Collaboration, Come Full Circle

By Eric Osth, AIA, LEED AP Posted on April 15, 2012

At 38 years old, I am a very young architect. But in the terms of the use of digital technology in the practice of architecture, I am relatively old. When I finished my undergraduate studies, I worked in an architectural office that was one of the last offices still assembling construction documents on paper. Ink, pencil, drafting vellum, and blueprints were synonymous with (if not symbols of) the architectural industry for generations before me. And just as I was entering the field, all of these traditional tools were being pushed into a storage closet as our firm followed the industry to incorporate Computer-Aided Drafting Design (CADD) programs into the core of our practice.

CADD was a logical upgrade to practice. It was clear that CADD was in fact a slightly smarter and slightly more efficient way to draft and share information – this was a substantial internal change.  However, CADD did not substantially influence the way architects practiced architecture externally.  As far as the relationships between architects, owners, consultants, and builders, it was still just business as usual – isolated interactions as needed.  Indeed, we knew that more changes were coming.

So let’s consider a historical footnote: In the early 20th century, architects, builders, and landowners were integrated into a remarkable collaborative design process. Design and construction teams worked together from the initial visioning and concept work to the design and selection of the finest building details. The architecture and building professions developed side by side, necessarily working collaboratively. But, as in many fields, there was a gradual evolution in professional relationships, and over time, developers, builders, and architects broke apart, working more and more in their individual spheres.

Today, we are in the middle of a true revolution in the practice of architecture.  The industry is in the process of adopting a new tool that is both enabling and requiring a more integrated work process. This new tool – Building Information Modeling (BIM) – has remarkable promise to transform the manner in which we work both internally – saving time and effort and increasing quality; and externally – fostering new collaboration and new types of relationships with our consultants and colleagues in the building industry. BIM is a tool that can be used not only to improve the practice of architecture and design but also to reconnect architects, builders, and all those involved in the design and construction process. 

This new technology is a benefit to all disciplines in the building industry.  All disciplines may be better coordinated and in fact integrated more gracefully into the design solution. Recent project delivery processes (especially design-bid-build) isolate builders from the design team.  This fragmented business model is, in many cases, confrontational and inefficient as meaningful project information is not shared between essential parties. BIM, on the other hand, provides a platform to collect all the physical and functional information for the entire life cycle of a project, which makes it easier to share information fluidly with all team members.  All project participants may “infuse” the model with the information that they are responsible for generating, and all participants may access information at any point along the project lifecycle.  The potential for this highly dynamic and collaborative environment will require new integrated project delivery models as the boundaries between design, construction, and operations are blurred.

The architecture profession is in a position to create better informed design processes and, subsequently, improved designs. These designs can evolve from a more fluid and meaningful approach in which architects can communicate efficiently with all those involved in the design process, utilizing the advantages of BIM. The reality is that we are only at the beginning of the BIM revolution. We are all in a transitional period where the advantages to this new tool are obvious and the new integrated forms of delivery are still emerging. At this point, there are opportunities for progressive design firms to take a leadership role in finding ways to collaborate, define, and share higher levels of meaningful information for overall project success.

Great organizations, great businesses, and great people are defined during hard times. Times like these require great creativity for success. BIM provides us an opportunity to re-invent our profession and the way we relate to our colleagues in the building industry. The architecture field can move out of the recession inspired by new technologies that will enable us to return to our traditional roots in the practice of a high degree of partnership and high-quality design.

These can be great times for the AIA, and thus, I am particularly pleased to see my good friend and colleague, Mark Dietrick, AIA, as the 2012 President of AIA Pittsburgh. I have a deep respect for Mark’s comprehensive knowledge of the field and the opportunities that BIM provides for our future. His leadership and insight as the Chapter works to introduce greater educational tools and possibilities proves particularly well timed. Let us move forward with cutting-edge technology into a future of collaboration; together the future holds great promise.

Eric R. Osth, AIA, LEED AP is Principal at Urban Design Associates and served as the 2011 President of AIA Pittsburgh, a Chapter of the American Institute of Architects

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