BUILT: Wicked Problems in Construction

Those who plan, design, construct, operate and maintain facilities and supporting infrastructure encounter and overcome myriad problems.  Many of those problems manifest themselves as wicked problems.  This is the second in a series of articles highlighting the nature and impact of wicked problems in the BUILT environment (1).   This article identifies a few wicked problems stakeholders operating in a BUILT environment encounter.  The next wicked article will identify and discuss wicked tools wielded against those problems.

Purpose of the facility

The first, and often most vexing, of the wicked problems encountered in the BUILT environment involves defining the purpose of the planned facility.  The question, which is typically driven by the business purpose of the facility, is too often intertwined with myriad less well-defined issues.   Some organizations lack the experience or internal infrastructure necessary to fully consider the question.  Other organizations consume planning, design, and construction services too infrequently to fully understand the ramifications of the question.  Yet others—which are often routine consumers of BUILT industry services – hammer out the answer to the purpose question in a formal programme, but may rarely revisit the question from project to project. 

Regardless, on every project the purpose question remains critical. It drives myriad other decisions and defines the scope and nature of the design.  Answering the question, “What is the purpose of this facility?” requires input from a complex array of individual and entities.  The answer, in classic wicked fashion, evolves in concert with the answers themselves.  Further, the social networks tapped to gather input are both convoluted and volatile.  Organizational, legal, and social structures within which key stakeholders operate tend to be fragmented and dysfunctional.  In short, defining the purpose of a facility is a wicked problem.  Unfortunately for the stakeholders involved, it is only the first of many to be answered and the answer will impact resolution of the remaining series of wicked problems.

Design of the facility

The design process has long been recognized as a wicked problem (2).   Readers of this publication understand the complex and reiterative process undertaken to create a functional design that conveys the purpose of a facility.  Without dwelling on the issue, suffice it to say that designing a complex commercial facility is a wicked problem of the first order.  The characteristics of a wicked problem (see the sidebar) match the conundrums faced by design teams for generations. 

Despite these challenges, design professionals are well positioned to influence the selection of wicked tools and to deploy wicked solutions, both of which are necessary for the resolution of wicked problems.  A new generation of software tools, wicked tools, empower designers to deploy create, use, and share functional digital assets in ways others have only dreamt.  Harnessing the power of these new tools, and sharing data across disciplines and over time, remains a challenge, but one the use of wicked solutions help overcome. 

Designers, engaged by owners to assist in the crafting of facility programmes and to provide other early- stage planning solutions, enjoy access to owners at a key moment in the decision-making process.  Intelligent designers recognize the value of introducing owners to the new generation of software tools and delivering functional digital assets from phase to phase that owners can leverage throughout the lifecycle of the project.  Arming owners and designers in these early phases with wicked solutions is a key to overcoming wicked problems in the BUILT environment. 

Construction of the facility

The act of constructing almost anything today involves resolution of wicked problems.  Construction often requires careful coordination among several dozen different stakeholders—in both the public and private sector—over an extended period of time, 18 to 36 months or more.  While the construction process reflects many of the characteristics of a wicked problem, it is not often recognized or treated as such. 

Many naively believe the problems have been “tamed” by rules and regulations reflected in the design, bid, build process, the permitting process, project management, and other business processes.  These rules and regulations manifest themselves in a series of legal agreements—few of which are integrated—and disputes related to the scope, enforcement, or effect of the rules and regulations and/or the legal agreements that incorporate them by reference are, in most instances, resolved in court or through an equally expensive and time-consuming arbitration process.  Fitting stakeholders with these “legal blinders” has not ensured efficient resolution of project-related disputes.  To the contrary, the typical construction lawsuit is prolonged, inefficient, and expensive.

The adversarial and chaotic nature of the construction process represents compelling evidence the current system is broken.  Fortunately, constructors, like designers, may now access an array of innovative wicked tools that enable integration and collaboration on a scale unfathomable a generation ago.  Unfortunately, too many decision makers in the fragmented, adversarial, and chaotic construction arena continue to be made based on outdated business models.  Wicked solutions to this wicked problem will entail arming innovative constructors with real-time access to functional digital assets—that matter to constructability, scheduling, and daily operations—resulting in greater efficiency, quality, and savings for owners.

Operation of the facility

Facility operation involves wicked problems, too.  Regardless of the business purpose of a facility, day-to-day operations require employees, managers, maintenance staff, suppliers, and others to interact intelligently to ensure continued and efficient operation of the facility.  Hospitals, power plants, server farms, and other complex facilities require constant monitoring and upkeep.  Big box retail stores, grocery stores, convenience stores, and similar facilities present a different set of challenges.  Schools, office buildings, warehouses, museums, zoos, and ports likewise give rise to different challenges. 

The common thread, in every facility, is information related to the facility.  Information is available that informs users, maintenance staff, first responders, and others about the nature and location of spaces, infrastructure, furniture, fixtures and equipment, furniture, and myriad other things. 

Wicked solutions, driven by wicked tools such as BIM, enable users of information to access it in an intelligent and timely fashion.  The internet provides individual travelers with an array of information about flights, hotels, car rentals, and more that the traveler can use to make intelligent, informed, and timely decisions about travel plans.  Users of information in the facility setting ought to be equally empowered.  Leveraging information related to facilities in this manner is a wicked solution to a whole series of wicked problems.


Convincing owners, designers, contractors, and other stakeholders to embrace the new generation of wicked tools and wicked solutions is an exciting challenge for BUILT industry professionals.  Users of information that manifests itself throughout the lifecycle of a project need to understand intelligent use of that information will benefit them individually and as organizations.  Under the current delivery process, which is adversarial and chaotic, facts, beliefs, ideas, discrepancies, mistakes, causes, and consequences flow constantly from one fragmented organizational structure to another with very little rhyme or reason. 

This is no way to solve tame problems, much less wicked ones!  The current generation of BUILT industry professionals plan, design, construct, operate, and maintain facilities and the infrastructure that supports them in spite of antiquated delivery models and outdated legal agreements.  Imagine what they could do with an integrated and streamlined process supported by an integrated legal framework. 

The milieu of interests, concerns, and solutions championed by stakeholders in the BUILT environment typically defy alignment and clashing interests that inhibit efforts to define the purpose of a facility.  Even when defined clearly, achieving an effective facility Programme may prove elusive.  This is especially true of teams delivering planning, design, and construction services pursuant to the classic, fragmented, and dysfunctional design-bid-build model.

Collaborative workshops designed to align those interests provide a forum in which stakeholders in the BUILT environment can agree on a legal framework for delivery of the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance services required of a specific facility or a portfolio of facilities requested by an institutional owner.  Addressing wicked problems requires wicked tools and wicked solutions.  Integrated programme delivery represents a wicked solution more owners should adopt.

Characteristics of a Wicked Problem

1. Evolving definitions. The definition of a wicked problem evolves, triggering solutions that, in turn, change the definition of the problem. Linear thinking fails to solve wicked problems because the problem evolves as solutions emerge. Wicked construction project problems manifest themselves in the dichotomy of design where the problem of what is needed (i.e., what the owner wants) clashes with the solution (i.e., what can be built given the available resources).

2. Continuous solution cycle. Because the definition of the problem continues to evolve, solutions emerge continuously. Wicked problem solving efforts end only when problem solvers run out of time, energy, money, or some other limiting resource.

3. Perfect solutions prove elusive. Evolving solutions, tied to the subjective reality as perceived by stakeholders with varying interests, ensure that no objective or “perfect” solution emerges. At best, solutions to wicked problems fall on a scale of best to worst or acceptable to unacceptable. Objective criteria rarely carry the day.

4. "One off" problems. No two projects are alike and no two wicked problems are the same. Customized solutions by key stakeholders characterize wicked problems and their real world manifestations on construction projects.

5. One-shot solutions. Wicked problems feature one-shot solutions. Attempts to solve the problem impact the problem and  everything the problem touches. Few opportunities exist to game plan real-world solutions, though virtual construction and design processes—i.e., Building Information Modeling (BIM)—tend to mitigate the impact of this factor on BIM-enabled projects.

6. Creativity and judgment drive solutions. Wicked problems may never be solved, may be subject to numerous alternative solutions and may be susceptible to a variety of solutions never considered. Pursuit and implementation of solutions depends on the creativity and judgment of the stakeholders.

(1) For more information on the Wicked Series see, Salmon, “A Wicked Primer”, AUGIWORLD, October 2011.

(2) Rittel, Horst, and Melvin Webber; "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning," pp. 155–169, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc., Amsterdam, 1973. [Reprinted in N. Cross (ed.), Developments in Design Methodology, J. Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 1984, pp. 135–144.]

James L. Salmon is President of Collaborative Construction Resources, LLC, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.