Commonsense and Entropy

Okay. I am a mechanical engineer and had two suffer through four semesters of Thermodynamics and so couldn’t resist that trendy word of the mechanical age: Entropy. All of thermodynamics can be summed up with three propositions: You can’t win. You can’t quit, and finally, You can’t even break even. And that’s where Entropy (I like to use the capital “E” because it makes it look so regal) sneaks in, the property a.k.a. Disordliness has everything to do with why you can’t unscramble an egg. (You could, but it would be way way difficult). So what does this have to do with the construction delivery process? (You can breathe a sigh of relief to know that I am not going to blog about isentropic adiabatic isothermal processes in refrigeration machines). Information is everything! (Great read to, James Gleick’s followup to Chaos, yclept The Information). And where does the information come from in construction projects? Good orderly direction would be great, and one very positive benefit of the LEED process is that early charettes, (design brainstorming sessions), assemble all interested parties to share constraints, issues, and posit approaches to the finished building. So what are the commonsense points for the morning about avoiding entropy in the construction delivery model?

  1. Avoid an adversary process. The old model of building was design/build, the master builder was also the architect (in fact “Architect”s are a recent arrival on the scene, having originated in the 18th century as the keepers and assemblers of construction documentation, this was refined to include their role to certify compliance with building codes. There has been an affinity for the profession by those kids who “used to like to draw” and became architects because the fine arts are fickle-that will be a separate morning’s peroration). Back to the point, when the master builder was dissimilated into, in the extreme cases a group including a designer, engineers of many flavors (mechanical, electrical, civil, structural, geotechnical, acoustical, and so forth), a general contractor or two, subcontractors, code officials, regulators who may never see each other in the same room: entropy ensued, (unfortunate verb, because the group is many time reassembled during subsequent lawsuits). Better to assemble a team from the start, difficult, but quite workable, and way better than the alternative.
  2. Document with the end in sight, but remember, the plan is not the project. You can’t build those Escher sketches. The building does not give a hoot about the energy simulations you created, (I once worked in the high tech arena of gas turbine engine design. One of my colleagues, Larry Hughes, who was a whiz at computers in the ’60’s had developed a “start to idle engine reliability program” and when I told him one of the real engines he had simulated wouldn’t start, he gave me the “deer in the headlights” stare and said “but the computer says it will”. Nuf said.) One of the beefs I have with some of the new “Energy” award programs is that they are based on simulation. There is a real building there folks.
  3. Expect to be surprised. My old architect partner, Clint Sheerr, used to tell clients that they could be guaranteed to have unexpected issues during construction. It is not a perfect process. Smile. Pain is guaranteed, suffering is optional.
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