It’s a full house of construction folk. They sit there, inclining heads and swapping whispers. You know the scene. Very collegial. “Show me” hangs in the air like a friendly layer of smoke, though. I find a spot at the back, near the filmographer’s setup, and take out my laptop.
The guy at the front—the speaker— is already pacing. I would say “like a caged animal”, but this sort of pacing would frighten an actual caged animal to the far corner of the enclosure. He seems a happy guy, this James Benham. Or excited. Uncontainably excited, maybe?
11:30AM, on the spot.
He begins. His voice is a gravelly, modulated shout. There is little in the way of preamble.
“Got my first computer at 15 years old. About 1995. Was involved in networking before the internet, back when we had BBS. Anyone remember BBS? You would log in, chat with friends, post messages. That sound familiar? It was Facebook before Facebook.”
Benham’s early adoption of the stuff that drives the world today was a well-disguised indicator of his own future as a technology change agent and avatar. Who would’ve guessed? Lots of kids, offspring of the Heathkit generation, took to the first fledgling computers and the networking they miraculously provided. However, none of them took it where little Jimmy managed to.
Benham started writing code as a teen, received degrees in Accounting and MIS at Texas A & M (where he now teaches). Having grown bored with Accounting, he talked his dad into forming a little software company with him in 2001—all while he was finishing grad school.
Today that company, JBKnowledge, reads—and reports on—the tech tea leaves for the construction industry. Their annual ConTech Report pored over like scripture by construction decision-makers all over the globe. Benham’s message at a Groundbreak breakout session is straightforward and plainspoken. Construction needs technology. He holds forth on the past, present and future, and how the grand march of tech is indispensable to the still hesitant construction industry.
He loves sci-fi and is a huge Star Trek fan. Star Wars? Not so much. “Star Trek paints a great picture of the future! Star Wars? It’s okay, but it’s all about the past. ‘A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Far Away’. That’s historical fiction!”
100 men and women guffaw. Loudly.
“William Gibson [modern pioneering sci-fi author] said ‘The future’s already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.’”
Benham takes a rare pause to let that sink in.
“If you have scarcity thinking, it will govern your entire approach to technology! Are you afraid to make the jump? We live in abundant time. Look, my entire childhood—18 years—is summarized in two photo albums. TWO. My daughters, they’re 12 and 9, they produce two photo albums worth of photos every weekend!”
Loud appreciative laughing and clapping from the construction parents in the audience. Things are better now that ever, Benham emphasizes. He goes on to gently and good-humoredly excoriate construction for watching the tech train leave the station while waving goodbye from the platform. He provides various examples of what tech can do for construction; they are jaw-dropping and conversation-starting. Construction’s potential has no ceiling when you marry its centuries-old expertise to 21st-century advances, he points out.
The Tech Hunch of Notre Dame
Benham describes the resurrection of the tragically burned Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. How is this being done? With a printer, of course.
The fallen, broken, charred stones are ground up, mixed into a semi-fluid matrix, then extruded individually from a gigantic print head whose minutely detailed design is based on thousands of crowd-sourced photos of the original stones in their original positions on the cathedral, flaws and all. These printed stones—exact copies of their predecessors—are then set precisely back into their original positions. And so the grand cathedral literally reborn. Stone by exactingly replicated stone. There is a pregnant pause as Behnam finishes the story.
“Holy crap!” Benham booms suddenly, facing his slightly jolted audience. “It is a cool time to be alive! How epic is that? This is happening in our lifetime! We are 3D printing a destroyed thousand-year-old church with the original materials!” His excited speech draws nervous (and quite possibly awed) chuckling from the audience. Benham’s enthusiasm drives the tech point home with the subtlety of a pneumatic hammer.
He then proceeds to frankly hang construction’s famously low margins around the construction sector’s own neck, placing responsibility for the tight profit squeeze on industry fear.
A fear of what exactly? Change. While he knows this commentary will not be received with open arms, he nevertheless plows ahead with a raised voice to make the case as clearly as possible.
Construction’s hesitance to adapt, he says, is a self-fulfilling wrecking ball.
“For the first six years of our [ConTech] report, construction was shown to spend 1 percent of revenue on technology. ONE PERCENT! And of course, when I bring this up with builders they say ‘James—this is a low margin business.’” Benham pauses again.
“I’m going to argue this today—this is a low margin business of our own creation.” That brute position statement compels a young builder to gather his stuff and leave the room. Benham watches him go with a placid expression, then turns to the room full of riveted professionals. He boils his positive tech mojo down to an essence he has crystallized through an hour of inarguable stats and examples—and years of published industry wisdom.
“I’m telling you,” Benham says wuth a smile as bright as an LED headlamp. “It’s possible to be a 20 percent margin contractor. PEOPLE… IT IS POSSIBLE!”