As we enter the final week of this year’s thoroughly enjoyable World Cup soccer tournament, with the countries of France, Belgium, Croatia, and England still vying for the trophy, I thought I’d explore some metaphorical similarities between the worlds of international soccer and the architecture/engineering/construction industry.
The most obvious metaphor is that both operate on a set of rules that are known to all of the players, and they operate under the assumption that the rules will be followed and enforced. A World Cup soccer match often features countries whose players speak dissimilar languages and sometimes the referee speaks another, entirely different language. In one match, Belgium came back from two goals down to defeat Japan in a match that was under the control of a Senegalese referee. The game was exciting (at least in the second half), and no less orderly than any other World Cup match on account of the disparate languages.
Construction has developed rules that are similar across various countries and jurisdictions, especially when it comes to large projects employing multi-national teams of design and construction professionals. The types of available building products may differ based on the project’s location, but the drawings use similar conventions across project types and specifications describe work results no matter where the project is located. Contractors follow rules laid out in the General Conditions and Division 01 specifications that dictate the processes that must be followed as the project progresses through construction, and these allow all the parties to the contract to expect the project to follow a predictable path.
Having rules doesn’t ensure smooth sailing, but they do help limit the storms. Rules are open for interpretation and abuse, but in limited ways. Soccer players attempt to use the rules to tilt the result in their favor, famously using tactics like falling on the ground and writhing in ersatz agony to get the referee to declare a foul against their opponents. Likewise, stakeholders in construction projects take advantage of the complexity inherent in the various aspects of construction contracting, drawings and specs to improve the outcome to their benefit.
Another metaphorical similarity is that in addition to rules of play, there are standards. Every World Cup match is played with exactly the same model ball, and of course there are standards for the size of the pitch, the length of the grass, the goal opening dimensions, and the layout of the game lines.
The analogies in AEC are that projects are constrained by codes that standardize many design options. Companies within industries form organizations that write voluntary product standards that are used to level the playing field, giving each company an even chance to sell products to a project.
Casual observers of soccer matches lack the knowledge and experience to understand the intricacies of the game, and probably are not be able to discern one set of tactics from another. They are capable of thoroughly appreciating a perfectly-placed pass, for example, but not the way the play built up to the point where that pass was possible. Similarly, most visitors to a building are appreciating what they can see on the visible surfaces but aren’t able to understand the technical work that was done to bring it all together.
Finally, international soccer has a collection of big stars that make the game great fun to watch. Players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar, and many others all have the skill to make moves that dazzle fans and befuddle opponents. For me and other once-every-four-years fans, watching the “regular” players is more enjoyable. They each have their defined role and they perform those roles with skill and dedication to their craft.
Star architects are analogous to star players; certainly they garner a lot of attention for their work, as well as some acclaim and an equal amount of controversy and criticism. But most professionals in AEC are not stars, nor do we claim to have bigger, better ideas. Instead, the industry is full of professionals working every day to perform various roles with dedication and the best experience and knowledge they can bring to their tasks. At the end of the day, that is what makes the profession fun.