The Potential for Advancement in AEC

Advancement—we hear about it every day.  How radical are the advancements we are making in the Architecture Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry; how fast advancements are coming; how much we have embraced advancements; which firms or companies serve as ambassadors for advancement… 

According to the Merriam-Webster definition, advancement is the act or result of making something better, more successful, etc.

How do we measure better or more successful?  Looking again at the definition of better, it’s higher in quality - more skillful - more attractive, appealing, effective, useful, etc. And successful: having the correct or desired result - ending in success.

According to these definitions, it is evident that we are advancing: We create attractive buildings that are useful and “end” in success. One can even win an award for building design or construction quality.

Yet these are subjective determinations; we do not yet have a simple, quantifiable measurement for advancement. And such determinations can be relative to a person, company/firm or project team. 

For example, when we want to advance within our organizations, we have to demonstrate that we are productive.  If we are not productively adding value to our company, we will not advance.  So should productivity be a measurement for advancement? 

For all of our sakes, let’s hope not.  Because according to U.S. Department of Commerce data, the construction industry has not become more productive in the last 50 years—an accomplishment made even more disconcerting when compared to other non-farm industries, which more than doubled their respective productivities. 

Productivity in and of itself isn’t a fair quantitative measurement because our work has changed, and quite dramatically. We must recognize that building projects today are more complex and require bigger teams to complete them, while at the same time project budgets are tighter and schedules are shorter than they used to be. 

Yet we still think we can build projects the same way we always have. An architect designs and draws the building, a contractor builds the building, and an owner lives with the building.

I submit that this “paradigm change” is the main reason our industry’s overall productivity appears to have gone in the wrong direction. We have just started to address these added complexities by utilizing technology, teaming for the design and construction of a building, and changing the way we think about a facility overall. 

In most industries, the answer to becoming more productive lies in the use of technology.  And the same should prove true for the AEC industry.

This is a very exciting time to be in the AEC industry because we have never seen more ability to change and grow. It is a time with the potential for great advancements in many ways.  Our technology is advancing in ways we would never have thought imaginable—such as visualization capabilities, analysis accuracy, and even the speed with which it functions. 

When we switched to computer-aided design, it was just a shift in the tool we were using to do the same job.  You would draw a line with a computer instead of drawing it with a pencil. 

Now we are building our buildings virtually.  We are coordinating them fully before in-field physical construction even starts.  These changes allow for pre-fabrication within construction.  The ability to do these things would not be available to us without the use of Building Information Modeling (BIM).

The owners have to see and understand what their space will look like to allow us to pre-fab parts of the building. They will not have the opportunity to walk through the construction site and ask for more outlets in the wall—or move the medical gases to different locations in the headwall—when they see the rough-ins and get a better understanding of the physical space.  They have to have this understanding of their space early to allow us to fabricate and install quickly and efficiently. 

The use of BIM for design and construction has started us on a road to collaboration the likes of which we have never experienced before.  The designers want the input from the construction team, the people who know how the building will physically go together.  The contractors want a better understanding of the design intent so they can achieve it.  The team, design and construction, is excited when they can come up with a new innovative way to achieve the design intent that saves the project time or money.  Working together, they are more likely to come up with these innovations because they bring different skills to the table as well as different ways of thinking.

Teaming does not have to mean Integrated Project Delivery; it doesn’t have to be contractual.  It can be a “way of doing things.”  We are teaming, contractually or otherwise.  We hear about “IPD-like” projects happening every day.  These project delivery methods/approaches are a step in the right direction.  I have listened to many architects comment that they do not dread going to job meetings anymore.  They do not feel the contractor will point at them and say they didn’t know what they were drawing or that they messed up.  Teams are no longer asking who is at fault in a job meeting.  They are working for the better of the project, and the question has become, “How do we fix it?”  The more teaming becomes the way of construction, the better the buildings we provide to owners and end users. 

Another advancement taking place is recognition within our industry that our work is not complete when the Architecture/ Engineering/Construction portion is complete. Rather, we’re now looking at operations of the building. 

Estimates show that initial building cost, design, and construction represents only 15 percent of total building cost.  So designing and constructing a facility for the long term is where true savings—some 85 percent of overall building cost—will be recognized.

To truly advance as an industry, we must consider long-term operations. We can’t just build it and walk away. 

Expanding operations is where we will realize true advancement.  Until we consider operations and facilities management of the building during the entire project—before we start design—we will not be able to fully realize our advancement potential. 

This means we have to educate our building owners on the need for BIM standards that incorporate their facility management needs. 

I believe that as an industry, we are recognizing this fact.  In signing up for Autodesk University classes this year, I noticed that a much larger portion of classes are addressing FM needs.  I also noticed how quickly these classes filled up.  We are all thriving for knowledge in this area, so we are interested in this advancement. 

We must quit viewing construction of a building as the end game.  The building itself is just the beginning.  We will truly advance when we share knowledge and information gained during design and construction that can be used for the life cycle of the building.

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