The Missing Discussion in Construction Labor Productivity

The historical trend of labor productivity is oft-referenced in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry. In a nutshell, construction productivity over the last 50 years has been nearly flat while all other similar industries have had robust gains. Stanford University’s Dr. Paul Teicholz has a detailed analysis of this trend. Construction Industry Resources, LLC has a similar viewpoint, and the consulting company McKinsey adds their take. But there's one discussion that we think is important to note because it is an integral part of our industry and deserves more discussion.

We're adding tech to the AEC industry that improves workflow productivity, but where are the overall productivity gains?

As an industry, we need to discuss this problem so that we're adding technology in ways that realize value for our stakeholders. Consider the technology we've added to the AEC industry over the last 50 years:

  1. Drawing reproduction. We’ve gone from ammonia-based reproduction to full digital reproduction to solutions like PlanGrid.
  2. Jobsite communications. Fax machines largely replaced couriers and mail on jobsites. Now they themselves are obsolete, replaced by Internet connections.
  3. Cellphones. Nearly everyone on a jobsite now has a cellphone and many have smartphones in their pockets.
  4. Document management systems. Solutions for document management range from very large ERPs, such as CMICProcore, or Aconex, to individual RFI log replacements.
  5. Building information modeling (BIM). BIM is clearly a newer trend with significant impact that gets a lot of attention.

If each of these technological improvements results in better productivity of a particular workflow, why doesn’t overall productivity improve? A recent piece in Equipment World posits that the adoption of such time-saving technology is hindered by a divide between tech culture, where language can be ambiguous, and "construction culture," where language is clear (labels mean what they say). "System failure" is not an option. This is the discussion that should be taking place in AEC: How do we encourage the adoption of new tools that have the potential to dig us out of the 50-year productivity rut?

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