“Orchestrated supply chains are the key to unlock efficiency in the AEC industry”

Jan 26, 2021

Interview with Prof. Dr. Daniel Hall

There aren’t many professorships specifically dedicated to innovative and industrial construction. Daniel Hall at ETH Zurich holds one of them. The overarching theme of his research is to enhance governance, productivity, and innovation in construction projects. His fascination for innovation in construction supply chains started when doing his PhD at Stanford and makes him a perfect expert for us to talk to. That’s what we did. If you want to learn more about his research, construction’s first principles and how to design and construct a house in seven days, you may want to read on.

Innovative and Industrial Construction is not a professorship that can be found at many universities. Why is it needed?

The architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry is characterized by an extreme, three-dimensional fragmentation of the stakeholders involved. It’s not only the vertical fragmentation between the different stages of a project, design and construction for example. In each of those stages you can also observe a horizontal fragmentation through the different trades contributing to a project. What drives complexity even further is the longitudinal fragmentation: Apart from the fact that the location of a construction site changes project by project, teams disband after the job is finished, making it difficult to capture best-practices and leading to a “learning disability”.

That perfectly explains the state of our industry …

Exactly. The AEC industry is being held captive by the characteristics of its own structure. While other industries such as manufacturing were able to drastically increase their productivity, construction has not been able to keep up. Even worse, in construction the gross value added per hour worked dropped by 23% between 1990 and today.

A gigantic value creation opportunity over the next decades. How does your research help solve the AEC industry’s issues?

The overarching theme of my research is to enhance governance, productivity, and innovation in construction projects through a transformation from fragmented project delivery methods to new organizational models that integrate the supply chain of the AEC industry.

More specifically this includes research on new business models and circularity for industrialised construction, design for digital fabrication, and more recently also potential applications of the blockchain technology in construction.

Could you share a practical example of your research?

Our new project called “7 Day House” is a great example. We are asking the question, “What would it take to design and construct a house in seven days?” It’s important that we’re saying “design” and “construct” because right now it is possible to design a house very quickly. It’s also possible to construct a house very quickly. But: having a customized design and a connected supply chain to fabricate the house in seven days is a great conceptual and theoretical challenge.

Where’s the breaking point?

That remains to be seen. What I can say is that we give ourselves one day for the design. To achieve that we are going to leverage augmented and generative design tools. The nitty-gritty part will then be to also digitally model the fabrication. The idea is to take rules and constraints from later stages of the value chain (eg. pre-fabrication, assembly and logistics) into consideration to avoid creating a design that is inefficient to build or not buildable at all.

Being one of the founders of the Stanford Industrialized Construction Forum you get a lot of exposure to the construction tech world. Are there developments you are specifically excited about?

In general, we see a lot of traction. When we did the first forum in 2014 we were a small bunch of 30 people. That has changed. Like the venture capital and large financial investments that flow into that space, too. 

We’ve recently seen many prefab ventures that optimize and orchestrate their supply chains by vertically integrating. This model has its challenges with asset utilization being one of them.
What we are now seeing is that startups are starting to orchestrate construction supply chains not by vertically integrating but by looking at it from an “Digital Systems Integration” perspective. More precisely, these ventures develop an asset-light industry 4.0 system to orchestrate a deep network of suppliers.

Daniel, thanks a lot for your time! What’s the easiest way to learn more about your work and your projects?

Join the Industrialized Construction Forum on January 26th and 27th!

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