I’ve always struggled to understand why the AEC industry invests so little in academic research. It seems so straightforward. Research is tremendously useful! Objectively gathered evidence provides material for new value propositions, new methodologies, and improved industry information exchange.
We can use academic studies to support marketing efforts, drive new service offerings, and create demand. When research documents the successes of others, we can adopt the tools and techniques they’ve pioneered and improve our own project outcomes, which means that we win and our clients win.
And when research is openly shared, we can accelerate the industry learning curve, knowing not to make the same mistakes as someone else before us because a rising tide floats all boats. Seems easy, right?
But, put simply, research in AEC is HARD. Over the course of my career, I’ve been involved as a participant in research studies, as a member of research teams, and as a sponsor of research, and that’s one of the biggest takeaways that I’ve had. Research in our industry is neither straightforward nor easy.
Here are some of the reasons why we struggle:
The cycle time of potential learning in AEC is long.
The AEC industry is about designing and constructing buildings. While we can learn things along the way, project-scale lessons are delivered at the rate of completion of our work. Cycle times for completion of design and construction are long, with most buildings taking at least two to five years or more from inception to completion. And if we want to add post-occupancy use case lessons from enterprise operations (which we should, since this is where the strongest value propositions are actually tested), the cycle time gets even longer. If each project delivers, say, ten nuggets of learning, we can only learn at the rate the nuggets are delivered, multiplied by the number of projects we do, which is a long, slow process.
We are not good in general at collecting lessons and sharing them for improvement purposes.
This is a struggle not just at an industry level but also inside our organizations. Few companies have rigorous approaches to capturing those nuggets or lessons about projects as they are learned.
Another significant hurdle that few manage effectively is ensuring that we embrace those lessons to inform change across the organization on future projects. Typically, lessons are learned “the hard way” at the individual participant level. Those hard lessons influence how those individuals do things going forward but are rarely captured in a way that can inform other present and future projects across the company, let alone industry.
So even within our independent companies, the infrastructure to capture and disseminate those slowly emerging and hard-won nuggets is generally not robust. The nuggets are carried around by the individuals who found them and shared only as they come into contact with others on their next project in a similar situation…more of that slow propagation.
Image: Muillu via Unsplash
Lack of an industry standard set of metrics makes “apples to apples” even more difficult.
We never get to build the same building side-by-side, using different tools and techniques. Every building is unique. Even “standardized” franchise-type structures have different site context and conditions, different team members involved in their design and construction, using different tools and processes. Exacerbating the challenge of uniqueness is the fact that there are no common metrics used to measure success in AEC. One project team might establish one set of measures to track (and therefore learn from); another project might use a different set.
Even for teams that use the same measure, differences in definition of exactly what that measure means or consists of varies, increasing the challenge. This makes research difficult because teams and researchers must spend significant amounts of time and effort to distill, triangulate, and interpolate to arrive at “apples to apples” comparisons.
We don’t see “giving back” as an ethical responsibility of the industry.
The AEC environment is very competitive, with a dominant mindset of each company protecting its “secret sauce.” In reality, I believe there is actually little difference between the sauces of competing stakeholders. We all use most of the same (or similar) tools and techniques, and deliver largely the same (or similar) results.
If we were to acknowledge this reality, and openly share data and lessons learned, we could dramatically increase the learning opportunities in our industry. Think about the medical profession: when a new life-saving procedure evolves, information about it is swiftly and broadly shared, and society benefits.
And there are more challenges: lack of trust in researchers by project teams, fear of retribution over openly sharing mistakes, overly narrow definitions of success, poorly defined conditions of satisfaction or goals from owners, lack of funding, the list goes on. But the fact that it’s hard doesn’t mean we can’t choose to change.
In fact, we need research now more than ever, especially in this time of climate crisis, where our industry is a leading cause of detriment. And on top of that, an ever-increasing demand for built space while facing a frightening looming craft worker shortage.
What can we do?
Establish common metrics. If we can arrive at even a small set of common metrics (maybe ten?) to track on every project in AEC, using the same definitions, we can greatly reduce the cost of research and increase the speed of learning. At a certain level, some of this is already coming, as buildings are being required to document and publish energy use or embodied carbon…think building scorecards. We should be embracing these ideas and working as an industry to implement them swiftly.
Create a construction data trust. An independent entity that would house and anonymize data as appropriate and make it available for learning and research. Again, this is already happening; experiments are underway in the UK and the US, with benefits beginning to emerge.
Invest in research at a company and industry level. The costs of research are quite negligible in terms of the value of the lessons that can be learned. Think of it as an investment, not a cost. Build it into your project and company budgets. Discuss its value with your clients—they benefit from it more than anyone.
Establish relationships with academic institutions. They have students looking for research projects; we have research we need to conduct to understand how best to solve our day-to-day problems. These relationships might be at a company level or facilitated through industry groups.
More than anything: share what we learn! For those who fear sharing their secret sauce, I challenge you: if you are an innovator, share everything! By the time the market catches up to you, you’ll already be on to the next thing. Again, rising tides float all boats. Fear of sharing is the flip side of fear of learning. Let’s have the courage to share our experiences for the benefit of all.
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Markku Allison, AIA, has over 35 years of experience both as an award-winning designer and as a thought-leader on design and construction industry transformation issues. His background as a practice owner and industry subject matter expert with strong relationships across disciplines and organizations uniquely positions him to assist in shaping responsive strategies to force driving change in business and culture today. In his current role, Markku heads up Chandos’ innovation initiatives. He served as president of the Integrated Project Delivery Alliance (www.ipda.ca) in Canada which has published “IPD: An Action Guide for Leaders,” several influential IPD research studies and provides IPD training for industry. Markku also held positions at the American Institute of Architects, where he was a joint content editor in the development of the AIA’s “Integrated Project Delivery: A Guide”.