Rebuilding the STL Region: From the ‘As-Built’ to the Possible Future

By on October 9, 2018

by Tom Finan, Executive Director, Construction Forum STL

One of the biggest issues in rehabilitating or repurposing an historic building is that – even when dogeared, yellowed drawings exist – the “as-builts” frequently do not match the plans. And repairs and/or modifications made over the decades after the project was first completed can also play havoc with seemingly brilliant design schemes.

In a region with centuries of history such as ours, even when there is no structure at all on the site demolished buildings, underground caves, buried ponds, and abandoned graves and utilities can all come into play.

An artist’s interpretation in 1910 of Olive Street in Downtown St. Louis in 2010.

Just as we have computerized tools today that allow us to embed data for posterity into the design documents of new buildings, we have other electronic tools that allow us to deconstruct existing structures and probe beneath the earth without so much as pulling a nail or turning a shovelful of dirt. If the process is done correctly, we document what is there, and THEN we plan for what is to come.

Why is it then that we do not consistently apply parallel forensic data analysis and mapping of outcomes in addressing the issues that have challenged our St. Louis region and our industry for decades, such as economic development and workforce employment?

“Inclusive Engagement, Unbiased Communication, Focused Action”

In 2010 I wrote a column, “We Need a Construction Industry Leadership Forum.”  I followed it up in early 2011 with another piece, “The Elephants in the Room,” which provided the bones of what later became a business plan for Construction Forum STL.

On Nov. 20, 2013 we incorporated the Forum. We will celebrate its fifth anniversary a little over a month from now. In that time, we’ve been recognized with awards and media coverage for work in such areas as workforce development, inclusion/diversity, immigrant/refugee issues, regionalism, public policy, and mental health/substance abuse.

From the beginning we have held to a course of unbiased and impartial discourse, with the stated purpose of “building the future of the St. Louis region, through inclusive engagement, unbiased communication and focused action.” We have seen this approach bear fruit, as members of our industry have taken the broad discussions of the Forum to a granular, on-the-ground level within such disparate endeavors as addressing opioid abuse/mental health issues, welcoming immigrants to our community, and engaging with our future workforce. We are proud of the role that the Forum has been able to serve in forging collaboration for the betterment of our industry and region.

There were over 2,000 registrations to participate in the Forum’s efforts over recent months to do a drill-down examination of what true regional collaboration could look like in St. Louis. Some of our region’s best and brightest said that it was the best in-depth examination of this issue that they have seen.

And Yet…

We certainly did not expect anything to change miraculously following the series. But in our own industry, within days of its conclusion, we witnessed the business-as-usual-St.-Louis-style shenanigans that have been our region’s history and might be our destiny unless things change in a significant way. Some of what goes on in our town makes “fake news” seem tame.

For example, we heard of an MBE contractor who went through the exercise of bidding a public works project, only to have their bid dropped out of the running by a union jurisdictional dispute. The director of the utility in question, acknowledging that this turn of events might raise a flag in terms of “good faith” claims of inclusion, noted that this kind of jurisdictional squabbling between the unions in question, “has been going on for 20 years.”

We watched as union contracting associations sat on the sidelines during the elimination of apprenticeship requirements for St. Louis County projects. We’ve heard that they recognized that the political winds had shifted and walked away from what they felt was a losing battle The testimony from non-union contractors is in the record, loud and clear. The same record notes the County Council chair did nothing to rein in a member who was castigating as racist a Council member who is a union representative. That representative has been instrumental in the BUD program’s record of 88 percent completion and 85 percent placement of participants.

Last week industry representatives told the media that there is a construction workforce “crisis” in the St. Louis region. But Carpenter hours were DOWN in September. And Engineering New-Record reported, “Overall construction spending expected to decline almost 9% after 2017’s sharp increase. Non-building activity forecast to post strong growth, while the non-residential and residential sectors weaken.” And in the midst this “crisis,” four of the 14 recent BUD graduates are still looking for work. That’s a 71 percent placement rate, but it’s not a “crisis”.

Begin with Questions

We believe that all successful ventures begin with asking questions, the most prominent of which should be “What would success look like?” I loved a statement made recently by Jon Ferry of the St. Louis Development Corporation: “Incentives don’t drive development to places where the market isn’t interested.”

Our questions should be the sort that demand the kind of data-driven answers that you can’t dumb down. Take workforce, for example. There may well be shortages going forward, but perhaps more critical questions to ask center around, “What will the STL construction workforce of tomorrow look like (less pale, male, and stale would be my guess) and “What work will that workforce be doing?”

Analysts have long noted that construction has been the last industry to automate. In its 2017 report “Reinventing Construction Through a Productivity Revolution,” the international consulting firm McKinsey stated, “Change in the construction sector cannot be achieved without investment in retooling a workforce that is aging and changing its makeup through migration. Construction firms and workers need to continuously reskill and train to use the latest equipment and digital tools. In the mix should be apprenticeship programs … training frontline workers in core skills that are currently underdeveloped; and increasing stability in the workforce by breaking seasonality and cyclicality.

“Change may not be a distant prospect—there are signs of potential disruption in parts of the global construction industry. The diagnostic is well known. Best practices already exist. The potential of a mass-production system offers the chance of a dramatic step change in productivity in some segments of the industry higher productivity.”

What Might “Forum 2.0” Look Like?

Five years in, the role of Construction Forum STL is evolving to into a role as a convener, communication channel and collaboration builder. We are in discussions with very bright people in our region who are both “policy wonks” and “doers” to help us determine what that might look like. It currently appears that, going forward we will use research, communication tools, data mapping and Baldridge-type metrics to help prioritize what could move the needle on development, workforce and other issues.

Data is a powerful tool, and its use in adapting to complex change is evolving all the time. Enterprise Holdings recently helped St. Louis’ Coolfire Solutions fund further development of its “Ronin” Platform. Ronin is a “situational awareness” solution that uses data, workflows and communications to give users of Ronin an idea of what is happening around them at all times. The Ronin platform was originally developed for the U.S. Military and is now being widely adopted by innovative industry leaders such as Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

The St. Louis Freightway is an example of what data-informed workforce and development  efforts might look like. Freightway Executive Director Mary Lamie has run with the ball handed her on building our regional logistics industry. As an engineer Mary is used to focusing on data. The numbers pointed to areas of critical mass for growth. Mary and her crew then analyzed where the missing pieces were. The Freightway built collaborations with the railroads, trucking companies, developers, highway and port officials here and elsewhere — filling in the blanks and putting marketing to it. As a result,  they are experiencing a steady forward progress.

Such collaborative efforts could create a layered, nuanced “GIS map” of the intersections of the data on developing markets, technology, workforce, education, health, transportation — always asking questions along the way to arrive at the answers to, “What would success look like?”.

About Tom Finan