The Problem with Disconnecting Science and Construction
Disconnected is a way to describe our industry with regard to standards and practices. We have two worlds in this industry and they seem to be disconnected. One world is setting standards and the other is what’s being done in the field.
Codes and standards are generally written by engineers. They tend to base decisions on bias through lab testing and computer modeling. While the field is more biased on the experience of field applications through trial and error, the lab testing and computer modeling that drive codes and specifications also have an impact on the field. But it can take years to reach them and when it does, it is already outdated. The other issue is that while science has things to teach the field, the people in the field know things too. They have learned from experience of doing things that are not based on theory or perfect lab results.
While the two working together with mutual respect for one another would result in a better set of codes and standards, this is unlikely to happen. It seems this disconnect between the two worlds is growing and not closing.
Go to a jobsite today and ask a worker if they are installing the assembly per ASTM standard. The response will likely range from “What is ASTM?” to “I am installing how I was taught, by the code.” In reality, most are not installing per the most current ASTM standard. This does not mean it is defective or won’t work, just that it’s not current. It is hard to blame the worker for not knowing the new standards. The codes and standards today are changing as fast as the updates on your smart phone.
Only a decade ago, you could hand someone an ASTM or code section that was up to ten years old and it was fine as it was essentially the same with very minor modifications. Today, changes in standards are not only constant, some can be dramatic. Even litigation experts have a hard time keeping up on all the changes.
Recently on a project, the flashings and building paper were being installed for an exterior cladding. All looked good: Flashing, proper shingle-style applications and following good trade practices will result in a cladding that will serve the owner well. Unfortunately, it was not in compliance with current standards. This was a shock to the crew doing the work. Driving around and talking to people, it appears this would be a shock to most everyone in the field.
Standards that are reliant on lab testing and computer models lack field experience of practical installations. Most academics rarely go on to project sites or deal with the field. Some even use sarcastic terms when referring to workers. Even fewer have ever applied any of these products, except in the lab. This is not the same as being six stories up on a scaffold, in inclement weather, with accelerated schedules all based on the lowest bid principle. I agree that the science community has something to offer the field but they could learn from real world experiences, too.
A Widespread Solution
Another fact that seems to be ignored is the introduction of new systems and products. It is very challenging for workers to keep up with changes to standards and new product lines. Compared to our fathers, today’s construction worker has less expendable time or money to buy and study all these new standards. If the real reason for all these changes is only the goal of better construction, should we be doing this differently?
One possible solution would be to not allow any changes to standards until it can be verified that more than 50 percent of the work force are trained and educated in current codes. This would require a wide spread and desperately needed national training and education program. It should not be a for profit endeavor or at the expense of the workers. Most training today has an agenda. Selling updated standards, litigation traps, and market share domination are but a few; none of which can solve the real problem—too many changes that are too fast and not disseminated to the majority of field people.
Better interaction between the two worlds would be another better plan. However, it seems this will not happen as it has been tried. The zeal to change code and standards is undeniable, it is the underlying agenda that is the driving force. It would be great if the Department of Labor would step in but they prefer the industry to handle their own issues. Some think the contractor should pay for it but it is not them changing the codes and standards at this record pace. We should all sit and respect each other and acknowledge each other’s agendas, strengths and weaknesses. Until then, this disconnect is likely to keep growing.