If a company is looking to affect change in the AEC industry, where does it start? Artificial intelligence and machine learning are sexy (in a nerdy kind of way), but practical application is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak.
That intersection is where Dareen Salama, director of technical services at design and construction advisory firm Lehrer, LLC, found herself upon completing her Master of Science in Civil Engineering & Construction Management from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and entering the workforce. As the complexity of construction projects continues to grow due to advances in technology, Lehrer guides owners, developers and institutions through the process.
“I started here in New York and realized [there’s a] divide between what is possible in terms of technology and what is really implemented in the industry,” she recalled. “So, then I took a step back and said, ‘OK, so let’s keep machine learning and artificial intelligence on the side for now and kind of focus on the practical applications that are there.’”
The project controls specialist concentrated her work on project management systems, building information modeling, project control systems, and other facets of the design and construction process to help implement new technologies within an industry that traditionally has been sluggish to adopt them.
Reaping the benefits of efficiency
The shift was pivotal. As Salama built the case for BIM, it opened the door to participate in many significant infrastructure projects across the country, including LaGuardia Airport, where she guided the Port Authority in implementing BIM and cloud-based systems to modernize its processes. After landing at Lehrer last year, Salama discovered “the real strength lies with the [building] owners. The owners have that holistic view of the full life cycle,” she explained. “They would reap the benefits of efficiency through design, construction, and facility management and operation. So that’s what Lehrer focuses on,” she said.
Lehrer’s primary function is to advise clients engaged in major construction projects, but the firm’s view of a project doesn’t just begin with design and end with TCO or construction completion, however. “Aiding in delivering a beautifully-designed project within budget and schedule is a given—we are thinking beyond that, thinking about the end user, whether it is the person using the building as a resident, or the person running the building as the operator,” said Elissa Conners, marketing manager at Lehrer. “And that’s really where the data piece of leveraging the efficiency that is slowly but surely becoming mainstream in the industry in design and construction [comes in] and utilizing it to help optimize facilities, operations and maintenance when running the building.”
Salama is currently involved in one of New York City’s major infrastructure upgrade projects at the Jacob K. Javits Center expansion, focusing on design, construction, and facility management to realize efficiencies through technology and innovation. Implementing technology in projects like the Javits Center and across the industry boils down to three things: technology, people, and process. “I think the industry is really facing challenges with all of that,” she noted.
While many may argue technology has “arrived,” Salama disagrees as far as the AEC industry is concerned. “The technology is out there in terms of concepts and algorithms and platforms that we use in anything else but construction,” she observed. While the industry continues to lag behind consumer electronics, for example, Salama sees growing interest from investors in startups that have emerged in the industry during the past year.
Cultural, process challenges are significant
The people variable presents an even more significant barrier to progress, not only from a hierarchical or cultural standpoint, but also in terms of attracting talent. Salama explains how on any given project, there may be 60 to 70 different companies involved, from the owner to the consultants and the subcontractors. As a result, “it’s quite difficult to change the culture throughout all these different companies and try to figure out technology that works for all of them given the duration that you have.” She notes that during the course of a three-year project, a third of that time may be spent attempting to get people on board with process and technology modifications. Additionally, she said, it’s rare to see young talent coming from computer science schools entering the AEC field. “It’s just not the go-to industry for top talent. They would definitely go in other directions,” she explained, adding that if technology graduates better understood the opportunity, the industry would be well-poised to attract them.
Finally, altering construction practices requires much more than a surface-level application of new technologies—yet attempting to automate old processes is commonplace. Existing document standards, contracts, and specifications that function in the world of hard copies and standard contract delivery methods simply doesn’t translate well into cloud-based systems, BIM, and mobile apps, she noted.
“It’s not an easy fix of, ‘Let’s just apply technology; let’s just buy this piece of software,’ which people are frankly looking for,” she said. “It’s not really about what you buy, but it has to be embedded in everything that you do: your people, your process, and then at the end, what you buy fits that world.”