The Rewards of Construction Writing

I like what I do.  Writing about construction materials is a quest.  I’m lucky to make my living dong something that’s a quest, because it keeps the work interesting.  And the quest is no minor thing: it’s the quest for the future.

One of the enduring constants of the construction industry is its resistance to change, due in large part to the high risks and liabilities attached to construction.  Designers and contractors are dis-incentivized by our system to try new or innovative techniques and materials: if anything goes wrong, the financial and career damage can be severe.  So there is a tendency to avoid anything new until the risk has been run and avoided by somebody else – that is, until it’s not new anymore.  If everyone follows that M.O., nothing can ever change or improve.

In other industries, a material or technique that costs less, is easier to use, and improves performance over the existing choices would be adopted quickly.  In construction, the rare material that meets those criteria still has a huge hurdle of credibility to overcome.  The spectre of failure, and the liabilities accompanying it, looms large.

It is, therefore, one of the prime missions of the construction journalism, not only to report on the arrival of new technologies and ideas, but to explain them.  A new technology’s potential for progress will only be realized if designers, contractors and owners are given the opportunity to understand current methods and the issues they raise, as well as how a new solution meets old needs in a better way.  Just giving a prose version of the sale pitch is not enough.  Simply explaining “what it does” is not enough. A real evaluation of a new option requires knowing “how it does it.”  Claims need proofs, and limitations need to be defined. The actors in the construction drama must develop confidence in anything new before they’ll leave the safety of the tried and true, and confidence comes only from knowledge and understanding.

Many of the most progressive strides in construction today are towards sustainable methods and materials.  An honest discussion of sustainability often entails demystifying science that’s well outside the immediate concerns of the industry.  It sometimes means unraveling popular misconceptions.  It means avoiding greenwashing, and sometimes calling out greenwashing that’s being done in that area of business.  One of the welcome aspects of writing about sustainable technologies is repeated discovery that the aspects that make them sustainable are frequently the same aspects that make them more affordable or higher-performing.

If, and only if, we explain new ideas accurately and comprehensively, they can be evaluated on their merits and not on the basis of ignorance and fear.

One of the services that construction journalism provides to the design community is a better understanding of conditions and practices on the jobsite.  Case Studies become a conduit for sharing lessons learned.  By closing the gap between studio and field, between theory and practice, we may be helping reduce the frictions and misunderstandings that make construction more difficult and risky. We like to think that spreading knowledge of what is being done, and what can be done, across the construction industry helps make it more of a community.