approach?

Technology as a platform, not a tool. The single most important first step in the construction process is to bring together the client and key stakeholders in goal setting. The modeled environment we operate in today allows us to replace the traditional matrix with a series of drawings that are produced with the goal of visually depicting opportunities. This medium allows us to create a shared vision – together in real time – and better understand different approaches to resolving design intent.

At GLY, we effectively leverage tech as the platform that puts us all on the same page from day one. We no longer struggle with determining a solid starting point. In short, everyone holds the same map to our final destination. We all begin from the same place, united in our journey. All we have to do is travel down the path together and work through any thorny challenges we identified earlier.

Creating a culture that allows tech to shine. GLY has a culture of autonomy and collaboration, of allowing the right people the freedom to explore and innovate. Through “fast failures” we’ve identified the critical success factors that will allow us to leverage this powerful tech platform to its fullest potential:

  1. Build new partnerships. We need to break down traditional approaches and reach out to build new partnerships in order to accelerate the sharing of resources. The design team (architectural and structural) along with the GC team coordinates quite comfortably together in a single environment, but we still duplicate efforts and make little progress toward eliminating inefficient steps. We still separate design from construction in the documentation process. Why would we not replace design intent elements with actual shop-drawing-level information provided by those who are installing the work?
  2. Shift our mindset through data sharing. There is a tension within our industry characterized by, “this is how we’ve always done it.” We need to shift the conversation from what we should do to why we need to solve the problem by sharing information across disciplines. The forward-thinking stakeholders and innovators in the industry today identify new and unique problems. We need a mindset that allows us to recognize these as new challenges and work together to solve the problems at hand.
  3. Embrace iterative innovation. The speed at which new problems emerge means we won’t always get it right the first time. We must embrace mistakes as an opportunity to innovate. Through collaboration we can react quickly, execute solutions, recognize failures, and rebound, leveraging lessons learned to move forward. As a traditionally risk averse industry, our fear of failure tends to hold us back from innovation and experimentation. We need to create a culture of tolerance for innovation, failure, and learning/rebounding.
  4. Data-smart outcomes. We can’t know what we don’t know. We need to cut through the volume of data and select the quality information that will allow the entire team to transform data into usable information that can help drive decisions.

Embracing uncertainty empowers the future. The future of design solutions, construction, and building management sits at our doorstep today. We are striving to better understand the interaction of the built environment, occupants, and the devices we interact with. The demand for smarter and more integrated buildings will only become more prevalent as we look to capture more data and better understand the occupant experience.

We must remain comfortably uncomfortable in our approach and accomplishments. This is how we’ll stay on the (responsible) leading edge of development, productivity, and partner interactions.

Trevor Lunde is design manager at GLY. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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