Buiding Tall with Big Builders

One of the themes of my career has been to understand the economic forces that shape the building products industry and drive the investment in new building products and technologies. The fragmented nature of the construction industry means that most new products have to be launched slowly, making relatively modest investments to seed demand and then increasing capacity as more people embrace the new technology.

Yet there are also mechanisms that can justify large scale investments to launch major new building products fully formed. A major builder, for example, can through its support behind a new product by offering the prospect of big sales right out of the gate.

I thought of this while reading Building Tall: My Life and the Invention of Construction Management, the autobiography of John L. Tishman, published 2011 by The University of Michigan Press.

The author rose through the ranks of the Tishman family's real estate development business to head its construction division. Since the family built for its own portfolio, it had an incentive to make design and construction decisions based upon total cost of ownership instead of construction first costs, and to experiment with construction innovations that would be too risky for a bottom-line driven general contractor. When the construction division started offering its unique perspective as a professional service to other companies, it became an independent business - Tishman Construction - a pioneer in the field of construction management.

The author reminisces that,
 "I have become convinced that successful design and construction innovations could have been effectively conceived and tried out only by an 'owner/builder.' A general contractor cannot afford to make or even to suggest radical innovations because his job is simpy to execute from existing plans and not to deviate from them; neither can an owner/developer whose company does not closely and personally oversee the actual job site construction. Only those deeply involved in the design and construction aspects of the project, and who have the benefit - and the needs - of being the owner/builder, or acting on behalf of an owner/builder, can do so. The Tishman Company as owner/buider could accept the risk of experimenting with new processes and materials -- because we were in a position to to bear the costs if something went wrong and to reap the benefits if the new methods or materials worked well." (Page 37). 
To expedite innovations, the firm created the Tishman Research Corporation, which partnered with various industrial manufacturers and trade subcontractors to do research on materials and systems. "...we were able to induce materials manufacturers to become more innovative by holding out the certainty that if the new product was good enough, Tishman Realty would buy and use it in a real-life, million-square-foot office building. Knowing that the product could be sold in quantity was enough of an enticement for a materials company to make the costly decision to refit a production line so that it could turn out new configurations of flooring or ceiling modules or of exterior panels. Without such a promise of sales in the offing, a manufacturer would be reluctant to invest in revamping its tools and procedures to manufacture a new or radically different product." (page 38)

Among the building product innovations the author discusses are:
  • One of the first buildings with only self-service elevators: Not only was this bold from a property owner's perspective, but "we immediately realized that the elevator cabs, since there wold be no operator present, would be vulnerable to vandalism and graffiti. I helped to come up with an answer to that problem." (Page 33) The solution was to make the control panels accessible from the interior of the cab where they could be easily maintained instead of installing them on the outside of the cab. (Page 41)
  • Panelized facades: "I had been working with Alcoa, and we had come up with a way to use their aluminum for the facade instead of bricks or stone and mortar. To put on bricks and mortar was a process that often took weeks, Alcoa's aluminum facade for...a building of twenty-seven stories, with the aluminum wrapping around three sides, was going to be installed in just five days." (Page 33 and 42) The firm staged the speedy installation as a PR event. Later, Tishman worked with Alcoa to develop aluminum alloys for improved, more corrosion resistant anodized aluminum.
  •  Increasing the size of ceiling tiles to the now standard 2 x 4 foot module in order to get more efficiency from fluorescent lamps. (Page 39)
  • Concrete structures left exposed as the finished surface. (Page 47)
  • Encapsulating venetian blinds between two panes of glass to reduce maintenance costs. (Page 47)
  • With LOF, a new way to temper glass to reduce the breakage being experienced by glass spandrel panels. (Page 50)
  • With U.S. Gypsum, the now standard gypsum board shaft wall system that eliminated weight and saved time in the construction of elevator shafts. (Page 55)
  • Demountable partition systems. (Page 56).
  • A rationalization of hotel bathroom construction by using pre-fabricated components such as wall-to-wall vanities and a one-handle faucet instead of separate hot and cold knobs. (Page 57)
  • Motion-detector light switches to conserve energy. (Page 58)
There are other owner/builders that have had and continue to play similar roles in the construction product industry -- setting the standards for product performance and encouraging investment through their purchasing power. For example, McDonalds Corporation breathed life into the quarry tile industry by selecting it as its low-maintenance choice for flooring. More recently, WalMart has done the same with polished concrete floors.

Building Tall is a personal memoir and the author and co-author can be forgiven if they focus only on the Tishman's successes. It would be interesting to read a more in-depth probe into the dynamics between big builders and building product manufacturers. The World Trade Center illustrates, for example, both the positive and negative potential for a manufacturer working with a big builder.

Early in my career, I worked for Inryco, a metal panel manufacturer. Collaborating with Tishman -- the construction manager for the original WTC -- Inryco developed the long-span floor deck system that was used in the Twin Towers. The potential of an enormous order enabled Inryco to invest in the R&D, testing, and tooling for what became an important part of its product line.

More recently, I worked with Excend, a company funded by Hochtieff to commercialize an innovative type of micro-reinforced concrete. Excend believed their technology was a sure thing for use in the replacement WTC; it could produce stronger, lighter, and more blast resistant concrete than normally reinforced concrete. Moreover, Excend's parent company also owned Turner Construction, part of a joint venture with Tishman providing construction management services on the project.  After initial interest by the construction managers, however, Excend's technology was not accepted. Hochtief abandoned the venture despite (or because of) the significant investments it had already made.

The take away is that doing business with a big builder may be alluring, it is still business and not patronage. 

From the book publisher:
In this memoir, University of Michigan graduate John L. Tishman recounts the experiences and rationale that led him to create the entirely new profession now recognized and practiced as Construction Management. It evolved from his work as the construction leader of the "owner/builder" firm Tishman Realty & Construction, and his personal role as hands-on Construction Manager in the building of an astonishing array of some of the world's tallest and most complex projects.  These include
  • The world's first three 100-story towers—the original "twin towers" of the World Trade Center in Manhattan and the Hancock Tower in Chicago.              
  • The EPCOT Center at Disney World.
  • The Renaissance Center in Detroit.
  • New York's Madison Square Garden.
Tishman interweaves the stories behind the construction of these and many other important buildings and projects with personal reminiscences of his dealings with Henry Ford, Jr., Disney's Michael Eisner, casino magnate Steve Wynn, and many others into a practical history of the field of Construction Management, which he pioneered.

This book will be of interest not only to a general public intrigued by the stories and personalities behind many of the most iconic construction projects of the post–World War II period in the United States but to students of engineering and architecture and members of the new field of Construction Management.