Claudia Folzman has worked in construction for more than three decades, making her not only a bona fide veteran of the industry, but also a trailblazer in a male-dominated field and an endless advocate for what construction has to offer those seeking a career.
The energetic co-founder and chief operating officer of San Jose-based Iron Construction — which focuses on commercial interiors, life sciences and manufacturing projects — has helped lead Iron Construction to be synonymous with the latest in green building practices.
Folzman chatted with the Silicon Valley Business Journal about the state of construction, from its challenges and the positive things happening, to her hopes for the industry. This article has been edited for length and clarity.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing construction companies right now?
I think there’s two challenges — one internal and one external. Internally, being able to attract talent and develop talent is tough. When we have our leadership team meetings, we’re constantly talking about our staff, how are we developing them and growing them and … keeping them, so that internally is a challenge for us.
Externally, is the subcontracting community. The shiny side of the coin is that it has been a great run and a lot of people have made a lot of money, but the not-so-shiny side of that coin is that we’re starting to see some burnout. Before, for example, you would be able to say, ‘Hey, let’s work some overtime to get things done.’ But these guys are not interested in the overtime anymore; they want to be with their family, so sometimes they just won’t do it.
What are some of the positives in the construction industry at the moment?
I think there’s a lot of positives. For one thing … construction is still one of those trades that you can get into without an advanced degree — i.e., beyond high school — and still make a six-figure salary. As our economy gets more and more technical, more and more automated, like autoworkers, truckers, they’re starting to get pushed out of their jobs because of automation. But the thing with construction is it still needs to occur within a place. You’re never going to have construction in the cloud.
Also, I know there’s a lot of conversation about the lack of productivity improving in construction versus other industries, and I think that’s because other industries have been able to … take their product and break it down into components. … In construction, usually everything arrives to the job site and then you build it. …
However, we are now starting to see, in unique circumstances, where we are having the ability to make certain parts, or portions of parts, of a building offsite and then it’s being brought together. That works well for things like apartment buildings, where you’re never really going to remodel it, so it’s easy to just put that puzzle together and boom: It’s a puzzle that stays together forever. In an environment where you need to be able to do renovations quite frequently, having modules tends to get a little more complicated, and I don’t think we’ve solved that question yet.
We’ve touched on modular and prefab construction, but are there any other trends you see that you think are starting to disrupt, or have the potential to disrupt, the construction industry going forward?
BIM [Building Information Modeling] is that. BIM is pre-modeling the construction virtually before it actually happens. It used to be reserved for either extremely large projects or very complex, high-utility usage projects and lean building because it was so expensive. But, like with any emergent technology, it’s actually gotten a lot cheaper.
BIM now is being utilized more — I wouldn’t say universally yet, because your average TI, they’re never going to go for it. … But it flushes out conflict in construction, especially in an existing building environment, and it identifies those things virtually so you could work that problem out before you actually physically encounter it. That just saves you time, which again saves you money.
Do you think BIM is more of a potential disruptor than modular and prefab?
I think they’re going to kind of go hand-in-hand because I think that prefab right now benefits from a one-and-done kind of situation. But I think with BIM, you may be able to get the prefab to a point where it could be suitable for reconfiguration at a later point. I think that they can be mutually exclusive; one won’t offset the other.
Looking ahead five years, what is your wish for the construction industry in Silicon Valley?
As a woman in construction, I have a bit of a bias. … I would say that the opportunity has never been greater for women to get into the industry. Whether they go into the trades or general contracting and put in the hard work that is going to be necessary to learn. If you are willing to do that, I mean, six figures is not far away, even if you don’t have a college education. … When we’re looking at income inequality and educational inequality, construction really is, at least in my biased opinion, one of those last frontiers for anyone, but especially women and minorities.