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| 4 minutes read

Do Modern Trends in Construction Reflect New Ideas or Old Ways?

For centuries, wise men have claimed history repeats itself. They claim the more things change - the more things stay the same. And the construction industry is not exempt from the time-honored principle of “historic recurrence”.

Many of the modern trends introduced into mainstream commercial construction (a/k/a design-bid-build marketplace) simply reintroduce and rebrand building concepts from the past. At their core – Program Management (PM), Construction Management- Agency (CMA), Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), Building Information Modeling (BIM), LEAN Construction (LEAN), Computer-aided Design (CAD) and Design Assist (DA) simply interject builders back into the design process. In one way or another, each of these collaborative methods forces builders and designers to interact and communicate early and often throughout the life of a construction project. While the names and acronyms associated with these collaborative methods may be new, the core underlying concepts were originated by master builders many millenniums ago.

For nearly 5,000 years, master builders were responsible for our entire built environment. A single individual, or several if construction lasted more than a lifetime, accepted responsibility for the design and construction of every major structure from start to finish. Master builders were responsible for Egypt’s Great Pyramids (2560 BC) China’s Great Wall (700 BC), Athens’s Acropolis (447 BC), Rome’s Coliseum (80 AD), India’s Taj Mahal (1643 AD), Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle (1869 AD), Manhattan’s Brooklyn Bridge (1883 AD), Paris’s Eiffel Tower (1887 AD) and almost every other major structure constructed up through the late 1800’s.

Many of the structures erected during ancient times were designed through trial and error. Structures were built – suffered a partial or total collapse – and were built again until the master builder got it right. Up until approximately 100 years ago, safety and labor costs were seldom a major concern. The vast majority of our ancient built environment was erected by slaves, indentured servants, conquered peoples, armies, or a grossly underpaid work force. While failure could mean death, exile or financial ruin for the master builder, the risks were understood and accepted. When master builders ruled the industry, collaboration was never a problem since designer and builder shared the same brain.

The tail end of the industrial revolution (late 1800’s) marked the demise of the master builder in much, but not all, of the commercial construction marketplace. Construction and design got a divorce. Design was performed by one entity, construction by another, giving rise to what became known as the design-bid-build method. Multiple reasons have been offered for the birth and rapid spread of the of this new design-bid-build methodology. Reasons include the adoption of published building codes (1875), the rise of trade unions (1886), requirements for P&P bonds upon government projects (1893), licensing statutes for architects (1897), licensing statutes for the trades (1900’s), creation of the AIA documents (1908), not to mention the growing complexity of multi-story commercial buildings framed using structural steel.

For nearly a century, throughout most of the 1900’s, the design-bid-build method dominated the private and public marketplace for construction. Owners hired architects to design buildings and builders to construct buildings based upon the architects’ design. Owners stood in the middle between the two. Everyone appeared happy. Owners touted the new methodology as giving them more control over design. Architects saw the methodology as giving them more autonomy, both artistically and financially. Builders used the methodology to become managers, who no longer self-performed, but rather hired subcontractors to perform all trades.

This new methodology appeared to work well – at least for about 100 years. But things changed as society became more litigious. Disputes became more frequent and lawsuits more common. The design-bid-build system developed cracks and began to draw criticism from all sides. At the close of the 1900's, multiple collaborative methods began to appear, known by acronyms and purporting to introduce new concepts and ideas. These new trends did nothing more than force builders and designers to interact and communicate early and often throughout the life of a construction project.

A modified form of the master builder began to reappear in the commercial construction industry, re-branded as design builders. Once again, multiple reasons have been offered for the rebirth of this new brand of master builder. Reasons included growing tensions in the tri-party relationship, including claims against owners by builders for design defects, claims against owners by designers for additional services, lack of clarity between design and construction defects, contractual limitations of liability for designers, the rise of implied warranties, and multi-party lawsuits involving owners, builders, designers, and subcontractors, to name a few.  A re-branding of the master builder in the form of a design builder offered solutions to these emerging problems. Once again, a return to old ways, seemed to solve new problems in modern times.

The goals of these new forms of master builders remained the same, to merge design with construction under a single point of accountability and control. However, the new design builders differ from the old master builders in several material respects. A design builder consists of multi-disciplinary teams, as opposed to a single individual. The design team may consist of professionals directly employed by the design builder, or may be comprised of third-party firms subcontracting with the design builder. The result is the owner has a single contract and single point of responsibility, and accountability directly with a single design builder. The re-emergence of master builders, now rebranded as "design builders" responsible for both design and construction is a natural regression.  After all, "less is often more", especially when "2 cooks in the kitchen can spoil the broth".

So the next time you hear of a trend, acronym, or new idea relating to the construction industry, ask yourself does it reflect "new ideas or old ways"?


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