A Way to Pay the City Back
An Interview with the head of NYU’s Construction Innovation Hub, Dr. Michael Horodniceanu
When it comes to building projects, Dr. Michael Horodniceanu has done it all. As he says himself, “If you look at my career, I have worked in almost every aspect of the construction industry.”
The Romanian-American engineer has over three decades of experience during which time he held roles as New York City’s traffic commissioner, ran his own company, and consulted on major government and private projects. Most recently, he was the president of MTA Capital Construction, leading a $60 billion-a-year subway expansion.
After a career like that what could come next? For Horodnicenau, it was to head the new that will exist under the aegis of NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering.
Horodniceanu spoke with the Bluebeam Blog about the launch of the fledgling Innovations Hub, what areas of the construction industry are most ripe for innovation, and how technology has changed the way project management is done.
Bluebeam Blog: What is the primary goal of NYU’s new Construction Innovations Hub for both researchers and members?
Horodniceanu: Let’s start with the fact that the engineering and construction sector has probably been the slowest of all to adapt to new technology than all other global sectors. Engineering and construction, historically, have a had a kind of conservative approach to product design and development primarily because of the risk involved. So the main goal behind the creation of this Innovations Hub is really to see how we can create new best practices and technology for the construction industry.
Bluebeam Blog: How do you envision the Innovation Hub facilitating the creation of new best practices and technologies for the construction industry?
Horodniceanu: What we would like to do at the innovation lab is bring the different people who make up the construction industry to the table and implement the new ideas that we are creating and share the know-how. And that idea is central: we will bring building owners, both private and public, providers of construction services—contractors, architects, construction managers, and engineers—and academics to the table with the idea that we will foster an environment that will create a new knowledge base.
Bluebeam Blog: What are some of the most significant problems the construction industry faces right now, that NYU’s Innovation Hub hopes to address?
Horodniceanu: Planning is not done in a way that gives us the ability to look forward and see how we can progress this stage outside of the immediate project. We always focus on cost overruns and delays that occur in the delivery phase, but if we could have a more strategic effort in the planning stage that will pay dividends. Most projects I have worked on lacked a short, crisp way of articulating their objectives. Many of these plans never include the social and economic outcomes of what’s being done, and sometimes even the environmental outcomes, which is where sustainability comes into play.
Bluebeam Blog: What are the aspects of construction that you think are most ripe for innovation?
Horodniceanu: The most ripe area for innovation for large projects, particularly those in the government sector, is procurement. We pay more because the procurement process—which is supposed to prevent people on the job from stealing—has become so complex and complicated that we are unable to make the changes we need to projects as they move along, which is then reflected in productivity.
We need to look closely at the business processes and share that with private and governmental owners, though private tends to do a little better than government, what makes for the best practices in project management that the industry as a whole has to offer.
Bluebeam Blog: How has the introduction of smartphones changed the way professionals work in the field and communicate back to their home office?
Horodniceanu: The use of real-time management of projects is enabled by the existence of smartphones and iPads and tablets, and they make the information that comes from a site far more shareable. For example, when you build a project you usually do so with a construction management group that is broken up into different areas depending on their task, i.e., people that inspect and manage the mechanical systems, the electrical systems and various aspects of the job. They need to be brought together, because that’s how the larger project can operate effectively.
Bluebeam Blog: Why focus the mission of the Innovations Hub primarily on efficiency, sustainability and safety?
Horodniceanu: What we want to do is build efficiently while maintaining safety, and that’s a very important thing, and that has to do with how one of the models will be utilized that will yield the best results when it comes to safety—in many instances how you manage safety is the most challenging thing. That’s something that we hope we are able to actually give management, not only at the corporate level, but overall in the industry: the ability to understand how workers need to behave in order for the site to be a safe environment. Sustainability is something that there are a lot of people working on, but the challenge is to bring their findings together, and incorporate those ideas into wider construction practice.
Bluebeam Blog: What have you seen over your career that made you want to return to NYU and lead this new program?
Horodniceanu: If you look at my career, I have worked in almost every aspect of the construction industry. So the question I had to ask myself was, “Okay, I have done all this, what can I do next?” My thought was that I should go back to New York University and share my experience and knowledge with a new generation so they, in turn, can do what I did. It is a way for me to pay back all that the city has given to me.