Jerry Laiserin, AIA

Jerry A. Laiserin, AIA

Interview with Jerry Laiserin . . .

on Managing Design and Construction on the Internet


Recently, Architect and Information Technology strategist Jerry A. Laiserin, AIA visited Philadelphia to talk about "Managing Design and Construction on The Internet," in a seminar sponsored jointly by AIA Philadelphia and the GBCA at the Montgomery County Fire Academy in Montgomery County, PA. He was interviewed for The Philadelphia Architect by George T. Manos, AIA.

GTM: What is Information Technology, and how is it differentiated from Computer Technology?

JAL: Information Technology, or IT, is more than just computers. It includes communications media, plus all of the policies, procedures, and personnel to use and manage computer and communications systems. IT is now the single largest industry sector in the US economy -- bigger than construction, food production, or automobile manufacturing.

GTM: Is managing design and construction on The Internet an example of the use of Information Technology?

JAL: IT is embedded in many industries, like processing and marketing food, or building and selling cars. The design and construction industry, or the building enterprise, has been a backwater of technology compared to other industries. The Internet is starting to change that.

GTM: How does using The Internet benefit the project over conventional procedures?

JAL: Internet technology combines computers and communications into low-cost, easy-to-use systems that are accessible to folks who are too busy to tinker with technology. This makes the Internet the perfect common denominator to replace some of the costly and time-consuming paper management processes that bury most construction projects.

GTM: Is there a commensurate benefit to the architect, the owner, and other team players?

JAL: A quick example: the 46-story building designed by Fox & Fowle Architects at 4 Times Square will be physically the last New York skyscraper of the 20th century; but in IT terms it is the first skyscraper of the 21st century. The steel shop drawings, if printed out, would have taken 10,000 sheets -- that's six sets of 10,000 sheets to be checked, redlined, resubmitted, etc. By transmitting and checking those drawings in electronic form the team saved thousands of dollars in repro and shipping costs, and shaved weeks off the critical path. Everybody wins through better coordination, faster turn-around, and lower cost.

GTM: How has the use of computers and use of The Internet affected fitness of design to task, project timetables, project costs, and relationships between the traditional Owner-Architect-Contractor triad?

JAL: Because the Internet merges computers and communications it is an inherently collaborative tool. In design, more stakeholders can have greater interactive input at earlier stages of the process, hopefully yielding better solutions. Streamlining the flow of project information saves time and improves coordination, so projects can get done faster and more cost-effectively. Owners, architects, and contractors can share one definitive set of project data, reducing the risk of adversarial situations that may arise from lost or misinterpreted information.

GTM: Is there Internet-ready software available for the A/E/C industry?

JAL: In one sense all Internet software is available for AEC use -- Web browsers, e-mail, and group discussion tools. Some of the generic tools happen to match AEC needs pretty closely, like the graphics viewers that allow you to manipulate CAD files over the Internet -- without having the CAD software on your computer. A few software vendors have developed AEC-specific tools for big collaborative functions like project management.

GTM: Are specialized skills needed for the architect, engineer, or builder to use it?

JAL: The most amazing thing about Internet technology is the balance between how easy it is to use and how powerful it can be when you use it. A perfect example is ModelServer Publisher from Bentley Systems, in Exton, not too far from here. Once this tool is installed the end user doesn't have to know about converting drawing formats, or publishing them especially for the Internet, or anything special at all. Just point at the drawing you want and it is literally served up and published directly to your browser software -- where you can pan, zoom, and redline without any specialized skills in CAD, computers, or communications.

GTM: When did you first perceive the benefit of applying this technology to the design and construction process?

JAL: I wish I could say I saw it from the get-go, but there were several stages. While in architecture school up the road at Princeton in the late 60s and early 70s I learned about the first university-based research into interactive graphics systems that came to be known as CAD. In the late 70s and early 80s I got involved in on-line communications -- including the system that became the Internet. From the mid-80s to the early-90s I was figuring out how to link CAD and project management systems over internal networks. So, when the technology of the World-Wide Web transformed the Internet into a tool for linking graphics-based communications across multiple networks, I was primed for it. Even then, I didn't really "get it" until 94-95, a full year or two into the Web revolution.

GTM: Can it be taken further?

JAL: We haven't even scratched the surface. Right now, if a project team needs to share a physical work space, someone -- usually the contractor -- sets up a job-site trailer. For the project team to share an electronic work space we set up the electronic equivalent of the job trailer -- a special Internet site called a Project-Specific Web-Site or an Extranet. We're replicating the physical process in an electronic medium, but we haven't really changed the process. The next real change will come when everybody is using Internet technology on their internal networks -- what are called Intranets. Then sharing electronic work space will mean linking these Intranets to create the electronic equivalent of the engineer having a seat in the contractor's office, and the client having a desk in the architect's office, etc. The entire nature of the collaborative process will be transformed.

GTM: Do you see this as drawing the A/E disciplines and the construction industry closer together as a working unit?

JAL: It is inevitable. On a typical project as much as one-quarter of the total delivery time and one-eighth of the total cost are consumed by redundant communications. If the construction industry accounts for $300-400-billion of GNP per year, that one-eighth share is $40-50-billion annually. Today's best designers, constructors, and owners are too smart to leave that kind of money on the table.

GTM: Has the profession taken advantage of the potential the technology offers?

JAL: I wish my fellow architects were more aggressive about technology. It is not technology for technology's sake, but for the sake of information. In my first job out of grad school twenty-five years ago I was clerk-of-the-works on a value-engineered, fast-tracked, construction-managed project. I learned first-hand that whoever controls the information controls the project. Architects should forget their fears of information as risk and remember instead that knowledge is power.

GTM: What about the other actors in the building chain . . . the vendors, the insurers, the financiers? Where do they fit into this technology? Are they ready to join a project team?

JAL: The people who fund construction benefit from a streamlined process because it is more cost-effective. Their money, like all capital, will migrate to the markets and players with the greatest return on investment. The designers, builders, and building-product vendors with the best technology will capture the lion's share of that investment. Everything from mortgages and construction loans to performance and completion bonds is coming on-line.

GTM: Over what period of time can a technology such as the one we are discussing be expected to be productive, before it is replaced by something better?

JAL: Technology generations last about eighteen months. After two such generations today's technology will be "grandparent" technology. We tend to think of human grandparents and retirement from active work in roughly the same time frame. Thus, you might want to consider "retiring" a technology when it reaches the "grandparent" stage -- or about three years.

GTM: Is current computer and information technology beyond the reach of the small firm, or even the medium-size firm?

JAL: If anything, the opposite is true. In my research and consulting I see that the true total cost of IT is nearly 8-10% of net fees. That 8-10%, applied to, say, a 50-person firm, yields enough total dollars to pay for a full-time CAD/systems manager, a high-powered file server, software training, etc. -- things that the lesser total IT dollars in a 5, 12, or 20-person firm can't cover. Internet technology levels the playing field by providing affordable access to shared resources that let smaller firms compete with larger ones in areas like managing IT systems, accessing information, and learning to use new tools.

For example, right here in Philadelphia, Bill Fox at Temple University's Architecture Program has pioneered the use of the Internet as an affordable medium for learning to use 3D CAD technology and other tools. The point is that not only are such Internet-based tools well within the technical and financial reach of small and mid-size firms, but that smaller firms may actually reap proportionately greater benefit from technology than the largest practices.

GTM: Does the benefit of this technology extend beyond the immediate boundaries of the A/E/C disciplines to, say, zoning and building permit processes?

JAL: A typical facility passes through code-related procedures many times during its life. Code reviews and approvals are always on the critical path of any project schedule, yet this is the last non-electronic link. The potential benefits go beyond individual buildings. Linking design and facility information to geographical information systems (GIS) and urban simulation/modeling will produce significant returns for municipal finance, planning, policy, and administration. You can already see the beginnings of this process locally with the Model City Philadelphia project spearheaded by Mike Rosen, AIA.

GTM: Do you see Information Technology moving with the changes taking place in the A/E/C fields, or causing them?

JAL: IT is intertwined with so many parts of the economy and society that it's often hard to separate cause from effect. Those of us in AEC should remember, though, that our use of technology may not be a big enough factor to change the course of the entire IT industry. Rather, we should be alert to the IT trends at large, so we can adapt to changing client needs and adopt new tools that better serve our own evolving practices.

GTM: I take it you would recommend that practitioners immediately begin to explore the benefits of Internet technology.

JAL: I don't know any architects who haven't yet explored the benefits of telephone technology. The Internet is rapidly becoming the "new dial tone," the baseline for communication and collaboration. Architects, by the nature of their art, must be communicators and collaborators, so it seems to me natural they would wish to explore the benefits of any technology that promised to help them advance that art.


(c) 1997, Jerry A. Laiserin and George T. Manos. All rights reserved.
Jerry Laiserin is Managing Director of The Laiserin Group, a leading provider of research, analysis, education, and consulting to the A/E/C, F/M and R/E professions. He may be contacted on the Internet at jerry@laiserin.com.