Transitions in construction

Transitions in construction

Whatever you thought, think again.

Scrap the report

ReflectionsPosted by Dan Engström Sun, June 10, 2012 23:59:04

We’re on to something here. Images. Moving pictures. Let’s say I want to tell you about a new development in virtual reality that we’ve come up with. I could tell you about it. Or I could show you a film clip of what the technology can do, say … eh .. this one. Go ahead, check it out. It’s only twelve seconds long. Your paatience can deal with that.

Right. Have you seen it? That little clip is more likely to get you more interested in the technology involved than me sending you a pdf by email, am I right? It would be even better if you had the chance to fiddle about with it on your own. That’s why they’ve made an app for the iPhone,, thast’s why it’s free and that’s why it’s amazingly easy to use. By the way, the name of the app is ”Action Movie FX”. Apparently, even my old idols Marillion are using it.

I’ll switch to being a consumer. Bear with me. By now we’re basically hooked to this thing. We want to check it out. We want to make a car smash into us or an Indiana Jones-sized rock land in our back yard, and upload it to Youtube. The people behind the technology will get the most out of this effort if they hand it to us and let us try it. We don’t need the full version, we just need to be able to play around, and get kudos from our peers for the cool clips we make. I ahve become a prosumer; a consumer and producer in one. The people behind the technology no longer need to come up with the coolest clips, we’ll all do that for them. And this little app made it happen.

It’s working too. The Internet is full of people making these little clips and commenting on them. People probably are buying more special effects (power outage, jet crash, you name it) as you read this.

But. And this is the brilliant part.

As it turns out, the main aim of this app is not to sell the full version. The app is there for one reason, and one reason only: to build up market pull for the film Mission: Impossible 4. Ghost Protocol, released in December 2011. We get to play around with special effects – childhood dreams stuff –and even get egoboo from it. At the same time, the app connects the film to the pleasure the app gave us. So, the film becomes a good force in our universe. Better go see it. Better buy the DVD. And the mug.

It’s working.

Now back to construction research and development. As in-house researchers, we too have technology we want to share with our colleagues. We too have innovations that could change people’s way of working. What do we do? We send emails with pdf documents in the feeble hope that they will get downloaded, printed, collected, read and acted upon.

I see you waving at the back. You have a comment. Yes? No, that’s correct, our technology does nothing as fancy as blowing dogs up. That’s just because we do not think along those lines. Because they could. Maybe not blow dogs up, but connect the market and our offer through technology that makes our clients feel good. Let’s say we provide technology so users can build 3D-models from our product line and paste on to a real view, so that they can see their future housing options through the smartphone where in real life there is only a field. They should be able to upload that view as a clip to youtube.

That kind of thing. You get the general idea. But we usually (usually, mind you) don’t do that because it costs money. Our little group decided to do it anyway. We are learning from project to project how we can communicate our findings in a more attractive way. We have started to use webcasts to complement the written report. These clips capture the main ideas. There is always the report if you’re interested later.

Here are a few examples. They’re in Swedish because our stakeholders prefer it that way.

· Demo on modelling reinforcement in 3D

· Final results from our project on cost effective housing plans

· Reference group meeting presentation in the above project

· The results from a PhD thesis on how clients receive innovations

All our presentations are licensed creative commons, as are images and music. Feel free to use in any way you like. I know they are not really interactive. We’re learning as we go here, OK? Far to go still, but we're definitely on to something.

One last example. A friend of mine was a key player in the development of a robot for 6-axes material testing. This machine tests small specimen of any material, in any combination of stresses, dynamic or static, automatically. An awesome machine. In order to create interest in materials research groups, all they need to do is show this. Though I dare say, with a machine that can dance, the clip really should have had a musical soundtrack.

So scrap the report as primary carrier of information. Who needs words when they could get a rocket launcher.

Images, Flickr Creative Commons: Action movie by Horia Varlan and Camera Obscura by tonyhall.

I can't see the hills anymore

ReflectionsPosted by Dan Engström Thu, February 16, 2012 01:50:29
I took this photo today, after having run (well, climbed) to the top of one of the local hills here on Gran Canaria. According to the leaflets, this island is a miniature continent, declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNSECO. My photo, though lacking the ubiquitous fishing village, is the traditional typical view of this place. But most people are not here to climb hills or meet the local fishermen and their families, are they? They are here to sunbathe, swim in pools that for some reason need to be situated right next to the ocean, play miniature golf, drink beer and take in tacky entertainment. The modern lifeblood of Gran Canaria is tourism.

And so the typical view has changed. If the image above is the old typical view from a coastal hill towards the sea, this is today’s typical view from the sea towards the same rugged, beautiful hill.
Real estate here is either left to decay or completely exploited for the good of the paying guests. The only real estate worth having starts with a key card gate fifty metres from the shoreline and ends with rusty barbed wire three metres from it. The shoreline itself is rocky and nowhere you’d want to launch granddad when he’s going for a swim. If you want to swim in the ocean, you do it on the beach that was transported here from Africa. I shit you not. Apart from that beach, if you walk on the three metres between the sea and the hotels, all you see is sea, rocks and walls with gates. Behind the walls, anything can be had as long as it you’re not looking for the real thing. Our hotel’s own miniature golf course was built on a manufactured peninsula to include a promenade, so you can take your walks without ever being out of reach from somewhere to spend your money.
The reason to spend your vacation in a gated community is of course that you ostensibly are safe and that you can get your every need looked after as long as you have the money to pay for it with. The drawback is obvious. There is ownership of everything. Communality is non-existant. There is no place for the locals except as waiters, bus drivers and what have you. By providing havens for the people that can afford it, gated communities inherently keep other people out.

Places like this are pivotal for the economic development of Gran Canaria. In fact, they are so vital that I dare say that the economic development easily takes precedence over the social and ecological sustainability of the island, and of many more places like it. The Nueva Estocolmo hotels of the world are not always minor developments that can be ignored or tolerated. Gran Canaria builds its entire future on them. This gated community luxury hotel (we have a bleedin’ Jacuzzi in our bedroom for crying out loud) IS the current and future Gran Canaria. It builds on flying people in here from northern Europe to consume resources in order to get a tan and a few stories to tell back home. That’s the only way there is going to be any economic development of Gran Canaria. Anyone that has anything to do with this kind of resort needs to deal with that.

The UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is reduced to words on a leaflet advertising scuba diving, because for example the hotels form a very efficient barrier between the inlands and the sea, and the beach was flown in and manufactured. I’ve spent this week not only wondering why I accepted going in the first place, but even more so thinking about the designers and construction companies that made this environment. What is their responsibility in all this? I can only assume that the commercial reality makes their responsibility to be keeping their stock-holders happy and following the orders of the developers. But I cannot help thinking that our work has social consequences that we need to make ourselves aware of. As we participate in building up a new business that completely transforms our local environment, we have the responsibility as professionals to point these consequences out. But the commercial reality prevents us from doing anything but paying lip service to the greater good.

We know that the world cannot sustain the current levels of consumption. But our economic systems are built on ever increasing consumption. The clash is inevitable. We can expect the collapse of our economy as formulated today, or the collapse of ecology and social structures first and then of the economy. Either way, the economic system will be changed, by choice or by force. The west is already not living on products we make but serviced we do for each other (except the audiovisual industry that seems to think it’s still 1970). Let’s take this change to its logical conclusion and come up with new metrics. Or rather, let’s listen to the researchers that very likely already have done that homework. Robert Kennedy once said that we can measure anything by the growth of our gross national product, except the things that matter. Even though economic growth currently holds its position as standard metric for all activities, the sun is going down on the system that created it.

Construction needs Perestroika in Big Media

ReflectionsPosted by Dan Engström Sun, January 29, 2012 00:09:10
Borrowing. I love to borrow concepts from other sectors and put them to use in whatever activity I am up to. Training methods from other sports, design methods from dramatic writing applied to design in construction, or similarities in architecture and the theatre. To paraphrase Andrew Hargadon: Don’t think outside the box. Borrow someone else’s thinking from inside their box. It’ll be radical in your box. (How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth about How Companies Innovate, Harvard Business School Press, 2003).

Building on borrowed material is the basic idea of open innovation; using the knowledge and skills carefully developed by someone else in your context, and offering yours to help others with their problems. I believe that open innovation and the free flow of ideas are key to healthy economies in the western hemisphere in the future. Innovation is where we will find our competitiveness as Asian companies are putting their feet in our door. Do not for a minute expect the best of them to be anything other than first-class. Anyone who has English as their first of second language had better take this seriously.

You have to get your ideas from somewhere though, and a free and open Internet is one of my main sources. People bring all kinds of interesting ideas my way just by tweeting a link of an idea. To reciprocate, I try to do the same. In my opinion, we are building the viral infrastructure needed to save jobs. In the light of this, the fact that Europe is only a few weeks away from adopting ACTA is frankly disgusting, as illustrated by for example 3.5.1 here. We are about to let a handful of organizations representing the audiovisual industry govern the way the world communicates. Now read that last sentence again. And they are doing it in secret. Anything we know about ACTA is leaked. Seriously.

Intellectual property rights are important. But they are not more important than free speech or than the cornerstone of our future welfare. Major companies are losing tons of money because their business idea is to provide products that people are not buying. Music is a service again, like before. If you build on providing me with a music product, you are in trouble. Their solution is lobbying for bills like SOPA and PIPA (die, foul fiends) and ACTA, so they can have power over, for example websites that build on the users submitting content. That means us; you and I. Anyone that, say, searches youtube for user-submitted demos of software will be affected. Anyone interested in open innovation will be affected.

There is of course a better way for the dying Big Media to stay in business than restricting the open web. Instead of lobbying for laws to allow IPR holders to sue their clients and shut down their means of communication, why not embrace the technology that’s already here, and find new business, new ways to legally provide creative content. Like construction, they need to restructure their business. Fewer lobbyists and lawyers. More designers, engineers, entrepreneurs and goofballs.

I see many similarities between Big Media right now and the Soviet Union at the time of Perestroika (Wikipedia entry here):

Perestroika (Russian: перестройка [pʲɪrʲɪˈstrojkə] (literally: Restructuring) was a political movement within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during the 1980s, …. Its literal meaning is "restructuring", referring to the restructuring of the Soviet political and economic system.

Arguably, the power struggle over Perestroika was a major factor in the breakup of the Soviet Union. Michail Gorbachev did try acceleration (uskoreniye); incremental modifications without fundamental change. Perestroika is the name of the more fundamental reformation that substituted it. The process of change brought to light existing tensions within the union and made it impossible to keep it together.
Because of the emergence of web 2.0 and social media, of all the SoundClouds, Twitters and BoingBoings out there, I believe the audiovisual industry is in a very similar situation as the Soviet Union was in before Perestroika. Their situation is untenable. We are seeing them fight back the only way they know how to still be in control. Because with open innovation, corporations are not in control. Their gatekeepers lose their function. People outside rule. Users/clients/customers rule. Like it did for the leadership of the Soviet Union, the situation for Big Media is about to get seriously out of hand.

And with Evil Legislation on our doorstep (the crucial EU parliament vote is in June), I am afraid that the situation for the construction sector is too. The ongoing transition of construction from project-based logic to more of product-based logic requires us to understand and explain the mechanisms of the manufacturing industry when adopted in our line of business. This requires us to collaborate with others, outside of our comfort zone. It requires a free and open flow of information. Even construction needs ACTA stopped and Big Media to find better business.

Consider this. Would you be reading this blog post if you didn’t have access to Twitter?

No images. ACTA just closed down Flickr because of this.

That was almost a joke.

Structural Engineers are Homeless Bums

ReflectionsPosted by Dan Engström Sun, January 01, 2012 23:39:12
The wise readers of this blog know that I am fond of input from outside; outside of construction, of Sweden, of engineering research - anywhere but from where I am immediately comfortable in my own knowledge. Learning from others is at the heart of creativity. Today I have invited Glen Cooper, a Structural Engineer from St Albans, UK, who writes engineering related blog posts at The topics which he takes on are varied, but he discusses with vigour the essential softer and less technical side of our industry. You can also find him @avatarengineers and email him at With no further ado, here's Glen's reflection.

Structural Engineers are Homeless Bums
For us Engineers, LinkedIn is fast becoming a virulent breeding ground for many cool existential engineering debates. It is also managing to provide us with a forum capable of bearing the seeds from a few perplexing engineering problems too.

Off the back of a LinkedIn discussion around the pay & wages of Engineers [here], has come some rather rare opportunities to take an engineering analogy or two for a test spin. Let me share with you a great attack, parry, and riposte if I may.

It was mentioned that a fellow Engineers suggestion to "stop moaning about pay and just get out there and make some money" was akin to telling a homeless person to get a job or asking a depressed person to cheer up. Facile and less than constructive. [Kat Lai, LinkedIn Discussion, Structural Engineer – Group]
I believe that we are more like homeless people than a person with depressive tendencies, but they are in some way linked.

One of my close family members was made homeless for a while. He was a great guy - but there is no easy way to help someone who does not wish for or indeed need the assistance. You see I had come to the conclusion years ago that those of us who find themselves becoming trapped in these ill-conceived circumstances, will follow one or several of these lines of action;

1. Shocked into taking action. This appears as an explosive reminder to avert a life disaster, and they use this realisation to do something about it. Most of these will find a way to resolve their problems, and self-heal along the way. Highly motivated, if in a retrospective capacity.

2. Making do. Critically this involves the down trodden to loose self-belief and eventually accept their circumstances. Upon further investigation you will find that they genuinely believe that this is all they deserve out of life. Any attempt to help them needs to first tackle the key reasons why they are content to languish, before galvanising them for their triumphant return to status.

3. Addiction. The person is addicted to a particular 'thing' or 'way of being' which works against their currently held status. It is inevitable that they will fail. Until the addiction has been broken, then they will continuously fall short of the necessary motivation to raise their status back to the norm.

4. The Tribe. Some people choose this way in life because the alternatives are way too complicated. In society, we build highly dynamic groups of friends, where status, empathy and acceptance form a social understanding which can be tiring to some. The thought of becoming a member of an uncomplicated tribe who never judges you, is an enticing idea. No internal judgement, status free, uncomplicated.

There are of course lots of reasons why someone might become homeless, and the majority of them offer opportunities of return to status. For example, loose a job - find another job. This is obviously not as easy as just writing it.

For this post, I would like us Engineers to think on the 4 points above and try to understand how we can turn our need for greater 'pay and status' into a plan for the future.

"Homeless people, like the rest of society, have goals that, if not met, can lead to feelings of loss. Even though homeless people may have some supports, their disconnection from society and inability to achieve basic goals may lead to low self-esteem" Frederick A. Diblasio , John R. Belcher

If we are 'making do' with our position, then we have to understand the hidden reasons for our inaction. If we are addicted to a 'way of being', focussing only on our own business and career, then we have to begin to wean ourselves off this selfish behaviour.

Finally, if we plan on making this philosophy the secret mantra of our 'tribe', as many generations of Engineers have do so before us - simply because it is a less complicated existence... then it's about time we admitted to it. Time to move on, I think.

Dan's comment
My fabulous older brother (who is in construction management in the UK) used to lovingly call structural engineers like me and our dad cannon fodder. He used the example of the London Millenium Bridge which went from being called the Foster Bridge by his colleagues to the name the Arup bridge the second it showed instability. And yet, Arup can boast of maybe the most influential structural engineer in construction since Thomas Telford, namely Cecil Balmond. If you haven't read Informal, you need to do so.

When it comes to the role of engineers in the ongoing transition of construction, I think Glen really is on to something in his post. There are too few engieers who use their skills in order to openly question the comme il faut. Engineers are trained to creatively solve problems and optimise their solutions. But we are not trained to do business from those skills. We do charge clients for our services, but to be perfectly honest, we're not very good at it. In fact, we're so poor at seeing the value of our work that we tend to accept the situation where our skills are not only priced less than deserved, they're valued less than deserved. Time to change that, engineering brothers and sisters. If you're home is the regular engineering silo, get out of there and find the home you deserve. THen make it known that you have moved in.

Credits: Text and image copyright Glen Cooper, 2012.

Getting away from boredom

ReflectionsPosted by Dan Engström Thu, December 01, 2011 19:12:52

Systems building requires learning from repetition. Repetition implies standardisation; at least if we want to keep costs down. Standardisation does not sound like a great concept for innovation or inspiration, now does it? Well. There are the arguments of standardisation allowing us to focus on creating value - the choice of wall thicknesses and the to-do list bullet points are already decided. That's the beauty of standardisation. But it is also the ugly face of standardisation. Risk are high for conformity. Repetitiveness. Boredom alert! This is not a drill.

Well, if a task is that boring, you simply do something different for a while. Easy enough to say but hard to pull off inside the box of standardisation. I even wrote a post about that a couple of weeks back.

It is doable though. In many manufacturing systems (yes, well …factories), this is done by work rotation. Each production cell is overstaffed and the tasks rotated. Let’s say we need four people to assemble a machine part. Task A needs two people, while task Band C need one each. However, we staff the cell with five workers and introduce task D: measure performance, document processes and results, actively look for improvements and discuss performance, problems and improvements with management. On the Monday, task D is my job. As an experienced assembly line person from tasks A, B and C, I do task D well. On Tuesday, I start my five-day rotation with the assembly tasks, while my colleagues one after another do task D. On Monday next week, we start over. When one of us gets sick, we can still perform our core tasks without regrouping the staff.

I personally think this would foster an innovative, creative environment around the production unit. As workers, we see the problems, we suggest the improvements, we implement them and we measure the success. Like the Scania “Hands on the motor” project, where the production units were asked to find ways to keep their hands on the motor, which is where value is created. By introducing prefabrication of a subassembly, a world-class production line (that even impressed the Japanese, they were THAT good) improved productivity with dubble-digit percentages. All thanks to the assembly workers who must have been very proud indeed of their creativity.

Did I hear you whisper that this manufacturing idea is not applicable to construction? I disagree. In a systems building setting, it should be possible for professionals to vary between structural design, BIM modelling, design management and product development. Similarly, it should be possible to vary between purchasing, logistics, site and production planning and production development. Prove me wrong, I dare you.

Arguably, work rotation is a way our of boredom for standarised tasks. Are we up to it?

This is not for today’s typical colleague of ours. We are talking about a pre-modernism breed of engineer, contractor and system-developer: the cross-disciplinary professional. By varying between tasks, we learn the relevant skills of many disciplines in the context of our system. This is a competitive edge for the professional; most colleagues that compete for the best jobs are specialists according to the modernist tradition. But the company that has that type of staff also has a competitive edge in term of employee satisfaction and the opportunity to staff the positions that need it.

Universities would do well to consider revising their curricula. Sooner or later, companies will ask for employees that not only fit inside the traditional silo thinking but also to thrive in a cross-disciplinary function.

Systems building. We can do this.

Images, Flickr Creative Commons: think inside the box by nate steiner, spinning attraction at the 2008 Bixby Green Corn Festival by KB35.

Ornament is indeed crime.

ReflectionsPosted by Dan Engström Mon, November 14, 2011 17:08:25

I think ornament is crime. I'll tell you why in a minute. This post is on the architecture of systems building, so I would like to warn sensitive engineers about the architectural lingo you are about to encounter. OK. Here goes my case for today. It’s kind of important, so let’s give it our best shot.

Let’s agree that the industrial logic of systems building must not involve clients accepting inferior housing. Consequently, we need to show that we are capable of creating buildings through systems building on par with those we create through traditional construction.

No. Loud, obnoxious buzzer noise goes here. But thank you for playing.

Compared to the traditional, project-based construction, systems building is a whole new ball game. It has different tools from project-based construction, different logic. Its business is different. Why should it produce the same buildings? A product is a product, with all the traits of a product. It has its own name and brand. It builds on a basic platform, customizable with alternative designs. It is improved from version to version. And for housing that falls within the same brief, it is noticeable cheaper than the traditional house. And here’s the key. That last building? The one that falls within the same brief as a traditional house?

It. Is. Better.

That’s tonight’s big revelation folks. Because the industrial logic provides us with opportunities for new architectural expression. I even co-wrote a book on this subject (which incidentally I wish the publisher would get published already).

I think traditional building has too many incentives for errors built in. The image above is just one example of the regular "OK, so I had to improvise a bit, they'll never notive"-approach. Yes, that is the final design, to be paid dearly for by the inhabitant of this luxury apartment in Göteborg.

See if you agree with my logic. Let’s take precision as our focal point. Systems building uses prefabrication as an important tool. If we are to do this, we have to keep a close eye on assembly and the tolerances of the connectors. That means we need to keep tolerances on components close too, and the precision of the joints and interfaces will increase. More interfaces will be machined than in traditional building, simply because preparations off-site mean savings in costs. But this all also means that the joints between different materials and components will be distinct and readable. And installations will be kept under guard so that they are collected into as few locations as possible. By working with industrial logic, we have inadvertently stumbled across traits often discussed by architects as important architectural value-bearers. God is in the details, remember?

So “Ornament is crime” suddenly has contemporary, conceptual meaning. Do not add decoration – build on the precision inherent in the technology instead. Systems building invites to the tectonic approach to housing design, to working with the poetics of structure and materials. I like the detail below for example. Nothing out of the ordinary, but nice precision and very few nails and screws visible. The level of arcticulation in the joints and handles will change the expression should one so wish. Do you see my point here?

From the client’s point of view, there are plenty of perspectives from which systems building is superior to project-based construction. Like don’t get me started on the opportunity we suddenly have to provide the client will a decision schedule – what needs to be decided when. Or the transparency of processes. Or the predictability. The key here is for us to help the client judge systems buildings tenders without thinking that they are based on project-based logic. They are not (NOT), so lower costs for example do not immediately imply an inferior end-product. But lacking the right information, clients tend to judge innovations with the old rules of thumb. So we need to give them enough information with enough richness to learn the rules of the systems building game. I learned that last bit from reading the draft of Susanne Engström’s PhD thesis that she is writing right now. You should check that out when it’s defended in March.

So we’re not home and dry. Consider us being home and looking for the towel. If we allow our end-products to be judged as were they traditional construction, we're even voluntarily going back into the shower. But from the architectural viewpoint, the challenge is still fundamental. The challenge is to overcome the (imagined?) conflict between the systematic logic and site-based logic. The one builds on the similarities between projects, with solutions developed before there is a site for each project. The other is what traditionally is considered required for architectural quality, where we consider each site to be unique and to require unique designs.

There are methods available to us to mitigate this conflict. One: develop products that are flexible so as to allow for clients to customize them for a number of different site characteristics. Two: develop a plethora of different products (albeit an option available mainly for large suppliers). Three: develop products only halfway, into platforms, so as to be able to finalize designs for each site. The only thing we cannot do is Four: develop each project uniquely from each site.

This brings us into the realm of flexibility is a driver for costs, which is a different blog post. Just let me say this. Systems building needs to rely on repetition in one form or another, and the greater the flexibility the lower the yield from systems building logic. In plain English: buildings designed to be unique will be more expensive. Buildings designed to be repeated in one form or another will have their point of origin not on a site but in a market analysis.

Images: Top: Ornament and crime, Flickr Creative Commons, by Menti. Upper middle: Modern site-build, copyright Ola Nylander. Lower middle: Modern systems building, copyright NCC. Bottom: Towel, Flickr Creative Commons, by Kevin Steinhardt.

Great idea. Boring, but great.

ReflectionsPosted by Dan Engström Fri, November 11, 2011 08:08:03

Let me tell you about yourself. You’re a dedicated member of the team at work. You’re used to being busy and to solve problems quickly, as they occur, in an ad hoc manner. Get it done, move on. You’re using your creativity to the best of your ability and loving it. OK, so you work long hours. It’s hard work, and sometimes even very hard, but the result you achieve from that is what makes you tick. You’re your own man. If you can’t fix it, no one can. You’re in construction and couldn't be happier.

One day, you get called to a meeting where one or other of all the supervisors or CEOs or MDs and what have you tell you about this new gospel: systems building. We now have a system for everything. Processes. Standardisation. A way of doing things, period. You do what the Joneses do. Let us know if you think it should be improved. Here’s the manual, go home and study, see you Monday. Dismissed.

Sounds like someone just took a class in management, and should ask for their money back, right?

You go home and you do study. You give up halfway through because there are just too many pages. But you decide to give it a chance the way you’ve been trained. You try it out.

Of course, things went wrong initially. But as it turns out, it works OK. Some new stuff to learn (centralized purchasing, checklists, visual planning, that sort of thing) but over time you find that the pressure is letting up. Things seem to run just that little bit smoother so that you have time to breathe. And you do breathe. It’s nice to be able to concentrate on the important stuff, like actually building stuff. You start to recognize the things that you did in the last project. They get easier and you do them faster.

However. You’re used to being you own man, to be the key player in your area. You’re used to rolling up your sleeves in the face of unexpected problems. You’re used to planning every project, every week and every day after the unique situation you’re in at the time. That’s what gave you the energy to excel. That’s not happening anymore. The work has become predictable. You groan when you think about it. This can’t last. It is simply too boring.

The backbone of systems building is repetition, albeit on many different levels, but there is always the ambition to utilize the things we’ve learned and do them again. We came a long way on the learning curve in the last project, let’s reuse that. You’re not into repetition.

Both your clients and your managers seem to be happy with the new systems building concept but you’re not. So you start to feel bored and out of touch with the atmosphere of your company. You do have the opportunity to give suggestions for improvement of all the processes and checklists, but submitting email suggestions doesn’t bring out the best in you. There is no challenge. You start to consider leaving the company for some place where you can continue with the adventure that construction used to be.

At that précis moment, immaculately timed, that manager calls for a new meeting. During that meeting, He announces the company’s next step in systems building. That step is … what?

Today, that’s my question to you and to myself. Considering the drivers and character of yourself and your colleagues, is there a way for us to develop and/or implement systems building so that we keep the spark alive? We so desperately need to build on the commitment and energy of our colleagues. We need to retain and develop the everyday drivers for their best efforts. Not just because it is efficient and good business, it is also the right thing to do. Employees with drivers to improve do better work and stay longer. What are those drivers, and how can a system that builds on repetition be reconciled with an industry and workforce that build enthusiasm on the spur of the moment? Without such drivers present, our systems and fine diagrams of value-chains, gates and efficiency in deliveries will be worth exactly nothing.

At some point, when I have read a paper or two and have an idea for how we could make this happen, I’ll come back with a new post on it. That’s the kind of thing that makes ME tick.

Images, Flickr Creative Commons: Happy Golden by Muffet, and Bored dog by Benoit Dupont.

What do you mean by design?

ReflectionsPosted by Dan Engström Wed, November 09, 2011 01:38:51
Today, I’d like to discuss the value-creation by designers in systems building. Designing more or less from scratch is a very different task from designing from a set of given platforms. Let’s first put the model (below) developed by Siemens of production strategies in different process situations to use. I borrowed this from Gustav Jansson and his thesis on Industrialised Housing Design Efficiency. It illustrates the level of prefabrication versus the possibilities of adaption to client requirements. It all depends on how we’ve decided to do business and when the client comes into the process.
Let’s first look at the strategy Configure to Order; the dashed line above, representing for example a typical Swedish timber-framed housing manufacturer. This is systems building taken fairly far. These companies rely on well-prepared and packaged products, with modular options for clients to customise the product to their needs. The question for the designer (architects and engineers) is where product development ends and design of the unique project begins. Is it important? I think it is. The one is made between projects, the other in projects. The one has in mind the generic properties of the existing platform and what can be achieved with the existing production facilities. There is only a typical site and a typical client, fairly generically described. The other has a client and a site in mind. For design, the client has a name, a mortgage and requirements, and the site has an address.

If we are to focus at the value the designers create under this strategy, we are ignoring the value inherent in the platform, the product. This is not only semantics either. Helena Johnsson showed that the 50-year-old platform of the housing manufacturer Älvsbyhus can be considered have created worth around 2.3 Billion Euro. That is after 400 Million Euro representing the unique client adaptations of the houses has been deducted. The platform (addressed by product development) is worth five times the parts unique to projects (addressed by design). Design logic seems to be less valuable here than product development logic. The logical conclusion is that we should start looking at industrial design methods to complement of our regular methods for building design.

In Configure to Order, most designers (architects and engineers) are in-house resources and are also the product developers. They know what their role is; to create value for the client with as little cost as possible to the factory. The successes and failures of sales, production, logistics, assembly and so on are their successes and failures too. Being early in that value-chain, they know their job is to support their colleagues downstream. In the ideal world, they are well experienced with the standard parts and modules they have to work with. They know what buildings these parts can and cannot make up. This goes for engineers as well as for architects. They know the situation in the rest of their value-chain, and who will be subject to dealing with any poor solutions of theirs. The value they create would in fact best be measured by how well their colleagues can do their work.

Karin Gustafsson recently wrote her master’s thesis at Luleå University of Technology on architectural design in such an environment. The subject area was the architectural development of a new configuration of the NCC building product P303. Let me elaborate on that thesis for just a little while. Karin started out with the traditional architectural methodology, which is going from the big picture to the little picture via increasingly detailed draft designs, comparing functional requirements with her designs. Finally, when she came to the level of detail that involved the technology of the system, she had to stop and reengineer her whole process. The functional requirements, her designs and the technical properties of the product just wouldn’t fit. She had to start from the core of the building system and work both up into major issues like room organisation and then down into the nitty-gritty details. Karin points out in her thesis that there is then the risk of not being able to motivate the resources it takes to work the overall concept of the project, but getting stuck in the smaller issues. In order to safeguard the quality of her results, Karin therefore used Ola Nylander’s method of assessing immaterial architectural values. The combination of systematic, (even tectonic if you will) process and verbalising architectural qualities is innovative and should be complemented.
So far the builder with a factory at hand, or at least with a manufacturing-based logic. Karin did architectural product development. Such products will be configured to clients' requests by designers. Where does traditional building design fit into this picture? Does it even fit in?

So, let's look at a general contractor on the other hand. This company would typically be found in Engineer to Order in the Siemens model. This traditional strategy is not our subject of this blog. But what happens when a contractor moves from this traditional strategy to Modify to Order? Many of them do. When they have developed product structures? Suddenly, there are ground rules for what products can be used and how they fit together, where they should be bought and how the designs should be communicated. But the building-blocks do not make up products, they are only product structures, like a standardised connection between a wall and a floor. There is still quite a lot of work to be done in order to finish the designs for the unique client. There is the thus risk that the project logic is retained, that we keep the piecemeal value-chain with outsourced, temporary teams and goals set from each project.

In our project-based logic in its current state, the drivers for the outsourced resources (including designers) can be found in their cost-plus business strategy. Because of this ubiquitous stone around our neck, there is very little incentive for a designer to be involved in maximising client value with minimal resources. Let's be blunt here. The job of outsourced designers, who have to fight for each project with five other designers, is to prepare the blueprints and then send the invoice. That is a non-starter in the developing new context; Modify to Order and certainly in Configure to Order. Again, more and more of construction is moving there.
In this context, we need to take a long, hard look at what value we designers are creating in systems building. We need to start with the issue of we in fact are designing, or if we are we developing products. We need to look at what education, experience and personal traits we value in our employees. We need to start developing business models that utilise the combined strength of all involved in each building system, and in each project. Because the blueprints, models and descriptions we are used to creating are only means to an end. In systems building, the end, the goal and the merits of anyone’s work is always defined by the well-being of the people further down the value-chain.

- Production strategies by Siemens, via Gustav Jansson and Graham M. Winch
- BBB low-cost housing, Kvistgård, elsinore, Denmark. Architects: Tegnestuen Vandkunsten, 2004-2008, by seier-seier
, Flickr Creative Commons.
- Cobra telephone by miheco, Flickr Creative Commons.

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