What's Taking so Long?

Anybody who's ever had to deal with a remodel or roadwork knows that construction is slow, slow, slow. Of course, it wasn't always this way. The Empire State Building was built in 14 months and was under budget, the Pentagon was built in 16 months, the Hoover Dam took five years. So what the hell happened since then?

That was the topic of a lecture I attended today by Edd Gibson, ASU construction expert. He made several valuable points, which I would like to extend and speculate on, if I may. Gibson noted that there are several common threads to successful projects: strong leadership, a sense of urgency and purpose, intensive planning, excellent communication, and innovation. Additionally, many of these great projects either failed to turn a profit for years, or required significant renovations afterwards.

The second part of Gibson's talk focused on the difference between successful projects and failures. This is more subjective than one might think, success is matter of perception and matching prior expectations. However, you can reliably detect the difference between projects headed for success and failure, using the Project Definition Rating Index, a scorecard that measures how well the team understand their objectives, local context, and ability to work together.

Leadership and teamwork are important, but they're also largely intangible qualities (unless of course they aren't). What I want to know are the social and technical factors that have driven this slowdown. Gibson alluded to regulation as force that hinders rapid completion. While this point is not really contentious, it's also not something that I've seen conclusively proven. Are there specific regulations (worker safety, public input, material and architectural standards, inspections for various subsystems) that delay projects? It's easy to point to regulation as a vague bogeyman, but regulation also ensures that buildings are safe to use, and embody the virtue of clear planning which Gibson correctly places so highly.

When I first heard about this lecture, I assume that the problem was technology. Simply put, buildings are vastly more complex than they were 60 years ago. If the Empire State building were built today, it would be LEED certified, wi-fi enabled, ergonomic, subject to all sorts of review, etc. On the other hand, CAD makes design much easier than paper drafting, and logistics systems are much more efficient. Communication technology is better, but according to Gibson, there's no substitute for face to face, an opinion that I share. It's too easy to form a sham consensus in cyberspace.

What I fear is that the very mechanisms of public participation and input that I generally champion have in fact lead to the perennial inability to rapidly complete projects. Its too easy for last minute legal challenges to derail a major project. Technology might also contribute, the very protean ease of technology to improvise might hinder proper planning (this is certainly the case with my weekends). We might just have to accept that the great works of the mid-20th century were an industrial anomaly. But hopefully, their 21st century equivalents will be more durable.


  1. I assume a hackerspaces exists that specialize in architecture and alternate approaches to construction.

    Though I'm sure legal and public pressures do have a huge part in hindering large scale construction projects, I think the dawn of cyberspace may have create an alternate outlet for creativity on a grand scale.

    Why spend billions creating a building that can be used by a small group of people when you can create a website or service that can be used by anyone? Especially as websites being to resemble constructed space that we can physically navigate through. The text based websites of the 90s and virtual universe such as Second Life and WOW may eventually converge. Maybe the next Empire state will be the next level of social networking.

  2. Hardware vs software is one thing to consider. Think about say, Microsoft Windows instantiated as a physical object. It'd be something like the great pyramid of Giza, made entirely of Swiss watch parts. I think that no only have the tools for software creation gotten more accessible, but the fundamental knowledge is stronger. Gibson talked about how we were losing institutional expertise as old engineers retired and were not replaced. It may be that the people would would replace them are going into software, rather than architecture or civil engineering.

    ((Now think of Linux, same thing but volunteer created))

  3. And in related news: http://singularityhub.com/2011/01/25/china-erects-15-story-hotel-in-less-than-6-days-video/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+SingularityHub+(Singularity+Hub)&utm_content=Google+Reader

    Okay, the Chinese cheated a little with the foundation, but prefab (and brutal repression of democracy) might be the way to go.