NYU SPS Schack Institute of Real Estate Professor Richard Lambeck, P.E. has taught in the construction track at Schack since 2004. With a career that has included work with TWA and Mobile Oil Corporation, and years spent working on large-scale construction projects, Professor Lambeck, P.E. brings impressive first-hand knowledge to his teaching. Schack sat down with Professor Lambeck, P.E. to talk about how he got his start in the field, why he likes it, and what’s on the horizon for construction and Schack.
Schack: Can you start by telling me about your background and how you got into construction management and engineering?
Lambeck: I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in civil engineering from NYU that I got while taking my courses at night. My first job out of school was working for the Army Corps of Engineers doing construction and surveying work. Then I worked for a structural engineering firm where I designed buildings. Thus, I was involved with construction industry almost from the start of my career.
And then I worked for an airline, TWA, and I did construction for the expansion of most of the major airports in the country from the East to the West Coast.
Schack: That must have been fascinating.
Lambeck: It was fascinating. There was a mystique about working for the airline industry. There was a major change during that period of time, because before that time the jets that were coming in were the smaller 707s, compared to 747s and L1011s. All the terminals had to be reconfigured to account for these major aircrafts. How were they going to get the people off the planes? How were they going to deal with luggage? Just handling people was a major undertaking. The number of people on a 747 is close to 200, which nobody had experienced before.
Schack: I wanted to ask if there’s any specific project you most enjoyed working on or that you found most interesting over the years?
Lambeck: Well, after I left TWA, I worked for Mobil Oil Corporation, and one of the major projects I worked on was the development of a site in Dallas, Texas. It was a 43-acre site, an existing building, and we had to retrofit that whole building to accommodate a new operation that was coming into the Dallas area. I was involved with the reconfiguration of that particular building—taking off the exterior skin of the building, putting on a new skin, and developing two computer centers on the site. Constructing many buildings on one site and retrofitting a 500,00-square-foot existing building was fascinating.
Schack: What, if anything, has shifted in the past years [in your field]?
Lambeck: Nothing has changed since the time of the pyramids. We have new equipment, and when you look on a construction site, all you see are tradespeople. The only difference is we are using a lot more modular type of construction and new programs.
Schack: Why do you think that is?
Lambeck: Construction is over a trillion-dollar industry, and the amount of money allocated for research is extremely small versus other industries (like the automobile industry).
Schack: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing your field today?
Lambeck: I think number one is to come up with new technology to increase productivity within the job site itself. The second problem that we have is [we need] to make jobs safer for workers.
Schack: What skills or traits do you see that you think make someone especially suited to the field? An analytical mind or an ability to problem solve?
Lambeck: It’s all of those. I think to be a good PM you have to have a good analytical mind to understand how everything is put together. The biggest problem that we have is risk: How do we try to avoid risk in our industry?
We’re not building a car. That process is fairly simple: all the components are there, you put it together. That’s not the way with construction. First of all: every job that you work on is different, you have different tradespeople, different architects, engineers working on the job. And in the manufacturing of a car everything is 90 degrees and level. [In construction] nothing is basically straight and 90 degrees—nothing.
Schack: It must be especially hard in markets like New York. You get amazing sites, but the complications of building something so tall.
Lambeck: Well, it is difficult because you’re building a project where you have eight to nine million people traversing the city every day and we have to protect them, and yet we have to build a major project. We also have limited space to construct projects.
Schack: When you think of your students, are there areas that you encourage them to think about?
Lambeck: One of the problems in our industry is that many people working in the industry don’t understand how to read drawings. What you really want to do in our industry is to resolve problems before they occur. So, look at the drawings and try to come to a solution beforehand. In fact, I teach a seminar at Schack on how to read construction documents.
Schack: In addition to the areas you were mentioning, are there things that you hope to see for the field in the next five or ten years?
Lambeck: Yes. One is that we’re starting a new course called BIM—Building Information Modeling. It takes drawings and creates 3D documents from them. That’s going to be a game changer because without that particular document, we’ve had conflicts between the components of a project, like ductwork that feeds the air for air conditioning. BIM helps us because it shows us where those components go, and where potentially we can find a conflict. We’re also using [it] for scheduling, estimating, and creating small drawings.
Schack: What do you like best about your work, or the field itself? I hear a lot that it’s a very people-based business.
Lambeck: Construction is all people based. When you work on a major job site you have 800 to 1,000 people, and you have to know how to communicate. This is a fantastic satisfaction.
But getting to your original question: The industry is unique because every job is different. The second thing: you see your work come to fruition at the end of the day.