News about Innovation in the Built Environment


Sarah Kay Shares How Technology is Changing Workspace Design

sarah kay woods bagot

Sarah Kay is a principal, director, and sector leader of Global Workplace Interiors at internationally-recognized design firm Woods Bagot. The firm, which calls itself a “People Architecture Company” has 15 studios across Australia, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America.

Sarah is passionate about the ways building interiors can positively influence business and organizational outcomes. She’s worked with household names like Google, Bloomberg, HSBC and JPMorgan.

We sat down with Sarah to learn how technology is changing workspace design.

sarah kay

Still from a Woods Bagot video about agile workplaces.

What are the hottest technologies in the design space right now?

Workspace will become a highly valued business strategy tool not too far in the future.

At its simplest form, we’re seeing a lot of automation through parametric modeling. We’re seeing much more reliance on digital versions of design environments for communicating, testing, and improving. The technologies that are coming are much more focused on enhancing the way people come together in space — for example, algorithms that allocate space based on task, not the organizational chart.

Much of your day-to-day work involves helping clients understand their spaces before you design them. Why is this approach important?

The virtual reality models communicate design much more effectively than via render or CGI.

An example of that: one of the tools we developed takes an organizational chart and folds it into the building [layout] to decide where the most efficient locations of different things are. An extension of that is you could continue to manage your building and shift locations as teams change and change their relationships to each other, using this tool through the whole life of the occupancy of the building.

What part of the industry has been slower to be open to technology adoption and why?

The whole industry has been slow to adopt technology. Every single one of our clients is yelling out for tech to help them be more efficient in the way they occupy space: be more clever about how AV and IT systems work, about how people are allocated in the space. And where is Alexa, or Google for the workplace — why on earth is this slower than the development of home devices?


What would you tell a student or young person who is looking to get into this field — what skills should they aim to develop?

Critical thinking. Architects traditionally were trained to solve problems, and over time, got very focused on only solving building problems. I think in the future, we’ll broaden again to be people who solve a variety of complex problems.


Let’s say that student graduates in four or five years. How do you think the discipline will look then versus how it looks now?

All this stuff we currently spend lots of time on and get wrong reasonably often will be automated. Innovations will be able to be much bigger.

There will always be a demand from clients to have a combination of digital and analog in the way we communicate and think. I had someone come in the other day with a CV my arm’s length long, of all the different kind of software she used and the coding and programming experience she had. But hand drawing was also on that list, and I was like, thank God.

To hear more from Sarah, watch her video on agile workspaces.

Cliff Moser Shares How Architecture Is Adapting to Smart Devices

cliff moser architect

The discipline of architecture has changed drastically in the over three decades that Cliff Moser has been practicing. The California-based architect was trained on pencil-and-paper drafting but adapted to technology throughout his career and now is considered an expert in Building Information Modeling (BIM) software.

Moser, who authored the book Architecture 3.0: The Disruptive Design Practice Handbook, is realistic about the reluctance his peers feel when it comes to changing their processes with technology. He thinks some of it is due to the training his generation of architects received, where more emphasis was placed on the building than its environment, as well as the fact that leaders of the profession tend to be Baby Boomers with fewer tech skills.

Here, Moser gives us insight into the next great tech advances for architecture, how the industry is adapting to smart devices, and why young aspiring architects should go out and build things.

What has been the most significant advance in technology in architecture since you started your career?

When I studied drawings in the past, they were just that — static lines on paper. Now those lines contain information, and what we’re seeing is the ability to use that information, that data, for more than dimensioning the building. While some people think CAD or building information modeling is just another version of hand drafting, actually, hidden deep inside the software is data about what you’re designing.

I liken this to people who used to balance their checkbooks the old-fashioned way using pencil and paper. If they start to use Quicken, they soon realize they’re inputting data. From that data, one can print reports, printing out checks, or reconciliations. So now, all of the information that used to be in handwriting a check is buried into the components of the software. With BIM, you can query things, you can ask a building question — how many doors do you have, or what’s the square footage of this room? You can also print out drawings. BIM is a much more robust tool that I think we’re only just understanding the ramifications for.

What do you think is going to be the most industry-advancing technology for the future of architecture?

There are so many different directions you can go. There’s 3-D printing, there are buildings talking to you as you come inside, helping you find your way to your appointment. On the construction side, there’s assisted construction, augmented reality, robotic layout, and material and supply management. It’s just open as to how far it can go, and it’s something I don’t think we even have had a chance to thoroughly evaluate yet.

There is a lot of talk around smart cities now. How do you think the field of architecture is perceiving the concept of smart cities and how do you think architects are adapting?

I think we’re lagging behind. Architects still focus on the building, and not the existing environment. I was trained as an architect to just sort of fit a building into the property, but really not think about adjacent master planning issues. So if I’m putting in a building that requires so many square feet and I have to put in a parking garage, do I really think about how that new additional traffic affects the neighborhood? We’re just starting to think about how people interact with the environment beyond the building.

Architects have always focused on the aesthetics of the internal, the interiors of the building, and how that affects people, but we haven’t really spent as much time thinking about what the building does to the outside environment. Smart buildings and smarter landscaping are going to be more and more important going forward.

To that point, some say architecture as a discipline has been slow to adapt to technology. Has that been your experience and do you think that’s changing?

Oh yes, it has always been very slow to change. We are a very path-dependent industry, and the fact is most people don’t really hit their stride within the profession until they’re older, most famous architects are in their 60s and 70s and 80s. Because our experience has been gained over 20, 30, 40 years in the industry, we cannot help but use that knowledge and apply it to what we’re doing now.

How has technology changed how you interact with clients? Are clients asking for this?

We have a real frustration in the industry in that our buildings are basically done under capital programs, but once the building is handed over, it’s handed over to operations. So you have capital expenditures, and you have operational expenditures, and typically, those are two silos within an organization. The integration between those two is something I think needs to be better so for the operations people, rather than just inheriting something at the end of the project, they actually are involved from the beginning.

Clients are finally starting to get to the point now that they are receiving smart buildings, and they understand the things that are installed in the building during the construction can really help them operate the building afterward.

Given all of these changes in the industry, what would be your advice for a student or young person in the field of architecture or BuiltTech?

Continue learning and getting your expertise with 3D modeling, because that is only going to get stronger as we bring in augmented reality and virtual reality. Using those tools, rather than building a three-dimensional physical model, we now have an opportunity to walk our clients through buildings.

I would also recommend architects really familiarize themselves with programming. I think at the end of the day, just be aware of it, not necessarily tying yourself down to a particular kind of software programming, but just having an awareness of the programming opportunities that are out there, so you’re able to ramp up once you get to a position where it’s needed. As I said earlier, the old-timer architects, architects my age, while we have the expertise and vision, we really don’t have the time to learn the skill sets that focus on the software side.

For an old timer, I would recommend all architects keep themselves up on their skill set in terms of the tools that are out there.

Then, one of the big things I did was I spent a lot of time physically building things. That was important to me because as architects, we often draw something that can’t be constructed. So architects understanding the actual logistics of tolerances and how you place concrete and hammer a building together is essential for our understanding of design. We want to be able to share our vision, but we also want to make sure it’s constructible.

Cliff Moser will be speaking in Atlanta during this year’s BuiltTech Week, October 22-24, 2018. 

5 Questions with Public Sector Expert Stephen Hagan

head shot of Stephen Hagan

Stephen R Hagan, FAIA CCM is recognized as an industry expert on technology innovation, real estate, and the construction marketplace. He spent over three decades in the public sector, ending a 37-year career with the US General Services Administration’s Public Buildings Service (PBS), which he describes as “essentially the nation’s landlord.” PBS owns, operates, and leases over 370 million square feet of building space across the U.S., for over 1.1 million federal government employees.

Stephen is now president and CEO of Hagan Technologies LLC. He recently worked on projects involving strategic planning and road-mapping with the National Institute of Building Sciences, is serving a ten-year stint on the AIA Documents Committee, and speaks at major conferences around the world.

As a Built Tech’s Labs advisor focused on government and industry, Stephen specializes in emerging and innovative technologies supporting smart, connected, sustainable, and resilient cities and urban eco-districts. Here’s his advice to newcomers in the industry, including the problem with the emergence of venture-backed startups in AEC.

Why do you think this industry lags behind in tech?

The fragmentation is an issue, no question. It’s a trillion dollar industry with no major players big enough individually to influence everyone else. Even the biggest players are a drop in the bucket compared to the market leaders in other industries like FinTech, Automotive, technology, or aerospace. Most architecture firms are small and not very prosperous. How do you monetize and take advantage of technology? We have to think through what it is people will get as a return.

These startups looking at construction tech are individual point solutions. They’re getting money from venture but I have a sense few are thinking about the bigger picture or how these solutions fit together.

What draws you to the technology side of things?

My father worked for AT&T, the Bell Labs, and finally Mountain Bell and he worked in huge networks around the country. Ever since my start as an architect, I’ve been drawn to the power associated with how networks work and how it brings everyone together. And I get excited about how we can make tools to make lives better.

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

The kids these days… my 2-year-old granddaughter looks at a cell phone and it’s already becoming part of her life. The coding is becoming easier, so the idea of building stuff is really important. Building virtually and in reality is important.

The other thing is to travel. And not just to Europe. Travel to other cities; see the world. Keep a journal. Start writing about what you want to see and do and make that a lifelong habit. Be upbeat about it — they’re under so much pressure. Whatever next steps you have, think in terms of lifelong learning. Spend enough time with people as well. That’s very important.

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

Be optimistic. Have confidence in yourself. But there’s a reason why we have apprenticeships: you’ve got to learn and take your time. That’s some of the challenges you see with the younger generation — they think they’re ready to step in and they’re not ready to build buildings or even talk to the client. Have patience and keep your eyes open about what’s going on. And then I’d say get a mentor. Find someone who can be supportive of you, lead you, and challenge and encourage you along the way.

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

We are actually working on that, but I’d have to give you an NDA to talk about it. If you look at the trillion dollar industry we have and all the fragmentation — a way to unify them to get the positive network effect. That’s something we need and something I’m personally working on.

How Dreamit UrbanTech’s Managing Director Identifies 5 Star Startups

andrew ackerman

Two years ago, venture fund and startup accelerator Dreamit Ventures, based in Philadephia, was trying to determine what their next industry vertical would be — they had previously launched a HealthTech-specific program to much success. After looking at market opportunities, venture activity, and potential startups, they settled on a new category they called “UrbanTech.”

“We chose to call our program “UrbanTech” because, at the time, it didn’t have a firm definition. We were using it because it captured the industries we liked the most,” explains Andrew Ackerman, the lead of Dreamit’s UrbanTech program. The mid-stage fund wanted to see companies in construction, real estate tech (also called proptech), and smart city technology that could work with private enterprise clients.

“The word UrbanTech was elastic enough that we thought people would ask, or in the worst case we would get applications including the ones that don’t fit, rather than miss great startups because they felt it wasn’t for them,” Ackerman says. The largely remote-based program is the best fit for startups with a sellable product, revenue, and clients, but who need an extra boost to scale.

Ackerman formerly worked as a Booz & Co. consultant, then at educational giant Kaplan. He also founded and served as COO at summer camp web services provider Immediately prior to Dreamit, he managed investments for a family office with a portfolio over $50M.

He shares more about why Dreamit decided UrbanTech was a hot market, how he evaluates whether startups are a good fit for the program, and the biggest opportunities right now in the space.

How did Dreamit determine that UrbanTech was the right vertical to expand into?

We looked at this space in a few different ways. One of the things we looked at is how much venture activity there was — it doesn’t do us any good to get into a space where we can’t get any of our companies funded down the road. We did a fascinating analysis where we sliced the world the way we see urban tech, and we looked at the numbers.

We found that activity, in 2016 when we were first looking at the space, was within one percent of the amount of activity in health tech back in 2012, the year before we launched our HealthTech vertical, and that took off. The interesting part of our thesis was urban tech was at the very beginning of that kind of rocket ship-like growth, and we got really excited about being able to get in at that stage — not too early, not too late.

Now, virtually every month or two new funds are opening up in PropTech, construction. Over a billion dollars was deployed in the first half of this year in construction tech. So what we’re seeing over the past two years since we made this plunge is that thesis is playing out.

What do you want to see in startups specifically when it comes to Dreamit? What companies do really well in the program?

We rate all our startups on a scale of one to five across a number of areas. On the metric of ‘team,’ a five is a team is one where they’ve got deep industry domain, strong technology in-house, prior startups including an exit or two, and ideally great sales experience.

A five on ‘market’ is a multi-billion-dollar market with either entirely fragmented competitors, all mom-and-pop shops or one or two slow-moving incumbents that haven’t changed in 20 years.

We then look at traction. Startups have to be, by and large, at the stage where we can put them in front of big customers, and the corporate partners don’t feel like we’re sending them ideas or guys looking for their first big deal. A 5 star on traction would be a company that has a million dollars or more in recurring revenue.

What are the biggest challenges that you see startups have when it comes to scaling?

Dreamit tends to work with slightly more mature startups than your archetypical pre-seed, pre-revenue accelerator. So it’s more about, how do I scale? How do I figure out what the right go-to-markets are, or how do I get to the right people at the right time and make that a faster, more productive sales cycle? In construction, until very recently, the biggest problem was that no one wanted to change. But that resistance has crumbled over the past couple of years, which is what’s so exciting about construction in particular. But you still need to move it through the sales cycle.

On the real estate side, there was always a little more openness, depending on what the startup was touching. The more integral you were to the functioning of the building, the less willing a customer would be to take a chance on your startup. Now, the biggest issue is, there are so many startups on the real estate side you have work to stand out.

What would you tell someone with an idea in the urban tech space that is just starting out — what would be their first steps?

Number one, you need somebody with real estate or construction experience. This is not a space that has an appetite for doe-eyed, naive founders. You’ve got to know how the industry works, to have the street cred. Plus, it will help you avoid a lot of silly and naive mistakes.

Number two, you need to think more about how you’re going to get the first couple of name-brand pilots, then you can build the product. Get those people jazzed about what you’re creating before you go out and create. You’ll build something they’re really willing to use rather than something that a year later, they’re like, I’ve seen plenty of this, or it’s not that important to me. Very few people want to go first in this industry; they’re more open to following someone that’s already working, that has already figured out how to work with large corporates, that already has worked out the kinks. You should be focusing on how to get those first referenceable customers even before you’ve built out their products.


Where do you think the market is most interested in right now within urban tech?

One thing that’s heating up right now is automated zoning-type tools where, and this is on the developer’s side in many cases, I’m trying to decide if I want to bid on a specific property or I want to look for off-market properties that are good deals. There are so many layers of zoning complexity, just to evaluate a property I have to bring in lawyers and experts to figure out what else I could do with the property or how high could it go or whether it’s worth my time. That’s all amenable to automation. I think that can be a breakthrough in the near future.

We’re also seeing a lot of amenities services, both on the commercial and the residential side. They’re about tapping a local community, bringing different vendors together. I’m not sure if I can pick the winner in that space yet, and I’m not sure if it might end up being something building owners love but doesn’t make for great business. It might be a great product but not a great business because there are not many barriers to entry.

One more example is the 3D, 360-degree apartments tours. There’s definitely a lot of activity there. I do believe the industry will adopt them increasingly. I have two problems with these: number one is, why now? You could have had a lot of this for over a decade, and it hadn’t taken off. Number two, again, there’s no barrier to entry here. That’s what we’re still thinking through.

5 Questions with Construction Scheduling Expert James Norris

BuiltTech Labs advisor James Norris

James Norris is the Director of Virtual Building at The Beck Group, an integrated architecture and construction firm that designs and constructs buildings by creating cross-discipline teams to achieve a more holistic building process. He’s also an advisor for BuiltTech Labs, founder of two startups, and an advocate for intuitive building design.

He has experience with nearly every aspect of the construction space. He migrated from construction management to launch the scheduling department. Now, he runs the Virtual Building Group, comprised of 4 departments: 3D Coordination, BIM Support, VBG Services and Operational Technology.

Read on for more from this design/build innovator and scheduling expert, who sees technology as a powerful opportunity to combat waste in the industry.

How long have you been part of this industry?

Twelve years total. It’s in my DNA. My dad started a real estate development company back in the 90s. There was no Google and my dad was frustrated that he couldn’t plan projects in a more intuitive way or at least see project impact relative to its surroundings. So, he and a Russian nuclear engineer developed their own version of 3D Google Earth to figure out how to properly plan, develop and build their buildings. That’s where I get the itch to figure out new methodologies and ways of creating projects. I love our industry because so many of our problems are complex and those are always the most fun to solve!

What changes in our industry have you seen for the positive?

The best change is the culture. There’s plenty of money to be spent in our industry–it’s a trillion-dollar industry across the world. In the beginning, people were unwilling to try new tools, which was probably a constraint of the hardware and software available at the time. Now everyone has a mobile device and they want things to be easy and efficient.

When I worked on job sites, I realized there were so many better ways to perform this work… I knew we could solve the problems of waste.

What changes have you seen for the negative?

The negative change is that there’s an overwhelming amount of software that now exists and many of these tools don’t talk to each other. Our people get worn out having to use 20 tools to do their jobs. They want to live inside of an integrated ecosystem. That’s why Autodesk’s proprietary ecosystem, which works like the Apple market, is a great idea.

What draws you to the technology side of things?

The amount of waste. When I worked on job sites, I realized there were so many better ways to perform this work. That’s why I jumped into scheduling and planning and from there, technology. I knew we could solve the problems of waste and allow for more transparency to be better at how we operate. In operations, the margins are so small that you have to be efficient.

I want better design as well. I want to be proud of what we’re building and installing and make sure that it’s meaningful. That is why the Katerra business model is also so exciting to many of us in the industry. Owning the entire supply chain, the land and delivering a much better product at a lower cost is ideal. Since high-end design usually comes with a steep price tag, the idea of this model allows for really great design to take shape and be built in a much more feasible and scalable way.

In AEC, do you want to be a commodity or have true value? … There aren’t a lot of people out there solving true pains, and that’s where the value is.

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

In AEC, do you want to be a commodity or have true value? Find your niche: find a gaping hole, solve that one thing, and try to scale it within your firm. We have a ton of project managers, superintendents, and architects willing to accept the pains of our industry daily and somewhat unwilling to test out a “better way.” There aren’t a lot of people out there solving true pains, and that’s where the value is.

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

Play it safe.

5 Questions with Growth Strategy Expert Hans Ehrnrooth

built tech labs advisor hans ehrnrooth

With an architect mother and mechanical engineer father, BuiltTech Lab‘s advisor Hans Ehrnrooth was born into the world of design and construction — although it took him a little while to find his way back to the field.

Raised in Finland, Hans began his career in business development with a paper machinery supplier. Next, he spent a decade at telecommunications giant Nokia helping them restructure and expand into Chinese markets.

It wasn’t until 2003 that Hans immersed himself in the world of construction. Finnish-based structural engineering software company Tekla hired him to grow their business in the US, and Hans quickly became fascinated by the untapped potential for collaboration he saw in the space.

These days, Hans is a highly sought-after growth strategy consultant. Hear his thoughts on the merits of big data, the impact tablets are having on construction sites, and why “real techies” use Android.

BuiltTech Labs advisor Hans Ehrnrooth spent much of his career at Nokia

Hans has been advising on mobile strategy since the mid-90s when Nokia called these smartphones communicators.

What changes have you seen for the positive in AEC?

I have seen the players showing more willingness to collaborate with one another. In the past, one of the big challenges was that there are so many different contributors to one project, and getting these contributors aligned has been a problem. Technology has helped these different areas understand one another and be willing to collaborate. We’re a long way from getting there, but that’s what BIM is about. The focus on big data, in general, is healthy. Everyone can use one collection point for the data so the coordination between the different parties and the project can actually happen.

What changes have you seen for the negative?

The slow adoption of technology. It’s hard to get someone to change… that’s what I’m experiencing in the business I’m involved in now. We’re talking about scaling up and our biggest challenge is to get people to embrace the new technology and reap the benefits of it. One reason maybe is that the technology hasn’t been prevalent in the construction business. We have a lot of people involved who have no tech education and don’t necessarily want to play with technology.

That has changed with the iPad and tablet — people have started using them in their homes, so they’re more at ease with technology when the user interfaces are so simple. It’s been easier for them to embrace it in the work environment. But still, when you go onto a construction site, you see a lot of people who are technology-adverse.

It’s worthwhile remembering that Apple hasn’t really been inventing new technologies. They’ve been perfecting the use of technologies.

What draws you to the technology side of things?

I’ve always been interested in technology. I worked for a long time with technology especially when I was working with Nokia and building telecommunications strategy for the future. That’s something that I was living every day at the time. Imagining how everything would be in the future of mobile phones. In 1995 we called it a communicator. We had emails coming into mobile phones already at that time.

I’m technically inclined when it comes to motor technology, tinkering with cars, boats etc.. When I was choosing a profession, I had to make a choice between medicine and technology. The entrance exams were on the same day. And I picked the technology side. I have never looked back.

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

Get rid of lawyers! Jokes aside, the issue about technology is that it’s worthwhile always remembering that Apple hasn’t really been inventing new technologies. They’ve been perfecting the use of technologies and building them into personal and business applications. The issue is how do you combine the technologies to create something that’s worthwhile to use and scale it. That is how you become successful.

I would also love to see people be more responsible for their own health and taking care of themselves in a better way. If there was a way to get people to manage their own health in a simple way, that’s one thing I would love to see.

Our biggest challenge is to get people to embrace the new technology and reap the benefits of it.

iOS or Android, and why?

My background was mobile phones so we used to have our own proprietary systems within Nokia. Then came Android and iOS and for the longest time, I still was stuck with the Nokia because of being related to them on the business side. But the business system Apple built was the one that swayed everyone over with ease of use. Real techies use Android because it’s “easier” to build apps on and it’s a more flexible environment for the developer, they claim.

Want to hear more from BuiltTech Labs advisors? Check out our other innovator interviews or join the community

5 Questions with BIM Expert Luther Lampkin

Luther Lampkin, BuiltTech Labs’ BIM advisor, entered the AEC industry as a drafter in 2006.

Late one night, he was stuck at the office working on a set of plans.

A janitor, who had been cleaning up piles of discarded paper, walked over to Luther’s desk.

“Hey,” he said, “have you heard about this new technology? It’s going to take over the industry pretty soon.” The janitor showed Luther printouts of Revit-generated documents which immediately caught his attention.

A lifelong technology enthusiast, Luther was excited about the potential he saw for innovation in AEC. Hungry to get ahead, Luther studied on his off hours. His competitive nature motivated him to carve a space for himself on the forefront of BIM.

Little did Luther know his big break was right around the corner. Soon, he had the opportunity to implement Revit on a few projects in Dubai. Not long after, he got brought on to build BIM models to scale for a pretty major client: Panama Canal Authority. Luther served as BIM Manager for AS+GG on the Astana World Expo 2017 project, which won the firm a 2016 AIA TAP award.

The winning design from AS+GG for the 2017 World Expo

Suffice it to say, in the past decade, this BIM expert has seen the gamut of where AEC firms are using technology well and where they’re lagging behind. He now owns a consulting firm focused on bringing technology to the world of architecture.

Here’s what he had to say about the future of AEC, including how his first job ever turned out to be the perfect training for the career of his dreams.

What changes have you seen for the positive in AEC?

Recent technology advances mean you can go to Best Buy and get an AR/VR kit. These days, you can experience the built environment before it’s even being built. We may get to the point where documentation may only exist in a model and not on physical pieces of paper. It’s a positive disruption that the industry needs to push forward.

What changes have you seen for the negative?

What I see more than anything else is a big divide between the baby boomers and the millennials. Millennials love technology; we grew up in it. The baby boomers are the ones who cut the checks. Millennials have the technology and programming savvy to drive the industry forward. If you’re an architecture major, you’re almost required to have a minor in computer science. The industry has slowed the progress it could have made because we’re used to doing things the way we’ve always done it.

Any job I get into, no matter what it is, no one would work harder than me. If I saw them come into work at 7 am, I would come into work at 6 am.

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

Be prepared to not make a lot of money. When I was a drafter, I was making the same I could have working at Target. Be prepared for long hours and not a lot of compensation. It sounds crazy but that’s the name of the game until you can set yourself apart. Which you can do through technology; hard work and effort; networking with the right people. Definitely find a mentor. That person can lead you and help you navigate you from where you are now to where you go moving forward. You’ve got to love it. You’ll blossom.

What was your first job ever?

I was a dishwasher at a really, really nice boutique restaurant. I remember that’s what set me apart at establishing a work effort. My mom was like, “You wanna be a dishwasher?!” I was 15-16 years old and I just wanted a job.

My friend worked there and we would see who could keep the dishwasher cleaner — that’s my sports background, being competitive. They made 35 different cheesecakes so it was pretty cool and it was decent money. It got me to understand that you know what — any job I get into, no matter what it is, no one would work harder than me. And I took that with me into school, industry. If I saw them come into work at 7 am, I would come into work at 6 am.

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

A predictive analytics tool that could seamlessly blend all the different tech tools that we use in a more cohesive fashion to get a more integrated, predictable outcome. Right now in our industry, most of all the tools we use aren’t universal-based. Not every software plays well with another. I would create a web-based, interoperable tool that isn’t something only a very intellectual person could use. If my mom can use an iPhone… that’s what I want to create in our field, with the same mantra: simplistic enough that anyone could use it.

Want to hear more from BuiltTech Labs advisors? Check out our other innovator interviews or join the community

5 Questions with Architect and Author Randy Deutsch

Randy Deutsch, LEED-AP is head of the grad department at the Illinois School of Architecture, one of the largest architecture colleges in the country. In addition to research and teaching classes, he has been writing a series of books over the last decade that help to advance AEC, addressing where architecture and construction is leading in the next 10 years.

One of BuiltTech Labs’ architecture advisors, Randy is also an international keynote speaker, a BIM authority who has led an executive education program at Harvard GSD, and an architect responsible for the design of over 100 large, complex sustainable projects.

Thanks to his position as a professor and researcher, Randy has valuable insight on the future of AEC–including the next generation of young professionals who are going to shape the industry for the better.

Colorful book cover against wood background

The third book in Randy Deutsch’s series on advancing AEC

What changes have you seen for the positive in AEC?

Many people bemoan the fact that AEC is very slow to change, but it’s become much more collaborative. There have been advances in recent years in project delivery methods, leveraging parametric tools like BIM, computation tools like Grasshopper or Dynamo, as well as an increased use of algorithms, access to data, and leveraging the cloud … everything from photogrammetry and other reality-capturing tools to ways to speed up scheduling and other parts of the construction process.

The ultimate goal that we’re working towards is to find a way where the entire project pipeline, from first identifying a site all the way to project completion, and even further into facilities management, ops, finances; is addressed leveraging these tools. No question, in the past 25-30 years, that is something that has absolutely advanced. It’s a positive thing because it’s spurring us on in the industry to do better and do more and not rely on the old way of doing things.

I think there is no better career to go into these days then the AEC field, especially a version of the field where a couple of those letters (A, E, and C) are connected.

What changes have you seen for the negative?

Something I interpret as negative that I address in my research is this tendency for really smart people working in the AEC industry to leave our field for what they see as greener pastures to work for startups or spinoffs. I see it as a negative that people can’t find a way in architecture, engineering, or construction to do what they need to do to move our field forward. I feel like we’ve failed them. There are certain things that are very exciting about working in a startup, so it’s a wake-upcall to firm leaders in the AEC to offer more possibilities and opportunities for growth.

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

One of the things I’m very interested in is demographics. Our current masters’ students and later are all millennials. Our undergrads through senior year are Gen Zs: they’re radically different than Gen Y or millennials. They don’t want to sit in a cubicle, be only an architect or engineer; they want to own the entire project. They’re not entitled; they’re willing to put in the time and effort. They’re entrepreneurial. They love vertical integration; exploring how things are connected.

We’re very lucky to have them coming up. They are not afraid of putting in the hours, sticking with one organization; they want to pay their dues–for that reason, there is no better career to go into these days then the AEC field. Especially a version of the field where a couple of those letters (A, E, and C) are connected. You can major in architecture and minor in computer science or construction management. You’ll be a maker, going directly to fabrication from the tools you’ll be working with. Everything today is interconnected and it’s a thrilling opportunity to be part of AEC. I wish I was graduating now.

Make a deep commitment to a project or piece of the industry — but keep your horizontal bandwidth, your social and multidisciplinary wingspan, open.

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

At the beginning of your career, it’s a good thing to dig in and work deep. One of the hardest things, when you’re first starting out, is that building projects can take three to six years, or even longer. At the same time, think of yourself as T-shaped. Make a deep commitment to a project or piece of the industry — but keep your horizontal bandwidth, your social and multidisciplinary wingspan, the top of the T, open. Whether it has to do with technology, social causes… Your current project is going to end. And you’re going to want to leverage that wingspan to work on other project types or different phases of a project. Be open, but create a model of yourself early in your career as a T-shaped individual.

Black Moleskine notebook with two stickers on it and a pen on a silver desk against a beige background

Sometimes the simplest design tools are the most effective.

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

That’s one of the great ironies. My family members snicker that I found a way to pay my mortgage by becoming one of the world’s foremost experts in digital technologies without actually using them very frequently. I’d love to be able to tell you it’s a visual programming tool like Grasshopper, but it isn’t.

I am literally using a yellow legal pad and a pen. Seriously, I can do anything with those two things. The third would be a Moleskin because I can come up with anything using it. Maybe it’s the imagination – and relying on oneself – that’s the actual tool, as opposed to the paper. Paper, pen, and my imagination.


Want to hear more from BuiltTech Labs advisors? Check out our other innovator interviews or go ahead and join the community

Your building is talking. Are you listening?

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]

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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

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.


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.


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.

Thornton Tomasetti President Asks, “Innovation: Theatre or Action?”

This post is written by Ray Daddazio, President of Thornton Tomasetti, from his notes that he took down during a lecture in January of this year. The event was sponsored jointly by Columbia University’s Business School in conjunction with Columbia Entrepreneurship, and was hosted by Chris McGarry, Director for Entrepreneurship in the University Office of Alumni and Development. Rita McGrath, a professor of management at the Business School known for her work on strategy, innovation and entrepreneurship, moderated the discussion. She is also teaching an online course called  “Mastering Corporate Entrepreneurship.” On the panel were Steve Blank, a Senior Fellow for Entrepreneurship at Columbia and serial entrepreneur and Brian Murray, President & CEO of HarperCollins Publishers.

Thornton Tomasetti Project - McCormick Place

Innovation: Theatre or Action?

The motivation of the lecture is focused on the fact that corporate entrepreneurship is a very hot topic these days. However, despite all the talk, actual innovation performance comes nowhere near to delivering on its promise. We are perhaps five years into the latest flurry of excitement about the prospects for innovation-fueled growth. Companies have traveled to Silicon Valley in droves, sponsored innovation boot camps, trained innovation ninjas, and otherwise promised their stakeholders that innovation is front and center on their agendas.

And yet, evidence suggests much of this activity is just ‘Innovation Theater.’ Indeed, how many corporations focus their cultures around an innovation playbook, and train all staff in innovation practices? In a recent McKinsey study, approximately 65% of executives surveyed reported that they were unhappy with their organization’s inability to innovate. That said, McKinsey also discovered that, “On the contrary, senior executives almost unanimously—94 percent—say that people and corporate culture are the most important drivers of innovation.”

What’s Next for Corporate Innovation?

Similar research shows that corporations are spending a lot more of their profits on things like share buybacks and dividends than they are on innovation. So, what’s next for corporate innovation? The speakers identified five major categories of executive movement:

  • Large corporations are world-class executions engines, and they now need to move at the speed of a start-up and don’t have the talent to do so. For example, Macy’s/Sears versus Amazon.
  • McKinsey’s three horizons of innovation:
    1. Incremental innovation around core business – 60%-70% of resources
    2. Adjacent business (extend and tweak portfolio) – 15%-20%
    3. Transformational (disruptive: Kindle, iPhone, long term bets) 10%-25%
  • Most CEOs come from the first horizon:
    • Leaders align budgets, promotions, other incentives for execution not innovation
    • Going from idea to good idea to acceleration of good idea is difficult
  • Providing an incentive for innovation:
    • Finance and HR are usually out of sync
    • We cannot shoot the core business, because it pays the bills
    • Balance (between sustaining core vs. disruptive innovation) is tricky and difficult to achieve
    • Need a “re-factoring group” or process that sits between innovation and execution to help work proceed seamlessly understanding limitation of each side.
  • Executives must know the difference between “innovation” and “entrepreneurship”:
    • Anyone can be innovative; the CEO just needs to get rid of the obstacles
    • McKinsey’s Horizons 1 and 2 just need innovation and continuous improvement
    • The CEO sets and ingrains a culture of quality as a mindset of the organization

Best Chance for Success at Thornton Tomasetti

The information shared in this excellent lecture reaffirms Thornton Tomasetti’s approach. These are the driving issues that lead to success or failure of most corporate innovation attempts. Setting up the TTWiiN incubator and hiring The Combine addresses the main issues identified by panel.  And, this model offers us the very best chance for success.