Minding the Gaps
After nearly 3 years, I’ve changed careers from the everpresent hum of sales metrics in eCommerce to the varied, yet focused pace in Construction. Specifically, I do estimating for commercial construction projects. This allows me to work on projects with a broad variety of scopes, and learn a lot about many differing elements that occur in specialized projects. Just ask me about concrete sometime.
As my interest (and background) lies in applications of Industrial Design, I started noticing some common aspects of both Construction and Industrial Design when one of my colleagues sent me a picture of a shirt with the following phrase–
Estimator: we do precision guesswork based on unreliable data provided by those of questionable knowledge.
Apart from the last bit, does that seem similar in any way to design? A big part of design projects is working with data that is incomplete, and people that are (through no fault of their own) unable to communicate exactly what they need. From that point of unknowns upon unknowns, designers start working to minimize those unknowns. In construction, an estimator looks at sets of plans from different sources, sees the jobsite in person to understand details that might not appear in the plans, and even look the property up on Google Earth. As estimators gain more experience, they know what to look for, and what avenues of inquiry are likely to yield the best results.
Dodge, Duck, Dip, Dive, and Dodge
Within both fields, practitioners may be working on several projects on any given day, with meetings happening and emails incoming and people dropping by the workspace every few minutes. This is contrasted with the times when a project requires deep focus, such as creating detailed renderings or performing a complete takeoff of a project. Even within that framework, the conditions of a project are constantly shifting. A client may decide on another plan feature, or costs might change, or an outside party may reveal new project constraints.
Keeping Fingers in Pies, Even After They’ve Cooled
For both fields, the job isn’t done when the product ships/the project breaks ground. Both estimators and designers are always getting feedback depending on what their responsibilities are for the project in question. They have to keep the different parts of the project updated and in harmony, while adapting to what challenges arise or what decisions are made during the course of the project. This isn’t to say an estimator or designer is necessarily in charge of every project that crosses their desk, but they are expected to stay up to date on the overall timeline and developmental progress of those projects.
Varying sets of responsibilities lead to varying workspaces. While a large part of estimating is done in office, estimators need to experience current and future jobsites to evaluate what the project will require. This isn’t just observing what people are working on at the jobsite and asking questions, but helping to process project details and communicate with everyone involved to get the resources where they need to go.
This is similar to the industrial design world, where a day might include meeting with clients, teams from other disciplines, leadership, and third parties doing work outside of the company, such as component manufacturers in another part of the world. The roles of both fields require a pleasant, yet assertive, approach while staying organized with all the details to disseminate to each stakeholder group.
Scaling Up vs. Scaling Out
Within both fields, I’ve noticed that the word “design” gets thrown around a lot. Many construction projects are classified as design-build, where the party tasked with executing the project is brought in early to provide feedback about budget, scheduling, building design, and other constraints.
In an industrial design/manufacturing context, this is similar to bringing in the manufacturer at the earliest stages of design. There’s a great advantage to be had there, because everyone can play to the strengths of the other. A manufacturer might have access to a unique material or process that, while it must be accomodated for in the overall design, offers a better experience to the user. Furthermore, the designer doesn’t have to rely solely on their own manufacturing knowledge (however great that may be) to create a feasible design. This means less time spent in the later stages once the project is underway, and greater potential for a positive outcome.
Comparing projects for construction to projects for manufacturing, I think it’s also worth noting that buildings have remarkably stricter requirements due to them being an entire space that’s meant to fit around humans, as opposed to being manipulated by humans in the context of manufactured products. This tighter set of requirements spreads into every aspect of the thinking that surrounds construction.
So we have two ideas of a “design". On the construction side, a design is a set out plan for a single structural project that will take a long time to complete, utilizing many resources. One the design side, a design is a sort of idealized form that will be multiplied numerous times, which addresses and evokes a number of thoughts and emotions in addition to being (hopefully) useful in some concrete way. These thoughs and emotions are established during the design process with feedback from various parties.
I plan to dig into this distinction a bit more, especially how both projects are in many ways the inverse of each other. A building is made with many people doing a complex task over and over again, to a small part of that building. A product is made with few people inducing machines to do a simple task over and over again, to a large number of duplicate products. Thank you for reading.
Edit: This post was rewritten on 9 August to improve clarity and accuracy. I also added some pictures.