By Susan Pratt Reinhardt, AIA | Reinhardt Lean Design and Consulting 

Susan Reinhardt, AIA

Susan Reinhardt, AIA

How Lean Design and Lean Construction can Partner for the Best Results

Between January 2012 and early 2014, more than 500 Indian migrant workers and 382 Nepalese died in Qatar performing construction work connected to the 2022 World Cup. In an issue of The Guardian, Zaha Hadid—the architect who designed the Al-Wakrah stadium—said, “I have nothing to do with the workers. I think that’s an issue the government—if there’s a problem—should pick up. Hopefully, these things will be resolved.” Asked if she was concerned, she added “Yes, I’m not taking it lightly, but I think it’s for the government to look to take care of. It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it. I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it. I think it’s a problem anywhere in the world.”

Hadid was roundly criticized for this opinion, but with the fragmentation of the building industry—especially the separation between the what (design) and the how (building)—some designers might agree with that statement. How can lean practices bring these two together?

If better planning your workflow results in safer and more high-quality work, what happens when you concentrate on making work safe first? There is a false assumption common to many industries that safety and lower costs exist in opposition to each other, but is that true? When Paul O’Neill took over as CEO for the aluminum manufacturing company Alcoa, it already had a safety record superior to others in the industry. He announced that his primary goal would be ensuring zero injuries. His team deduced that things go wrong because of an insufficient understanding of how to make the process right. He insisted that within 24 hours of anyone getting hurt, or even having a close call, the business unit president had to notify O’Neill wherever he was in the world. Within two days, they had to report what the initial investigation had revealed about the root causes and what would be done to prevent the problem from recurring. Leaders were required to solve problems and spread knowledge. Skeptics initially concerned about the cost of this new program soon observed improvements in quality, yield, defects, efficiency, cost, stock prices, and profits. Reviewing safety had opened a window into all the underlying factors that compromised Alcoa’s performance in those typical corporate measures, according to High Velocity Edge. Workflows were redesigned, equipment was upgraded, and better work methods were promoted throughout the company.

Prevention Through Design

Design is the ultimate exercise in “planning” work, and therefore should have a close connection to safety on the jobsite. Consider the claim that 22-60 percent of all construction accidents originate in design, according to research by Oregon State University. It is difficult to trace all accidents back to their origin, but it is worth considering how a contractor falling from a roof may have been better protected if the construction of the project had been better thought-out at the beginning of design, when nearly all changes are still possible. The design can dictate (or at least suggest) the sequence of construction, how work gets done, what materials get used, how easy it is to access different areas, and what equipment is required. Without input from operations in the field, dangerous conditions, ergonomically unsound practices, and missed opportunities for streamlining design abound, along with the usual annoyance of incomplete documents. As constructability suffers, quality will also be at risk. The harder the design is to build, the more expensive, as well—and the larger the threat to the schedule; this dynamic motivates the trades onsite to speed work up in ways that may be dangerous to life and limb in addition to quality.

Unfortunately, designers often don’t consider the construction implications of their designs. Consider the problem of installing and replacing light fixtures over stairwells or in high, inaccessible places. As an architect placing lights on a reflected ceiling plan, I seldom thought about anything but aesthetics. The lighting engineer finalized the plan with the proper calculations. I rarely saw builders installing lights, and only heard vague complaints during weekly construction administration walks. But as a quick survey of Google Images shows, builders get dangerously creative trying to install the work as shown in the design documents.

As an architect with typically little builder input in design, I picked up complaints at random. For example, within our public recreation centers, we often used 8×16 CMU walls for durability. To add some interest, we asked for center scoring on these walls in certain locations to imitate an 8×8 grid. Occasionally, I would make a notation in the documents for this center scoring on both sides of the same CMU wall. This caused real heartburn with alignment. “Please don’t put center scoring on both sides of a wall. We have been fighting it all day!” One CM exclaimed. If he hadn’t experienced this issue the day I appeared onsite, I may have never heard about it. If my firm hadn’t had weekly staff meetings on Monday, I may have never informed any of the other project architects. If we wish to properly design and plan our work, this ad hoc system is not the way to do it!

According to OSHA, most fatal accidents involve falls, being struck by objects, or being caught between objects, including unsafe access. Eliminating risks by changing the design and avoiding features that create these hazards is key. We should provide safe, permanent access for construction, operations and maintenance, consider offsite prefabrication where many trades must work in the same space, understand access needs and exposure to falls, and determine easier methods of construction at the beginning of design, when it is easiest and cheapest to study and incorporate alternatives.

A New Approach to Design

We can start by considering common problems project teams face every day and finding ways to improve the process of design and construction to avoid these issues in the future. Recently, a builder was constructing a YMCA recreation facility with a structure that combined precast and CMU walls topped by steel joists with metal decking for the second floor and roof. The steel structure was connected to the walls by a confusing combination of steel embeds and plates that were often incorrectly located and had to be removed and replaced after a lengthy RFI process. From the number of mistakes in the layout of these embeds, it seemed clear that the design itself was confusing for the wall manufacturers. It was also difficult for the contractors to determine that these embeds were in the wrong location in the first place until they were already in the process of building the structure and had to stop. As designed, the composition certainly withstood all the required forces established by the structural calculations, but it was very difficult to build, impacting the schedule and with it, quality.

The structural engineer was periodically onsite and helpful when it came to answering questions, but didn’t have much experience in building facilities of this type. Luckily, the same design team and builder were scheduled to create a second facility nearby; the designers and superintendent improved the second design in time to build the new recreation center with fewer problems. It is rare that we get such an opportunity, but enterprising designers and superintendents can find their own ways to improve new design projects by taking the time to examine what builders found difficult about previous projects.

Cost issues can also be resolved by working together. An architectural team working in the design development phase for a new university building was faced with multiple rounds of value engineering for the mechanical system. Every time they revised their drawings, they were again informed by the GC (after another week or three of waiting) that they were still $200,000 over budget. Having brought in at least three mechanical sub-contractors at various times for pricing (trying the trades’ patience, no doubt), they asked the owner if they could simply pick one of these subs to design the system within cost. The owner was a public entity, but since they had costs from three separate trade companies already, they agreed to allow an early selection. The design team asked the selected trade if they could help design the system below “$X” psf. The installer had little issue complying with this request. If the team had continued designing in the traditional manner, they would no doubt be value engineering even after 100 percent construction documents were issued.

Mechanical systems are often over-designed, and therefore more expensive and harder to operate than they need to be. Architects don’t always ask many questions of their engineers—we are too busy trying to coordinate how to accommodate the ducts through the building structure. It makes sense that incorporating installer expertise up front would be a great advantage. Due to time pressures, some architects complain that they don’t have time to incorporate such expertise up front, but endless iterations to make components “fit” takes a lot of time and energy. If the actual installer places the final system as they plan to install it in a BIM model, the team can enjoy the added benefit that this design can be approved immediately by the architect and engineer, avoiding the submittal process entirely. How much time and aggravation would this save? Especially for architects, who never reserve enough fees for construction administration.

Go Slow to Go Fast

How can we reimagine the design process to harness the entire project team’s expertise to create innovative projects, fit for purpose and for the best value? Consider how far a design team with builders could go when designing a multi-story tower with a steel structure. The structural cluster would consist of a cross-functional group including the architect, structural engineer, owner representatives for facility operations, and the steel erector. This group would review the design for constructability, beginning with a draft of the possible construction sequence. A safer, easier design might start with fewer construction steps, fewer components, standard elements, and lighter members for ease of handling. Connections could be welded in the shop instead of in the field.

Steel columns should safely stand on their own, providing temporary stability during construction. Column splices should be placed at a height between the average worker’s hips and shoulders for ease of installation. Holes in the flanges should be placed at the correct height to accommodate safety railings, and cross-bracing should be designed with rungs for ease of climbing. Permanent or temporary platforms can also be included for ease of erection and maintenance, and seats should ideally be provided for beams for ease of placement. Safe lifting points for structural members are key. How do you safely lift members in place, and can you use small batching to bring to the site just those members slated for timely installation, with information directing where each batch will be installed? A typical concrete column detail might ensure that the rebar sits on the concrete foundation instead of being spliced above the floor so that the rebar is also supported during construction. Connection points like sockets, brackets, and inserts can be placed to attach edge protection, including netting for floors and roofs. The team can plan to pour a hard, landscaped area immediately as construction begins for better lay space and a firmer footing for workers.

If we truly regard design and construction as one industry and act accordingly, we would plan our work using the collaboration necessary to recreate the “Master Builder” of yore. Specialists must work together to safely provide the innovation owners demand at the best price. By focusing on quality in both design and construction, we can improve the schedule, costs, and scope of projects without compromising design features or the wellbeing of those who build them.