The human element and variability
David Grau worked for years in the design and construction industry, and saw firsthand that the large complexity intrinsic to the delivery of capital projects resulted in variability and uncertainty. In turn, he observed that such uncertainty negatively impacts the chances for a sustainable, efficient delivery of capital projects. His research has repeatedly proved such negative impacts, and he’s working on ways to better reduce uncertainty and variability, and improve the efficiency through which projects are being designed and built.
Grau is an assistant professor in the Del E. Webb School of Construction, part of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University.
Grau grew up in Spain, near Barcelona, just steps from the ocean. His mother was a teacher, and his father was a finance consultant.
Most of his memories are from Mieres, a tiny town in the Pyrenees, where his grandparents were farmers. His other grandfather was a captain on merchant ships.
The house in Mieres is a rambling, 10,000-square-foot structure built in the 1200s, with thick, stone walls, and floorboards with gaps. There was no television or telephone.
Grau would strap leather to the bottom of his skis and climb a deserted peak, then remove the leather and ski down the ungroomed, unpredictable slopes. He calls it “defensive skiing.” He also liked mountain climbing and played competitive basketball in semi-professional leagues.
He went back this summer.
“I figure if anything major ever happens, like a world war, I can go back there with the rest of my family and make a living out of nature, like my ancestors did for centuries.”
Grau was always interested in math and physics, but couldn’t see a career in physics. So he majored in industrial engineering at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona. It was a five-year program plus thesis, the equivalent of a U.S. master’s program, and included structural, environmental and electrical engineering, as well as the study of materials and management.
He went to work for a small, growing design and construction company, where he quickly became director of engineering and managed the delivery of industrial projects from early design through construction and close out.
“I was in charge of designing and building simultaneously, which is pretty rare in the industry,” Grau said. “This unique experience allowed me to realize and utilize the large influence of engineering design on the construction facet to alleviate some of the problems in the construction process.”
He has worked on large construction projects in Portugal, France, South America, Africa, the Caribbean and Cuba.
The company grew from 100 to 800 employees in the eight years he worked there. When it began to focus more on real estate, he decided to go back to school.
Grau came to the United States at the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned both master and doctoral degrees in civil, architectural and environmental engineering, and began his teaching at the University of Alabama.
“I like being with the students, not really teaching them, but causing them to learn,” Grau said.
He came to ASU because it provides inclusive and multidisciplinary opportunities and resources in teaching, service, and research.
“It promotes innovative teaching and research,” Grau said. “It is a place where you can bring an idea to reality.”
Grau’s research investigates intelligent mechanisms to support the sustainable, efficient, and organic delivery of capital projects. He works through what he refers to as “advanced project analytics,” combining manufacturing techniques, computer-aided engineering methods, advanced statistics, and sensing and information technologies, to address uncertainty and variability, and improve the efficiency of design and construction processes. Advanced project analytics enables him to investigate latent issues from radically novel perspectives.
“What you cannot measure or analyze, you cannot improve,” he said.
“For instance, every project uses forecasting in an effort to ascertain the final cost and schedule performance at completion,” Grau said. “There’s a lot of research related to that process, mostly looking for better algorithms to forecast. But it is like sharpening a knife, getting only small incremental improvements, if any, and you never once get it right.”
Grau cites an example of a breakthrough finding a couple of years ago, taking a broader approach to assess the forecasting problem, looking at the influence of organizational behavior.
“We analyzed data from multiple completed projects and looked at their human factors, project management, and forecasting aspects,” he said. “We proved, through non-parametric statistical techniques, that the cause of the inability to forecast is not in the algorithm, but in the inability of getting the right data in a timely manner. The culture of the organization and the behavior of the individuals play a major role in such prevalent lack of transparency. It is actually a human issue.”
Grau also draws from his extensive industry experience to build his teaching and research agendas. For example, he recalled a situation in a project in northern France, near the German border.
“It was the coldest winter in years,” he said. “We had a huge double lift with two massive cranes, which were brought just for the purpose of the lift. We had all the steel members lined up on the ground. The crews were in place. Everything was ready.
“But we couldn’t find the box with the structural bolts. Crews and equipment were idle for the full day. It was a complete waste.”
On large construction jobs, there can be thousands of different parts stored in warehouses or outside areas over up to 100 acres, divided into a physical grid.
“Workers sometimes write the grid location on their hand, or a piece of paper, when they put something in storage, until they can get to the computer to record it,” Grau said. “When there’s an error, multiple workers have to manually search for the components, typically for a full morning, afternoon, or for an entire day.
“To address the issue, we came up with an automated tracking approach supported with computer-aided algorithms and sensors to locate the material components within 12 to 16 feet in accuracy and in near real-time.
Today, this approach is being used to track components in four different continents.”
Grau said his hope is to continue having impact on the industry.
“I’m not a theoretical researcher working in an office isolated from the world,” he said. “I like working on real-world issues that cause the industry, the individuals, and the society at large to become more efficient. If there is not a potential impact, I am simply not interested.”
He’s also pleased when his classes go well.
“At the end of the semester, in those instances when the students clap and tell me they loved the class, that’s such a great feeling of accomplishment,” he said.
Grau spends his free time enjoying nature with his family. His wife, Silvana, has a doctorate in biochemistry, and has been home raising the children, but is considering re-entering the industry. He has a son, Atzel, 9, a daughter Asha, 4, and a second boy, Tarak, 2.
When they have a three-day weekend, they head to Rocky Point and the beach, which reminds him of home.