Delegates attending the recent Canadian Construction Innovation (CCI) conference in Toronto were told there’s no lack of innovative ideas in the sector, but at most stages there are attitude barriers — a fear of adoption of those ideas, with an innate conservatism that means everyone ends up waiting for others to take the first step.
The result is tremendous economic loss as the sector lags behind almost all others in productivity and the timidity of constructors translating into trillions of dollars in missed opportunities.
Mathew Kattapurum, a senior vice-president at Aecon, served as the moderator of a morning panel that spent time dissecting two recent World Economic Forum (WEF) reports grouped on the theme Shaping the Future of Construction. Kattapurum cited findings from the report that highlighted the urgency of the need for more innovation in the sector.
For example, if all countries committed themselves to improved timelines for project approvals, $1.3 trillion more could be available for infrastructure spending. The report documented that while the rest of non-farm labour productivity has risen 153 per cent since 1964, it has dropped 19 per cent during that period for construction labour. Overall annual productivity in the sector has increased only one per cent over 20 years in the U.S., he said.
This comes at a time, Kattapurum said, when there is a pressing need for efficient new global infrastructure solutions — where $1 trillion in spending is needed to close the world infrastructure gap.
Illinois-based civil engineering professor Mani Golparvar Fard from the University of Chicago consults with the industry through his startup firm Reconstruct Inc. The CCI panellist said constructors understand the need to innovate but there is no sense of urgency among them. “They wait for others to jump on board, and see if it can generate a return on investment, and then they start adopting. But you are losing your competitive edge if you are not starting off with the innovative technology.”
Panellist Melinda Nycholat, vice-president, operations-procurement for Defence Construction Canada, weighed in on the problems facing procurement, where the traditional model, design-bid-build, is “fractured,” she said.
“Everyone is afraid, everyone is worried about risks,” she said. “Our contracts are built to protect us against the risks, but it results in people backing up behind protective barriers. That creates a barrier to communication, to collaboration, to an exchange of ideas and problem solving.
“We need to crash those barriers.”
Panellist Deepak Aatresh is one of those who will lead the way, suggested the WEF, tagging him as a disruptor.
Aatresh’s startup firm Aditazz based in San Francisco was featured in the WEF report titled Inspiring Innovators to Redefine the Industry. The Indian-born CEO started his career as a software consultant with Intel before he began assessing how the Silicon Valley ethos could be brought to the building process.
Aatresh founded Aditazz in 2010 and a year later was named one of two winners of health care and insurance provider Kaiser Permanente’s Small Hospital, Big Idea competition, earning $1 million for his team’s ideas for designing a 100-bed hospital that could be transplanted around the country.
By thinking of function before form, Aatresh explained in an interview during the CCI conference, Aditazz introduced simulation and optimization into the design process — preceeding BIM — and began designing hospitals with up to 30 per cent less floor space than typical facilities.
“Functions today are so complicated that one human and even a group of humans cannot maintain all the practical challenges related to it, so what ends up happening is we take, A) shortcuts, and B) you make assumptions which are very, very conservative,” he said. “As a result, you combine that with the hand-me-down formula that has existed many years, ‘this amount of activity needs this amount of space.’ But if you look forward, those interactions are changing significantly.
“And the only way to forward-play something is through simulation. If you don’t forward-play, you end up with the wrong asset. Especially because it takes so long to build the assets.”
For generations hospital owners, designers and contractors have relied on parameters such as beds per thousand and billable hours but now it’s in an era where genomics and preventative medicine are growing in prominence, Aatresh said.
“If you bring in simulation and optimization and say even before you pour any concrete let me show you how your ratios are off, and if you change the compensation model and say, I am not going to charge you by the hour, I am going to pay you by health outcomes, all of a sudden everyone’s economic model becomes aligned to what’s right,” he said.