Timing is everything. How fortunate that my recent trip to Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering neatly preceded ENR’s annual Education Report. I was honored to be invited by Prof. Jesús de la Garza to give the 12th Vecellio Distinguished Lecture in Blacksburg, Va., on Oct. 5, and I was able to interview students and faculty for this week’s cover story—the Raise the Bar initiative—while I was there. Debra Rubin, editor-at-large for business, developed the multipage package of education stories.

Vecellio Group Inc., West Palm Beach, Fla., ranked 179 this year on ENR’s Top 400 Contractors, endowed a construction engineering and management program at Virginia Tech in 2001. In addition, the gift includes support for scholarships, fellowships and the lecture series. Previous speakers include many industry leaders you have read about in the pages of ENR, such as Ted Kennedy, chairman of BE&K, Linda Figg, CEO of  Figg Engineering Group, and John Hillman, president of HC Bridge Co. and the 2010 ENR Award of Excellence winner.

My topic was “Five Critical Issues and Five Good Ideas for the Next Ten Years of Construction.” It was hard to pick just five critical issues because the industry is wrestling with so many. But I looked for issues that could be paired with good ideas. Between the critical issues and the good ideas, I showed a video on YouTube called “Where Do Good Ideas Come From,” by Stephen Johnson, the author of seven books on the intersection of science, technology and personal experience.

Read on for the lecture and a link to the video:

Thanks so much Prof. de la Garza, for that kind introduction. I’m delighted to be here today to talk to students, faculty and construction professionals. I’m truly honored to present the 12th Vecellio Distinguished Lecture—and quite amazed to follow in the footsteps of so many wonderful speakers—and good friends like Hans Van Winkle, Linda Figg, John Hillman—and others. My thanks to those involved in the invitation and to the Vecellio family for making this event possible. Vecellio Group is well known to ENR, of course, ranking 179 on this year’s Top 400 Contractors list. What a wonderful way they have chosen to give back to the industry and the public.

I chose the topic:  “Five Critical Issues and Five Good Ideas for the Next 10 Years of Construction.” My “idea” … but it was actually quite challenging to choose just five critical issues facing the construction industry because it faces lots of issues! In part, I made the selection because I want to pair critical issues with good ideas that can help us make progress. I picked a 10-year time span because that’s when the students in the room today will be in responsible roles of all kinds at engineering and construction firms around the country. Engineers have a big role to play in so many of the world’s critical issues! Your ideas can and will make a difference in how the future unfolds.

I’ll start with the issues—and before the good ideas, I’ll show  a short video that fascinates me about where good ideas come from. It’s on YouTube, and I’ll give you the link so you can watch it again (see below). For a peek forward, the good ideas include an ENR Award of Excellence winner who says he achieved success by following in the footsteps of Star Trek’s Capt. Kirk and Prof. de la Garza’s idea for a science fiction short story!

 But first… here are the issues that bubbled up to the top of my list.

            1) The infrastructure of the U.S. is aging and ailing—from transportation to water to the power grid, and the country is struggling to find the political will to change the slide toward deterioration.

At a major international conference recently a world leader made an important address. He said:

            “Infrastructure is essential for achieving economic and social development…[it] is key to promoting recovery and achieving … growth.  We need to create a fair, transparent, and efficient … environment for strengthening infrastructure development and leverage the role of infrastructure in … creating jobs and improving people’s livelihood.”

The leader who spoke with such passion about infrastructure was not from the U.S. or any other western nation. It was Hu Jintao, president of the People’s Republic of China…in Vladivostok at the APEC Summit on Sept. 8.

Back in the U.S. on the other hand…

•As domestic natural-gas and crude-oil production increases, experts in energy transmission are worried about meeting the demand for up to 2,000 miles of new pipeline over the next 25 years—and whether the pressure to expand so quickly can be met safely.

•A wastewater treatment plant in Pima County, Arizona, was releasing effluent with nitrogen levels well above the level considered harmful for children and elderly residents. To prevent the effluent from reaching aquifers that lead to drinking water, the county faces a $720-million upgrade.

•When state inspectors decided that the Champlain Bridge was beyond repair, residents of Crown Point, N.Y., and Chimney Point, Vermont, faced an 85-mile drive to get from one city to the other.

These are all examples of stories ENR has told this year as we explored what’s critical about the country’s aging infrastructure and what we can do about it.

blog post photo
(Photos courtesy of ASCE)

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ report card gives the country’s infrastructure an overall average grade of “D” and estimates it would take $2.3 trillion to raise the level to good condition. The society’s “Failure to Act” series of economic studies details the consequences of current investment trends. In the surface transportation report, for example, the study finds that deteriorating infrastructure will cost the American economy more than 876,000 jobs, and suppress the growth of the Gross Domestic Product by $897 billion. Despite passage this year of a long-awaited highway-and-transit bill—the stalemate in Congress has left us making little progress.

2) Construction jobs of the future will be ever more global. Think broadly about how global forces will affect where you work, where the materials or the funding for your projects will come from—even who will own your company.

Some say construction is a fundamentally local enterprise because the bricks and mortar, concrete, steel and glass must be built in one place. I propose that it is “glocal”—built in one locality, of course, but ever more shaped by global ideas, technologies, firms, materials, products and funding.

More and more of the large design firms and contractors make money outside their home country. The Top 200 design firms ranked by ENR saw a 13% revenue increase in 2011 to $65 billion from projects outside their home countries. The past year also showed continuing cross-border mergers. U.K.-based Halcrow Group now has an American parent— CH2M Hill. Canada’s Genivar, which had only a modest international presence, acquired the U.K.’s WSP Group, which in turn owns two U.S. consultants.  The connections get more tangled and universal year by year.

On the contractor side, the international market also showed surprising strength in ENR’s 2011 ranking. After being flat for two years, last year the Top 225 generated $453 billion from projects outside their home countries, up a healthy 18%. Again—significant activity in international acquisitions. Spain’s Grupo ACS effectively took over the German giant Hochtief, achieving majority ownership despite a strong fight. Because Hochtief owns Turner Construction (#4 on the Top 400)—the U.S. titan now has a Spanish parent.

Manufacturing globalization is driving construction globalization. U.S. manufacturers have taken U.S. firms abroad with them—and the reverse—international manufacturers bring their engineers and contractors to the states to work on projects (called “onshoring”). A recent special report in The Economist says manufacturers continue to be “on the move in search of lower-cost labor—and that includes back to the U.S. in some cases.” The movement generates construction activity as firms follow clients to new locations. The report on manufacturing and innovation, says: “Unless some way of making shoes and clothing without manual labor emerges (which, it suggests, is entirely possible),” these businesses who first moved to China, then to Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam will move again in the future. (TE 4/21/12 p. 8). The U.S. already is making a comeback as cheap natural gas and a skilled work force out of work make some locations attractive.  Called “reshoring,” the trend to build in the U.S. is driving demand for design and construction services here.

3. Meeting the needs of a power-hungry world will take increasing amounts of energy in the future.

You may have seen an episode of the new TV fantasy-drama called “Revolution.” It’s about a future earth where all electric power has been mysteriously wiped out (possibly by some human force). Car engines don’t work, computers don’t work, turbine generators, hydropower…all dead. The only hint of a premise for this disruption of the laws of physics is something to do with a jump drive hidden in a medallion. As I said, probably fantasy rather than science fiction. But improbable as it is—it’s not a happy thought: no lights at the flick of a switch or the wave of a hand. No chargers for the iPhones, iPads, laptops, or hair dryers. You wouldn’t have to carry as many cords and plugs with you when you travel—but you would be traveling on horseback!

Back in reality, we have an enormous number of different energy resources and alternatives—coal, oil, nuclear, gas, hydro, solar, tidal, wind, geothermal—I’m sure I left something out. And as the balance between those sectors changes the energy equation, it brings dramatic changes to what we design and construct.  

     In the 1980s, I attended an energy symposium that focused on the dwindling supplies of natural gas and the great need to conserve this clean-burning fuel. Forecasts at the time were that U.S. natural gas supplies could be exhausted in 20 years. Guess that says something about the accuracy of energy forecasting! Even in 2005, experts believed our natural gas supply had peaked in 2002 at 19.2 trillion cubic feet. That’s when the extraction method called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” received a boost by being exempted from the federal Safe Drinking Water, Clean Air and Clean Water acts, allowing states to regulate the procedure instead.  Producers poured into the nation’s shale plays seemingly overnight—particularly the 95,000 square mile Marcellus shale formation crossing six eastern states (notably Pennsylvania) and the 24,000-square-mile Bakken formation spanning North Dakota, Montana and Canada. North Dakota’s oil production has doubled in two years, making it second only to Texas. The missing ingredient?  The pipelines to carry that oil and gas to market. The result? An unprecedented boom in pipeline construction! (And, some say, a major threat to the nation’s groundwater…but… as ENR reports in a  cover story this week, engineers are working to develop more environmentally friendly  processes and best practices to drive fracking to safer ground.)

            Add in the lower demand in the U.S. due to the downturn and more efficient refinery operations and analysts at the U.S. Energy Administration and economists from Forbes and Wall Street Journal believe this year will be the first since 1949 that the U.S. has been a net exporter of oil-based products instead of a net importer. In the first nine months, we shipped out 753 million barrels of products from gasoline to jet fuel while importing 689 million barrels, says USEA.

            And if fracking could contribute to that dramatic a shift, imagine what could happen if researchers finally achieve an economically viable fusion reactor.         

          The first phase of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is under construction in Cadarache, France, and the A-E joint venture is trying to cope with a continuing flow of requirement changes from the multinational designers still working on the Tokomak reactor design itself. With backing from China, Russia, South Korea, India, the EU and the U.S., final cost is estimated at roughly $20 billion. The goal is to demonstrate that fusion power can work at a 500-MW scale.

Meanwhile in California earlier this year, laser fusion technology also took a step forward with positive results from a test at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that generated a pulse of peak power for slightly longer than a nanosecond. But moving from encouraging test results to a demonstration powerplant could be years away, especially because of likely federal budget cuts.

The physics of all this are way over my head and such a brief mention can only give a tiny hint at the complexity involved. And, of course, ALL methods of generating the energy we love to use have potential environmental side effects. (Aside: we can talk more about that if anyone want to bring it up in Q&A…) But getting back to the TV series…the alternative to developing energy resources is not a happy picture. Nice transition here to the fourth critical issue…sustainability.

4.  4. We have come to understand that the earth is a treasure that can be damaged by our negligence. Can sustainable practices in design and construction turn things around?

Sustainability is one of those things like art and...well…other things… where you have a hard time defining it, but you know it when you see it.

This graphic shows the twisting path from the first research about global warming by English engineer Guy Stewart Callendar in 1938 to the fourth global warming report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007, when ENR created this graphic for a cover story on the issue. Major milestones along the way:  The Clean Air Act in 1963, the Superfund Act in 1980, the launch of the LEED rating system by the U.S. Green Building Council, even…the Al Gore movie An Inconvenient Truth in 2006.

The critical issue in 2012 is are we doing the right things in design and construction to improve the picture. ENR Managing Senior Editor Richard Korman heard Peter Guthrie speak at the International Federation of Consulting Engineers conference in Seoul on Sept. 10th, and he blogged about how Guthrie, an engineering professor at Cambridge University, challenges the rating system mentality. Guthrie contends that true sustainability doesn’t come from chasing a rating after scope and siting decisions have already been made. He says it has to be more than “the telling of a palatable story.” Guthrie and his co-author propose instead a "nesting" system with six phases to work toward sustainability—concept, inherent, strategic, tactical, operational and end of life—where later decisions are made in the context of previous experience. Guthrie and FIDIC advocate for decision support tools, such as guidelines, assessment process options, weighting of factors, saying these are more valuable than ratings and calculators.

“There is a risk,” the report states,  “That stand-alone calculators, particularly ones recommended for compliance to regulatory requirements, may be treated as design tools in order to maximize the chances of compliance. This can severely undermine other important dimensions of quality design including true sustainability, aesthetics, comfort, usability and even constructability.”

 5. As the pace of technology advancement continues to accelerate, will anyone be able to keep up?

      OK I know that is hyperpole…I’m sure someone will keep up…but how about us mere mortals? We are in a whirlwind of CAD, BIM, GIS, APPs, 4D, 5D, laser scanning, collaborative tools, broadband, interoperability…make it all mobile..put it in the cloud…what will come next…and how soon?

            Brian David Johnson, Intel’s futurist tackled that question at ENR’s FutureTech conference in San Francisco in July. Intel needs a futurist because it has to figure out how people will interact with technology in the future to envision how its chips will be used.

Johnson showed this slide depicting the dramatic increases in chip performance and decreases in size of computers. He said, “If this slide gives you chills, you’re a geek,”  (explaining that the slide definitely gave him the chills and proclaiming himself a geek.) He said: If you don’t get chills, it’s OK…you will have a normal life…”

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(Illustration Courtesy of Intel)

Silicon engineers believe that by the time we get to 2020, the size of meaningful computational intelligence will approach zero. At that point, anything could incorporate a computer—eyeglasses, clothing, furniture. We’ll be living in “computationally rich” environments that will have a strong effect on what we build.

Johnson quoted Justin Rattner, Intel’s chief technology officer: “Science and technology have progressed to the point where what we do is only constrained by the limits of our imagination.” The idea is incredibly empowering. … If we can imagine it, we can build it. He asks…and I echo: “What is your vision? Where do you want your company to go? Where do you want the construction industry to go?”

 …and Five Good Ideas…

      Resolving complex issue like ones we are talking about takes good ideas. Along with more than 2 million other people on YouTube, I recently found a very cool short video by Steven Johnson, the author of seven books on the intersection of science, technology and personal experience. The video is based on his book… Where Do Good Ideas Come From?

 “It’s a book,” Johnson says on his website (stevenberlinjohnson.com) that tries to grapple with the question of why certain environments seem to be disproportionately skilled at generating and sharing good ideas. In other words, he says, “it’s a book, about the space of creativity.”

 Let’s take a look as his video on YouTube…



Here are some good ideas that can be applied in the five critical issue areas we just discussed:

1. Accelerated Bridge Construction

Here’s a good idea that has promise to make a difference in one specific slice of the overall infrastructure problem…but one that is very high profile…bridges. There are 72,000 structurally deficient bridges nationwide, 18,000 listed by FHWA as fracture-critical and 7,980 that are both.  The size of the problem is so monumental that large statewide programs are the only way to make even a dent in the problem.

This idea is called Accelerated Bridge Construction or ABC, and it’s an umbrella term for a collection of construction methods from simply prefabricating precast elements to build a bridge in place—to using self-propelled modular transporters to move a bridge from a construction site to its final alignment. In some cases, a bridge is built from prefab components beside the old one and moved into place in a single weekend. Add a dash of design-build project delivery, approach the problem statewide to produce economies of scale that keep costs in line—and voila…a recipe for success. Rapid installation helps win public support and defrays the huge toll on communities facing long construction programs.

The initiative is starting to have legs! ABC Implementation Groups have been formed in Michigan, California, Missouri, Vermont, Utah, Massachusetts, New York, Georgia and Maine—that I know of—to identify which bridges in those states can become part of the program.

•Some examples: In Massachusetts, construction crews demolished and replaced 14 bridges on I-93 north of Boston in 10 weekends--work that would have taken at least four years to complete using conventional methods.

•Missouri Safe and Sound completed 248 bridge repairs and 554 complete replacements over four years with projects being finished in 14 to 45 days. All beams were precast in standardized increments and could be redirected from one job to another if one was moving faster than the other.  Standard shop drawings could be checked in a day rather than a week.

And we can’t leave out the Poster Child—Utah. UDOT began using  ABC a decade ago and has constructed more than 200 bridge spans using its methods.

Best of all: The Strategic Highway Research Program—the sponsoring agency for ABC—has developed a toolkit with standard designs, construction standards and training tools to help the technique move into wide application.


2. Global work sharing

 We talked about offshoring, onshoring and reshoring…but I propose that the good idea is gobal worksharing. The photo below is of Virginia Tech’s own Prof. John Taylor’s work called CyberGRID on the cutting edge of global collaboration. He gave a symposium on it here on Wednesday. But global worksharing is already widely used. It requires upfront planning, early involvement of the worksharing offices, communication at all levels, and an appreciation of diversity and cultural differences, but it ….can…well…work… both to speed projects and to flatten engineering costs by deploying jobs to lower-cost offices. Like other areas, this “good idea”  has seen dramatic advances as enhanced computing power and data transmission have made it much more useful.

blog post photo              (Photo Courtesy of Prof. John Taylor, Virginia Tech)

Many of us are very familiar with long-distance communication—my daughter spent 18 months in Cambodia working on her dissertation research but she was able to show me around her new apartment in Phnom Penh via iChat. You get used to working around the time difference when you have either personal or business reasons to make it happen. Some also take advantage of the time difference to allow teams to pass work from one office to another, each deploying their  “A-Team” working during daylight hours. And the work shared may be among the many offices of one firm or among the many offices of joint venture partners—encouraging global collaboration among firms with special skills.

            Some examples:

•Engineers from Fluor posted an article describing a refinery upgrader project where the developer shared tasks among three design-engineers, an automation contractor, and the owner to design four plants for gasification and hydrocracking.

•MWH’s CEO told me he is able to compete effectively for global water projects because part of the work can be done in his 800-person office in Argentina.

•Hatch describes implementing a global document management system that consolidated 25 different systems across 80 Hatch offices to guarantee effective work sharing.

•A CH2MHill web post touts its state-of-the-art global engineering center in Gurgaon—a suburb of New Delhi. It uses collaboration and economies of scale to work projects 24/7 via worksharing in offices worldwide, sometimes cutting project schedules in half.

3. Helping the Grid “Get Smart”

This may date me, but I can’t use the phrase “Get Smart” without recalling the 1965 TV sitcom where Mel Brooks satirized secret agent films by inventing the bumbling character Maxwell Smart. (More of you may remember the Steve Carrell remake a few years ago.) What we all remember most is that Smart had a phone built into his shoe and had to take his shoe off every time he needed to take a call—a recurring gag. The comedy had all kinds of ultra-high-tech and often ridiculous gadgets, but in 1965, I certainly never expected 40 years later to be inextricable tethered to a mobile phone myself (although granted not in my shoe!)

            Now it’s the nation’s power grid that we are talking about transforming to the “smart grid.” How can it get smart? Think about computing before the development of the internet, worldwide web and the cloud. The nation’s electric transmission system similarly needs to get connected through smart meters inside homes and businesses that use digital technology to integrate grid information flows and new business processes.

In a book called Perfect Power, Robert Galvin, the retired chairman of Motorola, and Kurt Yeager, former president and CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute, explored the potential to build a system of smart and decentralized micro grids that will work together with bulk power producers to meet demands for digital age power by integrating an array of locally distributed power resources. The Smart Grid not only manages supply and demand of energy more effectively but also integrates lower-carbon sources of electricity. This sort of transformation will require major infrastructure investment but could also bring the nation’s aging transmission network into the 21st Century.

            Characteristics of the smart grid include fault detection and self-healing systems that reduce vulnerability and easier access to two-way energy flows so that small alternative power producers—schools, offices or even homes with photovoltaic arrays, for example—can either buy from or sell power to the grid as needed.

4.    4. Achieving net-zero the sustainable way.

In 2011, the winner of ENR’s Award of Excellence was the Dept. of Energy’s Jeffrey Baker—the man behind the new Research Support Facility at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.  The 220,000-sq-ft office building, packed with energy-efficient technologies, beats the national standard for energy consumption by 50%. It squeezes every possible Btu out of the building first and then adds just enough photovoltaics to allow it to become the world’s largest net zero energy use building. And during the project, Baker developed a replicable model for the design and construction of affordable, ultra-green buildings.

In the ENR story celebrating Baker’s achievement, Nadine Post, one of our lead technical writers told the story of how Baker used Star Trek’s Captain Kirk—particularly the episode about the Kobayashi Maru test—as a role model during his 15-year quest into uncharted sustainability space and past numerous setbacks.

 “As Baker tells it, Kirk failed the leadership training exercise twice as a cadet. He knew the test—a simulated rescue mission, was rigged for failure—so on his third try, he secretly reprogrammed the simulator to give him a shot at victory. When Kirk took the test, he managed to rescue the Kobayashi Maru, a distressed freighter stuck in the enemy’s neutral zone, and destroy all the enemy warships. He bent the rules, but he became the first cadet to pass the test, thanks to his determination and outside-the-box thinking. Like his fictional hero, Baker never gave up on his green-building odyssey. And when faced with no-win scenarios, he changed the rules of the game.”

The new facility will demonstrate green-building technologies, some developed at the lab, and it will be a living laboratory for the study of sustainable operations—part of the lab’s mission to research, develop, demonstrate and deploy renewable energy and energy-efficient technologies.

During construction, its building team developed a performance-based, design-build model for ultra-green office buildings that was a first for a government project and unusual even for the private sector—and then the lab produced a how-to manual to help others adapt the model. Good idea!

5.    The Tomorrow Project

Last but not least—back to Brian David Johnson and what we at ENR think is a good idea to explore the future of construction technology. Intel has an initiative that uses science fiction—stories based on future events and environments that are different from what we think of as “normal” today, but scientifically and logically possible—as a development tool to delve into the human implications of what we may build and how. The work, exploring our possible futures, is presented as “The Tomorrow Project,” an online conversation of science fiction. Its purpose, as Johnson describes it, is to “give people a way to talk about the future” through storytelling. The Tomorrow Project asks, “What kind of future do you want to live in? What future do you want to avoid?”

ENR plans to collaborate with Intel by contributing stories—possibly your stories—about the future of construction and its technologies. We just set up a landing page on ENR.com with examples of famous science fiction stories that have construction themes to help give you ideas. When I told Prof. de la Garza about this, he said perhaps engineers some day will have a computer chip in a tooth instead of a filling that will let them connect to plans for a job. He promises to send in a story about it! We plan to publish the best stories in a special issue of ENR next year and talk about them at our FutureTech conference in New York next November. Please help us imagine construction’s future!

            So these are my “hunches,” as Stephen Johnson would say, about good ideas for these challenges facing construction. But as he concludes: “Chance favors the connected mind.” It’s been great to be here and connect with you. Your ideas and your work have so much potential to improve the construction industry and the world. I look forward to hearing more about them.