Please Don’t (Just) Blame the Tech
While traveling home I read “Software That Should Be Unifying the AEC Industry Is Impeding Progress and Innovation” by Carl Galioto, president of HOK, and it inspired me to crack open the computer on the plane instead of finishing the last episode of Ozark I was halfway through from the first flight. If you know me, you know that's some crazy stuff: I can't start a book, TV show, or movie without finishing it in one sitting (which leads to some epic late nights on some books). So this article clearly got me worked up.
Now, to be clear, it is a well-written article that makes some great points and highlights some of the challenges facing our industry as a whole with current software solutions. I love some of the observations, in particular this quote that got me out of my seat, shouting hallelujah:
"If we think of software and technology as tangential to the “real” problem of creating buildings, then we have lost. It is essential that we think of technology as the means by which the art, science and craft of building is achieved in a collaborative and holistic environment that bridges the AEC industry."
Preach it, Carl, preach it! So I highly recommend you read it and share your own thoughts about it. Ultimately, I agree with probably 90 percent of the article's content. At the detailed level, I've felt those pains as a user, BIM manager, VDC director, and purchaser of the products we have to choose from. But scattered throughout the observations and frustrations that I so completely relate to is a tone of blame that just broke my heart. This bit is the most obvious:
"We cannot wait for the software vendors to develop better tools. We must demand more from them..."
Basically the last three paragraphs are a call to action to "demand" vendors provide the tools to lead our industry to the promised land of integrated data systems and integrated delivery. Because clearly it is the vendors that are withholding said software and preventing the industry from moving forward. Right...
Why, Carl, WHY? Our industry is already plagued with a “blame the other guy” mentality. It is a cold day in hell when a prominent industry leader stands up and says, "It's our fault. We screwed this one up, and we need to fix it." Mad props to the few who have! Instead, I almost always hear: "The Contractors screwed up the estimate." or "The Architects gave us crappy drawings." And so on. I'm just sick of it. And, while this article started so well, it ultimately ends up pointing the finger of blame squarely at technology and the software and hardware vendors that make it. Oh well...
Now, you may be thinking: "Who are you to talk, Kelly? You work at a software vendor. #bias dude..."
But hey, I worked at the Beck Group for 10 years, and Beck has gone farther than most firms by functionally combining an architecture firm and a construction company into a single operational business. So we constantly struggled against the software not supporting the level of cross-discipline collaboration that we desperately needed. I have been in Waltham and Manchester (The Gracelands of Revit) talking to Anthony Hauk and Jim Lynch ad nauseam about why they need to fix this. I'm all for fixing it. But, there's a really really really ugly reality—the BIG problem—that this article glosses over in a single sentence. ONE SENTENCE:
"We live with it every day and fully realize how contractual barriers limit software interoperability and the efficient flow of information."
Come on, Carl! So you want us to build software that you contractually can’t use?? I’m pretty sure that’s going to be a flop. When cloud-based project information management systems came out, everyone complained that they needed an on-site disconnected version for their government jobs because they couldn't use web-connected systems on those projects. They didn't all jump up and down shouting, “Hooray, let's stick it to the man!” When umpteen companies created tools to share models between the contractor and the architect, guess who used them? Almost no one, because the contracts don't recognize BIMs or 3D models of any kind as contract documents.
When BIM 360 got that awesome feature to automatically print drawings to PDF when the model changed so the contractor would have up-to-the-minute updated drawings, everyone in the industry looked gleefully at each other and whispered #awkward behind their hands because (GASP) until it has been approved for construction by the owner, the contractor would be financially at risk if they used them. So, without further ado, in direct response:
Carl, I work at a company that is trying to solve two of the many remaining problems that prevents the vertical construction industry from reducing the rampant waste that comes from mistakes and miscommunication—and that means our software that straddles the silos you so eloquently lament. We're doing what you're demanding, and let me tell you it is a really tough row to hoe.
We make software that helps automate the process of generating 3D models and BIMs from reality capture data. Our software can cut in half (or more!) the time it takes to turn a laser scan into a useful as-built model to serve as an accurate basis of design.
Let's face it, this is a HUGE problem plaguing adaptive reuse projects. In a perfect world, architects and engineers would be falling over themselves trying to buy our software. We'd be fighting off hordes of angry, credit-card-wielding studio zombies who want to work 40-hour weeks instead of 60-hour weeks. But, in reality, the #1 thing I hear from A and E prospects is:
"That isn't our contractual responsibility; we don't want to take on any liability for the as-built drawings to be correct."
If that wasn't awful enough, I even got this lovely addition recently:
"If we use your software we're worried it implies a level of accuracy that will put us implicitly at risk."
We also make software that allows the kind of quality management practices that have only existed in high-end manufacturing in the past. If you have a coordinated model that you're using as a basis for fabrication and installation in the field, and have a site team capable of running a laser scanner, we can automate the comparison of a laser scan to a 3D model to such an extent that you can check 100 percent of the installed work in the same time it used to take to spot check 5 percent of said work using traditional methods.
So basically, we made software that can provide an extremely efficient path to fine-grained progress tracking, validation of conformance to specs, and ultimately establish accountability for the trades to follow the coordinated model. This conveniently short circuits the massive issues we have in turning over accurate as-built drawings and models to our owners. After all, if it is built in the intended spot, the shop drawings ARE the as-builts. So surely, we'd need razor wire and Blackwater private security at the gate at all our conference appearances to manage the unruly mobs of general contractors desperate to buy our kit to solve all their problems! HA! And don't call me Shirley! Instead, the most common thing I hear is:
"Well, if the owner found out how much stuff was wrong we'd be out of a job."
"Quality is really the subcontractor's responsibility, and we don't want to take on that risk."
"We make most of our money through change orders; this would basically eliminate most of our profit on construction jobs."
That's my personal favorite. But I shouldn't be surprised. One of my first times working with ClearEdge3D to try and implement EdgeWise at Beck, I had to explain that since some of our scan-to-BIM service work was on negotiated hourly rates set in advance that we would never use EdgeWise on those jobs because it would cut our revenue in half (or worse!). So I’ve seen it from both sides.
Are there firms that find ways to apply our technology to their operations without crossing the legal demilitarized zones that exist between disciplines? Of course! (I still have a job, after all!) Are there firms that leverage unique business models to get around some of those DMZs and use our technology more effectively as a result? Of course! But I can't tell you how much of a battle each and every initial sale is, despite our active customers' willingness to unabashedly interject into private conversations to rant and rave about how amazing our software is once you realize how much time it can save you.
So here's the reality. Our industry is sick. Fifty shades of grey perverse. And, 95 percent of that weird, nasty, adversarial S&M stuff we live with day to day as our "normal operations" in this business comes from our contracts. Those standard contracts upon which most contracts are based (in the US) are authored by the AIA and the AGC. And, this isn’t unique to the US. The truth is:
"WE DID THIS TO OURSELVES!"
It took us 75 years to screw things up this bad, but by George we did it! Hip, hip, hooray!
Technology companies are FAR more agile than our AEC firms when it comes to adjusting their strategies to changes in the industry; even "uge" ones like Autodesk or Bentley. Like, an order of magnitude more agile. "We" (the royal "we" meaning "technology companies") can shift gears in months, not years. Technology companies are also driving some of the changes in formats and standards (IFC, E57, etc...); we're closely engaged in industry think-tanks; we're sponsoring and leading initiatives in industry organizations like the AIA, AGC, CSI, USIBD, etc; we're driving the use of the cloud to enable collaboration; we're working to change contracts and legal language to make new technologies possible to use on highly secure projects through certifications and other programs. Are we doing it in a somewhat self-serving way? Sure. We're businesses. Our job is to make money (something the architectural profession seems to have forgotten at some point in the distant past). But, we ARE pushing the industry forward in ways we believe we can influence ourselves.
It's not like we're your over-protective bro who’s holding you back from a fight to defend your girlfriend's honor at some crappy bar in the middle of nowhere. We might, however, be your bro that you asked in advance to make a show of holding you back so you didn't actually have to fight, but your girlfriend would still be impressed because you "stood up for her." That seems like a way more accurate (although still totally misogynistic) analogy in this situation. Fortunately, in this analogy your “girlfriend” is the owner. You know, the ones with all the real power and money in this scenario. So don’t get too upset at me for using it. It works because we’ve all seen that jerk at a bar playing like he’s going to beat someone else up because they said something they shouldn’t have; but then keeps hitting some invisible wall every time he puffs up and thrusts himself at some other dude.
“Hold me back, Bro!”
Also, "we" ARE providing tools that break down or bridge the silos. Those tools exist. They exist in the applications your firm and every other design or construction firm worth noting is using. For instance: You do realize that C4R can allow contractors and architects and engineers to work collaboratively on the same BIM all at the same time, right? How's that for breaking down silos? But the industry doesn't use silo-busting (or silo-ignorant) functionality because it is contractually off limits. So, that functionality sits there like Beatrix Kiddo in a coma as its muscles atrophy and companies move on to find other less-silo-busting uses for the technology they built. Unlike in “Kill Bill,” it never wakes up and busts in Buck's head with a door, steals his inappropriately named vehicle, and drives off into the sunset to exact revenge on the baddest posse of assassins that Quentin Tarantino could imagine. That's not reality. In the real world, the architects, engineers, and contractors get together and hire a bunch of lawyers to see to it that it never wakes up evil “pirate-nurse” style.
We don't live in a "Field of Dreams" industry unburdened by regulation or standards where if the technology company builds it, "they" will come. We work in one of the most highly regulated industries (by volume of regulation) that exists. I've seen countless start-ups and big-company initiatives go bust in the last 15 years because they ignored that constricted reality and dreamed too big in their own silo-busting, industry-disrupting ways. Technology companies could build the coolest, most integrated, most open technology infrastructure possible—invest billions in making something truly revolutionary that could bring our professions into the 21st century (and beyond!)—and they'd go bankrupt doing it because no one would be there to use it. Just a cool product sitting in a cornfield with no one to play ball…
But Kevin Costner would be so proud!
So, Carl, while I whole-heartedly agree with your frustration, your observations, and your desire to change the status quo, it isn't the vendors of our software and hardware that the industry needs to focus our demands for change upon. "WE" (everyone in and adjacent to the AEC industry including owners, designers, builders, fabricators, suppliers, etc.) should be focusing our demands upon our own industry organizations to not only support, but to enable this change.
All of us (including technology vendors) share blame for the mess we're in. Our technology is absolutely a speed bump on the road to industry nirvana, but that speed bump sits behind a Great Wall of China-sized edifice made of decades of risk-averse contracts, disclaimers, court precedents, and God only knows what else our industry "advocacy" groups' hired lawyers piled up to point the fingers of blame in so many directions no one can figure out who's blaming whom when projects go wrong. I've been brought in as an expert witness on litigations—and it is like an Abbott and Costello "Who's on first" comedy act—but somehow disturbingly sad at the same time.
Let's demand that those same groups (like the AIA and AGC) start dismantling that wall so we can all individually get back to what we presumably got into this industry to do in the first place:
Making amazing places, and making a reasonable amount of money doing it.
Once we knock down that so-big-you-can-see-it-from-space barrier, then by all means let's grind down that speed bump Autodesk and others have put in our path by letting their interoperability and multidisciplinary collaboration efforts atrophy. But just removing the speed bump isn't going to do a damn thing by itself, and that's why I wanted to cry at the end of the article. Over-simplification is a skill required for any decent architect to succeed, but that doesn't mean it should be over-employed when all it does is obfuscate the real challenges that something as small as a project or as large as an entire industry currently face.
On the bright side (sarcasm), if we don't fix it ourselves, WeWork, Katerra, and other developer/owner/operator led vertical integrations will just eventually push traditional AEC firms to the undesirable margins of the industry, leaving only the rare starchitect (a thing), starengineer (barely a thing), and starcontractor (totally not a thing) to carry on the banner of our professions as a stand-alone service to the universe. Huzzah! Alas, that is probably the most likely outcome at this point. It will take decades to come to pass, but make no mistake—that is a train coming toward you in the tunnel. It isn’t moving fast, but it is coming whether you’re ready for it or not.
But, hey, that's all my unsolicited opinion on rhetorical display. (Grandiloquent, even?) Take it with a grain (or entire ocean's worth) of salt as you see fit. And no, dear reader, I don't know Carl from Adam, but sometimes it is fun to talk to people you don't know and who aren't there as if they were listening. Or maybe I'm crazy. Or both. One thing's for sure—one-sided arguments are always easier to win. ;-)
See you around the blogosphere, C-train! (my new rapper nick-name for my buddy Carl!)
Word. (was used to author this before copying it to LinkedIn)
Kelly Cone, LEED AP, is Vice President of Product Management for ClearEdge3D Inc. In his words: “I am passionate about process and technology innovation and how they can change industries and people's lives. My education is in architectural design and documentation, but my experience within the AEC space is far more varied. I have implemented various practice technologies into design, estimating, and construction teams and workflows; worked on amazing projects such as the SaRang Global Ministry center in Seoul as a designer, and Renzo Piano's addition to the Louis Kahn Kimbell Art Museum as a contractor; and have had the privilege of growing and leading one of the most talented VDC & Process Innovation teams in the industry. Those experiences have taught me there is a better way to create our built environment, and I want to make that way become a reality. As a first step in that journey, I have joined ClearEdge3D to help them develop the tools necessary for design and construction firms to get the most out of reality capture within the AEC industry; with the goal of closing the gap between the virtual and real world.”