The Problem

Today’s commercial building process is the implementation of a contractual arraignment formally defined over one hundred and twenty years ago with the first publication of American Institute of Architects (AIA) A101 and A201. In these documents the owner pays the general contractor to assume the risk of constructing his project.  Most all construction contracts have this basic risk transfer relationship from a party who wants something built “Owner” to the party that has the knowledge and skill to perform the construction “General Contractor”.  The primary way a general contractor manages his risk is by sub-dividing the work into smaller parts of similar trade specific work and then transfers it to another party the “Subcontractor” who performs the work.   To ensure a successful project the general contractor must understand the work in enough detail to plan and communicate it to all parties and have the proper controls in place to ensure it meets all requirements of the owner. 

Computer information systems that support this process for the most part have been around since the mid 1980’s and started as simple solutions to solve specific data management problems at the project level. They evolved in an incremental additive way as the possibility of using information technology to improve process efficiency became available.  This approach created islands of data across many projects that had no relationship to one another and integrating the information was a very complex and expensive proposition.  Worse yet, the way we enter information is done at varying degrees of granularity from project to project.  There is little to no standardization as to how the work is described which makes comparison of one project to another difficult to impossible.

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems are an attempt to bring information management into a single solution with the expectation that the data would be integrated. But we still enter data into our systems with a focus on one specific control function, on one specific project, creating information silos within a single database instead of across multiple different ones. 

We have only succeed in taking what was a set of controls implemented on paper to representing it electronically. The data consistency and integration problem is still a problem in these systems.

Commitments, submittals, requests for interpretation (RFI’s), material status, scheduling and other efforts required to control the construction process are all dependent on each other but for the most part do not coordinate in our systems without a large amount of manual effort. The process relies upon on the skill and attention to detail of the project team to keep everything in sync and is prone to error and data quality issues. We also struggle to get any usable information about past project performance that would help inform project managers as to the expected outcome of current work.  We lack the information systems that would help institutionalize our corporate experience, instead relying upon knowledge to be pass ad-hoc from project to project quickly losing any historic insight, especially when the knowledge walks out the door.  The quality, coordination and retention of information is a hidden cost we pay and if done poorly results in loss of productivity, errors, rework and delay. 

The problem is our systems share a common input and data storage methodology but lack a fundamental conceptual framework to relate information about one process to other dependent processes within and across multiple projects in a cohesive reproducible manner.  We have gone fare in representing our controls in an electronic format but have done a poor job at designing our information systems to represent the workflow of the construction process. 

What is needed is a new model of construction information that by design is integrated as a whole.  Each process participates in a single data model so facts are entered once at the right time at the right level of granularity, each linked to produce a matrix of information that represents how the work is executed over the life cycle of a project.  We need a consistent structured way of describing the construction process that supports meaningful historic analysis and insight that is durable across time. 

The Construction Execution Model (CEM) is a standard that defines the attributes and relationships of construction information for modeling the construction process.  It is not intended to replace current information standards like Construction Specification Institute (CSI) Master Format, International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 120006-2 or Uniclass but to provide a framework for which these standards could be utilized with the focus of classifying construction information needed to control the building process.  The primary benefits of implementing the standard are:

  • Informs project management as to the appropriate way of organizing information efficiently that supports integration, workflow and advance analytics. Information is only entered once at the appropriate time eliminating duplicate data entry and silos of information.

  • The structured nature of the model inherently has the concept that all elements and requirements required to execute the work can participate in the Critical Path Method (CPM) of planning, without having to manage all this data in a traditional CPM schedule. All items now have workflow and implicit or explicit dependencies to each other. Everything is now on the CPM schedule by default.

  • Standardizes construction execution information based on a common way of describing the work and the construction process so the general contractor has a consistent set of as built cost and time information across all projects. This would enable cross project analysis that could be used to inform and predict performance of future work.

  • Provides a consistent way of organizing corporate knowledge that would be available to operations at the appropriate moments in the project life cycle. The model could highlight a best practice, provide a default scope of work document or signal a quality or safety issue to look out for that would be specific and timely for a given part of the work at a given stage of construction.

  • Creates an operational environment that is transparent where the execution of the work is discoverable by all teams within the general contractors office. Safety, quality control, risk management and other corporate resource groups would have the visibility into the details of project execution without imposing onerous reporting requirements on project management teams. They will be able to identify high risk activities well before planned execution and could help ensure the appropriate level of focus and planning is complete.

The core business domain of CEM is construction project management, specifically the process of sub-dividing the project into smaller units of work for the purpose of transferring risk, controlling the sequence of events and ensuring all requirements are meet. The standard provides a consistent methodology of decomposing the scope of work at the appropriate level of granularity that is reproducible across all types of construction ensuring the maximum reuse of project experience to inform future performance.

Construction is a highly collaborative endeavor requiring the participation and coordination of hundreds of companies and thousands of people.  On large construction projects there is literally tens if not hundreds of thousands of requirements that must be satisfied for a successful project outcome, each with the potential to create delay and negatively impact that goal.  We have tried to stretch our current information systems to deal with the complexities of this environment in the desire to improve quality and efficiency, but they lack the logical data model to achieve any substantial advancement in this area.

The construction execution model is a first step in recognition of this fundamental problem and offers a possible way forward.