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From Duct Taping to Reinventing Construction – an Interview with Steve Holzer

Construction tech is hot. The question is: Are the dollars are invested in contech reinventing the industry or are they merely adding patches to outdated processes? Steve Holzer, an industry expert and Product Evangelist at BIMobject, shares his views in this interview.

Steve Holzer’s LinkedIn profile details industry experience that starts from 1976 when he became the president and owner of Holzer Construction Company. Since then, he’s been on the cutting edge of AEC technology and, today, is an acknowledged tech expert and visionary.

I came to know Steve from the AEC Hackathon. During a recent interview, I had a chance to learn about his experiences and how he sees the future of construction.

From CAD to Early AI

Throughout his career, Steve has been interested in how to use technology for construction. He was an early adopter of job-costing systems and project-scheduling software for home building. He had already started using AutoCAD in mid-eighties. For Steve, CAD was not just a fast way to produce drawings.

“In the early 1990s, a home-building company hired me to extract attribute data from AutoCAD files and bring it into a purchasing system called the FAST Management System,” Steve explains. “FAST was popular among US home builders and I started implementing these systems all over the country.”

In mid-1990s, Steve was hired to implement one of the first artificial intelligence systems for home builders. It allowed the use of natural language for inquiries. For example, a C-level manager could ask, “How many homes did we close last month?” or “How many homes will we close this month?” The app could also learn. If the system did not understand a certain word, it would ask for the user for an explanation through a simple dialog.

Smarter Construction

Steve was occupied with homebuilders across the country, but he realized that something was missing in how the building industry managed information. He had worked as a purchasing VP for years and knew that building materials did not have the same universal product codes as any staple in a supermarket. For example, the same ubiquitous 2×4 precut stud could have four different product codes for a single vendor .

“I thought that there’s got to be a standard for this somewhere. That’s how I discovered buildingSMART and got engaged with Deke Smith,” says Steve. He became member of a team that developed the US-national BIM standard.

Steve has an extensive network of industry front runners. In 2013, he joined forces with two of them, Damon Hernandez and Greg Howes, to start up the AEC Hackathon. By this time, the community that grew from the initiative has organized over 40 hackathons across the globe.

A scene from the AEC Hackathon

BIM Objects

BIM software contain objects that represent real-life building parts and systems, but they are generic. However, designers and contractors need information about real products. This is why Steve was eager to learn about platforms that provided BIM content from manufacturers. He discovered BIMobject and its founder, Stefan Larsson, in 2012.

After working as a freelancer for the home building industry, Steve joined BIMobject. This happened right after the company had absorbed Autodesk’s BIM content service, called Seek, in January 2017.

Steve went to work for BIMobject because he saw that they were not just a repository. They were creating new opportunities for the industry with several technologies – e.g., VR/AR and the Hercules platform.

Widen Your Horizon

Many building product manufacturers believe that architects and engineers are the key players in a project and that serving the designer is a way to make money. Steve opposes that notion. Of the 10-trillion-dollar industry, 91% of the business happens after the building is completed. He believes that the building owner is the prime mover.

The role of the owner has evolved. They used to order plans and specs from designers and, then, find a contractor who’d mostly miscalculate their bid. The antagonistic relationship between project participants has transformed into a more collaborative one.

We should widen our technological horizon in VDC from the design and construction process to the use, operations, and maintenance of the built environment. From the construction cost thinking, we should move to understanding the total cost of ownership (TCO).

As for information management, Steve would have us stop talking about files and start creating common data environments. The project team should embellish the environment from day one and include geo-locations in the data. This way, the project becomes a part of the digital city.

Duct Taping Manual Processes

“I want to challenge the market. All that prefab stuff is great, and we’re using automation and robotics, but that’s not enough. We’ve got to rethink the systems,” Steve proclaims. “We continue to use systems that were devised for manual labor. Even the sheets of wallboard are meant for a human to be able to handle.”

Steve reminds that we’re building in pretty much the same way that we did a century ago. A tower crane and some new materials have emerged since then, but, otherwise, the process is essentially similar. New technology is just “duct taping” the existing practice.

There’s hype around prefabrication and modular construction right now. Steve thinks it’s all about good marketing. Levittown is a good example of prefabrication and vertical integration that took place in the 1950s, over half a century before Katerra.

Steve himself has a story of prefabrication from the late 1970s. He went into the business of framing and assembling panelized homes from a company called National Homes. With six guys, they could put up a house in a day and a half from parts that fit in two semi-trucks. The parts had computer-printed tags to show where they should go.

More with Less

Technology is supposed to let us do more with less. Building contractors moan about labor shortage. Instead, Steve thinks that we have a productivity problem. Companies in Nordic countries have been cutting back on work hours and still been able to provide a good living for the employees.

Are we going to see a more profound change in construction? Steve is adamant that a radical change is due to happen: “What happened in the auto industry will happen in construction. The industry is going to be reinvented by a couple of people and nobody else is going to be able to compete.”

You can connect with Steve on LinkedIn.

About the author

Aarni Heiskanen

Aarni Heiskanen, Construction Innovation Agent, is hailed as a Top 100 influencer in construction. Aarni has been a pioneer in computer-aided design, he has co-founded a business software company, and worked as a certified management consultant. At present, he runs AE Partners, a communication firm. Aarni holds a master's degree in architecture.

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