Phil Bernstein
John Apicella Phil Bernstein

This is the author’s third post in a series covering an Autodesk project delivery workshop series 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.

Can a given set of data be trusted by both its creator and its users across the complex transactions that comprise the delivery of a construction project? Information reliability was a core theme that emerged throughout our project delivery workshops series. Technical, procedural, and cultural roadblocks combine to interfere with opportunities for substantial improvement in building this trust. In this article, I investigate the underlying causes of these roadblocks.

In modern design and construction, almost all information is developed on digital platforms. It is not surprising, then, that an underlying anxiety about technical problems and their root causes exists among designers, builders, and building operators. Multiple incompatible platforms for generating data in a variety of formats proliferate in the industry. Given that the building industry is one of the last enterprises to digitize, the development of these tools and their outputs seems to be moving far faster than users can adopt them—much less keep track of them and their subsequent updates. Developing “industry standard” formats for compatibility and interoperability, however, would slow necessary innovation. The Tower of Babel continues to grow accordingly.

The potential of BIM, touted since the approach reached widespread adoption in the U.S. market in the years following the global financial crisis, has hardly been realized. Everyone has a lot of interesting 3D data and accompanying metadata, but hardly anyone knows how to share the information in a meaningful, safe, and profitable way. Even when model-based data is generated in the same software tool, significant effort is required to establish the workflow protocols, sharing approaches, and levels of resolution necessary for trustable exchange. Digital deliverables derived from models are infrequent. As a result, BIM is often reduced to a sophisticated drawing management system, as drawings are well understood and present few technical challenges—their lack of detail, fidelity, and precision notwithstanding.

Even when model-based data is generated in the same software tool, significant effort is required to establish the workflow protocols, sharing approaches, and levels of resolution necessary for trustable exchange.

The real question posed here is one of chicken and egg: the generation of digital data and its proper use. As Barbara Heller, FAIA, president of Washington, D.C., firm Heller & Metzger, described in a 2008 DesignIntelligence article, buildings are delivered by an “immense aggregation of cottage industries,” where developing standard workflows, protocols, or even compatible business models is a challenge. Procedural incompatibilities at all levels are the result: Architects, builders, and facility managers have different needs and uses for data, making its coherent flow from design to operation almost impossible. This challenge is traditionally “solved” by re-representing that information in each subsequent interaction of the design-to-build process: concept drawings, construction documents, shop drawings, and then whatever hybridized or bespoke format a building owner creates to manage the resulting information flow after construction completion and the departure of the design-build team.

Further calcifying information flow is the structure of typical delivery itself, presupposed to be a strictly linear process of phases that accompany each of the deliverables described above, from schematic design through construction administration. Process loops—where insights from, say, construction logic might inform a design strategy—do not exist, so important information has no route to swim upstream against the current. While iteration of alternatives does occur within each phase “process silo,” opportunities for design strategy to inform construction or for technical insight to improve cost estimating are made almost impossible by both procedural and technical incompatibilities.

Self-reinforcing data flows between design, construction, and operation
Source: Architecture Design Data: Practice Competency in the Era of Computation, by Phillip G. Bernstein (Birkhäuser, 2018) Self-reinforcing data flows between design, construction, and operation

At the foundation of this tower of process-disconnects is a misalignment of management approaches. The overarching goals of a given project, established—one hopes—at the onset of design, rarely govern the operations or objectives of the various businesses (including design firms, construction managers, subcontractors, and material suppliers) that comprise the aggregation. This leaves each player with the primary goals of protecting profit margins and dodging risk, and relegates accomplishing project goals to second place—if it makes the list at all. Information sharing is often incompatible with the primary goals and perceived not as reducing risk (though it might for the overall project), but rather increasing risk to an individual firm. Management strategies are by definition inevitably out of sync.

The resulting culture of the building project enterprise inherits these challenges: It’s hard to optimize the management or integration of the supply chain in cottage industries, and the links in that supply chain are tenuous and temporary. When standards between processes are established, they are often left behind at the end of a given project and reconstituted from scratch at the next. While some firms may have repeat client or contractor relationships, the general lack of vertical integration in building makes consistent, clear information links inchoate at best.

Managing the inherent risks of project delivery in quality, schedule, and cost should be the fundamental value proposition of the building enterprise—to deliver a product that meets all of these goals. The return on investment in anything that improves that proposition should be apparent when viewed through the lens of an entire project. But since the available risk mitigation strategy in a disaggregated supply chain is to diffuse it across as many players as possible, realizing the potential returns of reducing that risk by collective effort becomes nearly impossible. Sharing information in any form is then filtered through that sensibility.

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

Clients, hardly mere consumers of design and construction, bear some of the responsibility for this culture of informational distrust, beyond their desire to shed risk. Design is not the proper locus for establishing the overarching goals for a project, nor is construction the place to realize that spaces or systems have somehow failed to meet expectations. Where BIM has dramatically reduced coordination change orders, owner-driven changes in construction remain a serious challenge for project delivery. The inability to establish, articulate, and reinforce project goals during project development—and to reward project teams for accomplishing those goals—is the background against which information incompatibilities continue to fester. Information trust is a proxy for deeper pathologies across the building supply chain.

Alas, so much technology and so few process improvements! Having set what seems to be a grim stage in this discussion, I’ll introduce in my next post provocative proposals for solutions from the approximately 100 workshop participants.