Where is the future of structures?

I spend a lot of time thinking about structures. I think about what they could look like, what they could act like, how they should perform day to day and in extreme events. In the last decade I have made a circuitous path through the AEC industry. From architecture school, to architectural internships across the country, a stint in construction, a masters in engineering, all leading to working now as a structural engineer. Through that time, I’ve been lucky to see the AEC world from many angles.

Recently there’s been a question weighing on my mind that came up when I moved across the Rockies, from Colorado to Utah. Our home in Colorado was a typical 1970’s split-level tract home. A mirror image of our neighbors and identical to every 3rd home on the block. In Utah we moved into a 130-year-old pragmatic box. Do you want to know the thing that really surprised me between these two houses? They are barely different. In the last few hundred years our houses have scarcely changed in appearance or construction methods. When they have, the changes have been incremental at best. A better brace, a better nail, a better admixture, certainly some more insulation. The question is, are we keeping up? Are buildings a technology that should be evolving with us over time, or do they perfectly suit our needs?

For anyone familiar with the AEC industry, there seems to be a constant stream of advancements. From self-healing concrete, to advanced building monitoring systems, increased energy efficiency, speed, consistency, etc. However, in our day-to-day work, how often do we see or discuss these systems? I’d bet these ideas spend a lot more time in industry magazines and your inbox than they do in the real world. There is a saying in the field that sends new engineers scrambling to their code books: ”Kid, I’ve been doing this 30 years and I’ve never had to …(fill in the blank)…” This line comes from architects, engineers, contractors, and it’s become the mantra of the Industry. Luckily, we have code reviewers, site inspections, and giant teams of up-to-date professionals that make sure truly detrimental errors and omissions rarely make it in to the final product. But, the resistance to change is hardwired into construction in a way that no other industry faces.

I can think of many possible reasons for this; the design-bid-build framework probably doesn’t help, nor does the splintering of construction in to dozens of subcontractors and designers. Honestly, I don’t know what the final answer is. One thing I can tell you with certainty is that the first steel “sky scraper” was built in Chicago around the same time as my tiny house in Utah. At this same time, viruses were first discovered, the motor carriage was becoming popular, and the first attempt at a moving picture was being made. While many of these things sound like they come from a distant past, my home sits here blending in to it’s surroundings, indifferent to everything that has changed around it.

Is this a problem? I think that’s a matter of opinion. But I know that we can do better if we want too. There are plenty of researchers and innovators in the field to help us build better, cheaper, more resilient, and more energy efficient structures. To get there, we need to change the way the industry interacts within itself and with the public. Team members should be comfortable proposing new ideas and new products, no matter their seniority. Teams should meet earlier and more often to discuss design options so that all involved can voice their opinions. We should be using the BIM technologies available to us for coordination, virtual construction, pricing, etc. The changes aren’t dramatic, but I think they can help us change the conversation from “I’ve never done this” to “this might be better.”