What’s Missing in Discussions About Infrastructure Investment

Concept image of miniature construction workers inspecting a brain. 3016268 © Amy Walters | Dreamstime.com
3016268 © Amy Walters | Dreamstime.com

As the arguments for infrastructure spending increase yet again, I’m reminded of a report put out by the nation’s civil engineers at least 20 years ago. It basically said the nation’s infrastructure was not just crumbling, but that if repair and modernizations didn’t start soon we’d reach a point of no return. The bridge collapse a few years ago in Minneapolis and now recent bridge closures between Ohio and Kentucky underscore just how far things have slipped.

Almost 150,000 of the nation’s nearly 600,000 bridges are structurally unreliable, according to this report in Kentucky.com. In Kentucky alone the bad bridges equal about a third of the total in that state. Bridges built in the 1950s and 1960s had life spans of about 50 years and the average bridge today is 43 years old. Perhaps initial design requirements should have been greater, but then, they were dealing with the state of construction at the time, complete with the limitations of available technology and materials.

But there’s more to infrastructure than just bridges. There are roads, tunnels, trains, airports, schools and all the associated buildings and equipment that go with those. Then too, there is electrical utility lines and Internet backbone also screaming for investment.

We have to some degree missed out on the opportunities the Internet has been offering all these years, because we still look at employment as something that takes place somewhere we have to travel to. Sure, for many that’s true, but for countless office workers and others who can perform their jobs with computer technology it really isn’t necessary anymore to go somewhere to do their work. No doubt, the only reasons many people still commute somewhere to work is because they want to, or because corporations haven’t figured out what to do with their real estate if they don’t use it to house workers.

So, beyond fixing infrastructure, the nation really needs to get serious about using resources much more wisely and investing in more infrastructure than just those related to vehicles and moving people. After all the years of millions paying taxes on their phone bills to fund high speed Internet to every place in the country, there are still huge expanses where people are relying on dial up, bandwidth limiting satellite offerings, and low speed and intermittent Internet service. The country needs more than just infrastructure investment — it needs creative, forward looking infrastructure investment.

Codes Don’t Account for Risks From Multiple Natural Disasters

New informationfrom the National Institutes of Standards and Technology says building

3D construction worker building a brick wall - 13807312  © Andres Rodriguez | Dreamstime.com
13807312 © Andres Rodriguez | Dreamstime.com

codes may be out of date when considering the effects of natural disasters on buildings. The reason is because codes generally consider the effects of these disasters as individual events, but when they are combined such as an earthquake followed by a hurricane, structures will experience both seismic and wind loads that they may not be designed to withstand.

Researchers used the example of South Carolina where both seismic and wind hazards can be expected. In those places, building design limits won’t account for both eventualities. According to wind zone and seismic hazard maps another vulnerable place is at the junction of Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee. With wind speeds capable of hitting 250 mph and with three seismic hazard zones this area is at greater risk for dual failures on buildings.

Researchers are considering a wide range of models and extending the methodology as they advocate for changes to building codes.

Agitated Lumber Reveals Its Defects

Ultrasound agitator
The ultrasound agitator causes the wood to vibrate, which generates frictional heat wherever there are cracks. A thermal imaging camera shows these defects up. (© Fraunhofer WKI)

News about more exacting ways to detect structural problems in wood comes to us from the Fraunhofer Institute for Wood Research, Wilhelm-Klauditz-Institut, WKI in Braunschweig, Germany.

Researchers there agitate the wood with sound and can then measure the heat that is expelled by defects. Ultrasound thermography also helps to reveal joinery problems such as dowels that haven’t been glued properly. These types of revelations would no doubt be important to people who are buying high-end furniture, but there are implications also for the construction industry.

This creates an advancement in the struggle with construction defects. In one way, timber could be sorted for its structural integrity before it’s made into building products. If structural lumber can be be made to be more consistently reliable by eliminating hidden defects then there could even be room for upgrading load bearing specifications so that the weight of the load bearing member itself can be reduced.

Not only that, but the process works with glass and ceramics as well. A demonstration model has been built already.

Estimating and Takeoffs Take Wing to the Cloud

Takeoffs and estimating are two construction processes that are getting easier and quicker by being cloud based. According to the folks at Cloud Takeoff you can now even use Google Earth to gather dimensions when doing exterior takeoffs. But the real power of cloud takeoffs comes from being able to get the wide view and to have as many blueprints as needed right in front of you.

Of course you are limited by the size of your computer monitor, but that really isn’t an issue since all the prints are presented as thumbnails until you select one to work on. As you do your takeoffs you can add notes, apply variables, dimensions, specs or labels to your takeoff items. Then, you can make your takeoffs available to anyone else who would benefit from them including subs, vendors, materials and equipment suppliers and architects. If you use CloudTakeoff you can copy and paste takeoff quantities directly into an Excel spreadsheet for the estimate, and the cost is ideal for any size contractor, just $69 a month.

In other cases you can get a bundled business solution that includes estimating, project management, job cost control, scheduling, and collaboration. One example is Corecon’s V7, a web based solution that costs anywhere from $42.50 to $60 a month per user. It has everything needed for tracking leads, creating estimates, managing subcontractors / suppliers’ bids, collaborating on documents, tracking schedules, and managing project budgets and changes.

It wasn’t that long ago I was writing about digitizers and tools that allowed people to work on plans right on the computer screen. But now, with this movement of these core processes to the cloud it is significant in how quickly the options are rolling out, and in how quickly construction is embracing them. It’s going to level the playing field so that technology will no longer be a factor in how successful you are at winning the bids — except for those who don’t embrace it.

Indoor Mold Becomes Focus of September Observance

Animation of mold growing
This animation shows an example of the growing process of molds. (Courtesy EPA)

This is something that may have slipped beneath your radar but September is, you guessed it, mold awareness month. I was curious about who, or what, designated September for this rather musty title and I finally found one sourcethat named the “indoor air quality industry” as the originator. There are many references to Mold Awareness Month by indoor air and cleaning companies saying the observance was established by the Environmental

Protection Agency, but I couldn’t find any evidence of that being true.

Severe indoor mold problem.
This severe indoor mold problem on ceilings and walls illustrates how extreme mold problems can become. (Courtesy EPA)

Another source named the National Indoor Mold Society. This society was created by “mold victims to provide education, awareness, public policy, and research so that people recognize and understand the implications of being exposed to indoor molds and mycotoxins in their communities.” It seems from its website that it was active for a couple of years, but its writing there outlined the process it went through to get National Indoor Toxic Mold Awareness Month proclaimed by the states of Pennsylvania, Florida, Mississippi, Michigan and Georgia. Nevada opted out of the monthlong observance and designated just a week.

The Microbiology of the Built Environment Network is funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to Jonathan Eisen at the University of California, Davis, who is collaborating with Hal Levin at the Building Ecology Research Group in researching fungi issues in buildings. Since it appears that the earlier federal efforts to research indoor molds have been shelved, this may be one of the few research sources on the topic.

If you’re a builder you know about mold and its effects not just on people but on the value and integrity of the buildings themselves. But what many builders might not know is that:

Since the effect of mold on people can vary greatly, either because of the amount or type of mold, you can not rely on sampling and culturing to know your health risk. Also, good sampling for mold can be expensive, and standards for judging what is and what is not an acceptable quantity of mold have not been set. The best practice is to remove the mold and work to prevent future growth. – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s guidance for residential purposes and you can get much more background and best practices for mold in schools and commercial buildings at this page on the EPA’s site.

Puzzling Over Construction Blogging

PAZLES © Alekss | Dreamstime.comMost construction blogs are necessarily broad since construction is a big topic with many subtopics. During the four years I’ve been writing this blog the categories increased from just four to almost 20, and the 600+ posts cover everything from accounting to Zoho Projects. But I couldn’t help thinking something must be missing. So I went to see what others with construction blogs are doing.

A few of the blogs I looked at had a very narrow focus such as concentrating on construction marketing alone, legal construction topics or ones filled with content designed for click-thru, or to market construction-related products. The rest of the construction blogs I looked at were publishing posts covering a very wide range of construction topics.

While I like the simplicity of having a very narrowly focused blog it isn’t really for me because I’m eclectic — that’s a strange sounding word meaning I like a lot of different stuff. So writing about the same thing all the time would get old.

I noticed several of the very general construction blogs I looked at covered current trends in construction and covered the financial and business aspects heavily. Some others relied more on personal experience to add perspective to the construction news or events of the day. All in all, most construction blogs are really a mixed bag of content that perhaps reflects the industry as a whole. After all, construction encompasses building all types of structures, under widely varying conditions with requirements that are constantly changing.

My investigation of construction blogs sort of reinforced for me that staying general with my blog posts was best for readers and me. But in thinking about the whole construction blog topic I realized that construction companies, those who are actually doing the building, might be struggling with not just the value of having a company blog but also just what to publish.

Now, I freely admit that over the years I’ve gathered enough observations about the construction blog process to be just a little bit dangerous. Dangerous to both readers, and to those who labor away in the bowels of postings, plugins, c-panel backups, themes, widgets, Google Adsense and Adwords, and the process of getting a photo to look right when its aspect ratio is not friendly to the aspect ratio of the content area. But, perhaps my observations beyond those basics, and others related to posting frequency and commonly repeated advice, will inform or inspire.

Construction Blog Dos and Don’ts

  • Know why you are blogging – a construction firm might use a blog to communicate with customers, advance understanding of the industry or to tout the company’s portfolio and expertise. In a way, the blog becomes a record of the pulse of the company and informs not just current and potential clients, but even the company’s employees, its subs and suppliers.
  • Don’t get hung up on ROI — it seems there is an inordinate amount of emphasis placed on the return when in fact it will be extremely difficult for a construction company blog to register any score in that area. Instead, focus on communicating and put your best communicator on the job.
  • Stay balanced — readers aren’t really all that interested in your company’s great moments when they are expressed simply to toot your own horn. But if those moments are written about within the context of a current event, or used as an example of how the company overcame a challenge, then there’s more value for the reader and a greater likelihood they’ll return to read some more.
  • Be unique — one of the unfortunate aspects of the Internet is that it has made everyone a publisher looking for a hundred ways to get noticed in a sea of sameness. For example, a news story breaks and the same story is repeated over and over at high speed by hundreds of sites. Your construction blog gives you the opportunity to be different by not just repeating what others have already written, but by adding your unique perspective, research or background material that is not available to everyone.
  • Don’t be afraid to offer opinion – your take on things is just as valuable as someone else’s and is most effective when presented as an expression of opinion, rather than an attack on others’ opinions, or in ways that try to make yours the only right opinion.