Historically there have been two major paradigms for how projects were delivered in the design and construction industry: The first was the Master Builder and the second was what I am calling the Industrial Assembly Line model. These two paradigms, or ways of working, shaped our built environment from the antiquities to the late 20th century. Now, in the 21st century, I believe we are in the midst of a paradigm shift to a third model that is revolutionizing the industry and which embodies the future of our profession. To understand that paradigm shift it is helpful to understand the first two paradigms and how we got to where we are today.
Once upon a time all buildings were built by a master builder. There was no distinction between architecture, engineering, and construction. All three were done by a single person who was involved from design through project completion. One person determined the form, the materials, and the final construction methods of a project. One person also took responsibility for all the challenges that arose during the project. This was the predominant model throughout most of history and all the great monuments of historic times, from the Parthenon to the Pantheon, were designed and built by a master builder. This intuitively makes sense as construction techniques and engineering challenges were part of the design thinking and design decisions could be made during construction to ensure the final building embodied the master builder's vision. There were also no separate systems in these buildings-the structure was embedded in the building exterior or envelope and, of course, there were no mechanical or electrical systems.
The Master Builder paradigm began to break down during the late renaissance when buildings became more complicated. Trades were established to design and build various elements of the project and laws began to differentiate between the art of architecture, the science of engineering, and the craft of building. The Architect was still in charge but he or she was no longer responsible for every aspect of the project.
The Master Builder paradigm finally shifted completely with the beginning of the industrial revolution and the advent of Henry Ford's Assembly line.
In Ford's assembly line, each worker had one job, to put his or her part on the car chassis as it rolled past. This linear process, in which the assembly moved on a conveyor belt at a predictable rate, kept workers focused and efficient. This significantly cut production time and the cost of each car.
Ford's innovation revolutionized production; the assembly line is the primary mode of manufacturing in industry today. This one-hundred-year-old innovation by a car manufacturer in Michigan changed the way we live and work forever.
Up until recently, buildings were designed and constructed in a similar assembly line manner. The client, or future building owner, hired the architect, gave him or her the basic program (so many rooms of these sizes and functions), and the architect turned the program into a basic design. The architect then handed the plans to the engineers, who added structural, mechanical, electrical, and other building elements to the drawings. Once the drawing set was completed, it was turned over to the contractor who provided a cost for the building and then built it, with some overview from the architect.
It sounds simple and efficient. The problem is that the process was rarely as linear as an assembly line. There was usually a significant amount of backtracking and rework involved with every hand-off. It might be the engineers discovering that the systems they wanted to put in the building didn't fit easily and the architects had to redesign the project to make room for them. Or the price the contractor provided was significantly above the budget the owner had setup, which meant going back to the beginning and cutting program and then redesigning the building to accommodate the new program. There are dozens and dozens of variations on this theme.
Even worse, because there is significant money spent on building projects there is significant risk to the owner if the project takes longer than anticipated or if there are problems with the building that someone has to pay to fix. Who is responsible? How do you place blame and determine who pays for the problem?
Laws and legal contracts were developed to protect each party in the process, which in essence pitted the architect against the contractor in a dance to avoid taking responsibility for someone else's screw-up.
By the end of the 20th century the process had become adversarial in many cases, with the architect and engineers leery of the contractor's appreciation of design and the construction team convinced that the design team didn't really care about cost or constructability. A lot of clients, who were stuck in the middle, began to think there had to be a better way to design and build a building.