Don’t stand on the outside of construction

Construction site with tower crane




Construction site with tower crane

I am sitting here about to meet some friends, and I had a flick through my Twitter news feed. I came across this article from The Economist “Efficiency eludes the construction industry.”

The article brings some interesting statistics into the spotlight about our industry. It is sobering and slightly confronting having what we already know put in our faces.

Now, this could be a case of me not seeing the forest through all the trees. Looking from the outside, looking in and then writing about our industry is flaunt with danger. And like a lot of people within the industry, this article is exactly why we don’t read “construction news.”

By the time I got to the end of the article, it felt like it was a personal attack of sorts. And the frustration comes from the very fast finger pointing at construction companies fighting for profits and lack of investment. Hang on, isn’t making a profit what being in business all about? The statement, “lack of investment” is a courageous comment.  I know so many tradesmen that love to show off their shiny new power tools.

Just look through social media, all the new power tools that are coming on to the market. Every other tradesman on social media are trying out a new Dewalt power saw, or a Milwaukee cordless plumbing snake (yes they exist, no more pulling every trap apart).

Construction is in the business of people

And this is where the article falls apart; it completely misses the human, the person, the tradesman building each building. Construction is not a commodity business; construction is in the business of people.

 

The Economist efficiency article
Image screen grab copyright The Economist

The Economist touches on the feast and famine cycles that construction has to deal with, but again misses the individual that makes up construction. Each and every single individual goes through this cycle as well.

 

I will put it to you this way; would you work hard, look for better ways to do tasks, knowing that you have no employment at the end of the project?

If we want to deal with the “inefficiencies” of the industry, let’s start getting in touch with the people that make up the construction industry.

Automation, robots and all the technology that promise to “disrupt” and “change” the industry is a long way off, before you argue, read this. And if we stop treating the industry as a commodity, the “worker” will be the one that brings the change that everyone keeps screaming about.

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Fond memories of carpentry, would I go back?

Decking boards, timber wedges




Decking boards, timber wedgesWhen we reflect back on our careers, there are a scattering of times that we all remember for the right reasons. I look back over the last 15 or so years, and some of my fondest memories came from when I was working as a carpenter building decks.

That pocket of time started not too long after finishing my apprenticeship. I had been working for a small builder on government-owned housing upgrades. Soon enough I got sick of government work and looked for a new job. That was when I met Mike Glab, who has become a close friend and later in life a mentor. That, however, is another story for another day.

Highlight of my carpentry career

Building decks were the highlight of my time as a carpenter. It was hard, heavy work, we only ever built hardwood decks if I remember correctly. The hard work wasn’t such an attraction; it was the challenge of doing high-quality work that had my attention. We were in the top end of the market, so the standard of work that we had to delivery had to match.

It was in this environment I went from being a carpenter to a tradesman. The constant challenge to better my skills was what I looked forward to most mornings. I learnt so much, developed a lot of my style and techniques that still hold true today.

Cutting deck posts, carpentryI would refer to guys I once worked with, as artists with a power saw. We would be hanging on the side of posts, cutting the verandah beam checkouts (housings). Cutting rafters for hand pitched roofs and watching the roofs come together, especially after screwing up the set out more than once.

I used to love the challenge of setting out decking boards and scribing them around whatever obstacle each deck through our way. And the never-ending race to see who could nail the most decking boards down in a day. They were good times.

Would I go back to carpentry?

I guess the question would be, would I go back to building decks or carpentry in general? And right now, I would have to say no. The thought of building again for a living doesn’t excite me.

Carpentry, deck sub floor frameAs I have been working on growing The Travelling Builder, I have been doing casual carpentry work on the side. After a few weeks of the casual work, I am done, I just don’t have the passion I once had. I enjoy doing a little bit of carpentry work here and there as a hobby, and for now, that is where it ends.

With that, some of my best memories will always be of those days building decks. Not sure if you guys from those days gone by will ever read this. However, Chaps (Ross or Jamie depending on the day), thanks for putting up with all my BS. Woolly (Steve), I hope you have stopped cutting with the wrong side of the saw. Scott, thanks heaps for the lift home to take the bin out that morning, saved my arse entirely. Toddy, I hope all is well out west these days. Cookie, we have to catch up again soon and all the guys that I have forgotten that made those years great. Thank you for the fond memories and hope all is turning out well for each of you.

Drones and aerial footage in construction

Rural Renovators drone photograph of a post frame building




DJI Phantom 4 black dronesAs we scroll through our various social media feeds, it is hard to miss the aerial footage that is starting to show up; whether the videos are from different travel bloggers or a local contractor.

Once upon a time, the aerial shots were only available to the professional drone (UAV – unmanned aerial vehicle) operator like UAV Media and their clients.

All that changed when DJI introduced their Phantom series of drones back in early 2013. DJI made high-quality aerial filming available to the average person. Add the affordability of drones with the ever-increasing popularity of social media and presto, lots of great videos starting to appear.

Rural Renovators drone photograph of a post frame buildingContractors using drones

As I look through my news feed across the various social media platforms, there are a couple of contractors that stand out. Rural Renovations aka RR Buildings and Morrow Tower Cranes have been using drones to capture some remarkable footage. And as their respective company names imply you can only imagine what they have been able to put on our screens.

They haven’t merely recorded a bit of flight time, they have spent the time creating a story in each short film.

Using aerial footage to tell their story

It is this storytelling that has me captivated. Scrolling back through RR Buildings Instagram page you can see how Kyle has progressed over time. How his piloting skills have improved and how Kyle has developed his storytelling abilities. Especially the time lapses, if you were to take away the drone footage, you would be left with a well-made video.  The impact the drone and aerial footage provide would be lost.

Drone photograph of a tower crane and highriseThe same can be said for Morrow Tower Cranes; they have captured perfectly the awe-inspiring dominance a tower crane has over a construction site. The view from high in the sky brings a whole new perspective to the building site. A view once reserved for the crane operator and neighbouring high-rise buildings.

The great thing about drones, they are capturing our imagines about how our job sites look. Giving us all a new perspective on what we see day in and day out. And from the viewer’s side of the screen, it is great to watch more and more contractors equally embracing editing their videos and using drones to capture a story within.

I am not sure that I can speak for everyone, I am looking forward to watching more captured short stories. If you are wondering where to find these short stories and videos, you will need to do some searching, but a good place to start is with the hashtag “#drones.”

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3D printing is not the death of construction, we are!




See the problem is not that the construction industry is archaic or 3D printing technology. The fundamentals, which are grounded in science, will never change. Let’s look at the advances over time.

We started with wood, then moved to stone. Now we use concrete and steel. What’s the difference? Not much really. The fundamentals are all exactly the same. A solid foundation, strong walls and then a roof.

Where too from here? Well, in 2000’s we still have a solid foundation, just that we can now dig down further than ever before. This let’s us build higher than ever before, fancier shapes than ever before.

Then this ‘new’ technology came along 3 Dimensional printing of buildings. OMG! Let’s just stop for a second and look at this technology. 3D printers print with conventional construction materials, concrete, polymers, etc. It has a large machine to print with or simply prints smaller modules.

When the Dubai government printed the world’s first office building, and to be clear I am using the term ‘printed’ losely. They used the services of a Chinese company SunWin. Now as the story unfolds, the building was printed in modules, brought to site to be ercted. Which was followed by finishing trades to complete the building. (See links below to reference article and YouTube videos).

Now how is this any different to how we have been building? Its not. Call me a critic, but we are seeing a shift in construction. Why? Because as an industry, we have lost our way. We have broken down our trades so much that we can no longer call tradesmen, ‘Tradesmen.’

We are specialists in our fields. For example, drywall installers (plasterer, setter) once was one trade where one person, fixing (sheeting), taping (setting), sanding, soctia (cornice) install. Guess what, each one of them are now sub-trades. You can call yourself and ‘AND WE’ let people do this, call themselves tradesmen.

It has nothing to do with technology, look at our trends in the last 30years. As business gets tougher and tougher, companies start to niche down, specialize in a small portion of their respective trade.

Where we have failed as an industry, we have highly specialized companies that employ apprentices. That is great for the first year and a half. Now that apprentice is great at one portion of his trade. What happens when they go out into the world as a ‘Tradesmen.’

These poor tradesmen suddenly have a real wake up call. They go out, go to work for another company that specializes in a different section of their trade. The apprentice learned a little of everything will doing his college theory work, but never experienced it in the real world his whole trade.

Here is the problem, the industry just failed him. We just set up another apprentice for failure. We didn’t teach his trade; we gave him an insight into the world of his trade. This is where it all collapses in a heap. This apprentice has now had to learn real quick what he now thinks is his trade ‘by himself’. Now assuming, and I mean assuming he got taught the fundamentals of his trade he may do alright. But what happens when he employs an apprentice?

Now we have a problem. This tradesman, that may or may not be taught the fundamentals is now teaching the next generation of tradesmen. And this has been going on for generation after generation. As business niche’s down, the real victims are the future generations of tradesmen.

When you go back in time, and you only have to go back as far as the 70’s. An apprentice had to do at least 4 years, some trades longer. Now days, you can get a trade certificate in matter of a few years, sometimes quicker. You only have to prove that you ‘know how to’ do something, you don’t even have to show you doing it.

3D printing is not the problem; 3D printing has evolved out of opportunity and leverage of technology. 3D printing buildings don’t have a building built in half the amount of time. Nor does modular buildings result in the building built in half the time.

No, what these new building methods/technologies do, reduce the ‘onsite’ time. Once a wall has been ‘printed,’ it still needs to be finished. Tradesmen are still required to complete finishes, fixtures and everything else.

Modular buildings are the same; they are simply built in a factory, which still takes time. The only difference from the outside, the ‘onsite’ time is reduced. Guess what, everyone in these ‘new’ technologies are marketing their buildings get completed quicker. I dare you to ask what the ‘lead’ time is? Suddenly your onsite time doesn’t look so good; it looks very much the same as a ‘covenantal’ build.

So why the new technology companies? Simple, try finding a good tradesman that knows their entire trade? A tradesman that knows the fundamentals?

They are few and far between, and as the older generations retire, we are screwed. It has nothing to do with technology that is going to disrupt the building industry. Technology is going step in to fill the gap that we have created in our handing down of our trades.

Buildings will always need a foundation, walls, and a roof. Buildings will always need to be maintained over time. There will always be a need for tradesmen. There simply won’t be any tradesmen.

Reference materials

First office building

1- http://newatlas.com/3d-printed-office-dubai-completed/43522/
2- https://youtu.be/a0FNKGTNIhE

Construction site management, why I love it.




Hi, I am Matt The Travelling Builder.

In this episode, I am going to talk about why I love construction site management and site supervising. Over the years I have had many roles, a carpenter, manager, leading hand and a laborer. I get the biggest kick out of construction site management. I thoroughly enjoy working with all the guys on a project, working with hundreds to well over and well over thousands of people.

Working with different trades

It is great getting to work with all the different trades and getting to experience something new. There is never a day that goes by where you don’t learn something new. Also being able to work with the architects, engineers, and designers and finding out how came up with their designs. Problem-solving with the design teams is great as well. The last thing that I will touch on in this episode is the cool projects that we get to build.

Working with the different tradesmen on a project can be like working with a bunch of friends. Over time you get to make new friends. As you move from project to project, you catch up with guys you haven’t seen in years. Sometimes it is like no time has passed. Catching up on what projects they have worked on, what they have been up too, how their families are. It’s a great opportunity to meet new people, which is one of the things that I enjoy about construction site management.

Working with the guys, I get to experience the pride they have in their work. Especially when a problem arises, everyone has their thoughts on how to solve the problem. How we can move forward and get things back on track. Everyone gets in and gets the work done.

I don’t always work with tradesmen, but mostly all the guys that you do work with are genuine people. They are doing the best they can with what they have. The best part about working with them is getting the opportunity to learn something new.

Every trade has some other tip or trick for solving a problem or making something work. Even just showing you new tools that they have collected which make their job easier. Learning makes going to work enjoyable. You get to go to work and spend the time learning something new. Not just learning for your personal benefit, but what you learned today will come into use on a different project. This learning always gives further insight into various ways to view problems.

Working with design teams

Not only do you get to work with the trades on site, but you also get to work with the architects, designers, and engineers. The beauty of this, they have a vision of what it is they want to build, but also how they are going to get there. The practicality of building, not all of the architects and engineers have trade backgrounds or experience. As a site manager, you become invaluable to them. Your experience to figure out how it is you are going to build the intended building. Sometimes the design has to change slightly to complete the building. You have to get involved with the design team to produce the result.

Architects

Architects and engineers have spent many years learning their trade and skills. Being an architect, being creative and being able to design a building inside of a client’s briefs. Being able to figure out what is intended is something that I don’t have the patients. I am clear that it would drive me mad sitting down and trying to draw this stuff. Trying to figure out how to make the bathroom fit with the kitchen, and the bedrooms and lounge rooms, while meeting all the compliance requirements. Certainly in an apartment building. Even houses have the similar constraints and minimum requirements. I have a lot of respect for the design guys. Some designers aren’t so great to work with, very fixed on what it is that they want. At the same time, they have spent a lot of time and effort to get to develop the design and I am quite ok with that.

It makes my job that much harder, it’s a challenge that isn’t insurmountable. It just gives another level of excitement to what it is to be a site supervisor.

Engineers

Working with engineers is good. It is an opportunity to learn the workings of the structure of the building. Learning which are the key components. Even the simple things like the reinforcing in the concrete and how all that works. There have been so many progressions over the years that each high rise has a new product, a new method of building to be able to make the building work. The best part is you might have a problem, the contractors and yourself may have missed some structural element or component. For example, one project I managed, we got the centers of the reinforcing on the top layer wrong. Instead of being told to pull all the reinforcing up and redo it, the engineer worked with us to solve the problem.

Being able to have a good working relationship with engineers and architects is a real privilege. Having that relationship is a way to learn so much more than-than focusing on one trade. You get to be a part of the process; it’s an opportunity I am so grateful to have been given.

Building cool buildings

The last thing I wanted to mention was the cool stuff you get to build. I was very fortunate to work on a project at Australian Catholic University, as the guys on the site referred to as ‘Building T.’ That building was built by Tomkins Commercial and Industrial Builders and went on to win National Awards. On ‘Building T,’ I was the finishing foreman. There are four skylight tubes in the center of the building; the architect showed what the intent of these skylights. Between the glazing contractors, other site managers, and myself, we were able to work out how we were going to build them.

It wasn’t exactly a straightforward process, there was four of them, they had to be identical and line up. It was a bit of fun and games to make them work. I think we did a pretty good job. The architect liked what we had come up with and built. Overall the whole project turned out to be an amazing project, and I am so glad I got to be a part of the team.

Completing a project

Just getting to build buildings is the ultimate joy. Standing back, looking at what you have achieved in that last six, twelve months or however long the building took to complete. Knowing that you had a role in that building and all your efforts have paid off to contribute to the delivery of the building.

When you get to the end of a project, it can be comical. All the problems, all the struggles you had on the way you seem to forget. You stand back and ask yourself why was it so hard? I haven’t done a project where it was an easy project. I have always got to the end and looked back, and said to myself, I don’t know why it was difficult. At the time it was, by the end, you have forgotten all the hard yards. It’s just a joy to be able to stand there and say I built that. Looking at all the work the guys have done, you know all the stories in the building. A lot of stories that most people will never know, lots of dramas, lots of funny stories, lots of crazy weekends where people have come to work when they shouldn’t have.

Being about of the construction site management team is a good job that I enjoy.