About 10 years ago, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Georgia Institute of Technology set out to form the Construction History Society of America (CHSA), modeled on a similar society in the United Kingdom. Until that time, research and inquiry into the history of the American construction industry had been as fragmented as the industry itself, with each segment pursuing its own field of interest. Now, we are able to pull together the various strands. Next month, the CHSA is hosting the Fifth International Congress on Construction History in Chicago on June 3-7.

BOWEN
Is this just an exercise in antiquarianism, or is there a useful purpose in understanding how our industry has developed over the centuries? The originators of CHSA believed in the need for a forum that embraces all the elements of planning, design, construction and operation so that comprehensive studies of the history of the evolution of all components of the built environment could be considered holistically.

We use history not to predict the future—a common misunderstanding—but to prepare for it and to learn how things change and, more particularly, what causes change.

Knowledge of this kind is especially helpful now, as the American construction industry goes through a period of significant transformation. However, we also study history for other purposes that are important for our self-esteem: to ensure that great deeds are not forgotten and to instill a sense of pride in the industry to which we belong. This endeavor is important today as we struggle to attract people to build their careers with us.

History yields many lessons, but the ones I like best come from a more personal interpretation, rather than the hard facts.

One lesson is that change in the industry happens slowly, at different rates and often reluctantly. For example, it was not until 1835 that steam power was applied to construction equipment—about 60 years after steam power was perfected by James Watt. We were slow to change to steel from cast and wrought iron for structural uses. Currently, we have been slow to adopt information technology.

Triggers for Change

Another lesson is that change does not happen unless our clientele either demands it or buys into it. After all, we are a service industry and not exactly in control of our destiny. So, for example, when the American industrial revolution began in earnest in the late 19th century, the buyers of design and construction services started to demand a fixed price in advance and a single contract, leading to the emergence of general contracting and, in 1918, the formation of the Associated General Contractors of America.

Similarly, 50 years ago, when our clients revolted against higher and higher prices and endless inefficiencies, many of them formed, in 1969, the Construction Users Anti-Inflation Roundtable to bring change.

Pressure from our clients for earlier completion—our clients have always believed we build too slowly—have lead to many innovations in project delivery. One logical and early industry response to the time, cost and efficiency challenge in the 1960s was to move all construction off-site and industrialize the industry. This tactic proved ineffective, and the effort has now moved to using industrial management and logistical techniques under the heading of "lean construction."

For generations, owners have insisted on seeking and awarding construction contracts to the low bidder, not always with a positive outcome. More recently, this approach has been challenged by the introduction into the selection process of quality factors.

Finally, there is much nostalgic speculation that, at some time in the past, there was a golden age when a mythical Master Builder existed. There never was such an age! Nonetheless, any study of our history leaves one with a sense of pride in the achievements—often under the most difficult of circumstances—of our predecessors.

The gathering in Chicago will be an opportunity for all those interested in every corner of construction to come together, celebrate our astounding history and, perhaps, learn a little about how it can inform the future. 

Brian Bowen is a professor of practice at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He can be reached at brian.bowen@coa.gatech.edu. Information about next month's Fifth International Congress on Construction History is available at www.5icch.org.