Innovations Changing the Landscape of Construction
This article is included in the Great Things: Issue 9 edition of the DPR Newsletter.
In construction, innovation is often associated with the digitization of information or devices used in the field. At its core, innovation is about the combination of people, process and tools.
Inflationary pressures. Volatile costs. Labor shortages. Potential economic slowdown. If necessity is the mother of invention, the construction industry is amid a super-charged evolution—one that’s seen a dramatic increase in the last five years.
“It’s really become a different landscape,” said Cheri Hanes, head of construction innovation and sustainability at AXA XL. “Where innovation was a novelty or a nice to have, now it’s become a true opportunity.”
There’s been an explosion of investment. An estimated $50 billion was invested in AEC tech between 2020 and 2022, 85% higher than the previous three years according to McKinsey. With the pandemic exacerbating cracks in the supply chain, leaders in the building products sector have taken note. About 70% said they were planning to increase investment in innovation and R&D, according to another McKinsey report from last year.
Hanes acknowledges not every solution out there meets a need that people will feel in a tangible way, but those, she says, will come and go. It’s the innovations that tie back to indicators of project success—safety, quality, time, cost and performance—that can prove valuable over time.
“Innovation has become table stakes,” Hanes said. “I really think if firms are not actively looking to leverage tech and innovation right now, they’re leaving chips on the table. Innovation has the potential to improve safety, quality, management, documentation and sustainability.”
Learn about how through WND Ventures we are focused on changing the way the AEC industry builds with strategic investments in productivity, quality, safety, supply chain and sustainability.
With all the increased buzz and investment out in the market, discerning between shiny objects and real solutions requires money, expertise, discipline and a genuine connection to the field.
DPR founded its innovation team more than 10 years ago to nurture great ideas in the field and deliberately push the company’s core value of “Ever Forward.” Today, the company’s team of experts works across the business to foster advances in field innovation, robotics, internet-of-things and product incubation.
“From how we identify problems to solve, to our R&D program, to how we pilot new ideas and what we invest in, every part of our approach helps our employees drive toward more efficient construction practices,” said Tim Gaylord, who heads up DPR’s innovation team. “But we know we can’t do it alone. When we pair our people with the right partners who share common values, we have seen we can make amazing things happen.”
Since 2011, DPR has spent more than $15 million on piloting innovations in house, excluding investments in startups or partnerships. Additionally, the company engages dozens of startups a year and if/when they convert into deal flows, DPR’s venture capital arm, WND Ventures, comes into play. Since 2015, WND has invested nearly $9 million separately into 11 startups and two investment funds. Three ideas incubated through WND have spun out entities of their own, one of which was acquired by Autodesk.
“Our investment thesis of WND has always been to partner with industry entrepreneurs through strategic investments in productivity, quality, safety, supply chain and sustainability solutions,” said Kaushal Diwan, who leads WND Ventures strategic partnerships and investment efforts. “We’re establishing these partnerships as a way to promote the ideas and solutions we believe have the potential to change the way our industry builds.”
Beyond forging partnerships with external entities, DPR stays focused on identifying and cultivating innovative ideas in house. Central to that effort is providing two-way communication between innovation teams and the craft workforce.
“To innovate how we construct future projects, we need to first put ourselves in positions to hear the voices in the field,” said Tyler Williams, a former superintendent who now leads DPR’s innovation efforts centered on craft. “This idea may seem simple but to be successful, we need to build teams with individuals who have a myriad of skillsets and passion for what they do.”
DPR emphasizes problem identification as the first step to creating, developing, testing and leveraging solutions for our projects. The company tests and validates ideas at a small scale through pilots and evaluates results through lessons learned.
- Idea conception and validation
- Realizing something could be done better
- Affirm issue exists
- Prove a concept on small scale
- Define metrics to track progress
- Analyze results
- Determine scalability (if applicable)
- Create scalable models in other projects/regions
- Best Practices
- Align implementation on projects
- Recognize areas for improvement within implementation
Over the years, DPR has supported over 2,600 ideas—many of which focus on improving the quality of life for members of DPR’s 5,000-strong self-perform workers (SPW) in the skilled trades, along with its network of trade partners.
Pilots come from a mix of partnerships and home-grown ideas from the field. Those resulting from partnerships include Hilti’s Jaibot, a semi-automated tech that uses digital plans to help alleviate the strenuous task overhead drilling, and Dusty Robotics’ Field Printer, an automated layout robot that cuts down on schedule time and rework costs by leveraging BIM to produce full-floor layouts.
Internally developed solutions include the “Scotty Sleeve,” a temporary concrete sleeve that cuts down on post-pour finishing time, and have even extended to PPE. In 2019, a team of DPR women spearheaded the creation of an adjustable vest to suit different body types—an issue routinely cited by women that impacts both their physical safety as well as confidence—that has since evolved into a larger stable of vests available to all DPR projects.
Innovations are also being tested at all stages of the construction process. On a project in Nashville, TN, DPR is piloting new radar technology designed to help prevent underground utility strikes during excavation. The tech, which is still in early stages of development, has the potential to provide teams better predictability—and avoid a very costly mistake. Currently, there are only two companies in the U.S. working with this tech, and DPR is actively providing feedback based on real project experience to the developing company.
“Underground utility strikes are obviously a huge concern in construction, and it’s been repeatedly brought up by teams and field crews over and over,” said Bryan Adams, who serves as the superintendent on the jobsite where this tech is currently being deployed.
As this technology improves, Adams says, not only will it keep our crews safer while increasing productivity, it also gives clients peace of mind because they’re working with greater levels of certainty during a key step of the build process. “Having the radar on the machine allows the operator to effectively have x-ray vision, which gives everyone more confidence,” he said. “We’re glad to be part of the team piloting this and making recommendations for future training.”
Not too far away, DPR is supporting a Meta-led team in exploring a potentially game-changing concept that uses mushrooms to break down drywall waste. Along with Mycocycle and Rockwood Sustainable Solutions, the team is piloting a process that uses mycelium to produce a new composite material to help address the 660 million tons of construction waste that gets dumped every year in the U.S.
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DPR was recognized in 2023 as one of Fast Company magazine's Best Companies for Innovators. Do you have an entrepreneurial spirit?
Innovation is about more than testing new tools. It’s about evolving processes that result in smoother handoffs at every stage of the project lifecycle. DPR’s core value of Ever Forward is about continual self-initiated change, improvement, learning and the advancement of standards for their own sake. The company is banking on the idea that applying this to approach to processes can lead to better predictability for project outcomes.
“We work with a lot of customers who are very innovative themselves. We learn from them,” said Atul Khanzode, a member of DPR’s Leadership Team who focuses on technology and innovation. “The values that drive them, whether quality, productivity, safety or cost, it all comes back to predictability. What they want is for us to come up with ideas that can ultimately help achieve their goals.”
Traditional industry scopes, coupled with a risk transfer mentality, often lead to the creation and re-creation of information across various phases of the project lifecycle. “There is often no continuity to how information created in an earlier phase could be used later,” said Khanzode.
Khanzode points to a classic example: a design is completed to a certain level and then handed to a contractor to fabricate and build, which requires developing their own detailed shop drawings. Collaboration—coupled with detailed modeling information—is key to handoffs in many scenarios, and to identifying opportunities that can improve value and efficiency.
“The availability of BIM and other cloud-based tools makes it easier to streamline handoffs of information, but even if we have the tools the process and behavior must be there to make it happen,” said Khanzode.
Process innovation builds on itself. As they become refined and engrained, processes turn into best practices, and best practices turn into the baseline. “When you know the baseline you can raise the bar,” said DPR’s Rishard Bitbaba, who leads operations as part of DPR’s Leadership Team and drives the development of processes, practices and training to enhance overall project delivery. “Innovation allows us to reduce variability and increase predictability in project outcomes.”
The real opportunity to maximize innovative thinking on projects lies in the combination of people, process and tools. One example of in-house innovation augmenting the benefits of an off-the-shelf tool was the application of prefabricated milled drywall in the buildout of an office space in Tempe, AZ, for robotics company Nuro.
For Tim Bergen, head of real estate and workplace at Nuro, when it comes to evaluating emerging technology or products, time, scalability and piloting are key. He also considers whether something has been tested under pressure. Central to that, he says, is understanding how the proposed solution ties to the project’s critical path or overall success of the design.
But before he even weighs the merits of bringing in new tech, Bergen looks at the team putting the work in place. “Show me a superintendent who’s innovative and experienced, that holds both the respect of the teams in the field as well as the confidence of the local departments of buildings,” he said, adding that having a diverse team is helpful in decision-making. “A project is only going to be as successful as the team that’s involved in it. We all have to allow ourselves that space to debate the merits of what we’re doing.”
In Tempe, DPR’s Special Services Group and self-perform crews leveraged a patent-pending software developed by DPR’s Jerrud Davis in conjunction with drywall milling machines, which produces cut sheets for drywall shapes that can be fabricated offsite and then delivered and installed. Altogether, this combination of computational design and field know how can speed up drywall installation two to three times faster than the typical process of taping, beading and cutting.
The Nuro Tempe project was DPR’s first in the state to use prefabricated milled sheetrock, and it’s use along with Davis’ software has scaled to more than 20 projects across the U.S. On this project, the combined effort saved nearly 30 hours of installation time.
Although it starts with the data housed in the virtual model, “the innovation is in how we’re able to generate high-quality shapes that are ready for field review in a matter of minutes, no matter the scale of the job,” said Davis. What used to take weeks for foremen to physically walk about the jobsite identifying individually milled drywall shapes can now happen in the span of hours or days. For Davis, the expertise of the craft is what makes this combination powerful.
“I get excited to teach SPW teams how to run this application because their knowledge and skillset are invaluable to making this process work,” he said. “Not just because of their ability to hang and tape, but really for their ability to look at the models. To see where the shapes would best suit a job, and then mill.”
Drywall, when done well, is something that rarely gets a second glance by building occupants. But drywallers themselves know that producing a consistent, high-quality finish across an entire building takes tremendous skill and physical endurance. With new methods, the quality of the product and installation remains consistent—and worker safety and comfort are increased.
“We have the ability to create a safer jobsite by taking knives out of hands and time off of lifts, while also reducing waste and delivering a quality product,” said DPR’s Jake Dubenetzky, who leads prefabrication efforts in the Southwest and partners with Davis on supporting teams that are rolling out this approach. Moreover, he says, the opportunities for computational design only expand when combined with field expertise:
“We can build awesome projects. But we can be better builders when we combine the benefits of manufacturing with our tool bags, and software that utilizes computational design methodology helps us do that. There's a chance for us to create a process that incorporates thousands of years of knowledge when we include our craft.”
Posted on August 10, 2023
Last Updated August 15, 2023