February 14, 2013
Some might think social media is only good for constructors (and designers) with nothing better to do than shift through the self-promoting babble found in the constant banter of marketing information on Facebook or MySpace. But they have it wrong.
For many project managers, social media is a way to see both the big picture of what’s happening in the industry and eavesdrop on what their competitors are doing. In practice, they are able to mine public information by reading posts and searching keywords to build competitive strategies in an ever changing construction industry.
Twitter is simple and spontaneous
In particular, the simplicity and off-handed comments found in apps like Twitter bring out unguarded exchanges that are telling when seen in the context of a stream of related tweets. This includes inadvertent security breaches by marketing staff and employees about current or pending projects.
You might think nothing substantive can be said in 140 characters, but add a consistent presence in a Twitter timeline along with links and pictures and these seemingly innocuous little posts begin to reflect not only a broad view of the industry, but a particular company’s way of thinking. As such, it doesn’t take long to read, recognize, and evaluate the collective thoughts found in the underlying messages that are exposed by this media.
This deeper understanding of a group’s thinking is in fact what makes Twitter valuable as a collaborative tool. In fact, any idea that Twitter is just for sending, sorting, and searching messages misses the power of this new media to visually direct a team’s collective consciousness toward a single minded focus.
Twitter as a management tool
The key to using Twitter as a management tool is to harness this interaction in a carefully controlled Twitter list or account. The objective is literally to crowd source the project from its inception, deeply embedding “buy-in” for team members as they are invited to join as followers. Important is that as followers, they are invited into the group and remain only as long as they add value to the team as a whole. In other words, their tweets become a measure of the value they bring to the collaborative efforts of the team as a whole.
In these exchanges, the concise nature of a tweet means project communications are no longer delayed or distorted by staged meetings, reports, proposals, or carefully rendered models. Instead spontaneous messages are sent immediately as part of a continuous flow of input, ideas, and second screen comments that shape the ongoing communications between active team members.
The value of Twitter is therefore the immediacy of the media itself. Participating in the conversation is like feeling the pulse of the entire project team, mashed together into a project long stream of consciousness that is visible in the flow of tweets, retweets, replies, hashtags, and comments, supplemented by photos, video, illustrations, and model images that carry their own perceptive insights.
SketchUp and Twitter
SketchUp adds to these interactions with site scans, photographs, videos, and illustrations from construction models that reinforce content with an immediate visual context for each tweet.
Collaboration begins between principals using site utilization models and overlays to establish scope, later in massing studies, simplified design models, and engineering as early images are gradually mixed by select followers with line item specific content from spreadsheets and schedules.
Like the tweets themselves, cumbersome documents are reduced to real time snapshots, visually gif-ifying content by clarifying collaborative exchanges from concept, through construction, and into facilities management.
Twitter apps are tools
The apps used to contribute and maintain this content are an ever changing collection of programs that were once used to send simple quick posts to a public forum, but have now advanced into sophisticated tools that incorporate multi-project administration. These include:
Short message service (SMS), still the fastest way to tweet images and video into a project account. Twitter uses short codes to sync text messages and images directly into an account from any cell phone with a camera.
Twitter also has an app that makes tweeting a little more complicated. The app has four icons: Home for your current timeline, Connect to track Interactions/Mentions, Discover as the search menu, and Me for settings and profiles. Click the New Tweet icon in the upper right corner to tweet and add a picture, video, or a library image.
Tweetdeck works pretty much the same way as the Twitter app, except it categorizes tweets into separate timelines. Image attachments are currently limited to Library Photos and Take Photo, but no videos, which eliminates motion captures (except via YouTube). Names have been changed to Home, Me, Inbox, and Search as you swipe horizontally to access adjacent screens.
HootSuite adds menu features to manage lists as categories of followers. It has a Compose menu for tweets, with images limited to Take Photo and Choose From Library, again no video, except through YouTube. Hootsuite’s menus also include Streams instead of Home, a Search function, Stats, and Contacts.
Posterous is one of the most comprehensive of the Twitter apps. Instead of lists, Posterous uses Spaces to divide content. Each Space is actually a micro-blog/website where any member in the Space can contribute longer descriptive text along with a range of photos, videos, and illustrations. Text and images are posted through tweets, emails, or directly within the Posterous program.
In the end, each of these apps has its limitations, with some, like GroupTweets, fading with obsolescence and inattention. At the same time, to maintain the value of immediate and unguarded collaborative exchanges, a Twitter app should be simple and fast enough to serve its purpose as an immediately useable multimedia messaging tool.
December 12, 2012
It’s hard to believe but the first commercially available email programs didn’t appear until the late 1980’s, and though the communication benefits of electronic messaging were clear by the mid 90’s, many construction companies didn’t use email until the very late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
2D Techs or Construction Managers
In fact, it took a new generation of project managers to introduce this simple technology to reluctant old-timers – and as most would admit, the fight goes on.
For example, now that cell phones and voice mail have become standards for project communications, some offices actually still take messages on hand written note pads, while senior managers without keyboard skills have assistants write memos and handle emails for them, finding computers intrusive, distracting, and perhaps a little frightening.
At the same time, according to a recent tweet from The Mortensen Company, more contractors now use BIM software than designers. Of course, it goes without saying that the average builder has no idea who Mortensen is, and though construction companies may claim to own some version of BIM software, complex 3D modeling is largely ignored for spreadsheets, print outs, and face to face fieldwork during actual construction. Even at Mortensen’s.
BIM in the Real World
It’s no secret then that BIM software requires trained technicians, anchored to software and graphic workstations that require constant updates and attention. In practice, working with this kind of technology is simply not practical on most jobsites, especially when a rolled out set of printed 2d contract documents are the basis for the actual scope of the work.
It’s also important to point out that design, including BIM and its 2D documents are only a very small part of the real world of construction management. Based on the value and cost of services, barely 10% of the entire process is design, permitting, and preconstruction, and of that, perhaps half of the effort falls into actual BIM production.
90% of Construction is Communications
Following the money, the focus should be on what is happening on the jobsite and finding ways to communicate more efficiently with the real world that surrounds it.
Especially considering that today, computer programs like SketchUp transfer files over the internet, send emails from menu selections, and automatically upload images, cost and schedule data, and daily reports to the cloud as a common way of storing, cataloging, and accessing construction information.
For a new generation of managers, communications between team members now occurs on PDAs (personal data assistants), immediately using smart phones to photo, scan, text, and tweet annotated images and video exported from SketchUp to coordinate project activities.
Mobility is the New Norm
The mobility of these new devices and their ability to access an unlimited combination of resources has become a fundamental part of a continuous and instantaneous flow of project communications.
All of which is broadcasted wirelessly via satellite, cells, or broadband routers, giving managers immediate access to project information, the web for searches and bookmarks, networking platforms like Linked In and Facebook for market and background information, and graphical tools like You-Tube, image reference libraries, and animations for process control.
Today, the challenge is to understand how to use these new technologies effectively for construction communications, waiting again for a new generation of builders to demonstrate their competitive value in the real world.
November 14, 2012
Builders who chose to be “outsiders” use random objects as form-givers, apply them as immediate solutions, stockpile them for some future application, or recognize some latent potential that inspires an entirely new direction in a constantly evolving architectural form.
Outsiders touch at the soul of a self-taught vision, human feelings, and an unmediated freedom of expression. Free from the constraints of stylistic trends and social expectations, these builders sculpt their constructions in real time.
Guided by instinct and a hands-on feel for their material, these self-taught builders use intuition and their own internal logic to assemble buildings that stand outside the mainstream of our more common social constructions. What we see as a result appears disordered to the institutionalized eye because they stand outside the boundaries of a straight and level world.
Homebuilt house builders are also outsiders. They too are self-taught, intuitive, and self-determined. They also work to assemble a house without a plan according to random opportunities, not knowing when the work will ever be completed, or what it might look like if it ever is eventually finished.
What we see in a homebuilt house is architecture in motion, constantly evolving, responding to opportunities, material finds, and the insecurities of their uncertain worlds. Because they work on the margins of a formal economy, the construction of their buildings extends deep into an informal economy, where self-determination and self-reliance are largely misunderstood because of the characteristic chaos of what is a materially impoverished architectural vernacular.
As the product of informal transactions, these buildings are interesting counterpoints to the formal practices of modern construction industries, opening a window into the constraints modern builders face, including diminished craft for contracts and limited creative contributions in the buildings that they build. Their exclusion comes from the abstract explanations used to represent real world construction.
What outsider architecture points to is how difficult it is to plan and capture its buildings in a 2D drawing or even a 3D model prior to their actual construction. By definition, outsider architecture, whether artistic or impoverished, defy preplanned abstractions.
Two-dimensional abstractions came with social controls that introduced specializations. Beginning with commissioned oil paintings that vaguely suggested a direction for builders to follow, these illustrations came to separate craft from construction. With industrialization and modernity, paintings evolved into technical drawings, ink on linen, then 1000h, vellum, Mylar, and finally CAD — now hyped as BIM/3D (to 2D).
In the end, it’s these cut and paste, two-dimensional tools that have come to shape our sense of order. Along with the predictability of the processes they dictate, the builder has been long removed from the creative process, forced to follow contractual documents as a linear and unimaginative legal obligation.
“…process becomes a substitute for thinking.” Elon Musk
Of course, without a plan, there can be no permits, contracts, or predictable outcomes to their architecture. But there is also a freedom in the absence of a plan to build structures in ways that parallel the hands-on origins of architecture as an outsider, allowing builders to think creatively in the field.
At the same time, there’s value in capturing and understanding an outsider’s method, not in anticipation of an installation or to analyze alternate assemblies, but as a device to definitively track and deconstruct an erratic and unpredictable process in order to validate the logic of its construction.
These are buildings that do not fit well in an abstract 2D world, instead they are piece-based and resource driven, and must be sequenced and animated in real-time to interactively identify each piece as part of an erratic assembly, exactly as it occurs in the real world.
Unlike the linear BIM to 2D translations used in the field today, the indeterminate nature of outsider architecture requires multidimensional construction models that draw on the full potential of computational tools just now becoming available.
A good example of these new tools is the SimFonIA Animation Plug-in for SketchUp. Almost a complete rewrite of the SketchUp interface, the software allows outsiders to animate a piece-based construction model by directly controlling the graphical attributes of groups and components within the model. This includes the use of key frames as predefined transformations and relative motions between objects during an intermittent assembly process.
Because the hierarchy of the groups is respected by SAT’s software, attributes and transformations respond to time, gravity, and conflicts, allowing builders to revisit and replay undocumented sequences in order to understand or further explain what was, at least at the time, an otherwise indeterminate process. A construction document that follows these kinds of object oriented data relationships opens the door to a real time, interactive, multidimensional construction document as a system of graphical information.
The value of such a document is obvious to a builder who works outside the bureaucratic constraints of our regulatory governments. But to mainstream practitioners, institutionalized methods and formalized practices mean such an open-ended approach to construction communication remains well beyond the margins of our now antiquated BIM/3D (to 2D) standards.
November 10, 2011
A 3D construction model starts by first “fabricating” the pieces for the construction and then assembling them exactly as they would be put together in the real world. You can make the pieces as you build the model, or copy and paste them from any previous models. Inferences and guidelines simplify the assembly and the final quality of the construction.
SketchUp’s Components or Groups?
The key to fast construction modeling is to keep the pieces named and organized so that they are readily available for both field changes and new constructions. The best way to keep a large collection of proprietary pieces organized is in a library folder on your hard-drive.
Alternatively, for some projects, you might want to set up a virtual staging area in the same or a separate SketchUp model file. Lay-down yards or staging areas help visually control materials and manage inventory.
Pieces you drag into a model from a library folder are always Components, while pieces you copy from a virtual staging area can be either Groups or Components. The difference is important because Groups can be edited without affecting copies of the group in the same model. But Components must be made “unique” so they can be edited without affecting their clones or matching copies.
For a construction model, minor changes to a series of Components can quickly overwhelm even a simple piece-based assembly. It’s much faster to Explode, Group, Edit and rename the Component as a new Group, especially if you use the Outliner to track a materials list.
Explode, regroup, and rename
Inferences, as visual hints in SketchUp make it possible to quickly assemble the pieces. There are three basic types of Inferences that are important to construction modeling:
1. First, there are the Inferences found on the body of the piece itself. These include edges, faces, midpoints, and corners. Each is a snap point for one of SketchUp’s tools.
Hover over the piece with the Move or Rotate tool to see inference hints. Then click to snap the tool to that position and start the command sequence.
2. Motion Inferences are red, green, or blue dashed lines that become visible as you Move or Rotate a piece parallel to a SketchUp axis. The Shift key constrains the motion. Press the left, right, or up arrow key to lock movement to an axis. The Control key is used to leave a copy.
3. Reference Inferences are similar to motion Inferences. They display a dotted line when two Inference points are aligned. Touch the reference Inference point with the cursor while moving or rotating a piece into position to let SketchUp know the desired alignment. Here’s where the Shift or arrow keys are often necessary to constrain the move.
Centerlines and guidelines
To assemble cylinders (pipes, tubes, and fittings) use mating extensions. The extension can be a projection from the centerline of the piece or any other axis important to the assembly. A fixed length extension makes it possible to quickly join their endpoints and then move the pieces together.
Guidelines are necessary to ensure the quality of the final construction in the same way stringlines and chalklines are required in the field by any good builder. They act as temporary references for site layout, as well as intersecting snap points to locate plates, studs, and rafters. Guidelines are also important to center window and door frames, position equipment and furnishings, and install parts of a building’s system.
Piece-based process model
When pieces are assembled and tracked in virtual construction in the same way as they would be on a jobsite, the sequence and scope of the work is automatically built into the construction model. And when these same pieces are nested into sub-assemblies, phases, and sub contracts in the Outliner, their visibility can also be controlled.
This makes it possible to both illustrate and animate the scope of the work, adding new potential to your practice and your market presence as a builder and construction manager.
ConXtech: A Revolution in Steel Framing Systems
September 8, 2011
A construction model is about construction communications and not design. These are simple 3D and 2D models that can be staged and sequenced to illustrate a technical process that many (if not most) designers don’t really understand. It’s simply not what they’re paid or trained to do.
Design engineers and architects use complex building information models (BIM) to document the requirements for a completed building. Instead, a construction model is a graphical tool used to visually manage the construction process. The model frees constructors from a tradition of diagrammed dependencies that often leave them on the receiving end of a one way conversation.
A simple visual explanation
For example, imagine what would happen if a builder pulled a pencil stub out of his or her tool belt, grabbed a scrap piece of paper from a trash pile, and used it to sketch a detail for the designer to take back to the office and draft. With that drawing, the builder just stepped back into a time when visual explanations were a natural part of construction management.
The “art” of scratching lines on the earth, marking corners with stakes, and notching stones with chisels stands at the Paleolithic beginnings of construction. The earliest construction drawings were prehistoric ideograms, visual gestures used to represent an idea that needed no words or dimensions to layout and complete the construction.
In the field, chisel marks, mockups, strings, and plumbs were used along with chalk, straight edges, and protractors to physically layout the work. These were spontaneous graphical devices that builders used to manage the construction process. Important is that the workers using these visual tools were builders and not designers, markings and models were part of the way buildings and bridges got built.
Evolution of the explanation
Somewhere in the evolution of construction communications, these early field markings were scaled to paper and parchment and what was once a working drawing became a contract document. As such, field drawings became technical representations, drafted to stand as an abstraction of values and no longer seen as a tool integral to the flow of the work.
As a result, diagrams and models that were once used as management tools, drifted away from early builders to become their own kind of technical art. Drawn by skilled draftspersons, first with pen and ink, then vellum and calibrated pencil, Mylar and waxed lead, and eventually vectored lines on a computer monitor, these documents became the dominant voice on the jobsite.
Today drawings and specifications are extracted from BIM models, plotted on reams of paper, labeled as “information,” and distributed almost as an after thought to the subcontractors and workers in the field. What was once a straightforward visual explanation has become a static construct, built to reference the legal requirements of a contract, obfuscated to a point where many experienced designers no longer need to understand how to operate the underlying model. The result is tedious, even for those trained and paid to perform….
Output from the BIM remains as a graphical explanation, but the drawings are now much too deeply entangled in their own internal complexities for any real collaborative input, especially from workers trying to put something together in the field. This means alternatives that could once be considered and grudgingly erased and redrawn by a draftsperson, must now be painstakingly reconstructed within the layers and references of a complex model.
As a result, a BIM model is simply not intended to spontaneously respond to new ideas. Instead, it anchors a preconceived approach into a muddle of memory and menus, creating the illusion of a collaborative process.
Real-world collaboration only succeeds when simple explanations can be generated on the fly, well before they’re cast into the murky depths of a model. This might still include the stub of a pencil and a scrap of paper, but on a post-modern jobsite, it’s just as likely to include a tablet computer and a few taps on an open-source program, capturing and communicating process-alternatives using a straightforward construction model.
BIM is a design tool
In short, simple construction modeling programs (like SketchUp) do not even come close to challenging the entrenched commitments most firms have for BIM technology. Output generated from a designer’s BIM models are contractual statements of static intent, rendered as a motionless landscape, representing the finished product.
In contrast, quick and simple construction models are used to generate animations, study sequences, and capture images in order to manage the flow of the work. That means they support real-work in real-time, fulfilling the real-need for immediate visual explanations on a real-world jobsite. The same explanations once found in an ancient tradition of graphic communications in construction.
May 23, 2011
Technologies like Twitter and Facebook are beginning to demonstrate the potential of social media for construction and construction management. This began with some construction companies promoting their services with photographs and marketing material, but has recently evolved into a new set of tools for construction management. Tools that add a social dimension to project-based information.
What’s interesting is that this new dimension sets up a casual relationship between production teams and project owners as a “community” of mutual interests. The result is a computer mediated space where a stream of informal posts add a deeper understanding of the day to day challenges faced on the jobsite. For example, take a look at the website for Pentland Homes, Oehlberg Construction, and Lyons Sitework.
Though content differs for these companies, what comes across in the postings, comments, and “like-clicks” is a community of interests centered on not only a particular project, but the concerns of the company’s managers. In other words, what we see are the social values associated with their work. These are the same values that are usually buried by formal transactions commonly found in construction communications.
Recognizing the value of these social associations to construction is a lot like seeing into the reality of the one and two-dimensional worlds described in the book, Flatland by Edwin Abbott, 1884.
In this book, women are lines while men are segmented polygons. However, when viewed along their one dimensional edges both line and polygon appear the same. It takes the invasion of a three-dimensional sphere to even suggest that there may be a dimension beyond the flattened world-view of a single dimension.
While the narrator in the book (a square) struggles to explain a second dimension where both line and polygon can be seen for what they are, it takes the invasion of a three-dimensional sphere into Flatland to expose the limits of their narrowly defined perceptive understandings. But even as the sphere clearly demonstrates the limitations of 2D by introducing the spatial superiority of 3D, the sphere refuses to consider the logical assumption that there must be yet another dimension beyond its own.
As a social commentary, Abbott goes beyond structured dimensional consciousness into a allegory on social order and class based prejudices. For construction communications, what he points to is the difficulty of changing immediate and long held perceptions of the way things ought-to-be, in order to recognize the potentials that come from new dimensional insights.
The 4D Doodler
In the same way, Ralph Waldeyer writes of the complexity of multidimensional experiences. In his book, The 4-D Doodler, 1941, he describes the confusions and misunderstandings that his characters experience as they slip in and out of a fourth dimension. As they are pulled in and out of the spatial warps of 4D, their understandings are clearly bound by the limits of their own three-dimensional experiences.
For them, 4D is something to be feared and avoided. Waldeyer describes how each one of his characters struggles in different ways to deal with being partially or wholly in and out of a different dimension. His lesson is that it’s quite possible for objects to exist in more than one dimension at the same time. Their only limitation is their inherent ability to deal with these multidimensional world views.
Push Pop Press
The ideas illustrated in these books show how dimensional change disrupts our response to new perceptions. This includes the challenges faced in simply recognizing the potential of these alternate dimensions. For example take a look at Mike Matas’ presentation at a recent TED conference on the next-generation digital book.
Though the book is said to be the number one book on ITunes, in the end its really not much more than an imaginative interactive website viewed on an Iphone or Ipad. What’s important is that Matas points to the potential of a multidimensional communications tool that requires the same perceptual shift suggested in Flatland and The 4D Doodler.
For those locked in a traditional way of doing business, the very notion of another dimension remains somehow tightly held by higher, more mysterious powers. This means the transparencies of social media and the capacity of the web to deliver deeper levels of graphical information, raise both fear and frustration as new dimensions disrupt long standing traditions of construction management. Traditions that are rapidly changing in a new age of hypergraphic construction communications.
January 8, 2011
“Virtualization” became popular for desktop computers in 2007 as operating systems, memory, and data storage became more affordable. By definition, virtualization is the creation of a virtual rather than actual version of something (Wikipedia).
In practice, it’s a way of partitioning computer memory to set up distinct programs or data sectors on a hard-drive or network servers. The idea is to organize information and software so it’s faster to access as stored memory, expanding the operational potential of different kinds of computational devices.
The entire computational world has now been virtualized. Today, internet resources, wireless networks, and the increased graphical capabilities of electronic devices continue to expand exponentially.
This means information is no longer stored on isolated standalone work stations, programming environments no longer operate from a single server, and many computers are no longer physically connected to a grid.
The result is that users have been literally liberated from their desktops.
Instead, a cloud of resources, including thousands of constantly evolving applications, are now available wirelessly on networked devices that fit in the palm of your hand. These little machines are highly mobile, require no mouse or keyboard, and display graphics, motion, and details in ways that are literally impossible to duplicate on ordinary computers.
Even more important is the variety of open source resources available to these handheld displays. This is best seen in the changing structure of how information is delivered across virtualized networks.
For example, look at this posting on the Google Earth Blog. It shows how far virtualized information has come. First as a blog article that uses a single web page to explain a complex phenomenon with a simple display of graphical information; second as an animated introduction to the capability of one of the most stunning visual resources on the web (Google Earth); and finally, as a link to emerging virtualized environments that deliver information that behaves as if it has a life of its own (WikiLeaks).
Cloud computing evolved from virtualization and exists as a byproduct of the internet. It offers networked applications as construction tools that draw from the wealth of segmented information now stored anonymously on servers scattered around the world.
A cloud can be private or public. Public clouds like Google, Wikipedia, and RSMeans are available to everybody. This makes them available as common references accessible to an entire project team. As such they help define the scope of work, motivations for project decisions, and research for alternative values.
Structured clouds like Heavy Equipment 2, American Builders, Craig’s List or eBay are where contractors find and price tools, materials, equipment, and labor. Construction resources are traded daily on these virtualized servers, often with links to detailed manufacturer information in the public sectors of private clouds.
Private clouds are networks or centers that offer proprietary information or software services. Market oriented explanations are used to capture interested users, while subscribers pay a fee for deeper access and technical support.
Examples include, Sage Construction, PrioSoft, and CMO Compliance. The advantages of expert tools based in a private cloud include lower startup costs, transparency and mobility, training and technical support, access to a community of users, and continuous backup and software upgrades.
In the end, design and construction companies are only as successful as their knowledge-base. As such, the cloud works to the benefit of those that can comfortably access its potential, delivering innovative tools and immediate information to the fingertips of a new class of virtualized professionals.
That’s a competitive advantage that’s as true for construction professionals, as it is for medical doctors, research scientists, and high school seniors.
As many small and large constructors work hard, struggling to maintain relevance in a quickly evolving economy, it doesn’t take much to see the advantage of such a compelling and flexible new resource.
Virtualized Construction Managers
In just a couple of years, the game has changed. Work stations are now seen to be confining constructors to desktops, blocking the flow of clear project communications. These cumbersome computers are becoming the aging anchors of an office-based technology that keeps team members from the face-to-face-on-the-jobsite interactions required for quick and efficient construction management.
It’s becoming fairly obvious that we are entering an era of flexible, highly mobile, communicative practices, backed by visual information displays, visible on a clipboard-sized touch pad tablet, wireless connected to a cloud.