Deconstructing construction: understanding successes and failures

Once they are completed, do construction projects live up to their promises? Which factors explain why certain buildings succeed and others fail? And are their specific configurations that make it more likely for innovations to materialize?

In the construction industry, it is far from common practice to critically examine the production process of buildings. Why? It takes such a multitude of actors to build a building that dysfunctions get drowned out by the complexity of the project. “Construction is one of those complex social disciplines in which no one is ever at fault. As an activity based largely on experimentation, errors are an integral component of the construction process,” says Paolo Tombesi, EPFL professor and director of the Laboratory of Construction and Architecture based at the smart living lab.

Analyzing the production of buildings
Paolo Tombesi dedicated his long career to analyzing construction processes. To do so, he focuses on real and often internationally popular architectural projects, frequently traveling on site to visit them. Armed with his camera, he combs the buildings from their basements to their attics to capture both their strong points and their flaws. Sometimes he follows the projects before their completion, regularly going on-site and visiting the suppliers to study their means of production. Tombesi also analyses all the documents that he can get his hands on, including project specifications and blueprints. Using a method he developed himself, he focuses on the many actors involved and on their interactions.

Role dynamics
Rather than simply assigning actors to their fields of expertise and the services that they provide, Tombesi focuses on their actual roles in the project. What is their sphere of influence? What interests are they guided by? What specific knowhow can they offer? More broadly, what role do the actually play in the project? By attributing roles (drivers, facilitators, challengers) to each person involved in several case studies and analyzing them serially, Tombesi was able to identify configurations that might explain a project’s success. “If there is one constant that stands out in architectural projects that meet their objectives, it is that the people behind the design had both the knowhow and the power to adapt the industry’s behavior according to the specific needs of the project,” he explains.

Fostering innovation
In 2016, Paolo Tombesi carried out a comparative assessment of three buildings built using digital fabrication methods (advanced modeling, 3D printing, laser cutting, automated assembly of prefabricated elements, etc.). Analyzing construction methods, it became apparent that digital fabrication was particularly useful when the shop drawer took onto himself the risk and the responsibility of both creating only the digital files and handling the entire digital coordination, starting with the architects all the way to the production facilities. In these cases, the shop drawer became the driving force of the project; if the project succeeded, his business would stand out in the market. His obvious economic interest would push him to shoulder not only the role of the project’s driving force, but also all of the other key roles required for the project to take shape. While analyzing his case studies, Tombesi observed that certain social configurations tend to foster innovation such as digital fabrication, while others slow it down, curtail it, or extinguish it altogether. He established a correlation between the distribution of power among the actors and whether or not innovations materialize. “Innovation can be realized if they clearly benefit those who have the power to act,” he concludes.

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