Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Will BIM catastrophically divide the architecture profession?

I deliver quite a few professional development talks for architects, planners, and occasionally others in the AEC industry.  For the past few years, I have often included a small segment on the transformative impact of BIM (Building Information Models).

I like to point out that BIM also stands for Building Information Management just to focus my audience's minds - because the word 'model' is so often misinterpreted by architects in particular, as just incremental change to 3D CAD from the 2D drafting application they may be presently using.  Exactly three years ago in one of those presentations, I raised the prospect of BIM suddenly, catastrophically, and irreversibly dividing the architecture profession.

Over those years, I was getting little traction,because even the biggest firms did not see themselves as handicapped if they avoided the complications of being early adopters.  Now, suddenly, BIM is much more in the news, and thoughtful commentaries on the factors to be considered by architecture practices are becoming much more accessible.

The first article that triggered my renewed sense of urgency was Building Information Modelling (BIM) – what should you include in your contracts? by Nick Crennan and Lindsay Prehn of CBP Lawyers, laying out the minefield of time and cost, collaboration and data input management, insurance, intellectual property and confidentiality issues. For me, the attention grabber in the article was the key recommendation of the Australian Department of Industry, Innovation, Science and Research and Tertiary Education report (the National Building Information Modelling Initiative, Volume 1 Strategy) released in June 2012, being that from 1 July 2016, all government building procurements should require full collaborative BIM, based on open standards for information exchange.

The second article was by Stephan Langella, Strategic BIM Manager at  architects, who delivered the lion's share of the documentation for school halls constructed under the Australian Government's financial stimulus package after the GFC.  Stephan set out clearly that adoption of BIM had to be informed by sound business planning, where the benefits for productivity would be realised by the practice.

But notwithstanding that both authors know a lot more about BIM than I do, I felt that neither was putting the case in quite the stark terms in which I see it.  Why do I make the dire prognosis I do in the second paragraph of this post?

I say that at the crudest level, BIM capability simply divides to profession into those who can and those who can't. It is much, much more profound than the CAD the revolution of the early 1990's, which was handled by practices poaching trained CAD operators (thereby externalizing the training cost), or simply biting the bullet and picking up the training (sole operators and smaller firms). That can't really be done as easily with full-blown BIM.

At the more subtle level, BIM implementation in the office allows smaller teams to handle larger jobs. That puts a lot of salaried architects out of work. Here I differ from Stephan Langella's advocacy of more architects becoming more skilled generalists. I think the need for smaller teams puts at risk the available expertise spread being applied to a particular job in the architecture office. That in turn has to have consequences in terms of who tops up the missing skills – it is vaguely possible that it will lead to greater specialisation, with some architects becoming guns for hire and comfortable in their role as consultant architects. But they would still be a smaller number than equivalent specialists currently employed by firms of equivalent size. The worse scenario is that the new experts are not architects at all. If so, it would only be continuing a trend of a smaller portion of the total fee take being available to the architects – which sets up a positive feedback loop reinforcing the differentiation of architecture firms on the basis of BIM capability.

The idea of 'suddenly' comes from the suggestion that government at all levels mandates a switchover date, when, like with QA certification, they simply will not accept work to be done without full BIM participation.

There is no likely prospect that most individual firms can make a 100% clean switchover. But even that will reinforce the severity of the problem for local employed architects. The rump of work that will be done in 2D CAD (and for a while it may still be the majority of the work) is likely to be increasingly shifted offshore. Not necessarily to low salary countries like India, but quite possibly to Singapore with its lower cost of doing business.

I mention again my minor definitional issue, that BIM can stand for either building information model, or building information management. A lot of the talk is about the problems attending ownership and intellectual content of the model, and the threat that it poses architecture firms. But equally, the skills of building information modelling and management appear to be sufficiently distinct from even 3-D CAD modelling, as to flag that there may not be a clear progression path for many employed architects. And for very small architectural practices, it could represent a fatal cliff in terms of shifting the skills base.

Of course, I could be wrong in all of this. Participation in building a BIM model could turn out to be easier than I anticipate. The National Broadband Network could deliver bandwidths such that even small Australian practices can engage successfully with a bigger BIM held on a server by a BIM manager. It could also turn out that there is an irreducible complexity in BIM that makes it uneconomical to apply to a particular range of building types that then remain lucrative for a certain kind of architectural practice – it would ensure the survival of those kinds of practices, but ironically, would conform with my prediction of an unbridgeable divide in the profession.

Read Building Information Modelling (BIM) – what should you include in your contracts? here.
Read BIM and the “Beautiful Game” here.


Wade Cogle said...

A little hurt now.

I think what BIM takes away from the profession now will be repaid 10-fold in the very near future. It is sure to up-root and make life difficult for the small non-adopter fish but it will surely enhance the fishbowl (profession) as a whole. It may present a divide that one day cannot be bridged much like many grandparents who turned their backs on computer technology. It will be an ever-increasing disadvantage to not adopt the technology.

To the profession as a whole I believe it will give more responsibility back to the architect and hopefully the fee take will follow suite in contrast to the trend of modern times.

BIM puts the designer closer to their designs. It offers more opportunity for the architect to project manage. It offers the architect more responsibility for the energy performance of a design. It offers a new efficient dialogue with which architects can interact with builders, engineers and clients. It allows walkthroughs and animations at a fraction of the speed and cost that was once only reserved for the larger and/or more profitable projects. Clients will surely demand this! It offers to the architect and structural engineer an increased ability to experiment with and to solve/resolve more complex ideas and problems. It increases efficiency in almost all stages of design, construction and management. The positives are many.

The uptake rate is skyrocketing. According to a report from McGraw-Hill Construction, The Business Value of BIM in North America , BIM adoption expanded from 17% in 2007 to 71% in 2012. Even faster growth has been seen coming out of China, Japan and Brazil as reported by Autodesk, Graphisoft and Bentley.

And as you mentioned, government seems poised to begin legislation. As are many other countries including the UK.

These surely are enough incentives for there to be no divide at all… just a 100% adoption of BIM technology within the profession? A little pain now for more fruit in the basket?

Some interesting reading on BIM:





Stephan Langella - Strategic BIM Manager, Rice Daubney said...

Firstly, thanks for referencing my article. I'm chuffed and like you article. Very healthy issue to discuss.
Secondly, noooooooooooooooooo.... (Catastrophic divide)
I like the concept of generalists as I do the utility player on the field. I don't see salaried architects being replaced but they need to be more involved and thus more valued not just a drawing checker and creator of markups. I have seen too many examples in gen X,Y,Z where what I would see is an issue that should concern any architect be tossed aside with a "not my problem". Eg: quality is everybody's concern. I get infuriated by those who would relegate design as a specialisation only to those who wear the black uniform. I see the architect as a spender of many years slowly mastering a lot.
BIM is the predominant technological agent of change but its not the only one. There are lot more pervasive technologies at work "conspiring". What I think technology is doing is blurring some traditional boundaries and shifting roles (cliche #247). Internally I see is the opportunity for democracy in the studio and people trying to force fit old ways of thinking on new paradigms. Externally for any design consultancy is its time to evaluate "where do I add value" and "where can I add value" in the entire building process.
I believe we're well past the BIM or not to BIM but rather how much will you BIM. This will play out in the "do I" & "can I" evaluation. A divide (particularly those of a "catastrophic" nature) usually conjures up a 50/50, 60/40 type scenario. I think this more in the realm of 90/10 but I am notorious for gut feel vs research. I'm not sure that this type of change is any different from many other industries and professions but it has been happening over a very long time and it as a way to go yet

Steve King said...

I am even more pleased that my blog is actually reaching people like you, on one or other bleeding edge of the profession. Thank you for your further comments. Nothing like the personal observations of someone who is actually watching the process of change in the workplace.

Anonymous said...

From a perspective of an emerging architect, the common thought is that BIM is going to transform the industry on many levels. This could be the case, and we could have the advantage of taking Architecture to a level that differs from the preceding in the 21st century – but unfortunately the BIM phase is in transition and we will have to wait a few decades or more...however the time we have here and now as young architects in the field has become daunting due to the fact the built environment industry is currently in transition into the BIM world and unfortunately, most Architectural practises are on their own.

Most engineers, contractors and owner builders are not aware of or using BIM software yet. In fact, even though it is brought up, most contractors are so accustomed to their traditional means of practice and development that they disregard the thought of “modern technology” and believe that their industry ‘can not be changed’ – this is why as emerging architects we are currently on the “bleeding edge” and stuck in the transition phase when it comes to employing BIM across project development, as stated by the American Institute of Architects in the blog post:
“ BIM Evokes revolutionary changest to Architecture” by Glenn W. Birx. http://info.aia.org/aiarchitect/thisweek05/tw1209/tw1209changeisnow.cfm

There are a multitude of benefits for managing a project from cradle to grave using BIM. These have come about through the vast array of programs available, and allow for better coordination of projects, better quality design and detailing which then leads to easier communication between architects and project managers/builders, efficiency of project development and last but not least… the decrease in man hours when detailing the job. The list goes on…

I don’t believe the question is “how much will you BIM?” but moreover… “When will BIM be accepted and commonly used amongst all industries from designers to contractors in the built environment world!?!