A Conversation with the Lamar Johnson Collaborative on Technology and the Future of AEC

The Lamar Johnson Collaborative may only be five months old, but it’s run by a group of industry veterans with some big ideas about the future of AEC.

The architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry is ripe for disruption, and emerging technologies are poised to usher in a new era of increased design and construction productivity, quality, and efficiency. While many members of the industry have been slow to embrace change, firms like The Lamar Johnson Collaborative (LJC) are setting a stellar example of what a forward-thinking AEC firm should look like.

LJC may only be just over five months old, but as founder Lamar Johnson says: “It’s been 20 years in the making.” Johnson launched his new firm with the idea of bringing together the very best people he’s worked with over the past two decades. This people-first philosophy endowed the firm with a depth of experience and range of capabilities that allowed them to hit the ground running and tackle large-scale, complex projects right out of the gate. Moreover, it gives them a unique perspective into the changes caused by recent technological advances.

Last month Anton Dy Buncio (COO, VIATechnik) and Gregg Young (Board of Advisors, VIATechnik) sat down with Johnson, Tod Desmarais (Managing Director at LJC), and Mariusz Klemens (Associate, Architect and Urban Designer at LJC) to talk innovation, tech, and the future of the AEC industry — here’s what they all had to say.

Note: an abridged version of this article was originally published on AEC Next News.

Anton Dy Buncio (ADB): These days, everyone is talking about autonomous vehicles, coworking/coliving, prefabrication, machine learning/AI…what do these technologies bring to the table, and what are the limitations?

Lamar Johnson (LJ): We built our firm around the idea of integrating technology into the architecture and design process in a holistic and authentic way. Of course, technology allows us to implement a vision and respond to issues more efficiently, but it doesn’t necessarily compel us to think differently. We still have to do that ourselves. Technology can empower us; it can supplement our thinking; it can make us more nimble; it can help us deliver our ideas in a more complete and effective manner. At the end of the day, however, it’s the energy, effort, and brain power that people put into projects that really make the difference.

When you combine that mindset with the power of cutting-edge technology, you can achieve really great things. It requires a lot of confidence — in both yourself and your technology — to raise unasked questions or suggest unexpected or innovative solutions, but we’re not afraid of presenting something unbelievable, because we know that what we’re doing works.

ADB: To that end, AEC has a reputation as a generally risk-averse industry, and yet you guys seem to be very comfortable with taking risks. Why is that?

LJ: I’d say that there are two sides to risk. In some situations, you take on much greater risk by doing nothing. Inactivity is a decision, and it can create a lot of risk in and of itself. If you fail to adapt or react to a changing environment, that’s taking the worst risk of all.

But it’s also important to note that “risk” is not a gamble. A gamble involves unknown odds; it’s taking a chance or a guess. Proper risk assessment entails a careful review of a situation, an analysis you then use to make an informed judgement. We do take risks — and so do our clients — but we thoroughly evaluate them beforehand.

ADB: Are there any technologies you guys are particularly excited about? What kinds of tools are changing how you do your job, and in what ways?

Tod Desmarais (TD): One of the major areas that technology has impacted our profession is the way in which we interface with construction. On a basic level, construction hasn’t changed much over the past 5,000 years. You bring an assortment of materials to a site, thousands of people then show up to assemble those materials into a building.

With technologies like 3D printing, however, we have this incredible opportunity to revolutionize established practices. 3D printing gives us the ability to integrate design and construction processes far more efficiently than ever before. Currently we design the building using a three-dimensional model, convert it to two-dimensional documents for bidding, pricing, and permitting, then the trades people convert the two-dimensional information back into a three-dimensional structure during construction; this is incredibly inefficient.

Now, we can design a building three-dimensionally, price it three-dimensionally, and build or “print” it three-dimensionally, all from the original model as part of a single seamless workflow. This streamlining of the design process will shorten a project’s timeline by months.

Mariusz Klemens (MK): Generally speaking, technology allows us to make more informed decisions, run through iterative processes more efficiently, and generate better outputs for a wide range of projects. But just as importantly, it helps facilitate better communication with our clients and other project stakeholders, which is really the key to realizing its full potential.

ADB: Many of our clients hope that technologies like 3D printing can rectify the construction industry’s stagnant productivity curve, but if you revisit the literature, it seems like there has been a similar sense of optimism during every decade since this stagnation first appeared back in the ‘70s. Why do you think that this moment is different — that things are really about to change?

LJ: Well, for one, I think there’s already been a tremendous amount of progress in certain areas of the AEC industry. Revit models, for instance, aren’t just highly precise; they also have detailed information embedded into each design feature. We can use this information to generate 3D models, walkthroughs, and renderings, all for little more than a dime per square foot.

In terms of further progress, I’d say that the architecture and construction sectors have expected too little of themselves to this point. This can’t continue. If we don’t innovate, somebody else is going to, and we’re going to be left behind. As technology continues to be integrated into projects, major industry changes will become inevitable. You can either embrace these changes or ignore them. Needless to say, we’re embracing them wholeheartedly.

TD: But I think it’s helpful to point out that the construction industry is currently organized, in part, around the concept of how much a person or group of people can achieve in one day. General contractors or subcontractors and labor sit down and say, “Okay, this much is possible in an 8-hour day.” Once these expectations are set, they place a limit on individuals’ creativity and capabilities. As technology develops and expands the possibilities, these limits will become irrelevant — or at least outdated — nevertheless, the industry is slow to make the appropriate adjustments.

LJ: True, but the construction process is always going to be limited by the lowest common denominator, by the weakest link. You can’t exceed the workrate of the slowest, lowest, poorest performer on the chain, and that’s a problem.

ADB: Are technologies that enable emerging practices like prefabrication going to help?

LJ: To an extent. Prefabrication addresses a sequencing issue. It’s not evolutionary. It’s a step in the right direction, but it still depends on the same process of creating architectural drawings, giving them to the contractor, waiting for the contractor to pass them along to the subcontractor, and having the subcontractor draft shop drawings. In many senses, it’s still business as usual. Prefabrication allows you to construct sub-components separately, but the building process as such stays the same.

Gregg Young (GY): Do you see this evolving into something more useful?

LJ: If people can leverage the information embedded in Revit and other similar models to streamline existing inefficient design processes, then yes. If you can go straight from architectural designing to manufacturing, that’s an enhancement. Skipping those intermediate — and largely unnecessary — steps would be revolutionary. The industry has the technology to do this, we’re just not leveraging it properly.

TD: Agreed. What we’re trying to do right now is leverage all of the 3D design information in intelligent models earlier in the process. Instead of showing clients drawings or projecting 3D models onto a screen, we’re starting to put them “in” their building design with virtual reality (VR) headsets. With VR, clients can walk through their building and immediately understand the full-scale, space and volume and how materials fit together. This helps clients arrive at decisions faster. By using VR to evaluate design concepts early on, we have the potential to speed-up project design schedules significantly.

ADB: And this lowers costs because it reduces the need for expensive changes late in the process.

LJ: That’s what we’re constantly preaching to our clients. The decisions they make up front are so much more effective and so much more efficient than those they make halfway through a project.

The technology that enables us to do this is expensive, but we look at it as an investment. This is part of the reason why I believe that the barriers to entry in architecture are so much higher now than they were, say, 30 years ago. In the past, all you needed was a lead point, a sharpener, and an eraser. Now, because technology is such an integral part of what we do, the barriers to entry are far greater. But there’s really no choice. We’re all in, because if we weren’t — if we skimped on our technology — we’d be hampering our ability to offer top-notch services.

ADB: It’s interesting that technology has raised the barriers to entry in AEC, but in the technology community itself, it’s never been easier to establish a foothold. Creating a website in 1997 required buying a server, learning how to code, and so on, but these days getting a site off the ground is as easy as signing up for a Squarespace account. Yet in AEC, building a tech-focused firm is actually getting harder.

LJ: And it requires a great deal of buy-in from your staff and your clients. I think we’re getting close to a tipping point, too. If you look at the broader economy right now, many companies are reducing investments in technology and people. We’ve been enjoying a relative boom for some time now, and people are now expecting things to take a downward turn sooner rather than later.

At some point there has to be a change in the economy — that’s just pure economic theory — but people are reacting to it prematurely. They’re holding off on hiring new employees and they’re hesitating to make substantial capital investments. Meanwhile, the economy is still healthy, and there’s still a lot of work to be done.

GY: That’s interesting. I’d suggest that this is at least partially because most businesses are still acutely aware of the Great Recession. Some people have argued — and I tend to agree — that part of the reason we ended up with the Recession in the first place is that the generation that endured the Great Depression and subsequently ran major companies and financial institutions for years was replaced by “young guns” who hadn’t grown up with the lessons of the Depression and were therefore much greater risk-takers.

Especially in the financial industry, this younger generation made some bets that they shouldn’t have in order to promote growth and ended up creating a nasty mess that could have been avoided with the kind of cautiousness that was indelibly inscribed upon Depression-era consciousnesses. Now that this generation has lived through the Great Recession, however, they know the pain brought about by excessive risk-taking, and are hesitant to act on even a marginally risky proposition.

LJ: That’s right, but one of the reasons I love architecture is because it’s an expression of optimism. People don’t build things because they’re disappointed or depressed or cynical. People invest in new architecture because they’re optimistic, and I really feed off that. And this will continue to be the case.

And when you recognize this sense of optimism, you must also recognize that your investment in your staff, in your technology, in your firm as a whole is an expression of confidence in your ability to provide great architectural services. That’s what we do. We maintain a consistently optimistic view of the future.

GY: I’d like to return for a moment to the idea of moving from architectural drawings directly to manufacturing. How do you guys deal with external constraints? Do you think about building codes and other issues that have to do with city regulations, and do these ever interfere with getting the drawings approved? Where does that play into your thinking about what you have to address as a firm?

TD: That’s a complicated question that we’re still trying to resolve, and I’m sure our process will continue to change in accordance with shifting regulatory standards. But this touches tangentially on my earlier point that construction is being held back by regulations and stakeholders clinging to outdated standards and methods that are either familiar or comfortable – “we’ve always done it this way.” Every contributor to the industry needs to embrace the question, “what’s a better way?”

ADB: Construction is a trillion-dollar industry, though, so surely there’s a huge incentive for companies to innovate their way into a competitive advantage?

LJ: Absolutely. The AEC industry as a whole needs to adopt a different view of what we do, but I think we’re getting there, slowly but surely. I think people are starting to look at buildings less preciously than they did before. A building is a space for doing business — it’s not an icon. It’s not merely a reflection of your “greatness” as a businessperson, but a place to conduct actual commerce. If, as an AEC firm, you pour resources into creating an icon, then you’ve strayed from your core business.

GY: Do you see yourselves trying to proactively help cities move toward more sensible AEC processes, then? If so, how?

LJ: Sure. Pro bono work, for instance, actually tends to be very innovative. You’re doing it for free, so you have an incentive to come up with more efficient ways of doing things because you’re working on your own dime. I’m convinced that pro bono work is the best platform for innovation you could hope for, as you’re constantly attempting to accomplish more with less.

ADB: Gentlemen, thank you so much for your time. Meeting people like you is really inspiring. The industry is broken — and everyone knows it’s broken — yet we still meet people who don’t think they have to change to make things better. It’s always refreshing to encounter another firm who wants to make that change happen.

LJ: Likewise. I think it all comes down to being entrepreneurial, to believing you can make an impact. If you don’t have this belief, you may as well curl up in the fetal position and weep because then there’s no hope. But we — like you guys — believe we can change ourselves and change the AEC industry as a whole, and I think that’s the kind of fundamental expression of optimism that we share.

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