Frank Gehry is showing the technophobic US construction industry how computers can transform building. But does anyone believe him?
Ask leading figures in US construction what the future of the industry looks like and they may well answer: "Frank Gehry". The white-haired septuagenarian architect with a self-confessed fear of computers is an unlikely IT evangelist, but he might just have found the answer to the industry's needs.

Gehry, architect of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, designs buildings with CATIA, a CAD/CAM software package developed by French aerospace company Dassault Systemes. More commonly used to design jet fighters and Formula 1 cars, the software enables the architect to design extraordinary volumes and then send digital instructions to component manufacturers. The Guggenheim's titanium cladding was formed this way; each shingle was rolled to a unique 3D curve according to precise instructions generated at Gehry's studio in Santa Monica, Los Angeles.

While the aerospace and automotive industries have been using this kind of technology for years, it is relatively rare in construction. "To be frank, technology in architecture is at a pretty low level," says Bill Pedersen of architect Kohn Pedersen Fox. "But Frank Gehry's buildings, which would have been undreamable a few years ago, are now achievable at a reasonable cost."

Norbert Young, president of the McGraw-Hill Construction Information Group, agrees. "Gehry's been able to leverage technology," he says. "People are beginning to wake up and realise this has got merit."

There is a wider significance in what Gehry is doing, according to Bill Mitchell, dean of the architecture school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a world authority on technology in construction. "Frank Gehry uses an extremely sophisticated computer modelling process for his buildings, and that creates a whole new set of architectural possibilities," says Mitchell. "You can begin to think about buildings made of non-repeating parts."

This will change the shape not just of monuments like the Guggenheim, Mitchell believes, but of all buildings. "I'm sure we're also going to see it in housing, in the same way Michael Dell does computers. If you go onto the Dell website you can configure your own personalised computer and they assemble it from your specifications. Eventually, the conservative housing industry will catch up. I think it's going to be enormously successful, but I wouldn't expect to see it just yet."

Norbert Young agrees that the rest of the industry has been slow to follow Gehry's lead. "At the moment, architects do all the drawings in CAD, but they don't give CAD drawings to the contractors. They don't talk to each other and they don't connect."

The result, says Young, is that construction is hopelessly inefficient. It is, in fact, the only major US industry that has become less efficient over the past decade. Young cites a recent study by Paul Teicholz of Stanford University, which found that construction is half as efficient as manufacturing, and getting worse. "In 1965, manufacturing and construction were equally efficient," says Young. "Thirty-five years later and there's a two-to-one gap."

We have a tool that generates material with such accuracy that it puts the contractor in not great risk. I think there’s a great opportunity to become the master builder again. Frank Gehry

Much of the inefficiency gap can be attributed to the slow take-up of IT, which in itself stems from the fragmented nature of US construction. There are 1.25 million firms in the sector. Of

these, 98% employ 50 people or fewer, 90% 10 or fewer. The industry needs to adopt common IT standards so that designers, construction firms and building owners can share information, but investing in state-of-the-art technology is not high on small firms' agendas. "Just getting [these small firms] to use computers is a big issue," says Young.

Lack of investment is hampering the adoption of the internet and e-business, according to a report published last month. "Many industry firms are resisting the internet because they will have to upgrade their systems," said the 2000-2001 US Markets Construction Overview, published by management consultant FMI.

More than 200 construction-related websites and portals have sprung up, offering everything from project management to procurement. But the industry is slow to adapt: "The internet was considered irrelevant to construction until about 1997," says Judy Schriener, editor-in-chief of web portal "Now the industry is just beginning to see the value of collaboration online. But it's still a little early for e-commerce."

Joe Farrell, senior vice-president of Bovis Lend Lease in Boston, agrees: "There is no question the industry is going this way, but the benefits are unproven at the moment."

A few firms are investing in innovative IT solutions. Architect SOM has built a sophisticated intranet enabling staff around the world to collaborate on projects (see pages 32-33). In March, Dallas-based Centex Homes launched a web-based estimating and purchasing system, replacing the incompatible spreadsheets used in different departments. In January, Granite Construction of Watsonville, California, introduced a field information system that delivers daily job-scheduling information to its employees via the company intranet. Granite plans to add a function that will enable daily costs to be tracked against a project budget.

But although each of these innovations makes the individual company more efficient, it does not address inefficiencies in the supply chain, nor help integrate the design, construction and maintenance processes. Non-construction firms with strong IT capabilities such as Andersen Consulting have spotted this weakness and are already moving into the market, offering clients a one-stop building procurement service.