Infrastructure: Building Tomorrow
How policy, process, and technological change impact construction
100 years. A lot has changed in the past 10 decades: policy, process, technology, and the way construction professionals build projects. The progress that has taken place in the last 100 years can point to the next steps for building smarter infrastructure that will last the next 100 years.
What did construction and business look like back around the time of 1919? Then, the country was on the heels of the second industrial revolution—which peaked between 1870 and 1914. This was the great era of the U.S. infrastructure, where innovation in transportation was skyrocketing: roads, steamboats, and railroads rose up to link previously isolated communities. The first traffic light was built. The federal government also participated in the growth by promoting industrial and agricultural development.
Here’s another big difference: Back then, the U.S. population was roughly 100 million and the global population about 1.9 billion—a far cry from the 325 million in the United States and 7.7 billion worldwide that exists today. Still, by 1920, for the first time in American history, the U.S. Census revealed more people lived in cities than on farms—pointing to the next great revolution to come.
In terms of business, the average salary for males was $750 a year and $600 for females. 1919 was a big transition year too: soldiers were returning home, and it would lead into the Great Depression, which saw one of the sharpest falls of employment in U.S. history.
When it comes to big-tech inventions, many came out of the war, with tanks and pilotless drones developed for the U.S. navy. Some other big technology advances at the time were the telegraph, mobile x-ray machines, and the toggle light switch. These innovations would set the course for the way we communicate and interact with buildings and homes today.
… this was the great era of the U.S. infrastructure, where innovation in transportation was skyrocketing …
In recent years, much has changed. We have robotics, AI (artificial intelligence), the IoT (Internet of Things), machine learning, big data, blockchain, and sensors that can monitor our infrastructure—and help build it up. And, yet, today the United States is ranked ninth for infrastructure in the World Economic Forum’s, www.weforum.org, Cologny, Switzerland, Global Competitiveness Report and it receives and overall GPA of a D+ from the ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineer), www.asce.org, Reston, Va., Infrastructure Report Card, www.infrastructurereportcard.org. A big hurdle today is the lack of funding to build smart, connected infrastructure.
One construction company that has watched the transformation unfold in the past 100 years is Manafort Brothers, www.manafort.com, Plainville, Conn., which was founded in 1919. James Manafort emigrated from Italy in 1909 and began the journey to start a demolition and wrecking company. As decades passed, the construction company expanded into excavation and concrete foundation work—and the third generation led the firm to widen its focus on concrete, civil and utility, demolition, abatement and remediation, highway and bridge, nuclear decommissioning, and rail and mass transit construction.
“Since projects are built to fulfill a need or a want, they have evolved along with the rest of the world,” explains Justin Manafort, vice president, Manafort Brothers. “Advances in technology and changing needs and requirements of the world we live in have always required construction and demolition companies to adapt to satisfy projects and project owners’ needs.”
He adds today there is a need for continuous improvement, as a result of competition and heightened requirements. The pace of change continues to speed up at the same time. Thus, companies are having to adapt to new technologies and management practices.
Construction: A Change in Process
One of the ways construction projects have evolved during the past century is the project delivery methods themselves have changed. Manafort points to four key types of project delivery methods that exist today: design build, P3s (public-private partnerships), ABC, and prefabrication.
At its core, P3s are a cooperative arrangement between the public and private sectors on infrastructure projects. Robin Kemper, 2019 ASCE president says the way we deliver projects has changed—and P3 plays a big part here. She explains that while private individuals are involved to help fund and maintain the project, having the people who are designing and have a vested interest in making sure those lifecycle costs are low is key—because it will affect them.
Looking to the next method, ABC is a paradigm shift that has emerged—one where innovative planning, design, materials, and construction methods are used to reduce the onsite construction time that occurs when building new bridges or replacing or rehabilitating existing bridges. Today, approximately one-fourth of the nation’s 600,000 bridges require rehabilitation, repair, or replacement.
Today, approximately one-fourth of the nation’s 600,000 bridges require rehabilitation, repair, or replacement
The U.S. DOT Federal Highway Admin., www.fhwa.dot.gov, Washington, D.C., has two types of metrics that need to be present on a project in order to achieve ABC: reduced onsite construction time and reduced mobility impact time—or the period of time the traffic flow of transportation network is condensed due to onsite construction activities.
Another method that has played a big role for Manafort recently is prefabrication. As project owners become more laser focused on schedule, cost, safety, and quality requirements, contractors need to continually seek ways to meet demands in a very competitive marketplace, according to Manafort. The company has employed prefabrication to complete high-quality projects faster, more economical, and safer.
ASCE’s Kemper points to another method that isn’t used as much in the U.S., but has picked up speed in Europe: IPD (integrated project design) where everybody—owner, designer, and the contractor—has a vested interest. “Everybody can win together and everybody can lose together. That has really changed how infrastructure is built today.”
Government: A Change in Policy
Back in 1919, the United States didn’t necessarily have policies for infrastructure projects. Congress might have been involved by providing appropriation, but it wasn’t based on policy. One example is the Panama Canal.
“Today, there are many policies out there and regulations. That is a huge change over time,” says Kemper. She goes on to explain that it has forced the industry to become prescriptive and moving away from being performance based.
Henry Petroski, professor, Duke University, www.duke.edu, Durham, N.C., points to one specific example of how policy has changed: The Highway Trust Fund, which is funded by the federal gas tax.
“The trust fund alone has increasingly been found to be insufficient to fund all state and municipal infrastructure projects that apply for its funds,” Petroski explains. “It has had to be supplemented by federal dollars. The trend is unsustainable, and there is increasing talk about turning over responsibility for their infrastructure to the states and municipalities themselves.” He goes on to say the likely result will be an elimination or a large decrease in the federal gas tax, but a corresponding increase in the state and local taxes on fuel.
This points to one of the big challenges today: lack of funding. The ASCE says even though the U.S. Congress and some states have made efforts to invest more, these efforts do not come close to the $2 trillion needed to close America’s infrastructure gap.
“The truth of the matter is we have not adequately invested in infrastructure for several decades and when you don’t invest in something over a long timeframe—that includes the maintenance side, not just new, but the maintenance—we are “reaping” the benefits of the lack of maintenance,” Kemper says.
Echoing the sentiment, Miroslav Vejvoda, managing director, Post-Tensioning Institute, www.post-tensioning.org, Farmington Hills, Mich., says, “Most of the time with failing infrastructure what you have is a lack of maintenance. You need standards.”
When it comes to policy and investment in infrastructure, there is no silver bullet. We need both federal and private investment.
Tech: A Change in Innovation
Technology has also been a big component that has changed the way infrastructure projects have been delivered. Quite simply, the introduction and use of computers has changed everything from design to construction, explains Petroski of Duke University. “Computers have almost automated the estimating and bidding process,” he says.
For Manafort Brothers, computers, tablets, software, the internet, and mobile communications are all essential tools for nearly every facet of estimating and project management. At the same time, equipment has advanced in every way: size, power, efficiency, capacity, materials, precision, and electronics. Those are in addition to the incorporation of GPS, telematics, lasers, and drones in operations.
With all of this in place, more documentation and data can be gathered, created, and analyzed to improve performance, efficiency, safety, and quality. “Rapid and efficient transfer of information, including realtime information and feedback and communication between the office and field allow faster, better quality, and safer projects to be performed. All of these advances have led to increased control and efficiency and overall better project results for project owners,” says Manafort.
Technology has been a major game changer for the construction industry, enabling a safer, smarter, and more coordinated construction project.
In addition to using technology during construction, new, emerging solutions can also be used to help build smart cities and infrastructure of the future. Kemper of the ASCE points to a specific example: in 2016, Los Angeles published Urban Mobility in the Digital Age, which was a roadmap for the city’s transportation future. One key technology that is changing the way cities and infrastructure are built are sensors, which can be embedded into projects to collect data.
“That is new in our bucket of tools, shall we say, that we use both during construction and in the actual life of the project,” says Kemper. “It can help sense the loads if there is too much stress or strain in the materials and there is a concern about the actual behavior of the structure.”
Some of the toppings are wearable surfaces too, according to Kemper, so it is easy to know when maintenance is needed because the surface wears off.
These advances are needed today too—in an era where the labor shortage is a huge concern. Robotics can be used to help lay masonry and take some of the back-breaking work off the people that have been doing the work for centuries. Today, we are in the Fourth Industrial Revolution—one where workers are not necessarily trying to discern how to collect data, but rather which information is most critical to the success of a project.
At the end of the day, it is time for the construction industry to prepare for this technology revolution. “We need to embrace change,” says Kemper. “We need more planning before we start construction and we need to develop better methods to truly understand the costs and time needed to complete the projects.”