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.