What To Read: Brian Potter is studying how buildings are made

This week, we interviewed Brian Potter, a structural engineer who writes Construction Physics, a newsletter about the forces shaping the construction industry.

What's your Substack about in one sentence?

Construction Physics is my attempt to understand why we build buildings the way we do, and how we might build them better.

Your background is in construction. What made you decide to look more closely at new trends in the industry?

I had worked in the construction industry for several years, on a few different sides of it – as a consulting engineer, as a subcontractor, and as a design builder. And the industry always seemed incredibly inefficient. Instead of reusing designs, buildings were designed from scratch every time. Instead of being produced in a factory, every building was built on-site by hand.

Then, I joined a construction startup that was specifically trying to tackle those inefficiencies. And it turns out they’re really hard to dislodge. Most of the “obvious” improvements to the way things are done don’t necessarily work any better.

So I started looking into the history of building technology and the various attempts to change the construction industry. I found that there have been a huge number of attempts to make construction more efficient, going back nearly 100 years. Construction Physics kind of came out of that research.

What don’t people understand about the construction industry?

I think people fail to appreciate what a massive industry it is. As a portion of GDP, it’s roughly the size of the auto industry, the mining industry, and the agriculture industry combined. But it mostly stays off people’s radar.

I think that’s partly due to the perception of the construction industry as sort of unchanging and uninteresting. If something is working the same way it always has, it’s not exactly a ripe topic for discussion. The fact that you can buy a 40-year-old home that doesn’t seem much different from a brand-new home sort of reinforces this.

I obviously think there are plenty of interesting things happening in the industry worth discussing. And I’m optimistic that we’re in the early stages of some big, visible changes in how buildings get built.

What do you think the future of construction will look like?

There are two trends that I’m watching. One is for construction to be increasingly prefabricated and off-site. This is something people have been trying for over a hundred years, and it never quite seems to click. The logistics issues are hard to overcome – in terms of cost, coordination, and how big an object you can feasibly ship. But it seems like some of the transportation technology on the horizon, such as self-driving trucks and electric trucks, could change that calculus a bit.

The other trend is making the construction site more like a factory: better data on what’s going on, more precision, and more control. There are a lot of interesting developments in this area, including construction robots, on-site sensors and drones, 3D printers that can print whole buildings, and AR glasses that can overlay assembly instructions onto a job site. I’m excited to see how these trends play out – whether one will dominate, or if they will influence each other.

The pandemic has made many of us start to think about our environments from a public health lens. Do you see any changes happening with how buildings are designed?

I think we’ll see a shift in the type of buildings that get built. Depending on how permanent the shift to work-from-home becomes, we’ll probably see more residential construction, more data centers, and more distribution centers. Fewer office buildings. Market trend reports suggest this is already happening. 

I’m hopeful we’ll see better technology for managing indoor air quality. The pandemic, along with the wildfires, shined a spotlight on this a bit, but there’s not a great off-the-shelf solution. You have to do a lot of your own research and buy a bunch of separate devices.

What’s one building that you’re inspired by?

There’s a shrine in Japan, Ise Jingu, that gets torn down and rebuilt every 20 years. They’ve been doing this for 1300 years. They do it for a few reasons, but one of them is to keep the techniques used to build it from being lost.

Buildings are interesting because they’re so long-lived that even as technology advances, the old technology remains in use for a really long time. The Empire State Building is built using something called cinder-slab floors. It’s a system no one has used in decades, but the buildings built with it are still around – if you’re doing renovation work in New York City, it’s apparently something that comes up a lot.

So it’s just interesting to think about the social infrastructure that a given piece of technology requires, and how we might do a better job of cultivating it.

Who's another Substack writer you'd recommend?

I really like Kane Hsieh’s MachinePix Weekly newsletter. It’s a more in-depth look at machinery videos he posts to his Twitter account, coupled with interviews of people doing really interesting engineering work.

Subscribe to Brian’s newsletter, Construction Physics.