Since I’ve started painting, I imagine certain buildings and skylines have taken on a life of their own. The steeple and water tower from the southern skyline of my small Iowa town look like the Trylon and Perisphere of the 1939 World’s Fair. Butler Tech’s Bioscience building appears to be a Jawa Sand Crawler attempting to cross I-75. And the Great American Tower is a giant robot changeling, attempting to hide among Cincinnati’s skyscrapers. Although, these changes are driven by imagination, all buildings display a real tendency to transform in unexpected ways. New software is helping architects, engineers and prime contractors to fight this emergent behavior of buildings, but software alone isn’t proving to be enough of a weapon. In the Netherlands, adding a systems engineer to each project is proving to be an effective solution.

As a building develops from an idea through design and construction, its acoustics and other expected performances change—mostly for the better, but sometimes for worse. From the owner’s viewpoint, the result may seem like a changeling—something unexpectedly left in place for how they thought the building would perform. But from the contractor’s viewpoint, the building is exactly what was ordered. The problem, of course, is that the vision of the owner was passed through a long chain of interpretations and communications before it ever got to the contractor. Any kid who has played the “telephone game” knows how that turns out—the errors caused by miscommunication compound with every link in the chain. And although every link in the chain is responsible for the error, it’s the last kid that’s in the hot seat.

In the past ten years, technological advancements have attempted to reign in changeling projects with improvements in software and new gadgetry. Architects and engineers have been quick to adopt 3-D modeling software such as AutoCAD’s Revit and virtual/augmented reality equipment such as the Oculus Rift headset—allowing the client and design team to test out, walk through and interact with the computer-generated building before committing to a final design. Review software such as Bluebeam’s Revu, allows architects and engineers to scribble on the same set of on-line blueprints, so no one’s review comments are missed. Project management software such as ProCore handles the communication chain among architects, engineers, designers, prime contractors and construction managers for RFI’s, submittals, meetings, drawings, progress photos, observations and punch lists exchanged during construction. Even though these advancements have improved operations for architects, engineers and primes, it seems to be a case of “the more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.” No two people use the new software in the same way, and consequently I haven’t seen any team use these tools to their full potential yet.

 

No Time for Slow Apps

It has been particularly tough to introduce practical technology tools for contractor use. RFID tags now keep track of equipment and tools, workers and visitors, and inventory throughout the jobsite. IoT connections such as DeWalt’s “Tool Connect” even monitor the location, temperature and battery life of power tools. But in this age of augmented reality (AR), workers are still using paper blueprints. Canadian software company ShapeTrace Inc. found out the hard way that contractors on the jobsite just didn’t have the time or patience to wait for its construction site AR phone app to refresh when they could simply look at the printed drawings. As ShapeTrace’s co-founder, Ernest Yap puts it, “Well, if you were using your hammer and 10 percent of the time, the hammerhead would fall off, you’d be pretty frustrated too. This is why on our current projects, we now assign high reliability metrics to our specifications in addition to spatial accuracy.”

Contractors on the jobsite just don’t have the time or patience to wait for slow apps. The size and complexity of building projects have grown large enough to require the addition of another project team member to keep track of it all: the Systems Engineer. The Infrastructure Working Group of the International Council for Systems Engineering is presently studying the problems and benefits of including a Systems Engineer on building projects.

Although the term “Systems Engineering” is often associated with computers, a Systems Engineer is a person who calculates how to coordinate all parts of a project, from concept through demolition, to achieve the optimum balance of performance over the entire lifetime of the project. The technique tends to be complicated, but it has a long history of success in coordinating very high value and/or high-risk projects such as space vehicles and power plants and is well-established in industries such as software development, automotive, biomedical and healthcare, defense and aerospace, ground transportation and infrastructure. The IWG’s study will help determine if Systems Engineering can be tailored to benefit the building architecture, engineering and construction industry.

One constructor of non-residential buildings in The Netherlands, Heijmans Building Technology, is currently studying the benefits of using Systems Engineering on its projects. I spoke with Heijmans Senior Consultant on Systems Engineering and IWG co-chair, Ir. M.T.F.M. (Marcel) van de Ven, about the company’s current projects to find out how they are applying Systems Engineering.

 

The Interview

Walls & Ceilings: First of all, can you give us a description of projects you are working on and the particular challenges for each of them?

van de Ven: Currently, we have two major building projects in the realization (construction) phase at Heijmans. One is a new courthouse in Amsterdam with high security areas. The name of the contractor consortium is NACH: New Amsterdam Court House. Here, we have by far the most challenging acoustic problems. We have to design and build many courtrooms inside that building, varying from very large to rather small. All rooms have to be accessible for the disabled and people with sight or hearing disabilities. While on the other hand, the rooms have to have a stately appearance. This appearance is determined by the choice of materials and quality finishing.

The other project was caused by BREXIT and is the European Medicines Agency. The agency was moved from London to Amsterdam last December. We are currently building that new office in Amsterdam. The designs are almost ready, and the construction has begun. This building will be designed and built within 18 months. We have until November of this year to complete it.

 

W&C: How does the application of Systems Engineering help assure the courthouse project will achieve the right mix between good acoustics and stately appearance? And how does it help assure the EMA project will be completed on time?

van de Ven: The basis for Systems Engineering is a thorough requirements analysis. Some project requirements are SMART, meaning they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound (speech intelligibility, for example), and some are NON-SMART (a stately appearance). First, we analyze the requirements ourselves and write down assumptions and interpretations for the NON-SMART requirements. During this analysis we have to address many thousands of requirements. We’ve developed a requirements management tool which helps us to sort the SMART and NON-SMART requirements and then allocate those requirements to the projects’ various disciplines (architects, engineers, contractors, etc.) who will further analyze them. The disciplines come up with their assumptions and interpretations which then need to be validated with our client. We finalize the requirements analysis process in one or more meetings with our client.

 

W&C: That seems like an awful lot of extra detail work on a project.

van de Ven: Although it seems a time-consuming process, it avoids ambiguity later on in the project. We use a scrum process (a very quick and flexible method of design) to drill down to the needed detail level to solve the issues and verify and validate our assumptions. The client is invited to join us during the whole scrum process.

 A big advantage of using Systems Engineering is that the validation of the system (what we’re building is what the client wants), is mainly restricted to the requirements analysis process. NACH uses mockups to validate the realized design.

 

W&C: What changes do contractors have to make to participate in a project using Systems Engineering techniques? Does this make it more complicated or expensive for them?

van de Ven: The New Amsterdam Courthouse was one of the first major building projects in which Systems Engineering was required by the client. The implementation made it initially more expensive, but during realization (construction stage) it paid off. In realization, we build the project compliant with the verified design — also verified by the client. We use BIM to check whether the design is met during realization. If it is consistent with the design specifications, it also meets the client requirements. So contractors on the job should see very little disruption from their routine except for a drastic reduction in owner-driven change orders. This is a large win and delivers a very fast and direct feedback.

Systems Engineers from various countries will meet July 20-25 in Orlando, Fla., this year for INCOSE’s International Symposium. Readers having views, experiences, ideas and inputs on tailoring Systems Engineering to tackle complex building projects are encouraged to send their comments to INCOSE IWG members Marcel and Jon, or even join them in Orlando for
a brainstorm. W&C