On Building the Future

Safety, sustainability, and shared informational tools will spur innovations in the construction industry.

Who shall doubt the secret hid
Under Cheops’ pyramid
Was that the contractor did
    Cheops out of several millions.

—Rudyard Kipling

All of us who are builders would like to think that we have grown in stature, professionalism, and image, in the 100-plus years since Mr. Kipling penned “A General Summary.” The fact is, however, that we still have a way to go. When times are good, builders are too busy to innovate. When times are bad, builders are too poor to innovate. So what shall we who lead building companies in the 21st century say in response to these charges?

There is great news for those entering the building profession today. It is not business as usual! We are standing at the conjunction of three forces that will change the way we build forever; and we, as builders, are better positioned to embrace those changes than ever before in history.

It is now accepted that safety is non-negotiable. No amount of explaining can excuse the fact that the way we make a living has allowed human beings to be injured, maimed, and killed. We have come to realize that worker preparation, work planning, awareness, and commitment are the foundation of safe plans of action. The great news for the building industry is that this environmental change will draw more effective workers into the industry; and just as important, this shared commitment will forge a closer bond between workers and management. In the future the role of compliance will be quite simply to get those who will not embrace safety out of the game.

After centuries of waste, the widespread realization that society as a whole must become more sustainable is driving builders toward a new understanding of the flexibility of traditional materials, and toward adoption of new materials, means, and methods. Again, there is no choice; those who do not innovate will not be allowed to compete. The customers and communities we serve will require us to make an overt commitment to sustainability.

Powerful information sharing tools—most notably BIM—will shed a bright light upon the inefficiencies within our supply chains. Unfair risk transfer, purposeful misinformation, and brute force management techniques will be replaced by transparency, collaboration, and shared purpose. Every project participant will become directly connected to the customer’s business plan purpose, and every participant will be empowered to add value.

How soon will all this change take place? Faster than our comfort level, but not as fast as our customers would like. The fact is, however, that these are the easy changes, so we need to get about the business of embracing our future. The true challenges for the building business lie in two realities.

First, it is impossible to be a high-end builder in a community where people don’t want to invest. The reality is that we must build more than just buildings. We must build vibrant communities where every citizen has the opportunity and the incentive to create value. Economic inclusion must become a strategic issue, not a customer accommodation.

Second, in the future service businesses will be expected to reflect internally the demographics of the communities that we serve. Diversity, with all its complexity and potential rewards, must become the norm rather than an initiative. We must create models that work for all the participants. Black, white, Asian, female, male, young, and old must feel welcomed and supported by our companies and by our industry.

So the good news indeed is that it will not be business as usual. The building profession today has a place for all of the energy, insight, creativity, and diversity that you can bring to the game.

– Peter Strange
Chairman and CEO of Messer Construction Company, member of Purdue’s CEM Advisory Committee