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Engineering buildings for the future

The "built" environment ­ the office buildings where we work, the houses where we live, the factories that manufacture our goods, the malls where we shop ­ is on the threshold of dramatic change, driven by advances in digital computer and communication technologies.

"I don't like to use cliché words like revolution," says Hans C. Bjornsson, the new director of Stanford's Center for Integrated Facilities Engineering (CIFE), a world leader in the application of information technologies to the construction industry. "But, in a way, it really is a revolution."

Until very recently the construction industry has been relatively untouched by these new technologies. "There is still the environment that we had 50 years ago: drawings and information on paper," Bjornsson says. Experts have been predicting for 20 years that digital technology will begin penetrating the building trades, but "only now has it reached the stage that we can actually do the things that people have been predicting. The industry has begun awakening to the tremendous potential of this new technology, [partly] because of things that have been done at CIFE," he says.

According to Bjornsson, not only will the convergence of computer, telephone and television change the way that buildings are designed and constructed ­ potentially reducing costs by an estimated 10 to 30 percent ­ but it will also change what people do inside them.

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For the last 200 years the basic construction paradigm has been the factory, which was created to allow large numbers of people to work together to make complicated products. "That paradigm has been applied not only to the workplace, but also to homes, schools and most other types of buildings," he says. Thus, our industrial society has created high-rise apartment buildings as human warehouses that allow large numbers of people to live near their workplace. Even the interior design of our homes has been influenced: Much like factories they have been subdivided into a series of special purpose rooms ­ kitchen, dining room, living room, television room, sewing room, bedroom.

"Now that paradigm is changing," Bjornsson says. With the rise of virtual organizations, physical proximity is becoming less and less essential. As a result, "the big research question today is, What kind of building will we be building in the next century?" He suggests that the new paradigm might be meeting places. "After all, the web is an electronic meeting place, but we will need physical meeting places as well."

Bjornsson took the reins of CIFE in January. He came from Sweden, where he was the dean of the School of Technology Management and Economics at Chalmers University of Technology and a professor of construction systems management.

World leader in applying computer science to construction

"CIFE has become recognized around the world as a leader in the application of information technology in the construction industry," says James Gibbons, who was dean of Stanford's School of Engineering when the center was established in 1988 and gave it his backing.

The new director concurs. In fact, "the biggest cultural shock that I have experienced since coming here is the interest from around the world. I get a great many ordinary mails, e-mails and telephone calls daily from people who want information about what we are doing," Bjornsson says.

With an annual budget of $700,000, the center is supported by contributions from member companies. These include large architecture and construction companies including Bechtel, Fluor Daniel and Obayashi; large facility owners such as Union Carbide and Intel; computer software companies including Autodesk, Primavera and Visio; and information providers like the McGraw-Hill Construction Information Group.

In its first 10 years, CIFE concentrated on two basic areas: the development of computer tools to streamline and automate the design and construction process, and management methods that allow these tools to be put to use, according to its first director, Paul Teicholz, who retired in December.

An example of the tools that CIFE helped develop is 4-D CAD, which extends standard, three-dimensional computer-aided design models of structures into the fourth dimension, time. Developed by Stanford civil engineers Martin Fischer and John Kunz, collaborating with computer scientist Terry Winograd, this method allows engineers to create a series of 3-D models picturing a building at different points in the construction process. It allows managers to coordinate construction activities with a much higher level of precision than is possible with paper-based tools. The technique was successfully tested with a CIFE member company, the Dillingham Construction Corp., in 1994 in the remodeling of a county health center in San Mateo, Calif.

4-D CAD and a number of the other tools developed by CIFE rely on object-oriented programming, an approach that allows users to create software representations of different objects and attach information to them. In the construction field, this process allows CAD models to carry large amounts of information. For example, by clicking on the representation of a steel beam in a building, a user can get information about the source of the beam, what it is made from, where it was purchased, how much it cost, and why the architect used it in the design.

Overcoming industry's resistance to new technology

In many ways, developing these tools is the easy part of the process. The difficult part is getting the highly fragmented industry to use them, Teicholz says. There are some 350,000 contractors in the United States alone. Many of these are two- or three-person companies that don't have the inclination, time or resources to learn expensive, high-tech approaches even if they could improve the bottom line.

Even on larger projects, the traditional competitive bidding process in which each building is constructed by a different group of consultants, in most cases the lowest bidders, is highly resistant to change. In the electronics industry, companies like Hewlett-Packard can model the entire process involved in making a device and insist that their subcontractors subscribe to their system. "The subcontractors will go along with them because they know HP will be around next year, but in the construction business no one has that much clout," Teicholz says.

Over the past decade the building industry gradually has been shifting to an alternative approach to construction called design-build that relies on new information technology. In design-build, a single contractor has overall responsibility for designing, engineering and constructing a building. CIFE has promoted the new approach by performing a number of different studies that have documented design-build's advantages over the traditional approach, Teicholz says. In the last 10 years the proportion of new buildings constructed using this approach has grown from about 3 percent to 30 percent. The approach has become so popular that McGraw-Hill just started a new trade magazine devoted to it.

Collaboration between civil engineers, computer scientists

According to Raymond E. Levitt, professor of civil engineering and the center's associate director since its founding, one of the secrets of CIFE's success has been that "instead of trying to do this ourselves, as amateurs, we have established collaborations with top computer scientists. A number of other places have taken the do-it-yourself approach."

In one such collaboration CIFE developed an improved method for routing pipes in industrial facilities. Engineers designing a processing plant frequently spend more than half their time routing pipes hither and yon. Working with computer science Professor Jean-Claude Latombe, CIFE researchers hit on an approach to automate this time-consuming task. They applied methods that Latombe developed to allow mobile robots to plan the path that they will take to routing pipes. As a result, two companies ­ Design Power Inc. and ASD Software Inc. ­ have incorporated this approach in commercial software being used by a number of industrial design and construction companies worldwide.

Similarly, the center midwifed the development of a system that allows a smarter approach to plant maintenance. The two traditional approaches to maintenance are to replace items periodically or to fix them when they break. CIFE researchers, working with computer scientist Barbara Hayes-Roth from Stanford's Knowledge Systems Laboratory, developed a new approach best described as fix-it-just-before-it-breaks. By modeling a facility and then monitoring its activity, the program calculates the best time to repair or replace different components. Intel has adopted some of the basic ideas from this approach and continues to explore its applicability in the company's semiconductor manufacturing plants.

Challenges for the next decade

"One of the things that we believe in very much is the use of the Internet and the World Wide Web," Bjornsson says. "It gives everyone common, easy access to anything."

Construction is a business that stands to benefit greatly from electronic commerce. More than two-thirds of the cost of a new building covers the expense of procured materials and services. Purchasing the right components at a reasonable price and arranging for them to be delivered at the proper time is a critical element in the construction process.

One project that connects the 3-D CAD model of a project with online vendor catalogs illustrates the potential of an automated equipment analysis and procurement process. When the engineer adds a pump of a certain type to a building model, the software automatically searches vendor catalogs on the Internet and identifies suitable vendors. The inquiry then triggers the vendor's pump selection software that examines the building model and performs its own analysis to determine the proper pump model. "The prospect of using electronic commerce to automate the dynamic, two-way exchange of technical information is a very exciting one," Bjornsson says.

Another project demonstrates how use of the web may be able to cut down the time it takes to get a building permit approved. The program can check a 3-D CAD model of a building over the Internet and make sure that it conforms to local building codes. The prototype checks a design for compliance with the disabled access code. Before it will work with other aspects of the building code, however, the code must be rewritten so that it is performance-based rather than rule-based. This should not be a major obstacle because the move to performance-based building codes is taking place worldwide.

"When you think of all the parties involved in a construction project ­ all the suppliers, architect-designers, specialty engineers and contractors ­ everybody could easily have access to the information that they need through the World Wide Web," Bjornsson says. "But for this to work we need standards. What is beautiful about the World Wide Web is that it tolerates a number of standards. It is a liberal system. But we still need some structure." He says that CIFE intends to play a prominent role in the development of the protocols, business standards and processes that are needed to link the construction industry electronically.

In another mid-course correction the center will put more emphasis on "soft" managerial and organizational issues. "That is something our member companies have been asking for. Although they are really enthusiastic about what we do, they also realize that there is a big gap between what we do and what they do. They would like to do what we do, but they don't know how. So we need to study barriers, motivations, economic justifications, educational aspects," Bjornsson says.

To further this goal, the new director hopes to establish closer ties with experts in the industrial engineering and engineering management department and the business and law schools ­ something to which the center has not devoted much effort in the past.

CIFE also intends to increase its educational efforts by working more closely with the Stanford Center for Professional Development and Stanford Online. With new equipment donated by Intel, the center is reorganizing its laboratory. It is creating a workshop that will allow the center to push more information about its activities to members and other interested parties over the web.

"This is the first time that distance learning techniques have been developed that may actually work in the construction industry," Bjornsson says. "Contractors need education delivered to their workplace, to their desks, so that they can get access to what they need just when they need it. Stanford Online is tailored perfectly for this application."

Levitt doesn't think that research centers of this type should be permanent. "But there is plenty for CIFE to do for the next 10 years," he says.


By David F. Salisbury

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