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January 12, 2005 7:33 AM CST

Notes on the Back of a Board


In our quest for more-more-more and bigger-better-bolder, have we started to lose sight of what buildings ? and building ? are all about? Phillip G. Bernstein is an architect who teaches at the Yale School of Architecture and is a Vice President at Autodesk, perhaps the premier CAD solutions firm. He recently wrote about how contractors are stuck in a technology time warp.

In his Chicago Tribune piece, he states, "Great buildings have become more than mere evidence of corporate wealth or institutional power; they are symbols of a nation's cultural authority. Just like our predecessors, our civilization will make its mark in time with its buildings. But has our quest for monumental architecture gone beyond our ability to deliver buildings that will actually endure?"

The idea that architects can design a building, sell that idea to a buyer ? so often a consortium of investors with little or no experience in actual construction ? and then search for contractors who can actually create that masterpiece hits close to home for subcontractors. After all, subs are the ones who put their businesses and reputation on the line to try and bring new ideas and new buildings to reality.

Bernstein goes on to say, "Much has been made of the 21st-century technology used to design today's buildings. Architects' watercolor drawings have given way to high-resolution digital images that can make an imagined building seem real. With computers, one architect or engineer can complete the drawings that once required 10. But we've failed to learn the hard-won lessons of the manufacturing industry, where design and assembly are integrated through technology. Our buildings are still built in much the same way as the Egyptians': hand-wrought from crude drawings that serve as a visual shorthand for builders."

Bernstein uses the May 23rd collapse of the Air France terminal 2E at Paris' De Gaulle Airport to illustrate his point. "Many news stories have implied that architect Paul Andreu's striking design somehow stretched architecture beyond its limits to make a dramatic national statement while forgetting basic obligations to public safety. Yet it's much more likely that terminal 2E fell because of problems in construction rather than conception."

Before you start writing letters to the editor about how architects are always blaming the contractor for the architecture's failure, listen to Bernstein's rationale: "From design to construction, thousands of decisions are made every day with little but a set of drawings as a touchstone. Information still is shared the ancient way: from one worker to another. Sometimes that's a pencil scrawl on the back of a board, or simply a quick word or two on the construction site. This shorthand can make for great efficiencies. But, like any complicated task, some of the resulting decisions can be wrong."

Think about it; does this sound like any job you've been on recently? As Bernstein admits, at the heart of the problem is a failure to communicate effectively. "The public's reasonable expectation of architecture is that we deliver great, defining buildings on time, at cost and according to plan. These goals are rarely met by an industry mired in pre-digital means of working, relying almost exclusively on paper-based processes invented hundreds of years ago."

Technology can effect changes that will bridge this communications gap, but all the technology in the world won't help if no one is using it or using it properly. Masonry, unfortunately, has the reputation of being mired in the past ? we often glowingly restate the credo that masonry is the oldest construction profession. If contractors have technology, it's often squirreled away in the back office, the account department or the boss's home.

Making information widely available to support more informed decision-making can result in improvements in construction, the process of getting the building up, and doing it safely and solidly for generations to admire and use. The same computers, networks, wireless devices and digital fabrication tools that have saved the auto industry can create a building process that is based on integrated communication, where decisions can be made with full information delivered directly to the construction site.

As Bernstein says, "Simply making the building process more reliable and predictable isn't enough. Dramatic process change through technology is critical to the success of projects that embody the spirit and identity of a people."

About the Author

Tom Inglesby is a San Diego-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous online and print publications. He is the winner of the Construction Writers Association's 2002 Boger Award for Special Reports.


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