Engineering and Technology: High Performance Buildings
The lines between engineering and technology are often blurred and can be confusing. I have a good friend from India who was a top engineer for Rockwell International, a multi-billion-dollar firm in the aerospace industry. He was part of the team the developed the space shuttle and B-1 bomber. He is very intelligent and I joke that he is a rocket scientist. He has spoken about the challenges he faced with regard to lack of communication or coordination in engineering and technology. I became interested because it seemed the construction industry is going through similar pains of miscommunications between designers and installers.
I explained that while buildings are not new, there has been a dramatic shift over recent years to construct higher performance buildings. Science engineers are designing buildings to make them more air tight, better insulated and sustainable. We call them high performance claddings. While these ideas and designs are revolutionary and ground breaking, some seem to be failing. On occasion, they can fail very fast. I find the reason often is that the designers failed to grasp either the limitations of the materials or communicate with the work force to install these assemblies. I noted that many of the leading industry groups in construction have engineers and science experts in meetings to decide the future. Some designs are simply not practical and destined to fail. Meanwhile, the rank and file workers are falling further and further behind. It seems there is a lack of field experience with respect to success and failure from the more practical side of the industry.
My friend’s response was immediate and concise. He said that is exactly what engineering and technology is about. The engineers design and work out the science of the design. However, you need the technology to implement the engineering. He said Rockwell had to overcome the same issues. He explained that the technology part of our business is the contractors and supervisors. Too often this side receives very little respect from the engineering or science side of the room. In some cases, technology is not invited nor can they be silenced by a collective political power play. He noted that some of the most intelligent engineers he had were incapable of implementing a design properly. His job was to take the engineering and then let the technologist work out the best methods of implementation of the design.
Vision of Design
Historically, engineering and technology worked in construction as architects understood basic building materials and had a vision of design. They would create drawings with details that sometimes could not be implemented. The contractors would then make slight modifications to ensure the design worked and would function as the architect intended. Fallingwater may be one the best examples of this scenario.
Fallingwater was a custom home designed and built in the 1930s by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. This reinforced concrete structure was cutting edge and a masterpiece of design. The contractor noted problems and made suggestions. Wright, known for his arrogance, became enraged and refused to approve the adding of more steel reinforcing to his design. In 2001, it was clear that the reinforced concrete was sloping and had to be fixed. The experts noted that the steel configuration did not match the drawings of Wright. The contractor had on his own added the extra steel. It was determined that if the structure was built exactly per the drawings, it would have failed decades earlier. This is an example of engineering and technology working together, even if Frank Lloyd Wright did not know it.
While that was the way construction worked, today is not the same environment. Most would not take the risk to change a detail for fear of litigation, and their fears are justified. This is where an industry association can help; not to protect improper work but to be a third party and advocate for the structure and ultimately the industry.
Today, it is more complicated than in Fallingwater times. Designers have more materials to know and cannot be expected to master them all. This is juxtaposed by the fact that the contractors have less expertise at specific skilled crafts. Throw in field workers with less training and it seems like a recipe for disaster.
Construction costs have been climbing and—in some if not most cases—outpacing inflation. The lack of engineering and technology to work as a team will likely just make it worse. Failing to properly listen to those who can implement designs at the early stages will result in delays and more costs.