Phil Bernstein (left) at a 2016 industry event
Wanda Lau Phil Bernstein (left) at a 2016 industry event

This is the author’s fourth post summarizing a series of Autodesk project delivery workshops that explored the relationship between emergent digital collaboration technologies and the AECO sector. The six workshops were held worldwide over 18 months in 2018 and 2019.

A recurring theme at building industry technology events is the efficacy of new tools and the willingness of architects, engineers, builders, and clients to adopt them. Discussions are often accompanied by frustration and despair.

Despite expressing similar concerns, the approximately 100 participants in the Autodesk project delivery workshops did an admirable job of setting up the challenges of trustable information, systematically describing the barriers to information coherence, and unearthing the reasons behind these challenges.

Phil Bernstein
Sean Airhart/NBBJ Phil Bernstein

What differentiated the workshops from the everyday conference was the attendees’ willingness to propose solutions to attack the endemic problems of disintegrated information in project delivery. They did not fall prey to technologically deterministic arguments, where “if only this or that technology worked better, all would be solved.” Rather, they argued for a combination of strategies across three general categories: technical (software, hardware, and related data); procedural (standards, measurements, principles of collaboration, and contracts); and cultural (industry and management stance).

When the building industry settled on AutoCAD as a computer drafting standard a quarter century ago, the file format (DWG) was as important as the software platform itself. With drawings—2D abstractions of construction, often plotted on paper—as the common denominator of interaction among clients, designers, and builders, the move to digital exchange was smoothed by the ubiquity of DWG. However, with the digitization of multiple AEC processes, a slew of file formats, versions, organizational strategies, and software platforms has proliferated.

Our participants argued not for a reduction in the current heterogeneity of tools, but rather a common data environment—a cooperative sandbox—in which these tools could work logically together. They expressed strong interest in the careful consolidation of workflows and the ensuing connections between the data exchanged among project designers, builders, and operators. In a repeat of past crimes—the creation of unique, non-exchangeable information—data standards and protocols are evolving rapidly within these silos, but not between them. Given that the needs and desired results of each discipline vary, software providers should build flexible communication protocols allowing different data types to interact and relate, rather than requiring that they be collapsed into a single common format.

Given that the needs and desired results of each discipline vary, software providers should build flexible communication protocols rather than requiring that they be collapsed into a single common format.

An argument for more public forms of information and process creation—along with increased accessibility to disparate data sources—accompanied ideas about common data formats. Everyone is demanding and generating a lot of data, but the United States has few examples in which such data is organized, checked for quality, and made broadly available to the design and construction community. Similar challenges exist for workflow protocols; several workshop subgroups suggested public data and process hackathons to allow the AEC world to work collaboratively on these issues.

At the core of the second (procedural) set of recommendations was the concept of performance—establishing commonly understood protocols for measuring success. This idea was sidestepped in the early days of digitally enabled project delivery by a lack of innovation in process: AEC players continued to work in lowest first cost, commoditized models where measures of success were survival and slim margins, in that order.

Technology has enabled new definitions of success—lowered risk, improved building performance, less embodied carbon—but the industry must identify and develop common metrics. These indicators should migrate into more sophisticated digital performance agreements that bind delivery players together and establish working protocols that can be iterated and refined. One workshop group summarized this idea as “digital performance axioms” to be shared across the delivery chain.

An illuminating example arose from discussion on BIM execution plans. BEPs are increasingly common on BIM-enabled projects where team participants convene to establish common work patterns, data exchange, format standards, and BIM procedures. Workshop participants argued that these protocols, currently invoked by consensus, should be formalized and instantiated by contract, assuring that BIM projects have clear and enforceable frameworks for execution. A good BEP can also smooth the transition of digital construction documents to useful fabrication data.

Information uses across the delivery spectrum: Air handler example
Source: Architecture Design Data: Practice Competency in the Era of Computation, by Phillip G. Bernstein (Birkhäuser, 2018) Information uses across the delivery spectrum: Air handler example

The final solution stack examined underlying cultural barriers to information integration, which arise from the lack of coherent relationships or shared goals across the building supply chain. At the highest level, attendees wondered why the AECO industry—likely channeling the zeitgeist of project delivery itself—fails to collaborate on standards or even on sharing best practices. (Participants in the London workshop did not hold this view: The U.K. government, by virtue of its BIM requirements, has forced cross-industry integration, at least with respect to the development of digital standards. See the so-called Level 2 BIM mandate.)

At the project level, participants suggested that the inherent values of technology and information sharing should be declared, articulated, and converted to value during business development and marketing activity. The opportunity to define a project with these objectives must begin not after the rush to mobilize, but rather before the design and construction teams themselves are selected. The value propositions of information coherence—efficiencies, better resource utilization, error reduction, and, in short, better work—can come to the fore when they are most likely to become part of the DNA of the project: at its origination.

Finally and perhaps most profoundly, workshop participants discussed the need to redefine risk standards in information-driven project delivery models. When BIM concepts began percolating around 2004, a parallel discussion emerged about new models of integrated delivery, partly based on the collaboration potential of robust and transparent model-based data. It quickly became clear, however, that this data could not be fully leveraged unless the traditional sorting of project information and insight between designers and builders—intended to shield each respective party from liability—was abandoned. Radical “shared risk” models emerged as a result. But radical change is rarely a good strategy in an industry that is characterized by conflicting narratives of high risk and thin margins—and is continuously wary of lawsuits.

Thus new models of risk and return are required, perhaps generated by newly inspired cooperation among industry associations, since innovation in risk management is unlikely to emerge from the insurance or underwriting industries. When embraced, information sharing has the counterintuitive outcome of reducing risk by increasing clarity.

Perhaps only ambitious and innovative clients can start this ball rolling. The delivery chain would likely and willingly follow along.

In the fifth and final installment of this series, I’ll describe how the workshop participants envisioned the end state of digitally-enabled project delivery, and its implications for the future of design and construction.