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.
The construction industry has found itself at a crossroads. While the industry has been resistant to change, the built world around it has not been — and the need for additional housing, offices, schools, hospitals and more in shorter timeframes is only growing. As product manufacturers of all kinds have retooled with replicability and expediency in mind, construction companies are taking note of their success.
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