Guest Commentary: With President Obama’s proposal for a new $100 billion infrastructure jobs package still on the table, there has never been a better time for our industry to talk seriously about how we build and design American infrastructure. And, with the U.S. currently ranked at 16th place in terms of global infrastructure – falling from a previous ranking of 6th – engineering and construction firms will be challenged to find new ways to better build or retrofit infrastructure when this new funding becomes available.

As we wait for the final infrastructure job bills, the question firms have to ask themselves is, “How can we not only position ourselves to bid on new infrastructure projects, but also execute the projects more effectively and sustainably in the long run?” While there is no easy answer, I assure you that throwing money at the problem certainly won’t be the way we revive infrastructure design and management. Instead, at its core, our country’s infrastructure challenges are as much about processes as they are about money. We need to take a hard look at these processes and leverage the advanced technologies available to improve design and construction efficiency, collaboration as well as project and information management.

This starts with rethinking how we approach industry roles in general. Responsibilities need to be re-defined at the highest levels, recognizing that the infrastructure eco-system is becoming more holistic. By changing our mindset, we will more effectively be able to integrate the workflows involved in the process of building and designing infrastructure, improve the quality of the projects we’re delivering, and ensure we’re creating iconic building and infrastructure that not only addresses our needs today but well into the future.

To do this properly, engineering and construction companies should take a close look at the following three areas, which badly need improvement.

1.    Review project technologies – are we using technology most efficiently and effectively?

With so many new building and engineering technologies on the market, firms simply can’t afford to ignore the very powerful tools at our disposable. Using the advanced Building Information Modeling (BIM) software programs on the market, companies can eliminate conflicts early – saving time and money on-site at a project. And, with many government agencies turning to standardized BIM requirements for projects, it’s important to be in front of these technology requirements now in order to even be up for consideration when bidding on infrastructure projects.

2.    Consider the concept of the “Master Builder”

BIM technologies, when used right, have so much potential to help construction firms adequately address the challenges of new infrastructure projects. However, when used incorrectly and without proper training, BIM can slow down a project life cycle and frustrate staff. Make sure you pair new technologies with dedicated training for team members so that as soon as you’ve signed an infrastructure contract, your team is ready to hit the ground running. With the right technology and training at all levels, this starts to move us closer towards an evolved version of the “Master Builder,” where essentially one team takes on the entire responsibility for managing the entire lifecycle of a project, from designing to building to maintaining it.

3.    Our industry must do a better job of collaboration, especially in sharing BIM models

According to a report from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the U.S. architecture, engineering and construction industry passes on $15.8 billion in costs associated with data interoperability. BIM technology, beyond increasing design and construction efficiency, can also make collaboration between other project partners easier by helping to eliminate the extra steps required to switch between 2D and 3D plans. And, don’t file away the BIM model when the project is complete: facilities managers and owner/operators can use the model for asset management to reduce the cost of upgrading or renovating infrastructure.

It’s clear that BIM technology holds significant potential for helping the construction industry eliminate costs, improve efficiencies and ultimately build better, stronger infrastructure. And increased national infrastructure spending comes not a moment too soon. In areas all over the U.S., cities and towns are struggling to keep up with infrastructure demands. In Houston alone, the Mayor reported a total of 700 water main breaks in a day alone. We have to hold ourselves to building these important systems, roads and buildings better. 

While the Federal government will do its part to provide the funding to overhaul infrastructure, our industry needs to rise to the occasion. I don’t think it’s necessarily about which political plan is better – both sides of the aisle see the importance of refreshing our nation’s infrastructure. But it will be impossible to overhaul America’s infrastructure using cumbersome processes and out of date technologies. Instead, we have the resources at our fingertips, and if we use them the right way we’ll be able to successfully deliver projects that are innovative, sustainable and can be maintained over the long-term.