As part of long-range corporate planning, I’m looking at how high-tech information technologies such as computers, digital communications and the Internet will affect the construction industry. What do you foresee during the next decade? C.P., vice president
The effect of new technologies on the construction industry will be felt in both the way the industry works and the types of projects it undertakes. The information highway itself will create many construction jobs as a new infrastructure is built. Every home and office will need fiber- optic cables, necessitating the rewiring of houses, office buildings and public structures. But, despite information highway hype, it is not an unprecedented change, just the latest wave in an ocean of technology.
For example, an old house I once remodeled had been rewired every 20 years. Its original gas lighting had been replaced first by knob-and-tube wire, then by flexible armored cable, which I replaced with grounded wiring in rigid conduit. But that was 17 years ago, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the current owner rewires soon for “smart-house” appliances.
Smart buildings open doors
For most of the 20th century, architectural theorists used imagery from the Industrial Revolution to describe buildings as “machines for living.” The model for the new century seems to be buildings as information systems, structures with nervous systems to monitor building status, provide feedback and control building functions.
The new construction model that integrates information processing into building systems has the potential to affect every building product category. Smart-house wiring systems will automatically adjust heating and cooling, sound, lighting and appliances to meet changing occupancy conditions. Computerized door controls, already found in most hotels, will monitor and control security and occupancy. Structural systems will be wired to monitor structural integrity and respond dynamically to changing loads. Windows will change opacity to control privacy and light.
Emerging technologies will alter the demand for and design of many types of buildings. Hospitals will downsize as it becomes easier to monitor patients in their own homes from a central location. New communication channels will create demand for additional broadcast and recording facilities to feed a growing need for content. Some children may even attend school via the Internet, reducing the need for new school buildings. Retail facilities will be redefined: For example, when almost any book can be purchased online, physical bookstores are becoming recreational venues, complete with espresso bars and conversation opportunities.
Truths and consequences
It’s difficult to predict the consequences of new technologies. If you had asked 50 years ago about the impact of air conditioning, I might have predicted increased work for sheet metal contractors, but I may not have foreseen the shift of population to southern states or the rise in indoor sports facilities.
Just as air conditioning led to geographic shifts in construction activity, high-tech communications may also stimulate geographic moves. Predicting these shifts correctly could help you locate new production and distribution facilities.
New information technologies make it possible for individuals in far-flung locations to collaborate, away from centralized offices and urban congestion.
The international connection
Even today, a colleague in Los Angeles is working on the architectural design for a building in the Far East. The working drawings are produced in Central America, where wages are lower, and contract administration is in Taiwan, where the building will be constructed. Although my colleague relies on couriers to deliver much of the project documentation, a large amount of information is transmitted electronically among project team members.
Just as the fax machine and FedEx made it easier for design and construction firms to work with out-ofstate consultants and contractors, new technologies will continue to expand the geographic spread of project teams.
New alliances for a new age
For construction marketers, the challenge will be to develop new types of alliances with sales organizations and distributors around the world. These connections may come from export divisions with worldwide vision, cross-licensing structures in which identical products are manufactured in several countries, or other innovative ways to view multinational marketing.
While individuals and businesses will have increased location flexibility, I don’t expect to see large-scale flight from big cities. People congregate for many social and economic reasons other than the need to work in groups.
However, if the number of people working from home continues to grow, we’ll need to build additional neighborhood- based facilities like Kinkos and Starbucks to provide the physical resources and social interaction found in offices. By carefully assessing niche building markets, you may be able to identify new product needs, building types, geographic areas and customer opportunities.
Waking up to the digital age
While hardly a comprehensive view of the future, these predictions may stimulate ideas to include in your long-range planning. But to really anticipate the changes to be wrought by digital technologies you need to look over the horizon and watch developments in unrelated industries.
In the retail sector, stores transmit daily sales information so that manufacturers can adjust their production depending on what’s moving off the shelves. Supermarkets can electronically track individual shoppers’ purchases and target their buying patterns. Some of these new technologies may have useful implications for the construction industry. But don’t bet the store on a single technology; business survival favors those who diversify their options.
Keep technology in balance
Computers and the Internet are only tools, not ends in themselves. The adaptability and resourcefulness of your human resources remain critical to your firm’s success. Don’t lose focus on product value in your rush to embrace high tech. If you had just awakened from a 20-year sleep, you might be surprised by the proliferation of computers in architectural offices and laser levels on the jobsite, but you’d find that construction fundamentals haven’t changed significantly. The best forecast we have for what our industry will look like in the future is the way it looks today.
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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, Copyright © 1998