July 2021 President’s Message: Stay in Your Lane – or At Least Use Your Signal!

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July 1, 2021

By the time you read this, summer—or “construction season,” as they call these fleeting weeks between winters up here in the Great White North—will be upon us. And with summer, my thoughts turn to…road rage. Blinking lights ahead, big orange signs with ominous arrows, and illuminated red taillights all portend a “squeeze right” (or left) in my immediate future.

When the normal traffic rules are suspended, drivers suddenly feel empowered to apply their own interpretations. Do I squeeze now, or can I race ahead down the shoulder and barge in at the front? Is the next lane going faster than mine? There is no fine print with explanation on the big orange sign. Deep down, we all know that the additional maneuvering does not improve, and in fact probably impedes, progress toward the overall goal of getting vehicles through the obstruction. Navigating these situations causes drivers a lot of nervous anxiety and to use extra gas, maybe even a dent on their fender. And the momentary chaos provides an opportunity for the aggressive and lawless to get ahead. Then, those same rule-benders are happy to get back in their lanes on the other side of the squeeze, as if nothing happened.

The same principles apply, although in a far more complex manner, to the construction process in its more unregulated moments. On most projects, the building owner, contractor, and designer take turns dancing an intricate foxtrot. At the same time, the contractor is also dancing with subcontractors and material suppliers, to a different beat, but with similar rules. The moves to all the dances are choreographed, and if everyone does their part, no one’s feet get stepped on and the participants leave the dance floor equally spent but exhilarated. It doesn’t matter what construction delivery model you choose: ideally, each model will involve its own set of similar dances that reflects a transparent communication of distinct roles.

But what if there were no music and no dancing? What if construction procurement were simplified so the building owner could push a “buy now” button, like the ones we use for online purchasing, and receive a gift-wrapped box from the fulfillment center with the shiny finished project inside?

From a distance, this appears to be a good solution. The building owner can achieve their procurement goal without having to put on their dancing shoes, or even leaving their house. But smart building owners would be asking questions: Where did the dancing go? What kind of music was played? Where is the laundry hamper with the sweaty clothes? How come I wasn’t invited? What am I missing that has made this construction procurement so much simpler and direct, yet so worrisome?

What’s missing is the process. Smart building owners know that someone should have been asking them questions—inviting them to polka—along the way. They know that all that dancing is allowing designers, contractors, and material suppliers to exchange wishes, requirements, ideas, specifications, alternatives, capabilities, technologies, and procedures, all to best meet the owner’s specific requirements. Without any evidence that the dancing has occurred, why would a smart building owner have any confidence in the suitability or quality of the shiny construction procurement that has been quietly attached to their building enclosure project, and how could the owner in good conscience approve the invoice?

Designers, contractors, and materials suppliers all have separate and well-defined roles to play in the building construction dance party. The delineations are clearly marked, just like the lanes of an expressway. But if those delineations are blurred, if the expressway gets squeezed, chaos will probably ensue, and the rules of engagement will be suspended long enough for unpredictable and potentially unwanted results to emerge on the other side of the procurement.

IIBEC and its building enclosure consultant members need to keep painting those demarcation lines. We need to educate building owners and their procurement departments how to avoid these “expressway squeezes,” how to resist the ‘”buy now” button, and how to put their dancing shoes on and get out on the floor. I bet we could even suggest some good tunes.

Email your construction dance party music suggestions to ted@fsaeng.com.