Construction Physics - Year One Retrospective

This week marks one year since I started writing Construction Physics. In general I don’t consider myself a terribly interesting subject to write about, but I thought the one year mark would be a good opportunity to talk about the newsletter itself a bit.

Why I’m Writing Construction Physics

“Why are you writing this” is by far the most common question I get about the newsletter. I cover my motivations somewhat obliquely in the very first post, but a fuller answer requires a bit of background.

My career in construction began in 2007, when I graduated engineering school and got a job as a design engineer at a precast concrete company. The more buildings I worked on, and the more I learned about the industry, the more it seemed like it was full of inefficiencies. As my career progressed and I got the chance to work in different parts of the industry, this sense only got stronger - every part of the process, from design, to permitting, to building, seemed needlessly slow, expensive, and labor-intensive. But most of all, it seemed advances in technology hadn’t impinged at all on construction. I would find products in 50-year-old catalogs that were scarcely different from modern ones. Buildings took just as much (if not more) time to build today than they did a century ago. Material strength was unchanged in decades, and design codes were often based on experiments run 50 years ago or more.

But the industry was enormous, and split into thousands of different players each staking out a small part of it. And because everyone had optimized their process around the existing industry structure, there wasn’t anything that any one player could do about it.

In 2018, I had the chance to join Katerra, a startup that was taking on this challenge. The vision Katerra was selling very closely mirrored my own thinking about the industry - that the industry was locked into century-old methods of construction, that buildings should be built the way we built everything else, in factories at huge scale. That the problems of the construction industry were so pervasive that the only way to attack them was everywhere at once, to quickly scale up to a completely vertically integrated, national builder built around manufacturing best practices.

I spent 2.5 years at Katerra, during which it slowly became clear they wouldn’t be able to achieve that vision. And while there were certainly operational reasons why Katerra didn’t succeed, the problem goes beyond one company’s execution. The more I dove into the world of prefabricated and factory-built housing, the more examples I found of huge, well-funded industrialized construction efforts stretching back a century, all of which failed to disrupt the more conventional construction process. Sears Catalog Homes, Lustron, Stirling Homex, Operation Breakthrough, Homes for Heroes, the Emergency Factory Made housing program, Toyota Home, Khrushchyovkas - the list goes on.

The failure wasn’t unique to Katerra - something about the construction industry makes it   resistant to industrialization (transforming manual labor at a small scale to machine labor at a large scale). Even in countries where factory-based construction is much more common (Japan, Sweden, Singapore) it hasn’t completely swept away the older methods of building (they way factory production completely displaced craft production for cars), and it hasn’t resulted in massively reduced construction costs.

I regard this as an enormous missed opportunity. The massive cost reductions associated with industrialization are responsible for some of the greatest achievements of civilization - industrialized agriculture has massively reduced the cost of food, and is close to eliminating the risk of famine. Industrialized manufacturing has lifted billions of people out of poverty. 

The failure to industrialize construction makes us all poorer. Industrialized building not only has the potential to dramatically reduce housing costs (and thus help remove an enormous economic bottleneck), but make it easier to build durable, beautiful, functional buildings that are capable of things we can barely imagine. And beyond this, whatever technology ends up being capable of cheaply mass producing buildings will undoubtedly be utilized to create entire new categories of products, the way that the mass production of smartphones enabled the entire consumer drone industry. Being able to build things in huge amounts cheaply makes it possible to build things that were previously impossible. Quantity has a quality all its own.

But the direct route to industrializing construction, mass-producing buildings in factories, hasn’t worked - at least not in the sense of “dramatically reduced construction costs”. And despite the many attempts, we don’t yet have a good understanding of exactly what makes industrializing construction so hard. What prevents it from happening? And if factories aren’t the answer, what is?

My goal with Construction Physics is to try to answer those questions - to build a model of the industry that’s accurate enough that the place to attack the problem of industrialization becomes obvious.

Newsletter Info

Construction Physics currently has just over 4,000 subscribers, starting from 0 this time last year. Most of that growth has been in the last 4 months - for the first 3 months, there were fewer than 100 subscribers, and for the first 6 months there were fewer than 500.

Growth is essentially entirely through word of mouth. Other than a personal LinkedIn, I don’t have any social media, I don’t do any sort of ads, and I didn’t start with any sort of in-built audience. Most of the growth has come from posts getting shared on some popular web destination - Hacker News, Marginal Revolution, Farnam Street, high-follower twitter accounts, etc.

Overall I’ve been pleased and surprised that there has turned out to be an audience for this sort of writing, as I was initially (and still am) writing for myself - I use the newsletter as a way to document and clarify my thoughts, and understand some particular aspect of the industry.

Most Popular Posts of the Previous Year

  • Where are the Robotic Bricklayers? -  A look at the long history of attempts to automate bricklaying, a task that seems like it should be easy to automate given how repetitive it is.

  • Lumber Price Faq - Now hopelessly out of date (lumber prices have since come back down), this was an explanation of why lumber prices had skyrocketed in early 2021.

  • Why It’s Hard to Innovate in Construction - A look at the incentive structure and risk profile of the various players makes it so difficult to introduce innovations.

  • Another Day in Katerradise - Written after Katerra declared bankruptcy, this is a look at what Katerra was trying to do, and why they didn’t succeed. Of course, in a way this entire newsletter is a Katerra post-mortem.

  • Construction, Efficiency, and Production Systems - Using simulation models to see where exactly an “inefficient” method of building something goes wrong.

What to expect in year two

I’m going to continue writing on the same sort of topics I have been so far - I feel like I still have so much more to learn about how the industry fits together.

One project I’m considering starting is a paid Slack channel or Discord. One of the unexpected benefits of this newsletter has been the opportunity to talk with a huge number of people who have really interesting ideas on how to solve the problems of efficiency in the construction industry. There’s a deep web of expertise and motivation in this newsletter’s readership, and I think a place where folks interested in a better way of building could gather, discuss ideas, get feedback and learn from each other could be very valuable. If it seems like there’s reader interest in this, I’ll set one up, so let me know if you’d be interested in this.