Thirty years ago, architecture schools sought to educate students in three key areas of practice: design, technical performance, and contracts or business. Most graduates were strong in one or two of these areas but not all three. By the late 1990s, skills in CAD and 3D modeling were added to these first three, but still, graduates were rarely capable in more than two of these areas. Today, most schools offer access to workshops that have 3D printers and laser cutters, and students are able to realize their ideas as both scale models and virtual reality walkthroughs. Yet with these advances students seem to be increasingly lacking in their understanding of how buildings may be built most efficiently and with minimal waste.

New business models, building science and project delivery–the most important issues for the future of the architectural practice–are the least emphasized in architectural schools today. Internships and the Intern Development Program (IDP) provide some exposure, but not enough. Likewise, very few universities collaborate between departments, so that industrial design, mechanical engineering, architectural design, construction management, process engineering and computer science act as silos rather than diverse disciplines working together for more innovative thinking.

What we see published in the professional world of architecture focuses on interesting forms and sustainable designs. In fact, most projects experience more than 30 percent waste, which delivers no value to the building owners, and makes the claim of long-term sustainability very questionable.

There are three waves of change coming to the construction industry and none are being led by architects and engineers as professions. Currently, building product manufacturers and self-promoting general contractors are leading the way.

The First Wave: Design for Fabrication

Historically in the construction industry we have separated responsibilities for design and detailing, or construction documents and shop drawings. Architects and engineers do not have liability insurance that covers fabrication level detailing, such as design of connectors or shop practices. Consequently, we have contract structures which discourage collaboration and co-development of designs and details. Building owners pay for these services at different points in time and the coordination is reactive and not proactive.

Meanwhile, in schools, 3D printing is being used in a way which ignores the needs of production with mixed materials and confuses rather than clarifies how things should be detailed and made for mass production and long-term performance. If students had a chance to tour building product manufacturers’ factories they could see how different mass production is from 3D printing of prototypes.

In automotive, high tech and aerospace manufacturing, the supply chains are integrated so that industrial design, mechanical engineering, performance simulation, fabrication detailing, digital mockup and production engineering are all done collaboratively and in a parallel process. It would not be hard to begin these process changes in the construction industry. If the fees for shop drawings were separated from the scope of shop fabrication in key areas, like structural and MEP systems, then the shop drawing phase could be brought forward to coordinate with construction document production. Most MEP subcontractors resist this idea and offer to provide shop drawings at no cost, but in fact the building owner pays a high price for coordination after the fact. Architects should lead the industry by educating their clients about the need for this level of coordination, but they do not. Perhaps they fear incurring liability for shop drawings or perhaps they imagine that preconstruction services from builders might address this lack of coordination.

The Second Wave: Design for Delivery

Currently, architects and engineers focus on “what” the finished building looks like and not at all on “how” the building is delivered. Again, contractual silos prevent the proper level of cooperation. Documents from AE’s do not show formwork, scaffolding and cranes. The documents are not organized for work breakdown structure or manpower projections. This entire effort starts over from scratch because the wrong type of model has been created and site utilization was never considered from the point of view of efficient delivery. Yet a huge amount of project waste comes from execution inefficiency and reactive planning. If alternative building sites were considered based on “how” the building might be built, then huge time savings would be revealed.

The BIM tools used in schools and practice are not able to create either fabrication level information or detailed simulations of delivery that optimize the use of labor and equipment. In fact, most construction planning models today do not show workers performing tasks based on accurate ergonomic constraints. How can labor and equipment be optimized when they are not even represented accurately? Lean manufacturing and industrial logistical planning are drastically more advanced than what we today refer to as lean construction. The technologies in manufacturing that simulate production line activities provide real information to support lean practices. The product lifecycle management systems in manufacturing are true object databases and not the simplistic file sharing systems of construction.

Most A/E/C companies today are using BIM tools that efficiently produce 2D drawings from 3D visual models, and while this helps the client understand the appearance of the building, it does little to support critical delivery issues. If at an early phase of design the BIM models were converted to true solid models that accurately represented the parts of building systems then we could better incorporate both detailing and delivery. Schools need to educate their students on the differences between BIM models and solid models and give them practical exercises to understand the benefits of each.

The Third Wave: Design for Manufacturing and Assembly

Many people thinking about modular delivery and prefabrication today have focused on breaking a finished building into shippable-sized components. This is looking at the processes with the wrong lens. The starting point should be around ways which optimize factory processes and reduce labor requirements. With this approach labor can be cut in half and cost can be cut by one third. If we look at just one building system, precast concrete, we can see the difference in a factory driven design process and traditional design. Rebar, up to a certain size, can be supplied on spools which can feed automatic cutting and welding machines, which produce the mesh inside the slab.

Likewise these bar sizes work well in certain sheet bending machines, which create curbs or beams and columns. If concrete designs took into account the size limitations of bars and sheets based on this equipment, they could be produced at a fraction of the costs. Unfortunately, today’s contracts prevent consulting structural engineers from designing for a specific manufacturer’s equipment because then the contract cannot be bid competitively. So by the current bidding process, we guarantee the price will be twice as high as necessary.

Our starting point should always be the most effective use of factory systems and not the most generic design for open bidding. A very simple test would reveal this enormous waste in construction. Design a building system both ways, and have one open for public bid, and the other design handled as a negotiated bid. The open bid system required by law for most public buildings will almost always result in a greater cost and slower schedules. Our current contracts and legal systems are actively discouraging innovation.

Off-site and near-site manufacturing with optimal environmental conditions and maximum automation will always outperform on-site work. Yet most job sites today have inefficient trade sequencing and poor use of lay-down space. Trades on job sites are waiting their turn in line and trying to work around on-site stored materials. Materials in lay-down areas on-site remain in the same place for days, not hours. This inefficiency is often blamed on trade unions, but in fact, in many locations trade unions are working on better ways to cooperate and cross train their members. Compare this job site world to that in a factory in which workers are much safer, and in which materials are delivered just in time to be put in place on the finished product.

Imagine in ten years that most architectural graduates will not be working in architecture firms. In that world, where will they work and what skills will they need that are not now being taught in our universities and architecture schools? As more and more buildings are manufactured, not built in the traditional fashion, how will our educational system proactively prepare for this future?

Today, schools that teach modular design focus on breaking buildings into parts that can be shipped and skip the critical issues of how lean manufacturing works. Our schools need to provide cross disciplinary skills and real world experiences in manufacturing.


Patrick Mays is the vice president of strategy at Dassault Systems and the author of Construction Administration: An Architect’s Guide to Surviving Information Overload.

Excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly.