AECbytes Newsletter #31
(December 11, 2007)
AIA TAP 2007 Conference
Last week, I attended the annual AIA TAP (Technology in Architectural Practice) conference that was held in Washington DC from Dec 2 to 4. Unlike previous years where this conference was held as a pre-convention workshop to the AIA National Convention, this year’s conference was held as an independent event that included not just TAP but also other AIA knowledge communities including Practice Management, Integrated Practice, Design-Build, Education/Practitioner Network, and others. The result was a conference with a diversified scope that included not just technology but also other aspects of architectural practice such as collaboration, education, integrated delivery, project management, working globally, sustainable design, and so on, as evidenced by its title which was “The Future of Professional Practice: The Next Generation of Integrated Delivery, Emerging Technology, and Practice Management.”
While I was unfortunately not able to make it to the conference in time for the opening session by James Timberlake of Kieran Timberlake Associates, known for its seminal book, Refabricating Architecture, there were several interesting concurrent sessions I was able to attend. These were focused on topics such as project and construction administration management, development and implementation of automated code checking in the US, digital project workflows enabled by new technology, and the dynamics and risks of open, technology-enhanced business models. This AECbytes article captures an overview of these sessions, along with the highlights of some of the plenary sessions that dealt with issues such as international practice and education, and an open discussion among all the attendees on the conference themes and the challenges of architectural practice.
Leveling the Playing Field: Project and CA Management
The focus of this session was on how to improve business processes and increase productivity. It was presented by Gustavo A. Lima of Cannon Design and John Moebes of the Building division of the retail store, Crate & Barrel, both of whom shared their experience on how to manage and share project reviews quickly and efficiently, reduce inefficient and time-consuming paper-intensive processes, and improve security and document integrity.
Cannon Design is a 700 person architectural, engineering and interior design firm with offices throughout the US and in Shanghai, China. It was facing the typical problems encountered by large, multi-office firms including knowledge gaps among its staff, lack of information sharing, lost time, lower productivity, and lack of performance measures. In response to these problems, the firm made a concerted effort to move all its data to a web-based document management system. The information is now open and easily accessible to all employees world-wide with just an Internet browser, independent of the computing platform they are using. As all of the firm’s projects are now in the system, it is very easy to mine data across projects, for example, getting a list of all the submittals in active projects. It has also allowed the firm to develop various performance metrics, for example, RFI and submittal turnaround time, number of submittals returned, etc. Accountability has improved, and professionals are happier as they have to spend less time doing administrative tasks such as maintaining logs and keeping track of paper-work, getting more time for the core tasks related to their expertise. The use of this system has given the firm a competitive edge and made it ready for integrated project delivery once those opportunities start coming in.
Cannon Design looked at both self-hosted solutions for project management such as those from Primavera and Meridian as well as ASP solutions such as Constructware and eBuilder, and eventually settled for Primavera. Lima suggested that the aspects to consider when making a selection include installation costs, maintenance, training, and data security, and recommended starting out with a small solution or a smaller implementation before making a firm-wide transition. He also pointed out a critical problem related to the deployment of such project management solutions, which the industry still has to find a solution for. Imagine an architect and a contractor working on a project. Both would like to use their own project management solution for collaboration on the project, so that they can also look at this data when mining information across all their projects. If they agree to use one solution, say the architect’s, the contractor would then have to re-enter all the project data in their system as well, so that they have a record of it. What is needed is for project management data to be easily shared across systems, but no such interoperability is even on the horizon yet. In that respect, project management lags far behind BIM (building information modeling), which at least has the IFC and the start of the National BIM Standards.
Another perspective on the use of digital tools for project management, but specific to retail construction, came from Crate & Barrel, which was founded in 1964 and has grown to 145 stores to date. Each store averages about 35,000 sq ft, but is not of a prototypical design—no two stores are the same, and many of them have been award-winning projects. Crate & Barrel is continuously looking to open more stores annually, which need to be completed by September in time for the holiday season starting October, making the average construction schedule 32 to 40 weeks. There was a need to reduce construction costs without sacrificing quality, to improve productivity without working longer hours. A study showed that a lot of money as well as time was being wasted on reproducing drawings, shipping, fax, and email. This led Crate & Barrel to mandate the use of Adobe Acrobat for all its deliverables as well as reviews in the last seven years. The implementation has been very successful, resulting in a 70% reduction in shipping costs, decrease in clerical work, and dramatic reduction in review cycles. The ability to combine multiple file types in a PDF has proved to be very powerful, and the OCR (optical character recognition) capability is also extremely useful. Another critical component of Crate & Barrel’s technology implementation is the use of project management websites created using a solution called Projectmates, which has a version specifically targeted towards the retail industry. It allows all the information about a project to be consolidated in one web-accessible location, bringing benefits such as transparency, centralized communication, streamlined workflow, real-time project overview, and reduced expenses. It also allows cross-project performance tracking, which is particularly important for the upper management of the company.
This presentation, which provided the owner’s perspective on project management and technology implementation, again highlighted the quandary of double-entry that was pointed out in the earlier presentation from Cannon Design. Architects want to use their own system for project management, but owners want access to the data related to their projects. And very often, as in the case of Crate & Barrel, the owners want to use their own system. Currently, this problem is being addressed by entering the data twice in both systems, which is, of course, far from ideal, highlighting the urgent need to find a good solution to this problem. Another issue that came up was the non-intuitive nature of electronic markups, given the industry’s reliance on marking up hard copies of drawings. Moebes of Crate & Barrel did acknowledge that this was a problem, and suggested large or dual monitors to make electronic markups easier. The ideal, of course, would be to not have to mark up drawings at all, which is possible with BIM, but only when we have the ability to convert BIM models to formats such as PDF and tag RFIs to the objects in the model. Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet.
Development and Implementation of Automated Code Checking in the US
This session, presented by David R. Conover of the International Code Council (ICC), was of particular interest to me as I had done a detailed study of the Singapore code-checking project a couple of years ago (see the AECbytes article, CORENET e-PlanCheck: Singapore's Automated Code Checking System). The Singapore project was the first of its kind, and I was curious to learn if the US system was being modeled on this or if it was being developed differently. I found out that what was common among the two efforts was the use of the IFC as the open standard on top of which the code-checking system is built. What is different is that in the Singapore effort, the codes and model-checker are bundled together, which is understandable given that it is a small country with a universal set of codes that apply to all its buildings. In the US, on the other hand, as in many countries in the world, codes often vary depending upon the state, county, and city, so the code-checking system is being developed such that the model-checker can work with different sets of codes. The key elements of the system are a model-checking application, which is a customized version of Solibri Model Checker, and SMARTcodes, which are “smart” versions of ICC’s international codes—and federal, state, and local regulations based on these codes—that can be used as a rule set by the model-checker.
The manner in which the system would work, once the implementation has been completed, is as follows:
- Architect/designer uses BIM authoring software to document and present their design in an intelligent format.
- The BIM model is exported as an IFC file.
- The architect inputs the IFC file into the model-checking software.
- The architect specifies which rule set of SMARTcodes to apply to the design.
- The model-checker checks the model against the specified rule set and returns a compliance report and visual ID of non-compliance to the architect/designer.
- The architect/designer revises the design and rechecks for compliance. The process is repeated until compliance is achieved.
- The architect then submits the design to the building department for approval, which is greatly expedited since the model has already gone through the code-checking process.
The ability to support analysis and evaluation has been one of the most obvious benefits of BIM, and it was only a matter of time before it would be applied to streamline the normally protracted, tedious, and laborious process of code-checking. Conover shared the results of an ICC survey which showed that on an average AEC project, 3 to 5% of the design time is currently devoted to code-checking, and even then, not everything is checked. Codes often change, and designers have no easy way of being informed about the updates. Approvals can take weeks to months, since the designs have to be manually checked by code-compliance officials, and any time lost usually equates a monetary loss for the owner. The automated code-checking process would take care of most of these problems. As with the Singapore system, the US system also does not promise full automation, since there will always be some codes that are nuanced and subject to interpretation, which will have to be checked manually. The SMARTcodes is aiming to cover most of the code for smaller buildings, and about 70% of the code for larger, more complex buildings. The project has started with energy codes that are relatively easy and stand-alone, making them the simplest to automate. It has also highlighted all the information that the BIM model needs to contain for it to be checked. As the SMARTcodes are being developed, the ICC is simultaneously providing model view definitions to the BIM vendors so that they can provide “placeholders” for the data that the model-checker will need to know to check for compliance. Eventually, the system will be expanded to work with all other major codes including IECC, IBC, etc.
The ICC has still not determined how the system would be priced. One possibility is that it would be part of the permit fee, which makes sense considering that the owner has the most to benefit from it. In fact, this could be the best way to get owners excited about BIM and incentivize them to push for its adoption on their projects. There is no information yet on when the system will be ready and available for commercial implementation. But there is way to test-drive the system by going through a demo available on the ICC website: see http://www2.iccsafe.org/io/smartcodes/. I will go through this and capture my analysis of it in a future article.
Digital Project Workflow: Are We There Yet?
This was a panel discussion moderated by Kristine Fallon in which the representatives of three firms—Aaron Kivett of BNIM Architects, Thomas Peterson of Mackey Mitchell Associates, and Doris Pulsifer of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM)—shared their experiences with implementing Newforma Project Center and other tools to improve various aspects of project management such as design review, contract administration, and project archiving in their practices. The firms have diverse backgrounds: BNIM Architects is a mid-size firm that is heavily focused on sustainable design and has standardized on Revit Architecture for its BIM implementation; Mackey Mitchell Associates is a small firm that adopted ArchiCAD as its BIM application 8 months ago; and SOM is one of the largest and most established multi-disciplinary firms in the world that implements a wide range of tools and technologies including several BIM applications. But what was common to all these firms was the desire to minimize the use of paper-based processes and streamline workflows to reduce waste, delays, and inefficiencies. This was motivated by various reasons such as improving the overall quality of the work, improving the quality of service provided to clients, staying on the leading edge of technology, and wanting to be sustainable and green, not only in their designs but also in their processes by reducing travel, paper, and other resources.
The need to digitize workflows, and in the process, standardize them was brought into sharp focus by SOM, which embarked on a study two years ago to identify and document all the processes that were being used within the firm. The study found that not only did different offices have different workflows, but very often this was also true of workflows within the same office. Email management, in particular, was an enormous challenge, as there were so many different emails going back and forth related to RFIs, submittals, and so on, with copies going to the inboxes of all members of the project team. This provided a strong incentive for the firm to try out Newforma Project Center, whose email management and other project organization and collaboration capabilities were described in detail in my review published earlier this year. Another key feature of the application that all three firms are using is creating and managing all submittals electronically, which saves time and paper, reduces delivery costs, and eliminates the need for manual logs that are so tedious and time-consuming to maintain.
Other methods that these firms are using to streamline processes and collaboration include using Adobe Acrobat and standardizing on the use of PDF for drawing sets and all other kinds of documents, using Verisign in conjunction with Acrobat to sign documents electronically, implementing wikis for better communication and knowledge sharing, providing dual monitors to all the design staff to make it easier to view and work electronically without relying on paper copies, providing digital tablets to project managers to make electronic markups easier, and the use of WebEx and other conferencing software to cut down on travel. In response to the question of “Are we there yet?” when it comes to digital project workflows, the general consensus among the firms was that while they are not quite there yet, they are many times more electronic than they used to be. In fact, for BNIM Architects, the answer was that they are actually pretty close to where they want to be.
Resolving the Dilemmas of Cooperation
In this session, Phil Bernstein of Autodesk, Chris France of Little Associates, and Chuck Eastman of Georgia Tech discussed the dynamics and risks of open, technology-enhanced business models, which design firms are moving towards in an effort to increase their competitive advantage. The highly linear process of traditional design is starting to go away. In the new integrated, collaborative scenario, multiple designers have to think simultaneously about a design, and they need to figure out not only how to define their own self-interest but also to defer their decisions to the cause of the larger good. BIM does provide an environment where all the players can work together for the common good, which is why it is one of the key trends abetting collaboration. While BIM is not a radically new concept, the new advances in hardware and software have put it well within the reach of the average AEC firm, enabling them also to work in a collaborative mode a lot more easily, both within the firm and with other players.
Of course, there are still some additional technological challenges to collaboration such as large file sizes, secure access to the model, an effective way for multiple team members to work on the same model, better interoperability between different tools, better integration of the modeling process with other workflows such as project management, and so on. But all of these are far from insurmountable and should eventually be resolved. What we really need to work on is better education on collaboration, which is missing in most schools teaching architecture, engineering, and construction. Integrated design and construction courses are rarely taught, and this is a huge challenge. If collaborative practice is the envisioned future of the AEC industry, that future is not going to be realized unless collaborative and integrated design become an integral part of AEC education.
Another critical challenge is to come up with new business models that encourage cooperation and collaboration, and to this end, the session included a case study exploration to consider how dilemmas that block cooperation can be overcome. A hypothetical library project in Richmond, Virginia, was used as the basis of the case study. The project owner—a city official in this case—wants to adopt an integrated project delivery approach, and has proposed a multi-party agreement that includes the owner, architect, and general contractor (or construction manager at risk). Key points of this hypothetical agreement are that the design and construction fees will be based on an open book reimbursement verified by an independent auditor; additional compensation would be given to the team based on the building’s energy performance measured after 2 years; the project would be based on an aggregated BIM model that is jointly shared and owned by all the participants; the owner would not pay for any change orders related to coordination as the use of BIM is expected to eliminate all coordination issues; there would be a single insurance policy for the project; and dispute resolution would be handled by a single Board comprised of one representative each from the owner, architect, and general contractor.
The participants in the session were asked to review the agreement and discuss if they would be willing to enter into it, what would be the main obstacles to collaboration, and how these could be overcome. Most of the attendees said that they would be hesitant to accept this agreement as the financial benefits were not very compelling. Most firms are looking for profits upfront and the idea of delayed compensation does not work well for them, especially when it is tied to the performance of the building. Energy predictions, in particular, have been shown to be volatile, with many LEED-certified buildings consuming more energy now than was predicted during design. The change order clause, which expects perfection in coordination, was also off-putting, along with not knowing clearly who’s in control and who owns the IP (intellectual property) related to the project. Another important factor was who picks the team, and whether the architect and contractor have worked together before and share good chemistry. The few owner representatives who attended this session found this kind of agreement very favorable to them, as the compensation is tied to the eventual performance of the building, which should guarantee a better building for them. But the reaction of the other attendees, most of whom were architects, showed that we still have to find good business models for cooperation and integrated practice. The technological solutions are available—what we need is to come up with agreements that are not only fair to all the players, but are also highly incentivizing to them.
Other Conference Highlights
In one of the plenary sessions at the conference, L. Bradford Perkins of Perkins Eastman Architects discussed some of the major issues associated with international practice and globalization that US firms need to be aware of. There are many compelling reasons to work overseas—there many interesting and challenging projects, and countries like India and China are providing opportunities for planning entirely new communities, allowing a grandeur in scope and scale that is no longer available here. Perkins gave several examples of international projects that his firm was working on in India, China, and Dubai, including a large-scale sustainable city, shopping centers, six and seven star hotels, and retirement living communities. From his experience, he outlined the areas of caution in working overseas; these include financial risks, the impact on domestic clients who might feel neglected, the lack of legal recourse should problems arise, the professional compromises that will have to be made, the lack of recognition for the project, and the limited control over how the project will eventually turn out. With the amount of travel involved, there are also health issues to consider. The key questions one has to ask before considering an international project are: Do you want to spend time in that country? Can you get work? Do you have a guide? Can you afford the time, money, and expertise? What kind of an office do you need to set up? Thus, while it can be a very challenging, interesting, and rewarding experience to work overseas, it is also important to be aware of all the issues involved and do a thorough market analysis before getting started.
One of the other plenary sessions was focused on education, and it described a project at the Boston Architectural College (BAC) that was focused on developing ongoing collaboration between BAC and architectural firms to prepare the next generation of architects for BIM and Integrated Practice (IP). The project was funded by a “Practice Academy Grant” from the AIA, and it involved BAC students serving as interns in four architectural firms that are transitioning to BIM and IP. The session was presented by Leonard J. Charney of BAC, and Jill Rothenburg of ADD, Inc., which was one of the four firms that participated in the project. In order to remain vendor-neutral, the firms were specifically selected such that all three leading BIM solutions—Revit, ArchiCAD, and Bentley—were included. The students in all the firms were placed in the team of a project on which BIM was being used and they had prepare a report capturing their experiences and insights, understanding of the project, and how the use of BIM was helpful. It turned out to be a highly educative experience for the students. In contrast to traditional internship where students are mostly assigned basic tasks such as drafting, coloring, and redlining, or more specialized “side” tasks such as 3D modeling, renderings, and animation, the new BIM and IP focused internship gave them more project responsibilities, a better understanding about how a building comes together, the opportunity to work on coordinating the architectural model with the MEP and structural models, and a much more accelerated learning of architecture as well as BIM and collaboration. They learned the importance of teamwork and the need to break out of the traditional individual silos of AEC. The firms who participated in this project also benefitted by the enthusiasm and fresh perspective of the students, and had the satisfaction of helping to prepare the next generation of architects for the changes in the practice.
And finally, there was the closing session moderated by Charles Linn of Architectural Record, which was an open Q&A devoted to drawing out and discussing the overarching themes of the conference. The majority of the questions and comments were related to BIM, despite the fact that the theme of this conference was much broader, indicating that BIM is still the main challenge most firms are currently grappling with. There were concerns as to whether the use of BIM detracts from human communication, and there was a certain amount of nostalgia for the way things used to be done in the past. As Linn pointed out, the nostalgia is indicative of anxiety about the future, which can actually be a tremendous motivator. The nostalgic perspective was countered by more optimistic viewpoints which found that BIM allows more efficiency, which means less time spent working on the computer, which in turn implies a better quality of life. There were also contrasting opinions on the impact of BIM. Some felt that BIM had not made any significant difference to the quality of design at their firm, whereas others lauded its benefits such as not being able to “fake” a design as you could do with drawings, of needing to know how a building is put together, and its ability to encourage collaboration and teamwork, to bring seniors and juniors from a firm together and put them on a more level playing field. A discussion of the role of the architect also came up, with the question as to whether the architect can still claim to be the project leader, given that contractors are moving rapidly to adopt BIM as well. But architects still see themselves as the “ground zero” of project related information, so it is unlikely that they will be willing to relinquish the role of project leader anytime soon. Hopefully, they can do what it takes to stay in the reckoning, even if it means going beyond their traditional scope and taking on the responsibility of providing a conflict-free design to the owner and an “as-built” model for facilities management.
This marks the conclusion of yet another annual AIA TAP conference, most of which have been covered in AECbytes starting from the year 2003 (see the reports on the 2003, 2005, and 2006 conferences). Because the scope of this year’s conference was much broader than technology alone, there was less rehashing of the same issues related to BIM implementation such as contract documents, liabilities, risks, insurance, fees, and so on, compared to the previous conferences. Yet, as the closing session at this conference showed, BIM still continues to be very much at the forefront of our professional consciousness. This is hardly surprising, since BIM has been universally acknowledged as a “disruptive technology” for the AEC industry, much more than CAD or even computing ever was, and it is causing us all to rethink our processes and identities. What I found particularly useful at this conference was to see sessions devoted to discussing other issues and technologies related to BIM such as project management, digital workflows, business models for collaboration, and educating the next generation to work with BIM and integrated practice. BIM may still be the center of our universe for now, but we are at least starting to look beyond its implications for design alone.
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 email@example.com.
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