Duane Craig Talks Building Design, Energy Usage, Coyotes, and Autonomous Robots

In a world run by energy, product efficiency and lifespan are becoming more and more crucial to maintaining society. From energy efficient light bulbs and cars to longer lasting batteries and computers, energy finds its way into a wide range of fields and industries. Of course, energy plays a huge role in the construction and architecture spaces; the generators that power the lights and heating/cooling systems, the gasoline that fuels cranes and steamrollers, and even the batteries that enable builders to communicate via walkie-talkie are just a few examples of equipment that rely on the concept of energy. However, in VIATechnik’s recent interview with Duane Craig, Craig talks about a different kind of energy – the abstract energy that goes into project planning, design, and construction.

According to Craig, an avid writer who shares his views about the construction industry on his blog, the Construction Informer, architects, designers, builders (and pretty much everyone else involved in the creation of a building) are expending too much energy in developing buildings relative to project outcomes. Craig offers his opinion on construction sustainability, how it is hurting the industry, and what builders everywhere should do to alleviate the damage.

Problem: Ideals adjusted for economy’s sake

Solution: Greater awareness and consideration of the future

VT: How does the environmental state of an area affect the design of a building?

DC: I’m probably excessively bullish on environment and sustainability and I don’t apologize for that. It seems to me that we currently make far too many decisions using money as the primary consideration. So I think we should start making more of our decisions based on resources. If our first consideration in making decisions is always “what it costs,” in terms of money, we will not make wise decisions because let’s face it, there’s never enough money. And, many times there are more important things to consider. Very often the main question should be, “What’s it costing in resources?” If we take that approach, then there are places where we just won’t build for any number of reasons. The raw materials are too far away, there aren’t enough raw materials on the land, or even, because the site is rich in a dwindling resource and using the resource for building is not the best purpose. We also might choose NOT to build in a floodplain, or in low coastal areas because the risk is greater than the reward. But we also might decide to build using what’s already available on the site. To me, this is where designers and builders can find a really sweet spot of creativity. To design and build with so much consciousness that you create a structure born of the land where it sits, would be a very rewarding thing to do.

VT: How can we go about enacting this change?

DC: Conscious design and conscious building requires us to begin thinking beyond the next budget cycle, beyond five to seven years, so we can really get a look at what the consequences of our decisions will be. So the challenge for designers and builders is a steep one. They are not usually the ones who are putting up the money for the projects. You’ve got owners and developers pushing that cycle. Designers and builders who want to really operate sustainably, and who want to take their craft to the next level, realize already that it’s not about them. Its not about their will, but rather about practicing their craft in a conscious manner. So in dealing with the owners they will need to offer alternatives, and sometimes just be willing to say no. There is also something to be said for changing processes. We’ve been building the same way for hundreds of years and construction has largely ignored the efficiencies you can get from manufacturing principles. I think there’s been two reasons for that. Projects are never identical and construction has a huge investment in skilled labor. If you start using manufacturing principles then you don’t need high skill levels anymore. But what I think many miss is the opportunity for creativity, and new ways for people to express themselves as they earn a living. Manufacturing is increasingly a robotic process and increasingly portions of structures are being manufactured in controlled environments. It’s just a matter of adding machines to the tasks. Human beings still need to operate and maintain that equipment and so the framer of today is the manufacturing line controller of tomorrow. There is still ample opportunity for specialized craft people doing the necessary onsite assemblies. And, there’s no reason to abandon highly customized and finely crafted components either. But overall the process would be different so it is more efficient.


Problem: Inefficient energy and resource expenditure

Solution: Repurposing and automation

VT: How large of a role does sustainability play in building design?

DC: I think for enlightened architects it means everything. Sustainability goes to the core of existence. A coyote spending half a day catching a mouse is not acting sustainably. That animal is using way more energy than he’ll get from eating the mouse. In a way, that’s kind of how many aspects of our society operate. We get focused on the ends, and we neglect what’s going on to get us there. If you don’t consider sustainability BEFORE you even begin thinking about what the structure will look like, then your results will most likely be design at the expense of sustainability. An architect will ask a client, “What’s more important to you, sustainability or design?” And the client will answer, “Both.” So, the architect delivers both, and the structure is only “somewhat” sustainable. Once again, it becomes a question of what’s really important to us. To the coyote, it’s about life and death. And that may very well be the case for us too.

VT: What will the construction industry have to focus on moving forward to avoid wasting energy in the building process?

DC: Construction is going to have to get a handle on its waste stream and that needs to include much more than simply recycling. There are already miniature crushers being used around the world that recycle concrete from the street that’s being repaired, or the portion of the building that’s being removed, right on site. Repurposing is going to become more important than recycling because it can eliminate so much wasted energy. Repurposing old structures is also going to be increasingly necessary as they represent a significant amount of embodied energy that we won’t be able to afford to simply tear out and haul away. Construction will need to rediscover something that’s always been at its roots – building with what’s available. Just like early builders used what was available nearby, so too will the builders of the future. It’s never going to be any more efficient than it is today to import 80% or 90% of the materials needed into the area of the project. To overcome our wastefulness, planners and schedulers are going to have to get way out in front of construction, and owners are going to have to increase the time they spend in the scoping stage. This will require a major change in focus. This can also inspire a wave of cottage industry with local craft people filling the need for building products that might otherwise have to be shipped from some far away factories.

VT: How do you see technology and population growth factoring into this adjustment phase?

DC: It’s clear that building in urban environments even today is increasingly challenging and expensive. As urban spaces become more crowded, sustainability is going to get more important, if not from an energy and cost perspective than certainly from a habitat perspective. And I’m talking about habitat for humans. To adapt, construction is going to need much more automation, robotics, and a cadre of people who specialize in building in urban environments. Automation could include prefabrication of pieces of assemblies offsite so they are only assembled onsite. Automation will also no doubt include smart machines that override operator errors and even those that operate on their own, or via remote control. The everyday worker also needs help in performing their jobs in these environments. Besides the right gear to stay cool, or warm, and protection for hearing, respiration, eyes and the rest of their bodies, they will need tools that help boost their production. One such tool that’s already in the wings is the hydraulic exoskeletons that allow the wearer to safely lift heavy items, hold and manipulate building components, and increase the variety of tasks a single person can do. 


Problem: Energy Expense

Solution: Increase Building Lifespan and Function

VT: Where does adaptability come into play in the building design process?

DC: I think it certainly depends largely on the architect or designer. There are those who give it slight consideration and those who view it as their point of differentiation, and then a whole range of sentiments between the two extremes. But if you’re talking about “adaptability”, as in future other uses, this can be a fascinating pursuit for creative designers and architects. We know that whenever we construct a building we are in essence storing energy in it. Every part of it required energy in its creation. The longer the building can be used, the more benefit that invested energy gives back to us. If we can make buildings that can be easily and quickly converted to new uses when their original purposes are over, then we can potentially extend the payback of that energy investment. If the buildings can last for 100 years, or more, that’s even better. Now, if you’re talking about structures being adaptable to the environment, then we have to first of all pay way more attention to where we build. Second, we have to use sound building practices that incorporate the right technologies and the right materials to help that structure survive the worst nature will throw at it. 



VT: What is the most exciting innovation available in the industry today?

DC: I think I’d have to say, mobile devices. Until their arrival it was looking like construction might actually skip the computer age altogether. I’m just kidding of course, but as someone who values computer technology and the empowerment it offers, the arrival of mobile devices right on the jobsite has definitely been exciting to see. 

VT: If you could look into the future of the construction and architectural industries, what would you hope to see?

DC: I’d like to see the end of the adversarial relationship building process, and the dawn of a cooperative building process. Just from personal observations I’ve seen groups of people accomplish amazing things when they cooperated toward a shared goal. This process of struggling against each other that construction is notorious for, drains away creativity and resources. So, I’d wave my wand and have everybody just get along. Oh, and have a good time doing it too!



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