AECBytes Architecture Engineering Construction Newsletters

AECbytes Viewpoint #57 (Nov 11, 2010)

A Personal View of Newforma as a Process and Information Model Tool

Terry Nichols
Chairman of the Newforma UK User Community

At the two BIM conferences I attended recently in London, the need for a change in the design and construct process was mentioned far more than the use of any specific BIM tools. Though there is some guidance on what that change might embody, there is little practical assistance on how to actually implement such changes. This article considers a possible solution using Newforma as a tool to guide, monitor and capture processes and experience in order to evolve better ways of working.

Current BIM tools clearly help us with the analysis and coordination of an emerging design solution, as various options are tested against an ever growing set of available project information. But the BIM focus is entirely on accurately recording the current status of a model. It does not record the processes or information employed in the decision-making processes that underpin it. Nor do I believe it is the right tool to do so. Yet there is great value to be obtained from organizing the processes and information employed during the design development, so that this experience can be checked for completeness and compliance with policies, procedures, building codes, etc. It can also be captured and refined, and the knowledge distilled for reuse in future projects. In addition to knowing what the project is, we also need to know why and how it has evolved. The challenge is to achieve this without overburdening the design team with extra work or tedious form filling.

Using Action Items in Newforma

For some time, I have felt that Newforma Project Center might help with this task. What I had not expected to find was that the key features to support the beginnings of such an approach are already available in the “Action Items” component of the application. Newforma’s Action Items activity center is typically used to identify individual problems and their resolution, as and when they occur throughout a project. As such, the Action Items screen is usually empty when a project starts. A much smarter proposition would seem to be for a project to commence with a standard set of project activities already in place within the Action Items screen. The key to achieving this is the ability to bulk-import predefined actions via a spreadsheet. The benefits of this approach for planning and monitoring performance were discussed by Romano N.A. Nickerson and Todd Henderson in their article “Lean Design using Microsoft Office Excel and Newforma Project Center” (AECbytes Tips and Tricks Issue #52).

My proposal is to extend this approach by using the Supporting Documents feature within Action Items. At commencement, the project would be preloaded with a comprehensive list of tasks, together with links to packages of guidance information. Pre-populating the activity center in this way would make it a far more attractive tool for the entire team. Each information package would be conveyed to the team members when activities are assigned. As the design develops, the information in the package can be updated as new reference information is added. This, in turn, is captured and reviewed prior to being exported and stored by the firm, ready to be imported into the next project. In this way, projects can evolve with the benefit of past experience and we would have an ideal tool for those firms that aspire to be “learning organizations.”

Ultimately, Action Items might become a central screen for Newforma from which other tools could be accessed. This would enable it to become the “command and control center” for the overall project delivery process. To put this more graphically, if Newforma is thought of as a Swiss Army Knife of useful tools, then Action Items could become the all important handle linking them together. But that is another story ...

Looking at the Action Item package in more detail, the parts might be used as follows:

  • ID: Can be used to define a sequence, but with suitable coding this could be used to form dependencies and respond to filtering.
  • Subject: Simple listing of the item.
  • Description: A clear definition of the task and the expected deliverables, this may also include a checklist of requirements (some of which may be mandatory).
  • Email log: Tracking the decision making process (so often achieved via email) with internal and external input from other members of the design team, subcontractors, and suppliers.
  • Supporting Documents: Links to useful guidance (anything from general advice on client liaison to mandatory requirements for code compliance) in the form of reference documents, case studies, and short explanatory videos, plus links and specialist contacts.
  • Related Items: Links to the use of all other Newforma tools (Snapshots, Mark-ups, Info Exchange reports, RFIs Transmittals, Submittals, etc).
  • Change log: A record of the history of each action taken, including when it was created, modified, who was involved, and any additional details.

The Conveyor Belt Approach

In the manufacturing process, the right component parts are brought to the assembly point just in time to be fitted into the emerging product. In much the same way, Newforma can convey the right information to the designer’s desktop just in time for it to be tested and fitted into the emerging Building Information Model. Furthermore, this system can be seen as a conveyor-belt that also captures any suggested process or information changes that result from direct application on a project. In this way, it can create a truly evolutionary process where future design benefits from past experience.

The system envisaged works like this:

At project commencement, a relevant set of pre-packaged information including associated Action Items is loaded into the project. I envisage that the package content will relate to the particular phase of the design process and be filtered to suit the size and type of contract, building types, and locations. Core documents will be brief, with links to recommended information sources when further detail is required. Some may be checklists of mandatory actions; other will contain general guidance on anything from client liaison to links to relevant building codes. They may also include links to short video training sessions. Note that much of this content is already available to most organizations via the Internet and practice intranets. But often it suffers from being difficult to access (especially if you do not know it exists). The value here is in “pushing” useful information out to the team just in time to complete a particular task.

Supporting documents directly referenced by Action Items need to exist within the same Newforma project. This ensures that key information (incorporating project specific annotation or updates) is retained within the project for future reference and can eventually be archived with that project. To reach beyond the project and into other information resources, supporting documents can include hyperlinks to external references located anywhere on the Internet or corporate Intranet.

At project management level, the scope of the work is assessed and any new tasks are added to the plan. They are then assigned to members of the team and tracked to completion. Using this more granular approach should provide evidence for a more accurate estimate of project progress and avoid the over-optimistic approaches that can result in a project continuing to burn resources while it sits at 95% complete.

At task level, the designer has a clear overview of what is needed; a checklist of items to ensure that a comprehensive set of considerations will be applied to the solution, plus links to guidance in meeting the objectives. As the impact of these is tested against the project model (using BIM tools), the communication between team members can be recorded in the email log. Snapshots and mark-ups of changes to the BIM model or to highlight particular aspects of reference documentation can be added where necessary. Any updates noticed or errors found can be corrected (like a wiki) and links to new reference information can be added.

At design and technical review sessions, the list of Action Items together with the Change control report forms a useful agenda. The record set provides a valuable audit trail demonstrating compliance with policies and procedures and fulfilling the QA need for continual improvement. More importantly, the project experience is available in a format that can be exported and stored for import into future projects.

For larger practices with design specialists and librarians, this approach can provide a very effective information channel. The team is automatically prompted with up-to-date content just when it is needed, and in turn, the experts receive direct feedback on its practical application.

To complete this proposed information cycle, an Excel format report is generated to export the Action Item data. The details can then be compared with the standard input template to identify changes and additional references and update the master copy.

Implementation

Implementation can take place gradually running alongside present information systems. The key to this is to demonstrate the tangible benefits of the system to people before asking them to contribute. All that is needed is a plan to prime the system and to start the cyclical flow of information. Note that much of the guidance information content will probably already exist within most organizations and will just need to be linked to the appropriate process. Each organization may have a particular driver: a better way of achieving an audit trail for QA, or library update services or supporting LEED requirements, or a way of providing on-demand training. But ultimately the channels for communication and feedback opened up by this approach should lead to a general change of culture within an organization.

Finally, this type of approach may become critical as the technology to support a more dispersed and mobile workforce becomes accepted. Windows Remote Desktop, Citrix XenApp + XenDesktop, the iPad, other tablets and thin clients, unified communications, plus cloud storage are all available now, ready to form the backbone of a new way of remote working. Though this may not lead to a totally “office-less” future, it will certainly lead to a less dependency on the office (similar to predictions on the paperless office). As this occurs, a more organized approach to how processes are managed and information is stored, communicated and viewed by the team will become a necessity, making it critical to implement process and information modeling solutions like Newforma.

About the Author

Terry Nichols recently retired from HOK after 32 years of service, having had an involvement with technology for most of that time. While initially working as an Architect, he began using CAD in the early 1980’s and Revit in 2000. He helped to devise the collaboration strategy for many large projects in the UK, including Terminal 5 at Heathrow and the Barts and Royal London Hospital. As IT Director for the London Office, he managed the introduction of Deltek, Revit, and Newforma and was responsible for planning the infrastructure for office locations in London, Dubai, and Mumbai, plus over 10 site offices in the UK. Most recently in the corporate role of IT Director of Emerging Systems, he advised on solutions for centralized storage, replication, archiving, unified communications, and Citrix remote access.

Terry is currently chairman of the Newforma UK User Community and can be reached at terry.nichols@nucuk.org.

 

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