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James P. Barrett

Credit: Noah Kalina

How has BIM changed the way you work?
Joshua Prince-Ramus: I personally believe it is the future. But at our practice, which is probably not radically different from most practices, BIM hasn’t yet lived up to its potential—not due to any failure on its part, but because of the failure of the team as a whole: the triad of owner, architect, and general contractor.

What do you mean by failure?
Prince-Ramus: BIM has the potential to facilitate incredible design team collaboration from start to finish, to have everyone collaborate with a 3D model. It’s just that we are still operating with a traditional contractual apparatus, and BIM requires something new that doesn’t yet exist. So to use BIM to its real potential with an old contract is [like playing] roulette. We use BIM and our partner contractors use BIM, but as the saying goes, it’s like driving a Ferrari to get groceries.

Jim, how has BIM changed the construction industry?
James P. Barrett: We’ve got 200 BIM projects now worth about $30 billion, and it’s growing. It’s pretty much a mandate. As it is now, we’re in the same boat as Joshua—we’ve essentially looked at BIM as a sustaining innovation that allows us to do what we’ve always done, just better.

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Joshua Prince-Ramus

Credit: Noah Kalina

Better, faster, easier, and more cost-effective?
Barrett: Yes. The tools allow us to do trade coordination better than we did before, and in some cases significantly better. And there are by-products that come of that where we’ve got better work quality in the field. But you could argue we’re still doing what we’ve always done. In fact, the sequence of coordination is pretty much the same. And so the conscious choice now is, we recognize that we have this tool. What else can you do with it? What else does it enable you to do?

Could you be more specific?
Barrett: Pre-construction is far more difficult, but working in BIM has been, I would argue, more fruitful for us, because it’s forcing us to address fundamental issues of how we work with design teams and what the product is that we need to make BIM useful for our purposes.

Prince-Ramus: The ideal scenario would be, you create a form and you essentially say to the computer, “Give me a price.” And then you say, “Now rationalize it, but using 20 pieces,” and then I get a new price. And I say, “OK, well, that’s too much. Now give it to me in 14 pieces.”
Barrett: We’re all sort of saying, “We’ll show you what we’ve done in 3D,” but that’s still missing a huge next step, which is optimization. That thought process isn’t really happening, not on any significant level.
Prince-Ramus: And for us that is actually the most exciting potential of BIM. That’s how we like to work. We want to know, how are they going to build it, and what are the limiting factors in the design approach we are trying? You are going to have to say, “OK, we’ve got budget X; we want to make the most of whatever it is for the money and to know that we’re spending the money wisely.”

With BIM, are construction companies making more design decisions?
Barrett: We’re trying to keep a strong line between that. We make it a more information-rich environment to make better decisions that’ll have long-term impact. We have enough problems without taking on design liabilities.
Prince-Ramus: The problem is, there is often a void left by the architect not controlling these processes, and often the contractor fills that void. So the first problem is the failure of the architect, and the second is the contractor essentially assuming architectural duties that they don’t have the legal liability to do.
Barrett: We have had the opposite, which is interesting, when the architect takes the model too far.
Prince-Ramus: Everything that you have described, how to build a model and things like that, there is always a learning curve. And so I keep thinking, why don’t we have the same relationship with contractors as we do with our engineers? We have a core team of consultants who we like to work with on almost every job, so why aren’t we building up those kinds of relationships between contractor and architect?

Does BIM help to achieve, or facilitate, that collaborative effort?
Prince-Ramus: It doesn’t necessarily demand BIM. But BIM is a powerful tool, and if you get into that territory you’d be remiss not to use it.
Barrett: Mistakes in BIM are inevitable with the combination of imperfect people working with an equally imperfect nascent technology. A necessary precondition of BIM is a protective environment that allows sharing and collaboration among the parties without fear of finger pointing and blame. We take the Las Vegas approach to BIM, which is: What happens in BIM stays in BIM.

Control of intellectual property rights is also an issue with BIM. How do you deal with this?
Prince-Ramus: My observation is that when people start worrying about IP, it’s because they don’t understand how to use BIM. We own the drawings, the specifications, and the performance specifications. When you do a performance specification, what you’re saying is, “We insert your proprietary information. You own that, you keep it. We own the performance specification.”

So is ownership of the BIM model really a question?
Prince-Ramus: The question of ownership is naïve. It’s exactly what would happen in a 2D physical drawing situation. That is, we don’t own the proprietary details, yet we will take our stuff and leave if the client terminates us for convenience. We retain ownership of what we created.

How about in the construction industry?
Barrett: It’s not an issue for us whatsoever. We make no claims ourselves for IP other than a proprietary system through our trade contractors. But otherwise it has never come up as an issue.

Is BIM changing your hiring and recruitment strategies?
Barrett: We’re hiring more architects. Unlike with the design community, there’s no history for us with BIM. Because our use of BIM is accelerating, we are moving beyond a coordination tool to more for pre-construction. That’s where we need people with different perspectives that are not bound by tradition. We’ve become more like problem-solvers.
Prince-Ramus: We’re starting to hire nonarchitects.
Barrett: We are apparently hiring Joshua’s castoffs.

Is this shift BIM- or technology-related?
Prince-Ramus: It’s an architectural education issue. It’s not that I’m not hiring architects. But as someone who teaches and has a practice and has real projects, I see the skill set of people with architectural education as increasingly irrelevant, if not detrimental.

As the use of BIM becomes more widespread, what does the future hold? How will you be designing and building?
Barrett: We’re seeing a strong movement toward engagement. We’re encouraging it with the design team and owners and trade contractors early in the process. We are going to see that totally accelerate. I also see the development of a network of alliances. BIM can enable that because you have a better tool to coordinate the players and their work product.
Prince-Ramus: Once engaged it takes a mental shift for architects to start saying, “If I do my job really well I should be able to come up with something remarkable by using the things at hand as opposed to doing it in an abstraction and then hoping to God that somebody can figure it out.” Is that where we’ll be in five or 10 years? Unfortunately, no. I think that’s where we should be now.