DISRUPTING THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT WITH TECHNOLOGY

The Truth Is Out There, says network dynamics expert John Taylor

March 31, 2018

John Taylor is a third generation AEC professional who has worked at universities for 11 years.

He ran the Civil Engineering Network Dynamics Lab at Virginia Tech to help improve systemic change in the AEC industry, and currently runs the Network Dynamics Labit at Georgia Tech with a broader mission to investigate phenomena occuring at the intersection of people and the built environment.

He received his undergraduate, master’s, and doctorate in civil and environmental engineering, and worked as a project manager and estimator before founding several technology companies.

His Lab’s research focuses on change processes at the human-built environment interface, with a recent focus on issues of urban sustainability and resilience. He is also the group leader of the Construction and Infrastructure Systems Engineering group in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech, whose mission is to be a platform for change in the AEC industry.

Read on to learn more about his journey from sweeping construction sites to receiving NSF funding for research to build resiliency during natural disasters.  

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Background

What projects are you currently working on?

At the Network Dynamics Lab, in the area of urban sustainability we’re exploring energy efficiency in buildings and how we can use feedback systems to improve occupant understanding of their energy consumption. We are also studying visualization of the built environment through augmented and virtual reality tools we are developing, and how we can use social media to improve how we collect stakeholder feedback about the built environment.

For example, we’re doing a HCI study on the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design, a building designed to meet the “Living Building” standard at Georgia Tech. We do full immersion virtual reality in that building to collect stakeholder feedback, and augmented reality so architects, engineers and contractors can go out on the site and see what it’ll be like when it’s put in place.

In the area of urban resilience, we just received National Science Foundation funding to study the location of where people are posting microblogs [like Twitter posts] and doing cluster and sentiment analysis to calculate the degree and how dangerous specific emergent crisis situations seem to be. In [the recent disasters in] Houston and Puerto Rico, 9-1-1 lines were jammed so people turned to social media to ask for help. We’re creating a system to help first responders detect emerging crises within a larger crisis like a hurricane.

How long have you been part of this industry?

I’m a “dyed in the wool” AEC person. Both my grandfathers were in the industry; my father started a construction company. After I got my undergraduate degree in civil engineering, I worked as a project manager and estimator, and then started a couple technology companies serving the AEC industry. I became interested in how industry adapts to changes. Over the last 11 years, I’ve been building the Network Dynamics Lab to help improve systemic change in the AEC industry.

What changes have you seen for the positive?

Definitely, IT and automation subtly making their way into how we do business. I did my undergraduate thesis project on making an early version of AutoCAD do automation and 4D, and now that’s a push of a button. I can remember lots of times with everyone arguing about the industry not changing, but it’s been changing the whole time.

What changes have you seen for the negative?

There are things that went slower than expected. I think we were hit with a lot of new ways to do things within the past 15 years. There are so many web-based project management tools, centralized modeling approaches, and databases. The industry is maybe burned by there so much change, so we approach change with more caution. Companies have to meet their project deliverables while being open to things that will improve their competitive advantage. People are a little bit shier to try new things because of the proliferation of new things to try.

 

What draws you to the technology side of things?

Being a nerd, I believe the truth is out there. There’s a much, much better way to do the things we’re doing. If we’re able to spend the time figuring it out, then I believe there’s a way to do things better. As Frank Lloyd Wright said, “The truth is more important than the facts.” Technology can draw us closer to that truth.

 

Why do you think this industry lags behind in tech?

I think it depends on the technology, and where we’re talking about. We were very fast to adopt mobile phones and 3D laser scanning. Other technologies that have gone slow here diffused really quickly in other countries. BIM was adopted much more quickly in Scandinavia, for example.

The technologies that are slower, particularly in the U.S., are the ones that require us to change together in concert. It’s harder for systemic changes to take hold. Real productivity gains happen if we make the model once and everyone benefits. As the technology has dffused over the past few decades, different types of firms have created separate BIM models for their own use. We need to be able to build it once: for design, fabrication, construction, and operations.

 

Imagine you’re talking to a high school senior. What would you tell her to major in, and why?

If you’re not sure, be an engineer. The world needs more engineers. You get to make amazing things, and doing so will afford you a great quality of life. You can do a lot of things later in life if you decide you’re interested in them, but it’s hard to become an engineer later in life, so get it out of the way early.

 

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?

Be humble about what you don’t know. A lot of students get out in their field and see people struggling with their smartphones and they think they aren’t as clever as they are. Go find someone with a ton of experience that you trust and respect, ask them to be your mentor, and then listen to them. Never forget they have a treasure trove of experience you can mine. If you do this, you’ll rise through the ranks quickly.

I also recommend they subtly try to mentor up. As junior-level people, they can influence the technological direction of the whole company. When they improve the performance of their company, they improve the performance of the whole industry, and we need that.

 

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever gotten?

“If there was a better way to do this, we’d already be doing it that way.”


What was your first job ever?

My father owned a construction company and you’d think he’d put me up with some cushy job, but his view was you start at the bottom rung of the ladder. During summers, I would go sweep construction sites, haul garbage, dig–whatever no one else wanted to do, they asked me to do it. It was hard work, but it was a valuable life experience to be out in the field to witness the camaraderie of the construction crew. When I was working later as a construction manager, I knew how to talk the talk with my employees and it helped to have the projects run a little bit more smoothly.

 

Tech Fun

What is your must-have smartphone app?

Runkeeper. I’m training for a marathon and triathlon this spring. I’m really enjoying exploring the science of heart rate and endurance coupling my smart phone with a heart rate monitoring sensor.

What are your three favorite technology tools you use throughout your day?

By far, my iPhone. I’ve modified the case with duct tape so it carries everything. Credit card, house keys, ID. If I lose this, I’m done for. 2. Dropbox–accessing my files in a pinch from anywhere is really handy. 3. The automation features of my car. For a decade, by choice, I had no car. When I moved to Atlanta a year ago I bought one with all the new features, and it’s amazing how helpful it is to have lane change warnings and backup sensors.

If you could wave a magic wand and create a new technology, what would it be?

Something we’ve been trying to do for a long time in my lab: figuring out a way to get people and processes into BIM models so we’re not just collaborating–we’re working together. One of the National Academy of Engineering “grand challenges” is to enhance virtual reality. We could unleash radical productivity gains if we could come together and work on the BIM model by entering into a functional, physics-based design and construction environment as avatars.

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Your building is talking. Are you listening?

March 11, 2018

Your building is talking. Eric Hall asks, “Are you listening?”

Eric is Founder and Chief Innovation Officer at Site 1001, a smart building performance and operations platform that uses the Internet of Things and data from various sensors as well as the building’s original information (like construction documents) to solve simple and complex problems with potentially expensive repercussions, such as mold detection and air quality monitoring.

Thanks to early travel opportunities which exposed him to both the developed and developing world, one of Eric’s top priorities is the sustainability and longevity of buildings. His motto? It’s more efficient to build it right the first time. And every ounce of waste results in architectural disintegrity.

Eric is a regular speaker about the future of the construction industry, IoT, AI, smart buildings, and smart cities.

Read on to hear Eric’s take on overcoming the silos confronting the construction industry — and that one time he got busted for selling tacos underage.

[Editor’s note: this interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity]

1. Tell us about what projects you’re currently working on.

I’m working on extending the platform of hardware technologies, including IoT devices. We’re adding more sensors in buildings to get more data. IoT allows us to have data that was 100 times more expensive ten years ago. It allows a broad set of device manufacturers to solve very specific problems at a low cost–everything from mundane to highly sophisticated issues.

The solution can be something as simple as detecting a leak inside of a wall before it collapses. With IoT, once I’ve detected the leak, I can depressurize the water system through an automated valve. We can use thermometers and automated water valves to remove contagens and pathogens from drinking water supplies or use the sensors for indoor air quality monitoring. It’s able to detect mold in the wall cavity. All simple fixes that, at the end of the day, allow people to be more proactive and live in a healthier environment.

 

2. How long have you been part of this industry?

I’ve been in the AEC space for almost 25 years. I received an undergrad in architecture and immediately joined the carpenters union. I’ve been in every stage of construction, from swinging a hammer, to national building information model director, to founder and inventor of Site 1001.


3. What changes have you seen for the positive?

The industry has been criticized for how it’s lacked productive improvement over the past 100 years. People are quick to blame a lack of technology for lack of productivity. I disagree with that. Since I came into the marketplace with a post-grad degree, there has been a huge application of technology in the construction industry. The real problem in buildings is the archaic communication structure under which we build buildings.

We have a historical methodology that creates an adversarial relationship between contractor and owner, between change orders and cost reduction.

What I’ve seen is the application of BIM allows for collaboration between these parties that has never been possible before. BIM allows us to engage people who can’t read these details to see it, understand it, and discuss it. We’re freed up to make more sophisticated design decisions as a result. It allows visual communication. It’s going to change expectations–the days of 30 percent waste and massive change orders are over. Owners are no longer going to accept that.

 

4. What changes have you seen for the negative?

Not that we have control over it, but we have a much greater lack of skilled labor than we did before.

When I joined the union, I was surrounded by skilled tradesman. Today, because the unions aren’t able to provide that skilled labor, general contractors have become construction managers. Of course, there were specialized trades, but the general carpentry, the labor, the site conditions, safety, iron working, and masonry were all handled by a single entity–a brotherhood of skilled labor. If we were up against the schedule, and one of the trades wasn’t getting it done, I had dozens of tradesmen on the job to rally around and get the job done because it was in everyone’s best interest.

The market in construction and design is becoming more siloed because we don’t have access to skilled labor. Specialization is starting to push us back towards the problem in communication we had pre-BIM.

 

5. What draws you to the technology side of things?

My goal in this is to get us back on track to get rid of this abusive triad relationship. What suffers is the architecture, the built environment we deliver. People deserve good architecture.

As a student who’s traveled all over the world, I’ve seen how different cultures and governments place emphasis on good architecture. Here in the States, architecture is driven by capitalism. If you’re building a warehouse for shoes, you’re building the squarest, non-air-conditioning-est building you can build. We compound that issue when we have poor communication. We don’t allow good design to occur.

I want to see more farsighted design than the two-year construction process. It takes two years for buildings to go from hole in the mud to having the keys handed to the owner. Every ounce of waste results in architectural disintegrity.

 

6. Imagine you’re talking to a high school senior. What would you tell her to major in, and why?

The first bit of advice I would give is: you don’t have to decide today. The longer we have to decide what it is we want to do, compared to the amount of information we receive in that time, is the connection of how we finally get there. I’m fortunate–I don’t work. I do what I love. If you want to achieve that, you’re not going to already know what that is as an 18-year-old. Stay in a general studies program for the first couple years. Don’t close your mind.

 

7. What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?

Travel while you’re young. Travel gives you the widest breadth of experience because everything is done a little differently all over the place. We all learned to pour concrete from the Romans. Get as much project experience as you can. Be willing to move around the country and keep your eyes and ears open.

 

8. Was there a specific trip that impacted you?

Shock therapy. In college, I had an open year so I decided to take a job in Paris which allowed me to travel Europe on a Euro Pass. I was traveling all over, sketching buildings from the Trevi fountain to canals in Amsterdam and everything in between. I was seeing some of the world’s greatest architecture.

When I flew back stateside. I had a month to kill before classes started. My stepdad was involved in a church program going to Haiti for 14 days. So I flew from Europe to the U.S. to the poorest country in the western hemisphere. There were so few resources that if I had a Bobcat Skid-steer down here, I could have changed the country.

That was the opportunity that drove me to care about society’s impact on architecture, the desire to want what we build to provide residual value. It’s the responsibility of architects to not cut corners and sacrifice quality in order to deliver something in the short term.

9. What was your first job ever?

I lied about my age so I could make tacos at a fast food restaurant. It only took a month for them to catch me and fire me–I was 11 and you had to be 14.

 

Tech Takes

1. What is your must-have smartphone app?

I only use eight pages on the entire internet. I’ve been a full iOS ecosystems user for the last 10 years since the iPhone first came out. But I’ve realized that all of this fear and dependency I had on my Apple ecosystems was not true at all. The whole Android OS is my new favorite app. I didn’t have the courage on my own to transition, but now I am a changed person.

 

2. What are your favorite technology tools you use throughout your day?

Nest cameras are ultra sweet. I carry a Flir infrared camera on my body all the time to go into spaces and look at air infiltration as well as electrical–you can see shorted wires glow in infrared. You can look at a wall panel and see what’s loaded based on what color they are. It fits in a shirt pocket.

 

3. If you could wave a magic wand and create a new technology, what would it be?

Instant travel. As a guy who flies all the time, I need instant travel.

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The Locomotion Expert Who Dreams Of Flight

January 30, 2018

Barry Clark’s career has been characterized by tackling projects that on the surface seem straightforward – but in reality are deceptively challenging.

head shot of Barry Clark in striped golf shirt As co-CTO of SoftWear Automation, he’s disrupting the $100B sewn products industry by replacing sewing labor with cutting-edge robotics. He’s also pursuing his Ph.D. in Robotics from The Ohio State University, with a focus on empowering walking robots and prosthetics to function better through a more complete understanding of how humans are able to walk without falling down.

Barry is a passionate lifelong learner who sees a bright future in the open source movement. He’s ready to cheer on anyone who’s doing what they love. His best advice? Get your hands dirty.

What projects are you currently working on?

Barry Clark: I have two paths. I work for an automated sewing company with novel IP moving away from hard automation in favor of soft automation. With fabric, the traditional method of clamping and treating it like a piece of steel doesn’t work, because textiles move in a way most metals don’t. So we use software improvements, computer vision, and other sensors to move this material like you would any other.

I’m also finishing my Ph.D. in mechanical engineering where I focus on human walking. If you look at current state-of-the-art robots, they’re phenomenally impressive. But even their performance pales compared to what a human can do. Human motion is both very efficient and very stable. My lab looks at locomotion through the lens of energetic optimality. I’m using metabolic-like cost functions in combination with mathematical optimization to better understand these characteristics in human walking and running.

How long have you been part of this industry?

Barry Clark: I entered grad school in 2010 with a desire to focus on robotics and controls. I’ve really been in the industry since 2013 when I joined the team at SoftWear Automation, which at the time was an ATDC company.

What changes have you seen for the positive?

Barry Clark: The push to open source makes it much easier to get your hands on complicated tools and dig through what a lot of really smart people have done, understand it, and implement it more quickly. That’s a really positive change that continues to grow exponentially.

For example, OpenCV is one of the big computer vision libraries. You can do some pretty interesting things once you know how to use that tool, and it’s available to anyone. Same thing with ROS on the control side; you can take lots of information from sensors and cameras and turn it into control signals without much effort. Those tools are widely available to students, industry, all kinds of people.

What changes have you seen for the negative?

Barry Clark: I don’t know that it’s a change, but the concept that robots will take jobs is very polarizing. There are studies out there that indicate that at least this far, automation has only done good things for workers. For the most part in the US, automation has created jobs and created more highly skilled workers, which makes people more valuable in a wider range of industries. That won’t hold true forever maybe, but people with factory jobs view robotics as a negative thing and it doesn’t need to be like that.

What draws you to the technology side of things?

Barry Clark: I’ve always liked making things work. Spending a lot of time in grad school (running on eight years now…) I’ve really bought into lifelong learning. Particularly, right now, if you took a month off you would miss quite a bit. I like the idea of continuing to grow and learn new things. I can’t imagine where the field will be in 30 years because of the amount of growth that will take place. It excites me that it’s ever changing and in order to be a leader in your field you have to be constantly learning and you have to be flexible.

Imagine you’re talking to a high school senior. What would you tell her to major in, and why?

Barry Clark: Major in whatever you’re passionate about and go all in on it. I knew people in college who had stereotypically “bad” majors like English, Anthropology, American Studies — things the classic father figure might be displeased with. But they all did really well because they went all in. They didn’t major in anthropology because it was easy, they majored in it because they were passionate about it. Do everything you can to become an expert in your field, broaden your skill set, and take advantage of opportunities. If you do that, whatever you major in, it will be okay.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?

Barry Clark: Three things. First, get involved in the open source movement. Second, be a generalist. Robotics is the complete blend of electrical, mechanical, computer, and materials science. It’s an amalgamation of all those things, so get your hands dirty early. Third, work on personal projects in your spare time. School can only teach you so much. If you can build your own robot or write your own code for a home automation project — all those things will help accelerate your understanding and be a better roboticist in the future.

What was your first job ever?

Barry Clark: I was a tennis camp counselor. (Being blond wasn’t a requirement.)

Tech Takes

What is your must-have smartphone app?

Barry Clark: I try to stay off my phone but the app I, unfortunately, spend the most time on right now is — I have this Peak brain training app so I have all these little games on my phone that were kind of dumb. So now I play games that they say are helpful for cognitive function.

What are your 3 favorite technology tools you use throughout your day?

Barry Clark: My laptop is my overall favorite tool. After that, I really like python which is a fun, easy to use prototyping language. Google Docs and Google Sheets — the ability to edit the same document while you and your collaborators are in a different place is incredibly powerful. It sounds simple but that’s one of the more powerful tools I use.

If you could wave a magic wand and create a new technology, what would it be?

Barry Clark: I would create some sort of personal aircraft. The ability to go longer distances much more quickly on a much more straightforward path would be awesome.

Windows/MAC/Linux and why?

Barry Clark: For personal consumption, I’m a Mac guy for sure. For work, I like Linux. I feel like everything for programming and robotics works better in Linux.

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