The building design and construction industry strongly affects the economy, the environment and society as a whole. It touches the daily lives of everyone, as the built environment heavily influences the quality of life. However, when compared to other industries, it has traditionally been slow at technological development and process change. While research and development boomed in all fields of science and technology after World War II, the information revolution age hasn’t alleviated the professional chores of an engineer. Sure, disciplinary technical chores are faster and more accurate, but there’s yet to be an integrated convergence of new technology to enhance our problem solving.
Unlike in the past, engineering professionals now require high performance organization, culture and incentive schemes for their staff to quickly react to the technology changes and integration skills they will face moving forward. Most of this new technology revolves around knowledge management. BIM systems are evolving from the drafting boards and CAD to information and design, construction and facility maintenance tools captured in the design model. The professional still remains responsible for the outcome, but the tools and input specialization are more fragmented. Contracts are evolving into three-way partnerships with incentivized agreements between the client, design professional and builder. Also, the quantity of construction specification divisions have increased to meet the demands of skilled professionals, vendors, contractors and commissioning agents.
As technology changes, design professionals must respond or become irrelevant in the eyes of clients and the public. We must continually challenge common practices, the way we work and the tools we work with. We must embrace change and remain innovative, while providing the best, most efficient and highest value to clients, employers and society.
It may seem daunting, but through diligence and keeping an open mind, we as engineers will succeed. I’ve experienced it firsthand. Take the Occidental Chemical Office Building as an example – this project drove HVAC and task-ambient lighting energy innovation soon after the 1970’s energy crisis through a controlled louvered building skin that reacted efficiently to the northeast climate. Later in the early 2000’s, Ave Maria University integrated a Florida new campus’s administration and teaching systems, building systems, and facilities maintenance systems on a common efficient, cost effective, reliable and robust data network. These were massive challenges for our teams at the time, but they put professional teams at their best and resulted in a win-win-win for us as the design professionals, the client and the industry.
Engineering will continue to be a cornerstone of the world’s economy as it drives our workplaces, buildings, infrastructure and travel means within the built environment. But action is imperative to move the industry’s value chain forward and for all players to succeed. Public projects and regulations should educate, spread and speed up the adoption of new technologies. The industry should enhance coordination and cooperation and agree upon common goals and standards agreeable to all stakeholders. Private companies need to assess the new technologies, materials and opportunities, and then adjust operations, processes and business models. Design professionals must work along with client and contractor partnerships to share work planning, trim costs and execute holistically as part of the transformation framework.
As knowledge is shared, the trick will be maintaining the proper balance and responsibilities for outcomes. Actions and innovations for mutual benefit will secure everyone’s future, in the engineering industry and for society in general.