Legacy Award: Integrating the Practical Into Engineering Instruction
While he was a high school student in Hereford, Texas, Richard L. Tucker entered a statewide math competition that required him to solve 100 problems in 10 minutes. He won, prompting a neighbor to suggest he pursue a career in civil engineering.
“I was always good with arithmetic,” recalls Tucker, 83, professor emeritus with the Dept. of Civil Engineering at University of Texas (UT) at Austin and a celebrated pioneer of construction-related project management practices.
But there was a problem: “I wasn’t sure what a civil engineer was,” he says.
In 1953, he enrolled in Abilene, Texas-based Hardin-Simmons University to investigate the discipline, only to discover the university provided no such course of study. Tucker bided his time there for a year before enrolling at UT Austin, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and a PhD in civil engineering in rapid succession, between 1958 and 1963.
Over the next 60 years, Tucker alternately introduced the practicalities of real-world construction to the study of architecture and engineering, and academic research to real-world construction—all to considerable effect. In addition to developing groundbreaking curricula for UT’s Dept. of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, Tucker founded both the Construction Industry Institute (CII), the country’s premier construction research organization, and the National Academy of Construction (NAC), whose members serve as a nationwide network of industry expertise.
“Richard has accomplished a lot, but doesn’t tell you about it, because everyone knows,” says Charles Thomsen, a friend, colleague and early proponent of construction management and a past instructor at Rice University, Houston, and a former executive with Houston-based architect and builder 3D/International. “He’s very unpretentious and unassuming.”
Tucker’s construction achievements reflect a departure from geotechnical engineering, which he was interested in as a young man. In 1962, while completing his PhD at UT Texas, Tucker began a 12-year stint as engineering instructor and administrator at University of Arlington (Texas)—now UT Arlington—that broadened his horizons. As associate dean of engineering and graduate affairs, he developed the university’s first graduate and research engineering programs. During his tenure, he noted a general lack of research and initiatives dedicated to the practice of construction, particularly managing large, complex industrial projects.
“People don’t join the construction industry if they aren’t intelligent, but project efficiency rests on how well people from different disciplines interface with each other,” says Tucker.
Before joining Dallas-based commercial contractor Luther Hill & Associates as vice president in 1974, Tucker established the Construction Research Center at UT Arlington. The program engaged 20 to 25 industry enterprises in the study of construction-oriented practices.
After returning to UT Austin in 1976 as a professor civil engineering, he expedited the launch of the school’s Construction Engineering and Project Management program [CEPM], a graduate track within the Dept. of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering.
“It was absolutely a pioneering program that addressed contract management, safety, scheduling, estimating, costs,” says civil engineer and long-time Tucker colleague Wayne Crew, who served as director of CII at UT Austin before joining NAC as general secretary. “University studies of that order are more common today, but not when I was a student of civil engineering in the early 1970s,” Crew says.
Tucker adds: “UT administrators didn’t know what to call it, given it was a construction-oriented program. At the time, there were two or three other universities that offered similar studies, including Stanford,” he says. “Today, there are 200 such programs worldwide rooted in the practicalities of practice.”
Since its founding, CEPM has developed curricula ranging from project-management information systems and data mining to advanced legal concepts and project finance. In all, the program has issued nearly 100 PhDs and 900 master’s degrees.
The subsequent creation of CII resulted from concern among large industrial-oriented business owners that their construction projects were becoming too costly. In the 1970s, the Industry Roundtable commissioned a five-year Construction Industry Cost Effectiveness (CICE) study, to which Tucker contributed. CICE recommended development of a construction industry research organization for the capital projects industry.
Meanwhile, Tucker’s work to improve construction productivity as a consultant for Procter & Gamble, Monsanto and Texaco began to attract research funding to UT. In 1983, he and others persuaded UT to found CII within its Cockrell School of Engineering. Tucker served as director until 1998.
CII’s 130 members, mostly owners, academics, designers and builders, remain focused on improving quality, productivity and safety. Participants include owners Anheuser-Busch InBev and Eli Lilly and Co., builders such as Barton Malow Co. and Baker Concrete & Construction, and service providers like Autodesk.
“Richard realized the best way to advance industry practices was to build coalitions,” Thomsen says. “As an academic, he reached out to members of industry. I spent much of my time doing the same thing, the difference being that he was more of an academic than I was.”
Crew agrees. “When people say it can’t be done, Richard figures out a way to do it,” he says. “Richard knew for years and years that it isn’t simply the designer that makes a project a success. It’s the alignment of owner, designer and builder that does.”
Among other initiatives, CII targeted zero accidents on projects. A brainstorming session among CII’s Safety Community for Business Advancement, comprised of industry experts and members of academia, assisted Fernanda Leite, CEPM associate professor, in developing a course on construction safety, as did a CII module called “Making Zero Accidents a Reality.”
“CII’s research and associated activities have moved safety measures, practices and standards to a higher level,” Leite notes, adding that CII also has made strides in reducing capital facility costs.
To do so, CII implements a “cost-influence curve” to improve the efficiency of projects. “The curve essentially calls for front-end planning, meaning the sooner you make important decisions on projects, including scope and program, the greater the control you have over costs, schedules and outcomes,” Tucker says. CII also has developed a sizable metrics database, allowing members to observe correlations between practices and outcomes, he notes.
CII has garnered interest from Europe, Korea, Australia, Saudi Arabia, India and Japan. “In some cases, I spent time traveling to serve as a consultant,” Tucker says. “In other cases, industry members traveled to the U.S. to observe CII.”
In addition to other activities, Tucker involved himself in developing improved construction productivity measures, foreman and design delay surveys, constructibility issues, methods for evaluating design effectiveness and pre-project planning.
His 1996 election to the National Academy of Engineering prompted Tucker to again acknowledge that “the world of construction is much larger than engineering,” he says.
In 1999, recognizing how different fields contribute to capital projects, Tucker founded NAC within the UT Cockrell School of Engineering. Its nearly 300 members, noted for their distinguished contributions to the industry, “are selected through an exacting peer nomination and election process that requires about a year,” Tucker says.
Among other activities, NAC has issued some 45 white papers in an effort to make accident-free conditions the industry’s No. 1 issue, Crew says. Other efforts help in developing a technically savvy workforce.
Tucker officially retired in 2003, although he remained NAC’s general secretary until 2015. In 2003, UT made him the Joe C. Walter Jr. Chair Emeritus.
“I would get a program started, stay with it for a generation or so until I was no longer needed, then drop out,” Tucker says. “I wouldn’t call myself an activist, but if someone came up with an idea, I usually could figure out how to implement it.”