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Eddie talks about one of his favorite history topics, The Civil War, and how that relates to the construction industry. Also we establish why Blockchain could help us answer RFI quicker!
He has made the connection and walks us through how the changes and advancements in technology can cause gaps in our tactics. He shows some examples from the Civil War on how educated people can make poor decisions because technology has passed them by. Don’t let technology make what you are doing obsolete. Improvise, adapt, and better yourself to fulfill needs and widen margins.
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Tyler: Welcome to the Construction Brothers Podcast. I'm your host, Tyler Campbell, and with me like he is every week: my brother, Eddie Campbell.
Eddie: Hello, Tyler.
Tyler: Hello, Eddie. Well, we got an awesome show for you today. We are going to be talking about what happens when technology changes and the tactics don't. So I think we're gonna just get right into it.
Tyler: Eddie, you posted something on the blog recently that I thought had a lot of potential for an episode.
Eddie: Actually, I posted something on the blog ‘cause I said I wanted to have an episode, and you said, “Write me a blog first.”
Tyler: Yeah, that too. So you wrote the blog, we shared it out at brospodcast.com. Go check that out if you haven't. It is called “Tech and Tactics.” Really, I wanted to kind of get your take on this. What was the reason behind the blog?
Eddie: The reason was, I'm a history junkie. I love looking back and learning lessons from the past. And I just saw a great parallel between the Civil War and something that I've heard a lot as I've watched shows about the Civil War and read books about the Civil War—and that is that the Civil War was a time of great technological advancement. And because of that, you had this gap formed between the tactics that were being used in the Civil War by the leadership and the technology that was available.
Tyler: So you use an example in your blog post. Can you walk that down for us? What were you talking about?
Eddie: Yeah, I mean, I use just a small example of how really gruesome the Civil War was. The Civil War was a bloody war. It was known as, or is known as, America's bloodiest war. And the reason for that is what we're talking about. You know, we had Gatling guns, and cannon with canister spray, and just like all of these nasty weapons. They went from single shot muzzle loading rifles to repeaters by the end of the war. But our tactics were still, put a pile of men in a field and march them across that thing right into the face of enemy fire. And so, because of that, a lot of men died. I mean, the casualty rates were a lot of battles. Fifty percent, you know, I mean— I use the example of the University Grace from Ole Miss. They had a, it was 300 something people that volunteered, young men that volunteered, and of those men, like all of them were lost and Pickett's charge at Gettysburg. It was a horrific outcome for not having tactics that acknowledged that there were new technological advancements.
Tyler: You mentioned something in the blog, too, that Pickett, along with a lot of the other generals there, were educated. They were all educated at West Point.
Eddie: Yeah. Both sides of the war were educated at West Point. I mean it was the finest place to go get a military education. And I mean, we're not dealing with uneducated or unintelligent men. We were dealing with the most intelligent leaders of the day, and many of them were in the same classes at West Point, and then as the Civil War did to so many families, so many friends, it divided us right down the state lines. Pickett was one that actually stayed embittered long after the war, because Robert E. Lee had sent him on that particular charge, had sent his men in there, because he got annihilated. And it was really, it was at the hands of this advanced technology. I mean these firearms, they were so efficient. And you know, I mean from a history aspect it’s all very interesting, but it's kind of like, well, how does that tie over, right? How do I even make that leap into construction? Well, guess what? In construction, we are in a period of great technological advancement. And the parallel is that, until we've got tech in our hands, we don't really have an opportunity to kind of learn how to use it. Right? So I mean, until the repeater came out, there was nobody out there that really had, you know, had expertise in how to use a repeater, how to best reload it, how to get as many shots out of it as possible, and what its capabilities were. It wasn't until they put it into men's hands and they used it that they were able to figure these things out, and then, you know, the tactics started to change and morph to match the technology. And construction, same bit. We've got technology in our hands and that technology in a lot of cases is new. I mean, this has been a technological Renaissance over the past five, ten years. Over the last 15 since I've been in, I mean, we've gone from very basic 3D modeling, walking into the job site trailer and surprising everybody that you have something in 3D and them thinking, “Wow, that's so amazing,” to now we're expected to do things with that. And tactic has had to form around all that technology, and in many instances I still think that though we have all this tech, we have not properly formed our tactics around it.
Tyler: Definitely. Now you had multiple points around this, too, and I kind of wanted you to walk us through, okay, so what are the things that you're seeing in the industry right now that would really plug into what you're talking about?
Eddie: Yeah, RFI has to stick out as one of the most inefficient ways that we are using technology right now. Because with an RFI, and this is me speaking from the absolute bottom of the food chain, right? We live on the detailing end, we’re at the bottom end of construction, sometimes describing ourselves as lower than pond scum here. We're just like, you know, we're the sub of a sub of a sub in many instances doing shop drawings. But the thing that we do is what makes the building go together well or not. Because if we draw it wrong, it gets built wrong. And if we set the shop up, they might build it exactly to our spec, but if it goes out there and goes “clank” when they try to install it, we've got issues. In many instances, we're reaching for info. Because I haven't met a perfect set of design documents yet. I don't know if anybody else has out there, but I have not seen that perfect set of CDs yet. And as a result of that request for information, RFI happen. And as those RFI happen right now, the method that we have, current method, is strict chain of command RFI. So that means I'm down here at the bottom, and I've got a PM over me, and he's got a PM over him, and sometimes that guy's got a PM over him, and then he's got a design group beyond him, maybe not even under his control, and then there's an owner out there—sometimes involved, sometimes less so—and all of these people want to see information. And our method right now is bump, bump, bump, bump, bump, up the chain we go, until it reaches the destination, the person's hands it actually needed to fall into, whether that's the architect, the engineers, the owners, whoever it may be. They get to answer the RFI, and then how does it fall? It rainfalls back down. That same chain of command dunt, dunt, dunt, dunt, dunt, until it gets back to me. The problem is if I don't do a good job of phrasing my question. Or, an overzealous PM that had somebody tell him, “Hey, don't just pass on and forward a question, rewrite it in your own words and make it make sense,” and then he botches it, or you know, he just, he doesn't quite get the concept. Or for whatever reason, the designer just doesn't have their head wrapped around it and they give half an answer, well, down it comes, and that period of time is gone. And so we've got a serious time-lapse that's happened, a lot of frustration, and a terrible inefficiency in our industry. And my case is that we have tech on hand that would help us improve this.
Tyler: Definitely. You know, we talk about RFI a lot, but it's something that really plagues us and it's something that really gets us kind of, you know, ranting a lot. So I know I want to be careful because I don't want to sound just like a broken record, right? We talked to Ajibade Aibinu about this. His recommendation was to put an RFI in PDF and send it through, or in a word document, one page per RFI, that sort of format. But in talking, you were kind of recommending a different avenue for this.
Eddie: Yeah. And who am I, Ajibade being a University of Melbourne professor having done a study on this?
Eddie: But here's my thoughts, okay, for whatever they're worth. My opinion. I think that in the future we are going to come at this with more of a blockchain methodology.
Tyler: What do you mean by that?
Eddie: What I mean: Blockchain's normally assigned to, like, crypto, right? That's normally over there with cryptocurrencies. But the idea is I've got multiple places, so like, I've got a server here, a server there, a server somewhere else. And then I've got a transaction, right? I've got a monetary transaction. I go over to Smoothie King and I buy a smoothie. Costs eight bucks. And then I've got an amount of money and a transaction. Those go up into the cloud or are in the cloud. I say the cloud, they're on multiple servers that verify that transaction and verify the amount of money that's left my account. And by that, that cryptocurrency is made safe because I have multiple points of confirmation for that transaction. Many points. And so, once it reaches enough points to say yes, confirmed, this is valid, why then it's confirmed as good information and the transaction is approved and it sticks.
Tyler: That would be as simple as somebody hitting a checkbox, in other words. You know, like if you send an email out to the engineer or the architect, saying, “Hey, there is an RFI, confirm or deny or write your own response back to it.”
Eddie: I think what I'm lobbying for here is to have everybody equidistant from the answer to the question. Because what the chain of command does is it distances me from the information that I need, because it puts multiple stops along the way. So I have to go through every red light, right? I've gotta hit every one, and on some projects, all the lights are green and everybody's hitting on all cylinders because everybody has their focus on this project, right? On other projects, this is a lost project. One of the parties or all of the parties, they're just trying to get by and all the lights are red. Depending on that, I'm going to get a quick answer or I'm going to get a slow answer and the deal is, it's like maybe the engineer is ready to answer my question. They're on it. They're on a green light, they're ready to go, but maybe the sub that I'm working for and the general contractor are completely distracted and they're on a red light, and that information has to go through both of them. That means that those two stopping points are there no matter what because I've got to respect chain of command, but the information I need lies with the engineer. Rather than looking at this in a linear fashion, I'd like to look at this like circling the wagons around information with information in the middle. If we can put information in the middle, and then via some—and I say blockchain, I think I'm using that in somewhat of a slang way. I mean it's like the best way I can think of to describe the method of, I know that I have to have something, some mechanism that verifies that the information is good. And I also know that I have to have some method of making that information assessable. Right? So that's what I want. I want assessable, reliable information that's equidistant from all parties and not a chain of command up the road, down the road. Because I mean, we've got one, we got a project that we were flat out, straight up told four weeks on an RFI turnaround. I got a 12 week schedule on the job. You're telling me that I’m going to find—all of the problems have to be found, I'd say, before week eight. That's not true. Because some of those things stand in the way of me making the necessary progress to hit week 12. So that means I've got to find every single question by week six, I mean like drop dead week six, if I'm going to keep that schedule. And it doesn't happen that way, because I encounter many things, I encounter them as I go. As much as I try to, you know, get things out of the woodwork early, it doesn't always happen. I think you get my point.
Tyler: I like the visual of circling the wagons around the information. I think that makes a lot of sense. And again, you know, we're talking about the tactics that we use to get things done. So why, why are we doing RFI this way? And if you go back and you look at, you know, when we started issuing RFI, this whole process was created back when we were still using snail mail, not email. Now, email is instantaneous, so it did speed it up. But why are we still using the same practices? ‘Cause I feel like there is some way to develop an app, or there might be a software out there and if you know about it, please tell us. I want to know about it. I want to know what people are thinking out there to make this RFI process go smoother.
Eddie: I know of at least one app, that I'll not say the name of, that I have seen in action and I think it's got the capacity for this, the capacity for this use. But at the same time... That's why I'm saying, I think the tech’s there, but the tactics aren't. Because I think if we change tactics with this specific app, then we would get where we need to be.
Tyler: Yeah. And you know these apps do exist, but they're still made with the thought of, people want to do it this way. They want to send it up the chain, send it down the chain. So, I mean, maybe we need to just stop and reevaluate how we're doing things. And I mean, that's a big push that we always are talking about here is, you know, let's step back, evaluate how we're doing things and change. Let's find better ways to do it because, man, the technology right now can take care of those RFI and make this process quicker. ‘Cause four weeks? Four weeks. That's a long time for a job. There's so much that can get done in that four weeks.
Eddie: Yeah. And I mean, maybe we don't see a straight line, four week delay because of RFI, because there are other things that are going on concurrently. But all the while, all the while, the research that Ajibade did do on RFI demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was cost associated with efficient RFI answers or not. And so I see this as an area that needs vast improvement. So that is one place I would point a finger at and say, “Let's look at our tactics.”
Tyler: Okay. What else you got?
Eddie: Tolerances and adjustment.
Tyler: This is something we talked about with Steven.
Eddie: The tolerances that we are bound to keep are set, really, by trade. So you know, I have certain tolerances that I have to stay within as a concrete guy. I have certain tolerances I've gotta stay within as a steel sub. And so, you know, I have to abide by those. We have encountered instances where the tolerances that a concrete sub has to adhere to could be adhered to perfectly, and the tolerances that are required to make a steel connection work will be blown because the concrete guy was accurate—accurate enough to not be liable, but not accurate enough to actually be right for the project. And in that particular instance, field adjustments were made, I will say that. You know, and people “make it work,” and that is not where we want to be as an industry. So the tolerances and adjustment things, I need to see the industry moving forward in tactic. We were talking with Steven last week about glass. Now that's one that I think everybody has to understand, yeah, there's not much tolerance on that. That needs to be nailed, that needs to be there, that needs to be something that we get what we expected to get when we arrive at the field, or it's not gonna work. And so the way we thwart that now is that we wait for field measurement, and you know, or we take a chance, it's like we're kind of a risk reward thing. I've got to get through this, I'm gonna try to guarantee openings and make sure that they get there. So I'll ride herd on people. Well, that doesn't always happen. You know, “I'm going to guarantee openings.” Well, what does that look like? I go as a PM to my superintendents, say “they have got to nail this,” and then the superintendent goes and yells at the sub and says, “you have got to nail this,” but nobody really pays attention beyond that? Or does that mean that everybody's out there like really overly paying attention to it? I'm sure that there's a range of reactions on a spectrum. But when it comes down to it, to modularize, to put more things together, to get to a place where we're “LEGO-ing” things together like people just like to say again and again—we have to have in the field what we expect. Now the adjustment part. Because we got tolerances, but then I'm like, is that realistic? The adjustment part’s the next step. Because I think as the minds that are trying to modularize, we need to think about ways to make things adjustable. Because if we make everything static and without adjustment, well then, how much can we reasonably expect the whole built world to be perfect? So our tactics, I mean, they need to follow the tech. So there's technology available, and a growing technological facet, that's trying to build more of a structure offsite. It's offsite construction. It is all the rage. But we need to make sure that we start dialing in on our tolerances and that those tolerances are not just trade by trade, but that the trades are bound to play with one another. That we understand not just what the concrete sub has to do and what the steel sub has to do, but we have to understand what the steel and concrete subs have to do together. What the glass sub, the steel sub, the concrete sub have to do together. That we have to have multiple trades have an understanding of what the tolerances are for that project, and then we need to build in the necessary adjustment. Example. Watching a video, but I don't know if everybody will have heard of this company, but Howick is a manufacturer of equipment to make steel studs. Cold form metal studs. Their system’s really cool.
Tyler: We'll put a link to it in the show notes, definitely check it out.
Eddie: System's really cool. I recently saw a video, and they're all about let's build cold form, like basically prefab wall panels. Like, let's use this to build out cold form. Really cool stuff. The mill is like, you've got that little pushback of, yeah, but you know, if I build that six by eight wall and then it's not a six by eight gap, I gotta fill when I get to field, why would I have even done it? I'd have been better off just flat packing it, bringing it out, and then putting it together. I'm not even better off cutting it. At that point, you know, I gotta have something, and I think the best we got’s maybe like a big four-inch slip track or something to try to take that up. Well, how it has developed, an adjustable stud where, I mean, just visualize and look at the show notes. You're going to see them carrying a stud wall up a set of stairs, nice and compact, and then when it gets there, pull it out like it's an accordion. And all of a sudden, “extend-o-stud,” boom, I'm on the walls and then I fasten it.
Tyler: Yeah. It's funny, you sent that video over to me, and actually Dad sent it to you—it's one of those things, you watch it and you go, well, of course. Obviously.
Eddie: Yeah, duh.
Tyler: Duh, that makes a lot of sense, if you're panelizing walls to use a system like that. The funny thing is, though, is if you don't know it exists, you can't be helped by it.
Eddie: Isn't that funny how tactics work? Because I would say the same thing about charging through an open field with a bunch of guys that have a machine gun in front of them. But in that day, because of views of tactic and valor, they did it. And that is not an undersale of the valor that was demonstrated at all. That's one of the reasons why I love the Civil War. I don't love the war. I love the people that were a part of it and the intrigue is deep. These were not dumb people. And so, yeah, we're going to look at some things in 50 years, look back and go, “Duh, why would we have done it that way?” But the tactics haven't caught up. And, I think this is a silly one, like you want to modularize? Light bulb! Well then come up with new ways to make something adjust. Don't make the construction materials static, make it something that has a dynamic nature. Something that can fit into more than just one exact, precise size. Then tolerances and adjustment play together and we can fabricate more offsite.
Tyler: Yeah, man, kind of a little bit of a tangent here, but I was on the phone with the guy the other day and he's the director of a BIM department—of a large one. And we're sitting down, and we're talking, and we're talking about technology and some of the different things that I use and I start walking him through Trello and how I use it. And he was like, “This is amazing. I've been looking for this for so long.” But the thing is, he didn't know how to put it into words. You know, he may not have had the time to really sit down and dive in to finding a solution like that. And you know, you can't be held responsible for the things that you don't know. Right?
Eddie: Man, yeah, I guess, maybe. Sometimes—
Tyler: In that case, anyway.
Eddie: Sometimes that works. I think Trello is awesome because it's such a simple but powerful tool, and we've mentioned it before.
Tyler: A lot of times, yeah.
Eddie: But yeah, he's looking for a collaborative platform, you know, like somewhere to kind of get all the information in one spot. Internally, that is a place where we get information and expose it to everyone. That is our process of “un-siloing” information. Get it out in front of everybody. Why would I allow project information to hide in an email that one person has?
Tyler: Yeah, and I guess a little plug here, too, we're going to be releasing a Trello template. So be on the lookout for that, we will post some stuff on our social media about that when we do. It's a completely free template and it's basically the layout that we use here at the office. So, yeah.
Eddie: Why do we give so much free stuff away, man?
Tyler: I don't know. I guess we like people. We like helping people out.
Eddie: We talk about the skepticism we're met with about that. We don't, we— Genuinely, guys, we're not making money for this. We're just, we want to help y’all out.
Tyler: Yeah, it was cracking me up. I was on the phone earlier and I was just like, this is just a labor of love. You know, like it's, I want to see the industry change, and I'm willing to spend some money to do that. And by going out and finding people that are doing amazing things and bringing them to you guys in a format that I'm, right now, I'm not getting paid for. That's hard. But at the same time, it's worth it, because I get to see those moments. Like I got to see the other day, where somebody's brain just explodes. They're like, “This is out there?” Yes, it's out there. So I get really passionate about that. I really want to keep bringing this stuff to you guys. So moving along after that tangent: Redundant design.
Eddie: Redundant design modeling, specifically, is what I want to look at. Redundant design is kind of an obvious one. Like, if I've got an architect and engineers designing a building, I don't want everybody responsible for doing all of the things. There's division of labor. And I want to have a clear and defined division of labor. In the modeling realms, I don't know that we are always very diligent about this. Our tactics haven't caught up. Specific example: Stairs. Stairs are a specific example. The architect gets them and models them, and is concerned about—let's just kind of boil it down—not really building them, concerned about maybe the way they look, the aesthetic, and the code compliance. So generally speaking, that's kinda what's valuable to the architect, and they are going to go through a modeling process and they're going to lay down intent. As much intent as they feel like they need to to get what they want. But they go through a modeling effort. Then they've got an engineer chasing them. Engineer, now, has to take up those stairs, and do they take up the same stair?
Tyler: Not really.
Eddie: Probably not. Do they even model the stair? Yeah, probably to some extent, but they're doing it probably in a model that's helping them analyze the stair. And/or they are kicking it off and delegated design effort, which happens nonstop in the industry, where we do not engineer that portion as a part of the base engineering package. It's a very common practice that items are delegated. So that is seen as a specialty delegated thing. So that means that a specialty delegated engineer now has to undergo the process of coming up with an analytical model of this thing to produce calculations, prove the thing's going to stand up. And so that's two. Now, a detailer who's actually doing shop drawings has to touch that same thing. I don't know that I've ever seen a stair—I’ve seen structural models come down, but I don't think I've seen a stair come downstream and be used.
Tyler: No, we generally remodel it.
Eddie: That's a scorched earth, start again. And so, there's number three. That's three people trying to do the same thing. And the funny part is, living where we live, as the detailer, what's our job? Conform to the code and aesthetic intent of the architect while conforming to the actual structural intent of the engineer. Meanwhile, those can be at odds with one another. So I mean, one could cry foul here and be like, well, that's not really tactics. That's just basic design coordination. Yeah, it is. But it's also, I think, something that happens in realms other than stairs. You know, where basic structure is modeled by the engineer. But there's that wrinkle where there's like, there are things that the engineer kind of controls, maybe like little sizes and things like that, but they're not really modeled by anybody or put in by anybody. A lot of architectural steel elements that you know, they’re modeled twice or not at all. As we get to a more accurate place for models, where we're actually trying to virtually prototype a building, we know we have to model them. There's gotta be some sort of tactic for the division of labor where those things can be done one time. And I really see something in the future here. What I see is generative design and databasing impacting, specifically, I think stairs and rails. Because they're very code-based and because they can be—and I'm talking about basics. I mean, I know that there are going to be architectural stairs and things that are, you know, there are exceptions to this rule, but I'm talking about the basic fire escape switchback, right? There are already stair companies out there that have the basics of that worked out. Well, do the basics of that. Like, does the architect just leave a hole and not show any stairs and just say this is delegated to somebody else? They're not going to be able to do that. Building department wants to see them. That's path of egress. Why can't that information be made available to the designers, so that when the designer puts something in, it's a billable thing? And I think I know the reason for that is because that's a lot of effort. But if it's generative, if I can go through design iteration after design iteration without too much trouble, then I should be able to find the design option that suits me, check it against the codes that I have to meet, make sure it's aesthetically pleasing, know that the options that I chose are in compliance from a structural standpoint, and have those things translate down into analytical models that the structural engineer doesn't have to recreate. That way, I've either got a database or a database that's basically fueling a generative design that allows me to do that.
Tyler: Jeez, man. You need to tell Clifton about that.
Eddie: Yeah, I mean, Clifton's already on this. There are a couple other episodes we could plug there with Clifton.
Tyler: Yeah, for sure. But no, I really think that you're right in just eliminating the number of models that we have. In a lot of cases though, I feel like we're doing the thing that Kimon talked about. He came up just in my head while you're talking, is that we tattoo the name of the tool on our forehead, and we say this is what we use. So I mean, even down to us, right, we’ve got to check ourselves, ‘cause we use Tekla. Is that the best thing for us to use to coordinate with the rest of the design team? It may or may not be.
Eddie: Kick in the pants here for Tekla: Autodesk Revit just introduced in ‘21 some generative design tools. So I mean, it's happening now. It’s happening. Now, you know, I mean, have I played with those? No. Do I have a lot of questions about its capability? Yeah. I mean, I'm not mining very deep here, so forgive. But one of the examples was literally like, I want to have a workspace that has a lot of light at it. How can I iterate a design? And it was literally moving a table from one side of the room to the other, and the one side of the room had windows and the other didn't. And I'm like, okay, that didn't take generative design. I'm like, ah, there's more light near the windows. There you go. That's not something that takes an algorithm. But it's the infancy of that algorithm becoming very useful.
Tyler: Man, this is a really, really crazy, awesome topic, and I think it's one that we need to kind of come back to from time to time. And within it are topics that we have talked about before, like with RFI, like with stairs and, you know, these are the things that we see every single day in our line of work. But we have to talk about it. You know, we've got to let you guys know what we're seeing here downstream and help you guys out. We're trying to create that feedback loop that we talk so often about—you know, let's talk, let's give each other ideas. Let's encourage each other. So thanks for being here this week. So one thing before you guys go: We were nominated for Construction Junkie’s Best Podcast of 2020. We would really like to win this thing, and we need your help. So we're going to leave the link in the show notes. Go check that out and vote for us, if you would. Construction Brothers. It should be pretty easy. I think you have to give your email, and you can opt out of the newsletter if you don't want to get his newsletter within that. So we appreciate you guys being here. Thank you so much for listening. Have a great week.