OPENING REMARKS: PUBLIC BENEFIT OF INNOVATION IN CONSTRUCTION PRACTICE
John W. Fisher
In these opening remarks, I wanted to set the stage for our conference. One of the goals of the symposium is to look at how we can leverage federal spending and serve as a catalyst for innovation. I have identified three primary areas that we want to focus on: construction management techniques, procurement practices and regulations which may inhibit innovation by not providing needed flexibility, and policy issues. If we really want to achieve success, we have to address the issue of fostering new technology. Technology is where, ultimately, we will have the greatest success in fostering innovation.
In December 1994, a White House Construction Industry Conference was held here in Washington, a workshop on national construction goals. That conference later resulted in an endorsement in concept of some rather ambitious goals from the National Science and Technology Council as follows:
50 percent Reduction in Project Delivery Time
50 percent Reduction in Operations/Maintenance Costs
30 percent Increase in Facility Comfort and Production
50 percent Fewer Occupant-Related Illnesses and Injuries
50 percent Less Waste and Pollution
50 percent Greater Durability and Flexibility
50 percent Reduction in Construction Work-Related Illness and Injuries
If we expect to make any progress along the road toward achieving these goals, I think it has to be from implementing innovation.
What are the barriers to achieving progress toward these goals? As we focus on identifying the barriers to innovation, we can review and approach that issue by reviewing the national and international approaches that are being taken. We have guests from Japan and France who are going to talk about innovation
in their countries. We have some private and public sector examples that are going to be discussed as well.
Finally, we want to solicit recommendations for policy changes. Our focus here is primarily to look at what we can do to achieve innovation and the basis for policy recommendations. There is an interwoven nature of innovation, I believe, that policies impact in a very major way. There are advances in knowledge, and those primarily are technological issues in the innovation process. These are extremely important to achieving the NSTC goals. The other aspect of innovation is extending the practice, and that, of course, is more institutional. The technological issues are such things as new materials and implementing those materials to provide for the innovation. It is taking risk and giving individuals the opportunities to make those risks. We need a system of developing a knowledge base to provide the technological innovation and make it practical. Technology also can play a role in providing a mechanism to integrate some of the disparate views, because the construction industry is very fragmented.
In fact, we also have a very fragmented government in that we have multiple agencies. Although we have this federal council that is focusing on construction, there obviously is not a great deal of integration, at least from my perspective as an academic in a university. And that has, I think, institutional roots.
The role of innovation has some very poignant issues that need to be dealt with here. We need to develop a sense of personal and shared responsibility, and that's both for those people who are the contractors and the constructors, as well as the owners. There has to be some sense of instilling responsibility if we are going to have success with innovation.
There is a need for shared profit potential. In fact, I looked back and—just a year ago—the Northridge earthquake struck. CALTRANS, California's department of transportation, did some innovative things in trying to get the infrastructure back into place, by providing incentives —a shared profit potential. And yet, there was a lot of criticism because contractors were basically provided an award for doing something to put the infrastructure back into place in a short period of time. Shared profit potential is a two-way street. It involves the industry as well as the government that is providing the funding and, in this case, the owner.
Another issue is a realization that there are going to be unexpected benefits and profits. There has to be a realization that innovation is going to perhaps have unexpected benefits, and, equally, there is the possibility of problems, often because the technological base has not been adequately developed.
The traditional focus that we have had on the low bid or first cost has completely ignored the life-cycle cost. This may be because we have only started to develop knowledge databases to help make intelligent decisions within the past few years. But over and over, there is a realization that there are very
substantial costs. Probably between 75 and 85 percent of the total cost is user cost and repairs, and these are completely ignored in most construction. In the user cost, we are content to ignore safety, energy consumption, and environmental degradation.
For example, in my own town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, every time the state department of transportation shuts down Route 22 or Interstate 78 through the metropolitan area to make repairs, within a very short time several people are killed in accidents. This happens because the disruption has not been factored into how we do things in the construction practice. We need to deal more with this issue of the life cycle and what the true costs are. We seem to only do this when we are confronted with emergencies. When Mayor Koch in New York City was confronted with the closing of the Williamsburg Bridge, it meant major changes. Very quickly substantial sums of money were made available to correct that deficiency. The life cycle needs to be addressed here, and that, again, is primarily a policy issue.
The other issue is that communications between participants is poor. In fact, it is almost atrocious at times. In our system, we tend to isolate design, construction, and ownership and we communicate by tossing notes over walls. There is no attempt to integrate the system. That is the major barrier for achieving some innovations. And then, of course, procurement requirements are restricting options.
I would like, as an example, to show that there are risks associated with innovation. In the 1980s, welded beam-column connections in moment-resisting frames were adopted for mid- and high-rise construction subjected to earthquakes. There was a knowledge base developed that led to the design and application of construction for welded steel frame structures. However, the Northridge earthquake, and even more recently, the Kobe earthquake, have shaken structural engineering confidence in the performance and safety of the welded steel moment connections that were used in these structures.
If we look back, the knowledge base on welded moment connections was based on medium-scale experimentation and an astoundingly limited amount of research in the 1970s and early 1980s. As is the case with many innovations in construction, a limited amount of research was considered sufficient to move a new concept into practice and, in this case, even adopted as the standard. In the late 1980s, welded moment connections were adopted into the seismic codes that were used in California to design the structures subjected to those severe levels of response to which structures on the west coast are usually designed. However, Northridge made some dramatic changes in people 's views. As has been the case for my entire professional career, most of the R|andsymbol|D that we do in construction is reactive, trying to solve immediate problems. Northridge revealed that even in structures under construction, fractures occurred at the beam-column connections. Northridge also demonstrated that structures that had
been built over the last couple of decades had significant fractures. So, for the past year, a substantial research effort has been funded in reaction to this event.
It is not that we should not implement on the basis of technology. In our nation, the construction industry and owners have a tendency to do a limited amount of research and then assume that it is going to work without problems and without risk. Furthermore, once the initial research is done, seldom is there any vision to look at changes that occur in the construction practice.
Northridge has demonstrated that there were side effects that were never investigated, and I think Kobe has demonstrated the same. There were fabrication practices that had changed with time. There were weld process changes. None of these was ever really examined to enhance the knowledge base, and the loading rate was never studied. Technology from construction practices that we know to be fatal to fracture in bridge construction was never transferred to building design and construction practice. This led to these adverse conditions, because we have been content to adopt technology without thinking of a need for further development as changes occur in the construction practice, as materials change. We are today, in our own nation, seeing a major transition, for example, in how we produce steel and how we produce concrete. It is not the same cement that was made 50 years ago that is being made today. Neither is it the same steel. The materials that we use change with time, but we pay little attention to developing the knowledge base to augment and supplement those changes.
There are significant challenges to implementing innovation. In our nation, we generally carry out a limited amount of research, do a few trials, and then jump into wholesale implementation without understanding the risk. What is an acceptable level of experience with its use before we proceed? How do we foster more effective implementation as opposed to the more rapid general use, which often leads to unexpected problems because we have not continued our development?
In closing, I would bring you back to the central point that unless we proceed with innovation including the necessary R&D, we will not achieve the goals that, ideally, we always have in front of us to make the construction industry and the owners of these properties realize the benefits of innovation.
ABOUT THE SPEAKER
Paul G. Johnson is currently an associate and architectural consultant with Smith, Hinchman & Grylls Associates, Inc. Mr. Johnson has over 22 years experience in architecture and construction. His range of experience includes: project management, construction contract administration, architectural design and detailing, design of exterior walls and roof systems, investigation and analysis of exterior wall and roof system failures, technical and code evaluations of existing individual buildings and hospital complexes, and value engineering analysis. He is a member of the American Institute of Architects, Michigan Society of Architects, American Society for Testing and Materials, Building Officials and Code Administrators International, and The Masonry Society. Mr. Johnson received his B.S. in architecture from Lawrence Technological Institute in 1976 and is a Registered Architect.