How Important Is Collaboration?

When employees are asked what their biggest complaint with their company is, a large percentage of the time they say it is a lack of communication.  In the world of BIM, we have a similar issue, but we tend to call it a lack of collaboration.

The Definitions

To better understand this concept, one must know the definitions.  Communication is the imparting or exchanging of information or news.  Collaboration is the action of working with someone to produce or create something.  Based on these definitions I would say we can’t have one without the other.

In preparing this article I did two things.  First I asked my coworkers, people who do the same thing I do on a daily basis, to share their definition of collaboration. Below are bits and pieces of what was sent back to me.

 “A concerted effort by a group that either results in a sharing of the work load more evenly or culminates in an output that is better in some measureable combination of cost, schedule or quality.”

 “Additionally having an open-minded disposition and a willingness to compromise are key factors.” 

Second, I went to social media to get additional thoughts from outside of our industry. Some of those responses:

“Working with an individual or team that is outside of your expertise to complete a project.”

“Working together utilizing an individual’s skills and expertise to achieve or accomplish a common goal.”

“Bringing all your ideas together so that you come up with a well thought out and a well-rounded plan.”

“A joint venture.”

These are all very good definitions and they make it clear that whether you are working in the design industry or are a stay-at-home mom, you have the same basic opinion of collaboration.

Why Don’t We Collaborate?

We understand that communication and collaboration are critical to delivering a good project, so why don’t we do these things?

Is it because each discipline finds that their work is more important than the others?  Is it because many disciplines work as sub-consultants on the project and don’t feel the same sense of ownership?  Or is it easier to just focus on your discipline and not worry about any other interactions from the other disciplines?  Let’s look at each of these reasons.  For the purpose of this article I am going to talk about the main disciplines of architectural, structural, and MEP.

Often, it seems that each discipline finds that its work is more important than the others.  I have heard it and witnessed it from all disciplines.  Architectural disciplines control the overall design and function so their work is the most important.  The structural disciplines are the ones who support, literally, the vision of the architects so that makes their work the most important, and MEP makes the design and function habitable, and because of that they are the most important.  In reality, if any one of these disciplines fail you cannot complete a project, so each group is just as important as the others.

Ownership of the project is a big part of collaboration.  Depending on the type of project and how the contracts are written, the other trades often work for the architect.  When this is the case it can be easy to lose the sense of ownership of the project as you may not have direct interaction with the owner of the project.  If you are working as a sub and your issues and concerns are glossed over, it becomes difficult to want to collaborate and communicate with the other teams. If your sub-consultants aren’t supporting the project, then the project suffers.

My wife and I recently bought a new home and when we did our final walkthrough we witnessed the concept of a trade looking out for themselves and only focusing on their own work.  There was a rather large hole in our master closet in the drywall and the trim carpenter placed his trim right over it—it was obvious that the hole was there before the trim went in.  This is how the trades often work. One trade was done first so you will have to work around them, no matter what effect it has on the project.  Again, if we work together from the start, these type of issues can be avoided in most cases.

How to Start Off on the Right Foot

“We just don’t have time to have a BIM kick-off meeting!” or “We didn’t figure into our price a BIM kick-off meeting!”  I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that phrase come from a project lead’s mouth.  Talk about setting up your project to fail from the very beginning!

If we aren’t setting goals and expectations up front, before the project starts, we may as well not collaborate at all on the project.  I have witnessed these meetings done poorly, where it is run like a dictatorship and you aren’t allowed to have an opinion or question the process.  I have also seen these meetings run really well, but follow-through wasn’t done well, which cancelled out the good meeting.

What makes a good kick-off meeting?  Short and to the point is probably the biggest key.  There isn’t any reason to drag it out and make it a long meeting.  It is a good time for each team to get to know the lead from each discipline, which is why having the right people at these meetings is critical. The meeting should also cover what software each group is using, what their deliverables are, and what their level of detail will be at various stages of the project deadlines.  This is also a good time to set a weekly upload schedule and location for these uploads so that everyone can be working in the most current model.  Now if you do set a weekly upload schedule, that doesn’t mean you can’t reach out earlier in the week to discuss issues and request or send models in between the weekly uploads.

Figure 1: Benefits of BIM

How to Continue Walking in the Right Direction

In a perfect world, everything would fit together like a great puzzle, but we know we don’t operate in that world.  We are going to have walls that interfere with structure, windows that go in front of columns, HVAC penetrations that interfere with joists and lights, plumbing that clashes with other items in walls and ceilings, and so on.  The idea of working a BIM process is to catch these things up front and not in the field when time is of the essence. 

Clash detection is a critical step of a BIM process and a key part of collaboration.  If we all work in our own bubble and place our items where we want them with no consideration of the other disciplines, we severely handicap the project.  If we are following a clash detection schedule, then we should be able to resolve issues in a timely manner.  But to make these meetings the most effective, you need to have a good schedule and timeline of what disciplines will be where at which point in the game.  Otherwise you can clash, but if there isn’t anything in that space it isn’t beneficial.

Ongoing discussion is also part of the clash process.  We don’t have to wait until there is a scheduled clash detection meeting.  If we see a major interference we should reach out to the affected discipline and have a discussion about how it can be resolved, and then issue new models with these resolutions incorporated.

In my opinion, clash detection is one of the most, if not the most, critical processes of a project.  If we aren’t going to resolve issues in the design we may as well go back to 2D design and let it be resolved in the field.  Not only will you find issues in your own design, but you see how your changes impact the other disciplines.

Figure 2: Coordination model

Is Collaboration Only People Based?

I hope the resounding answer to this question is NO!  Although it needs to start on the human level, it needs to translate to the software level as well.  We should all know that BIM is not software, but the process, and this process is designing a building collaboratively using one coherent system of computer models.

Working in the world of BIM we know that all disciplines can come to the table with a different software package to deliver these models, and until recently they only worked together in a mildly low form of functionality.  Many times the geometry was there, but the parametric data was lost.  There have been great strides for interoperability and it has been a main topic of releases each year.

I have sat in meetings where one discipline pushes for everyone to work in the same software, and although it can be ideal, it isn’t very often the best solution.  When we run a project and we are collaborating, we want each discipline to produce the best deliverable they can, and often that means using a different software.

This is a discussion that needs to happen up front before the bulk of the project is being modeled and long before model exchanging starts.  As a BIM manager there isn’t much worse than to think you are going to receive one type of file and get something completely different, or even worse, something only in 2D.  If we discuss expectations up front, we should be able to come to an agreement of what will be exchanged and what works for all parties involved.

So Collaboration Isn’t Just Human, but also Involves Software…Anything Else?

I am glad you asked!  If we are going to work in a 3D design world in our BIM process, why isn’t more of our existing information in some form of 3D?  We need to collaborate with our existing conditions when we are doing renovations and additions.

I recently saw a reply from someone who was asked if they utilize any LiDar scanning in their existing takeoff process.  His response astounded me and shows me the lack of understanding of how far the technology has come.  His process was to take his software of choice with him and shoot a laser dimension on each wall and adjust the model as needed and then he would take 3D pictures of everything in case he needed to reference where something was. 

In the same amount of time he spent doing that process he could have scanned the project and had much more data available to him than he ever could have gotten on his own.  His one comment was that if it’s scanned it still doesn’t tell you where the pipe is in the wall, which is true, but last time I checked neither do our eyes.  His second comment was he can go back to his pictures and see that something was missed and find where it was.  This is great, but wouldn’t it be better if you could then measure to this item with great ease and get an exact location?

Too many times an existing as-built model isn’t correct and many disciplines work off of the wrong information, especially when you have one discipline recording information for all disciplines. Also, multiple disciplines will often go out to field measure and all have slightly different information and nothing will ever line up.  If a LiDar scan is done, everyone can work off of the exact same information and everyone can be coordinated. 

Figure 3: 3D Refractory scan. Image Credit: LSC Design, Inc.


As we can see, both communication and collaboration are critical in the BIM process.  You really can’t have the effective use of one without the other, and without using communication and collaboration you really aren’t deploying a BIM process.

What if everyone doesn’t want to play nicely in the sandbox?  Who suffers?  First, everyone who wants to utilize this process is at a loss.  If everyone doesn’t get on board the process can never be fully completed and integrated.

Second, the project itself suffers.  There will be delays in the field, there will be a high number of RFIs, and the project schedule and costs will continue to push.

Third, the client/owner is going to suffer the greatest loss and lose trust in the design team for future work.  They expect us to be coming together for the good of the project and their vision. When we can’t collaborate and deliver a design that is well thought out and clashed, they are going to start to wonder why they are paying what they are paying.

So let’s be the ones who put the collaboration into the BIM process!  It will be better for the project and all players involved and it will result in a better product for the client.

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