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AECbytes Newsletter #21 (May 26, 2005)

AIA TAP 2005 Conference

In the past, the annual AIA TAP (Technology in Architectural Practice) conference in the U.S. has been an event separate from the national AIA convention that is held every summer. I first attended such a conference in October 2003, when it was held in San Francisco, and captured its highlights in Cadence AEC Tech News #108. This year, the AIA TAP conference was held from May 17-18 as a pre-convention workshop at the AIA National Convention and Expo, which ran from May 19-21 in Las Vegas. While the latter addresses all aspects of architectural design and professional practice and is attended by thousands, the AIA TAP conference is focused primarily on the application of computer technology in architectural practice. The attendees run in the hundreds rather than thousands, and typically include technology leaders in architectural practices, IT consultants, software developers, academic researchers, and increasingly, building owners and contractors. While there is some software on display by the small number of vendors who sponsor the event, there is no Expo floor as such, and the majority of the conference is devoted to presentations, discussions, and networking.

Co-locating the AIA TAP conference with the AIA National Convention this year certainly made it more convenient for those who are interested in attending both events. While I did not find a noticeable increase in attendance at this year's TAP conference compared to the one held in San Francisco, I did see a lot more TAP attendees on the Expo floor of the Convention than I have seen in the past. I hope the co-location continues and that it encourages more National Convention attendees to come in a couple of days earlier and participate in the technology discussions at the TAP conference. It is definitely a sign of the increasing integration of technology with architectural practice.

The highlights of the TAP conference held last week are captured in this issue of the AECbytes newsletter, while the next issue will be devoted to an overview of the AIA National Convention and Expo.

Conference Highlights

The theme of this year's TAP conference was "Betting on the Future of Architecture: Risks, Rewards, and Opportunities of Technology." Compared to the AIA TAP conference held in San Francisco 18 months ago where most of the discussion was focused on exploring the newly emerging concepts of building information modeling (BIM) vis-à-vis traditional 2D CAD processes, BIM was taken for granted at this conference as an "inevitable technology." So the discussion was less focused on making the case for BIM and more on how to speed up BIM implementation, as well as on interoperability and collaboration as integral aspects of BIM.

In addition to the opening and closing sessions, there were 20 different sessions that ranged from exploring process change in architectural practice and in the industry as a whole, to enabling innovations, to exploring the opportunities and risks associated with implementing new technologies. Specific topics included how business practice models need to evolve for digital projects, who will lead the effort to implement BIM, how the extended design team can operate as a virtual company, and how contractors are moving ahead with the use of BIM by using construction modeling solutions for constructability analysis, scheduling, and estimating. Case studies were presented showcasing the use of building modeling in projects such as the Letterman Digital Arts Center and the Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao, by large building owners such as the GSA, by individual firms such as the Orcutt/Winslow Partnership, and for systems-built housing in Japan. Sessions focused on technology included discussions on tools for sustainable design and energy analysis, multi-disciplinary BIM, the need for object models supplied by product manufacturers, digital fabrication driven by modeling technology, and the use of augmented and virtual reality in the architectural design process. The presenters came from a diverse array of backgrounds including AEC firms, building owners, technology consultants, software vendors, and academic researchers, and collectively presented a wealth of information on the state of the art of technology in the building industry. I personally had the opportunity to present a session entitled "Progress Report on Building Information Modeling" in which I discussed the current status of BIM implementation, challenges faced and lessons learned by firms implementing it successfully, and the future potential of this technology.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to describe the different sessions in detail, the main issues that emerged in the conference are discussed in the next section.

In addition to the sessions, another highlight of the TAP conference this year was the first annual Building Information Model (BIM) Awards presentation. Hosted by the TAP Knowledge Community, the call for submissions for projects that have used integrated and interoperable building information models went out in the spring and elicited 22 entries. The results were announced at a luncheon at the TAP conference. The three winning entries were the Beijing National Swimming Center by Arup, the San Francisco Federal Building by Morphosis, and the Willie and Coy Payne Jr High School by the Orcutt/Winslow Partnership. Three other entries received honorable mentions: the E-lab by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, GSA's BIM Pilot Program, and St. Bartholomew's and Royal London Hospitals by HOK. The jury for the awards emphasized that the criteria for selection included collaboration, teamwork, and the integration of multiple disciplines. All of the entries were real-world projects, not technology demos, and the fact that the competition drew so many entries despite the relatively late call for submissions is a testament to the growing BIM implementation in the building industry. Entries for the 2006 BIM awards are being invited by the TAP Knowledge Community, and this annual competition will be a great way to track the progress of BIM adoption.

Main Issues that Emerged at the Conference

As I mentioned earlier, this year's TAP conference was focused more on business issues surrounding BIM implementation rather than on the technology itself. Questions such as who will drive the implementation and who will pay for it kept coming up. If an architect adopts BIM on a project, who owns the model for that project, the architect or the owner? Should the owner pay an additional fee for the model, or should it be included as part of the service? As the speed of design production improves with BIM, is the old model of billing by hours still relevant? While no concrete answers emerged to questions such as these, there was unanimous agreement that our business arrangements have not kept in touch with technology and need to be rethought. We need to rewrite the contracts between the owner/architect and the architect/contractor in light of the dramatically improved capabilities and the benefits of BIM technology. And this applies not only to fee issues but also to liability and insurance. In that respect, a good role model to emulate is the AISC (American Institute of Steel Construction), which has updated structural steel engineering contracts to include digital products models, ruling that the model will rule over drawings in case of a conflict. As far as insurance is concerned, the use of BIM should actually lower insurance premiums since its ability to analyze and simulate the building will make the construction process more predictable and reduce the number of injuries at the job site. We need to negotiate this with insurance companies by making them aware of the new technologies we are using and their benefits.

Interoperability and the IFC did not emerge as such a significant topic of discussion in this year's TAP conference as it did at the San Francisco TAP conference in 2003. Now that Autodesk has also committed to providing IFC support in its Revit products, IFC is no longer the bone of contention, and the fact that interoperability is important is now being taken for granted. At the same time, it was acknowledged that most firms who were implementing BIM were still grappling with the technology and figuring out how to best apply it for their immediate tasks and deliverables; as a result, they were currently less concerned with larger issues such as using the IFC to integrate and collaborate with other disciplines. Some also advised a more careful and planned approach to achieving interoperability—we need to precisely define, based on business processes, what data needs to be exchanged and with what application. A global data exchange will simply not work.

There was some discussion of the technology itself, mostly in relation to modeling logistics. Should there be one single, integrated BIM model for all the design disciplines or will every discipline need to create its own model? Can a model be passed on from the design team to the construction team, or will it need to be created from scratch by the contractor? Based on the experiences of architects and contractors who have made good progress with BIM implementation, it was generally agreed that each building discipline will have to create its own BIM model, and we need to be able to define how they transact with each other. And thus far, it seems as though the model has to be rebuilt for construction, unless it has been created upfront with constructability in mind. This highlights one of the potential areas of improvement for the technology, where a BIM model created at the design stage has the necessary intelligence to be automatically converted to a construction model that the contractor can use. (For more on design models versus construction models, see AECbytes Newsletter #15). In any case, it was agreed that we definitely need better guidelines for what to capture in the model and how.

The many challenges to BIM implementation were also discussed, and were especially relevant to firms who still had to get their BIM efforts underway but were eager to do so. Training and the lack of a workforce skilled in BIM were acknowledged as serious challenges that can only be solved in the long term by encouraging BIM education in schools and universities. What is also equally critical is to change the perception among designers that "technology is bad," because BIM cannot be successful if its use is only relegated to the production staff. Here again, only education and awareness can help. For small firms, the concern was how to scale down the technology for their use, a question for which no one really had an answer. Perhaps the solution to this lies in the development of BIM applications that are customized for specific building types rather than generic solutions. We already have examples of these for residential design, which were on display at the AIA Expo and will be described in the next issue. Another major technological hurdle is the lack of involvement of the product manufacturers in BIM so far, which forces each firm to create objects from scratch. Hopefully, as BIM adoption grows, product manufacturers will be motivated to develop and supply the models of the products in their catalogs.


Despite all the discussion about business aspects and technological challenges which presented a realistic—and often formidable—picture rather than a glorified vision of BIM, the strong message from the conference to the architectural community was to get underway with BIM implementation as soon as possible. BIM enables new opportunities for architects such as providing integrated design and facilities management services. In the long term, BIM can push the development of smart building technologies that fully automate operation and maintenance, that utilize materials which change dynamically according to the weather, that make buildings actually generate energy instead of simply being LEED compliant, and so on. Those who don't take advantage of the new opportunities facilitated by BIM will be relegated to being "design stylists" and will soon lose their competitive edge. Contractors are already beginning to seize the opportunities afforded by BIM, as exemplified by firms such as M.A. Mortenson Company, which has completed several BIM projects and realized many of its cost savings and efficiency benefits. The profession as a whole stands to lose its central role in the building process if it doesn't move fast enough.

In conclusion, the annual AIA TAP conference continues to be a leading forum for pushing the technological envelope of the building industry, and this year's organizing committee (Jim Bedrick, Stephen Hagan, Kristine Fallon, Paul Seletsky, and Tony Rinella) did a terrific job of putting the conference together and honing in on the critical issues. Kudos to them and I look forward to seeing how far the industry has progressed in its technology implementation at next year's TAP conference.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at

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