IWBCC 2019: Takeaways and the Future of Wood Construction

| December 3, 2019

by David Aucoin

Photo courtesy of IWBCC

November 6th began with a highly awaited keynote by Craig Curtis, chief architect at Katerra. I anticipated the presentation titled “Applying Silicon Valley Technology to Design and Construction” to be incredibly forward-thinking and disruptive, and I was not disappointed.

As chief architect, Curtis has helped craft a vision focused on mass customization, modeling after the success of the automobile industry. With the supply chain baked into the process, all selections can be coordinated to develop a product line that looks great. Manufactured assemblies are designed from the inside out, developed around the parts that are available instead of some infinite number of possibilities. 

What started as 40 people in January of 2016, Katerra has grown to more than 8,500 employees worldwide with 50% located in the United States.  Lord Aeck Sargent in Atlanta will become Katerra’s second design headquarters.

Curtis discussed Katerra’s market strategies and sectors that are best suited for their vertically integrated supply chain approach.  With approximately 15 million people living in garden style multi-family products today, this has been the company’s primary focus and initial offering to date. Light commercial (warehousing) and mid-rise office buildings are the next targets of the company as these market sectors appear ripe for disruption, as Curtis went on to explain.

Curtis concluded with a couple general observations of the market. Katerra is making a significant investment in R&D while the overall AEC industry only invests about 1% of annual revenue. Overall, volume has been the key barrier to growing off-site construction with efficiencies realized only when manufacturing plants are constantly producing.  Lastly, panelization is preferred to volumetric modularization for its logistical advantages and desire to deliver across the country.

The final keynote was a presenter who I am very familiar with and have always found his presentations to be very thought provoking. Phil Bernstein is a pioneer of BIM, former vice president at Autodesk, and currently an associate dean at the Yale School of Architecture, and delivered his presentation entitled New Models for Delivering Value in the Building Supply Chain.”

Bernstein gave a brief history of design tools and technologies, and their impact on the design and construction industry, from hand drawing to CAD, and today, Building Information Modeling (BIM).  However, BIM has not been the disruptor it was once anticipated to be. After 20 years of adoption, BIM has only delivered better working drawings, as incomplete project information exchanges occur and 2D drawings remain the prevalent communication tool.  In the future, Bernstein believes our industry will evolve to what he coins a Data-enabled AECO to fully experience the paradigm shift needed to realize the productivity gains our industry is lacking.

Bernstein illustrated the discontinuities in information exchange that occur between each phase of design and construction. In the initial phases of a project, designers have the most knowledge of the project.  Subsequently, contractors join the team and quickly immerse themselves to get up to speed as quickly as possible. At the completion of the project, the contractors leave with minimal handover of information to the building operators despite having gained the most knowledge on the project

Bernstein makes the case that construction projects need to be delivered based on outcome performance and incorporate value-generation strategies.  In contrast, by focusing on lowest cost, the delivery of the building is commoditized through a sub-optimized value proposition.  Bernstein highlighted current trends and innovations hitting the industry to deliver increased value. Scaled Robotics is just one example of a startup focused on improving construction quality.  Robots guided by Lidar scanners canvass the construction site to obtain laser scan data to be cross-referenced against the building information model in real-time.

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David Aucoin

David Aucoin, P.E. is a senior associate, studio director and BIM director with PES Structural Engineers, directing the Northeast regional office in West Hartford, Conn.

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