School: Stanford University
Major: MBA & Sustainable Design and Construction
Internship from June 20, 2016 — September 2, 2016
My name is Travis Duncan and I am fortunate to be interning for Katerra (www.katerra.com) this summer, between my first and second year at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. My background in construction makes me a a very non-traditional MBA candidate, as consultants, bankers, financial wizards and future entrepreneurs are much more common. Being different has its advantages, and I’ve enjoyed bringing a different perspective to the groups I have worked with. This past year I competed and won the “Golden Shovel,” an annual real estate competition that pits a Stanford team against a Berkeley team. This year’s project was a warehouse in South San Francisco – our team presented a redevelopment proposal that dramatically increased the value of the project to the client, Prologis, that they are considering implementing (http://news.theregistrysf.com/stanford-wins-naiops-real-estate-challenge-closing-cals-lead/)
Prior to my time in business school, I was at Stanford’s School of Engineering where I received my Master’s of Science in Sustainable Design and Construction – Management. During my MS I was the Project Manager for the winning team in the 2015 Associated Schools of Construction Integrated Project Competition (http://www.asc67.org/) – a 18 hour competition where 12 teams of six students submit a response to an RFP, and are then interviewed and evaluated by a panel of judges.
Before heading to Stanford I worked in the preconstruction division of Rudolph and Sletten (www.rsconstruction.com), a general contractor in California for three years. I worked on projects as wide ranging as a SeaWorld expansion, the largest courthouse in California, R&D facilities, and hospitals. Prior to R&S, I attended Santa Clara University, where I received my BS in Civil Engineering.
During those years on the ground, I began to wonder when the major innovation and technology shift that had affected many other industries would come to construction. During my time at Stanford, my thinking started to change to ‘how can I help it get there.’ Knowing that the summer is a relatively short amount of time, I wanted the opportunity to work with a different kind of organization as a way to broaden my experience overall, Katerra has done that and much more.
Katerra’s process is about transitioning projects from being a prototype – the first of its kind, and only built once; to a product, something repeatable that can be built faster, cheaper and more safely. While this process has begun to trickle into parts of the industry (precast concrete, panelized walls), it has not yet become commonplace. Our goal is to offer increased value and shorter schedule for our clients, while significantly decreasing accidents and incidents onsite. Katerra is starting with garden-style residential apartments, and hopes to reduce costs to a level where affordable housing ‘pencils’ for developers. If achieved, this would help alleviate the housing shortage in major metropolitan areas, as it is quickly becoming one of the nation’s largest problems.
What results did you achieve on the internship, and how did you exceed the company's expectations for your role?
I spent most of the summer working on a project that was comparing the ‘traditional construction” process to the Katerra process. This was a major undertaking and I succeeded in comparing traditional walls used in residential projects to Katerra factory-constructed wall panels. This involved coordination across all of the divisions of Katerra (Product, Manufacturing, Freight, and Construction), as well as a deep understanding of the traditional value chain.
The other project I worked on was preparing subcontractor introduction materials for people joining the company from outside of the industry (many of Katerra’s employees come from supply chain and contract manufacturers. This allowed them to ramp up more quickly, and get up to speed on how our industry works. This introduction ranged from the difference in CIP and Precast Concrete, all the way to how solar panels work.
What did you learn in this internship that will affect your life in a positive way?
Two things stick out from this summer. First the power of the cross-functional team, and its ability to get much more done than any group working in isolation. Several individual groups had tried to complete this cost modeling exercise in their own silo – but had been unsuccessful because they needed so much information that they did not have access to. While this is critical at Katerra, it is expandable to construction as well, as the advent of co-location and integrated project delivery begin to take hold. This more well-rounded method of integration ensures all parties are bought-into the outcome and should deliver superior results.
Second is the power of follow through. As ‘the intern’, it was relatively easy for people to ‘forget’ about my emails or phone calls and let things slip through the crack. I had to constantly remind, cajole and borderline harass people to get information out of them and ultimate to get work done. Grit is difficult to measure and quantify, but was one of the most important qualities to getting work done this summer.
How were you involved with safety and/or quality during your internship, and how did that change your perspective on construction?
During the final weeks of my internship, Katerra’s first few wall panels were coming off of the assembly line. Moving the installation and construction of wall panels from the jobsite into a manufacturing facility is a contentious issue; but one of the absolutely undeniable facts of that transition is the increase in worker safety and comfort. Work being done in a controlled facility increases productivity, decreases time on site, and decreases cost have a profound effect. But when further considering even a marginal decrease in accidents and injury – the transition seems like the absolute right thing to do. While I don’t believe that the construction industry will trend towards everything being 3D printed, or some other mystical future, keeping our workers as safe as possible seems like it should be the absolute priority for the future.
After reviewing www.IBuildAmerica.com, tell us what I Build America means to you?
Spending the last two years at Stanford, the kind of people on people’s mind (Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Snapchat) are not likely be found on in a hard hat. When I graduated from undergrad, I had a hard time convincing people that construction was important to their day-to-day life. Take a look around, I said, the roads you drive on, the house you sleep in, the office building building you work in would all not be possible without the hard work of the nameless men and women who toiled to turn nothing into something. These men and women literally make the world a better place with their work.
This is the importance of the people who spend their working hours with their head in a hard hat – the quite literally improve the world around us. People around Stanford spend a lot of time talking about solving problems (food delivery issues, same day shipping, group messaging), but few of them are actually willing to put in the sweat to lay brick, place concrete, or erect steel. These construction workers are the true American heroes, working to quite literally build a better future, making the world a better place one project at a time.