Innovation in AEC & "the Macomber Line"

We're going to be bold and coin a new term: "the Macomber Line." The Macomber Line is a combination of concepts that we believe are very important to innovation in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) space.

This term is in reference to an individual who is both an industry veteran and and an insightful visionary. John Macomber is a lecturer at both Harvard University and MIT, an investor in construction software, a former general contractor, and a real estate developer. Macomber wrote a paper (requires purchase) that we often cite in our conversations around innovation because it describes how construction economics directly impact innovation.

Innovation across industries generally results in an improvement in cost efficiency. In many industries, innovation results in higher profits for the innovating party. Macomber, however, points out how construction does not follow this path. In AEC, there may be a short-term profit increase for a firm doing innovative work, but the real benefit of innovation is that it is used to win the next project by lowering costs below those of competitors. In effect, the AEC industry "gives away" higher profits to project owners in exchange for winning the project bid.

Our new term is a vertical line on the project schedule that represents the bidding phase of a project. This is demonstrated on the following graph, which should be recognizable to any student of construction management:


This graph describes the ability to control project costs over time, and the Macomber Line describes the inflection of this influence because the process of bidding locks in direct costs, as well as risks related to particular subcontractors. It is important because it is a demarcation that describes the potential of an innovation relevant to project cost. Innovations in the AEC space can then be described as being "left" or "right" of the Macomber Line.

For example, let's pretend there's a jobsite food truck innovation that increases the productivity of workers. Perhaps it vends great-tasting caffeinated hot dogs. This innovation would be "right of the Macomber Line." Let's say the innovation gains widespread adoption. What happens? Subcontractors realize a cost efficiency because of higher worker productivity and they lower their costs to win the next project.

Let's pivot our caffeinated hot dog concept and park it near AEC design offices.  The added caffeination magically results in coordinated drawings with no RFIs. This results in higher-quality subcontractor bids with fewer unknowns. Our caffeinated sausage innovation is "left of the Macomber Line" and the innovation directly affects bidding outcomes on a per-project basis. This has significant value because it hedges risk when risk can still affect a large segment of cost. 

Innovation for its own sake does not necessarily translate to a reduction in overall costs. New technology and innovative processes need to be developed and focused where they have the greatest impact. After all, who doesn't want more for less?


Make sure to check out our website and see the work we’re doing in computational BIM and the automation of MEP modeling. BuildingSP is at the forefront of the application of generative design to AEC, and we look forward to better tools changing how we specify BIM on projects. You can contact us at