Smarter construction, but how?

A discussion with Alexander Rieck, Founder, LAVA Stuttgart and Robert Farthmann, Partner, Staufen AG. Questions were asked by Andreas Pfetsch, Managing Director, ap35 gmbh.

Do cities today need to be developed according to a large, digital master plan to make them more efficient, connected and sustainable? 

Rieck: The topic of smart cities is what concerns us the most in urban planning today. Cities are the platform of our society, where everything is moving and constantly evolving. Here, the most modern technologies in the fields of energy, mobility, administration and communication are networked with each other, also in order to more responsibly manage resources in the future. However, there is still no master plan on how to intelligently adapt architecture to new challenges with regards to urban development, especially when the majority of the city has already been built.

Farthmann: The term master plan implies that somebody knows what exactly the result is supposed to look like in the end. Large construction projects, however, are characterized by increasing complexity. Our job is to take hold of reality. For example, to ensure Lean processes and a more holistic orientation on results. That requires new ways of thinking, more team spirit and more leadership.

Both architectural firm LAVA and Staufen AG have projects in Riyadh. What has been your experience in one of the largest cities in Saudi Arabia?

Rieck: We have much greater freedom in Saudi Arabia. Society there is younger and therefore much more open to digital processes and technologies. They see progress as an opportunity. You encounter curious and extremely motivated people in projects there. This makes it easier for us as a planner to come up with ideas that change entire process chains.

Mr. Farthmann, what has your experience been on the ground at the center of a major construction site?

Farthmann: The new subway in Riyadh is one of the largest infrastructure projects in the world. There are more than 350 project managers that work in the project organization. And we, the consultants, are there to improve coordination of the cooperation. Also by improving managers’ leadership performance.

Mr. Rieck, can a targeted frontloading process at the beginning of the planning phase ensure greater transparency in the project process?

Rieck: We try to take production into consideration very early on. That means potential manufacturers and manufacturing processes are incorporated in the planning. To realistically animate the design as well as technical scenarios, we utilize the latest technologies, such as virtual reality, with the help of the Fraunhofer Institute.

Can you get a better grip on largescale construction sites using Lean management?

Farthmann: On big construction sites, problems arise right from the start of a project. And they get bigger and bigger throughout the process. Robust methods that ensure orderly and goal-oriented collaboration are missing. We use our processes to improve communication among all those involved. We also coach and train executives at the planning and execution levels.

The construction industry is booming. Nevertheless, there is not enough affordable housing. What must happen for needs-based, faster, and more cost-effective construction to take place?

Rieck: When it comes to housing, we need a different approach. If the actual end product were the main focus, i.e., the best possible quality at the best possible price, then we would probably have long since moved on from a craft oriented, fragmented coordination and processing procedure to a partially automated manufacturing process. This is the norm in other industries.

What can the construction industry learn from other industries?

Rieck: You can find excellent people in all functional areas of the industry. They have bundled their knowledge and continuously improved processes from the very first sketch to the final product. Always keeping the customers and their needs in mind. The construction industry needs to urgently transform itself and network with other industries. For example, if our construction industry worked more closely with mechanical engineering in Germany, then we would quickly see a completely new construction culture emerge. Here, we need to stop filling gaps and instead ensure a snug fit right from the start.

Farthmann: Mechanical engineers can learn from car manufacturers, who can learn from aircraft manufacturers, who in turn can also learn from mechanical engineers. Everyone wants to learn from each other, because they have to. The international competition is merciless and the pressure to innovate extreme. In other industries you have to be smarter, more agile and more adaptable. There is a lot to do, even for consultants like us. 

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