March 21, 2015 │ Ray Crotty │ http://www.aecbytes.com
A drawing is a store of information. The information it contains is made up of arrays of individual lines, each representing a visible edge of the object being drawn. Each line has a point of origin and follows a discrete path for a defined length. Lines can follow paths of great variety and potential complexity. But that’s it—edges and vertices, lines and points—whatever way one looks at it, that’s all you can say with a drawing.
But more importantly, with drawings, no matter how detailed you get, you can only say approximately what you mean or intend. You depend upon the person at the other end of the conversation to complete the picture, to read your drawing correctly, and to understand it fully. And no matter how much effort you put into it, your drawings will never be unambiguously clear, fully complete, correct, internally consistent, and coordinated with other people’s related documentation. With drawings, this is simply not possible. So huge numbers of people throughout the industry spend inordinate amounts of their time checking information, guessing the true intent, getting it wrong, correcting things, making mistakes, cutting stuff out … kango hammers. All because the only way we have of designing buildings is with drawings—which produce inherently untrustworthy, unintelligent, un-computable information.
What would happen if, instead of this, the information used in construction were fully trustworthy—needing no checking—and were readily computable, as the BIM vision promises? What would happen if the operation of the construction industry were based on the use of effectively perfect information? A few things come to mind immediately.
1. Effective Competition
The single biggest problem with our dependence on drawings is in their use as the basis for the procurement of construction contracts. Effective competition, in any market, requires that the customer can specify his or her requirements accurately and in such a manner that competing suppliers’ proposals can be compared and evaluated transparently, on a true and accurate, like-for-like basis. This is almost inherently impossible to achieve using drawing based documentation. Using this type of material, the scope of work can be interpreted to mean almost anything a bidder can plausibly claim it means—which means that there is no definitive definition of the scope of work of the contract. This, in turn, means that it is impossible to eliminate predatory bidders from the contracting process. All of the bidders for a given contract know this, and know that one of their competitors may adopt a “bid low; claim high” strategy. They must all therefore bid as low as they dare, and hope to make their profit on re-interpreted work, claims, and other extras.
This behaviour eliminates the possibility of effective competition for the operations components of construction contracts. Competition amongst contractors today is mainly about the marketing and estimating skills, the commercial nerve required to win work, and the claims management skills required to make money from projects won at cost, or less. Skills in construction operations may give project teams a sense of pride and achievement, but are largely irrelevant to the survival of the firms they work for. So contractors, with no existential imperative to innovate, avoid innovation risk, and avoid investing in improved production methods. Instead, they sub-contract and sub-sub-contract, right down the supply chain to the point where subsistence level, labour only subcontractors, working in gang size firms, actually perform the bulk of the industry’s work. These organisations have neither the vision nor the wherewithal to invest in improving project delivery processes.
As a result, effective competition exists only at the top and bottom ends of the construction industry: competition of ideas amongst designers, and product competition amongst manufacturers. Everyone in between competes to win projects—they do not compete to deliver them. This is a crucial, crippling distinction.
Imagine how trustworthy, computable, tender documents might transform this situation. With perfect, complete scope definition, bidders are compelled to compete on the basis of their ability to perform the construction work. Every line item can be linked directly with a component in the model and must be priced explicitly. Every price can be compared automatically and challenged as appropriate. There are no claims opportunities, so bidders must get it right going in.
In this scenario, predatory bidding will be eliminated. Contractors will be compelled to compete directly with each other on the basis of the efficiency and productivity of their project delivery techniques. As in other markets, competition will force contractors to improve these continuously. Efficient firms will profit greatly—they will no longer be undercut by claims-hunting predators. Profit will no longer be squeezed out of the industry. Construction as a whole will become wealthier, and able at last to invest seriously in people, methods and physical capital; labour productivity will soar.
2. Manufactured Buildings
The precision and computability of model based designs enable physical components of buildings to be machine-made directly, using the data contained in the modelling systems. (as happens today with Frank Gehry’s buildings.) The idea of “tolerance” will disappear; individual objects will be manufactured with effectively perfect precision (where this is appropriate) and will be pre-assembled, equally precisely, in the factory, before being shipped to site. There, individual components and sub-assemblies will be dropped, or clipped, or slotted into place, using the sort of “click-lock” coupling techniques used in electronics and other areas of manufacturing. The key point is that no manufacturing from raw materials and no shaping operations—such as pouring, cutting, routing, drilling, bending, folding of components, etc.—will take place on site. The site becomes an assembly plant, comparable to a car assembly plant. This will be a craft-free industry.
It will also be a super-fast-track industry. Knowing that the other elements of the building have been (can only be) assembled exactly as designed, means that, instead of having to wait to check whether earlier elements have been built correctly, the manufacture of all components could, if required, commence simultaneously and proceed in parallel, as soon as the model has been completed. This has many advantages, including competitive sourcing from whatever part of the world is most appropriate. It also hugely compresses the time required for site construction.
3. Guaranteed Buildings
Just as long as guarantees are an important attraction to buyers of motor cars and other complex products, so are similar guarantees likely to drive the market for the buildings of the future. Suppliers will emerge who will offer, say twenty-year guarantees. These will cover all of the performance characteristics of a building that can be simulated and tested in a BIM model, including the maintenance performance of the fabric of the building and of the equipment within it, the building’s energy performance, and even the ease with which it can be re-configured for new uses during its lifetime. The suppliers of these buildings, like for example, Rolls Royce with its aero engines, or closer to home, the Otis Elevator Company, will aim to derive as much of their revenues from servicing the product throughout its life in use, as from the initial sale. This mode of operation will ensure that buildings of the future will be designed and built to optimise their whole life costs. It will also require that performance feedback loops become an integral part of the operation and maintenance of future buildings, ensuring that their suppliers become real learning organisations, with an inescapable commitment to the on-going maintenance and operation of their products.
Links between main contractors/assemblers and component manufacturers will be dramatically shortened. Specialist subcontractors may continue, but only as part of larger contracting organisations, or as licensed and thus guaranteed, installers of manufactured equipment or systems. Major equipment and building systems manufacturers (such as GE, United Technologies, Siemens, Permasteelisa, and so on) will perhaps become main contractors/assemblers. They know how the product design, component sourcing, and assembly processes work, as this is how they currently deal with their mainstream products such as lifts, cladding systems, switchgear, mechanical equipment, etc. Some of these firms will surely extend the range of their activities, perhaps by acquiring construction firms, to include the production and servicing of guaranteed buildings.
4. Transformed Construction with Changing Roles
In the scenario envisaged here, buildings become products; huge, complex products admittedly, but products nonetheless. And the market for buildings will be characterised by powerful, effective competitive forces, which will compel their suppliers to innovate continuously. In the wider economy, it is expected that all three of the classic factors of production—land, labour and capital—will continue to be critically scarce. Survival will require that they are combined with the finest possible judgement. However, the new factor of production—computing power—will continue to follow Moore’s law for the foreseeable future, and will continue to become cheaper and cheaper over time. So, the future we face is one of effectively perfect information, together with effectively unlimited computing power.
As a result, it is likely that anything, any human activity, that can be programmed, will be programmed—embedded in the hardware or software of computerised systems. Most other engineering-based, rules-based, industries have already been changed out of recognition by this process of digitisation. Construction will surely undergo a similar transformation.
As noted earlier, the components that go to make up a building will increasingly be machine made in factories and shipped to site for “kit of parts” assembly and installation. This is the end of craftsmanship. Highly “intelligent” programmable parametric components in modelling systems will embed their own engineering rules, so that pretty much all of the performance analysis—structural, thermal, acoustic, etc.—of almost all components, assemblies and building spaces will be carried out in BIM models, probably as part of the architectural design, that is, the product design of the building. This is the end of code engineering.
Construction is, by some measures, the largest discrete sector of the economy. It provides employment for very large numbers of men of low levels of education: craftsmen and labourers. It also employs large numbers of people who carry out routine, rules-based work: code engineers and administrators. The digitisation of construction will follow the same general pattern as was experienced in other engineering industries—massive, structural reductions in employment levels. This process needs to be prepared for urgently, by the industry and by governments. The timing of the transition from analog to digital in construction is difficult to predict accurately, but when it happens, it will happen with brutal suddenness. This is part of the process described by the American economist David Autor, amongst others, as the “hollowing out, polarisation of society” that has been observed in the US and other developed economies since the 1980s.
One of the biggest practical obstacles to effective diffusion of BIM in the industry is the lack of data exchange standards and associated protocols. The Industry Foundation Class (IFC) definitions being developed by BuildingSMART will be useful, but will probably be used mainly as an archive format. IFC is too complex, too large, and too fragile to survive in the real world of live projects. Commercial IT companies are much more likely to produce a robust solution in this situation than committees of experts.
So why not accept the facts as they are and recognise Revit (for now) as a de facto industry standard? We can allow or incentivise Autodesk to licence the Revit file format—perhaps one or two versions late—on a FRAND (Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory) basis to its competitors, and use competition law to regulate the situation. (It’s important in this to separate out the idea of data interoperability from application interoperability—how different systems store data from how they represent the behaviours of data objects. The first can probably reasonably be made public, the second probably not.)
We also need to recognise that although rich, complete exchanges of data will be required amongst the BIM authoring tools, and between them and some of the analysis packages, the same is not by any means true of the proliferation of other, simpler applications used throughout the industry. But it is essential that the wonderfully high quality of the information contained in the BIM models be maintained when transferred to and between these other applications. For this we need something simple, robust and auditable— something like the UPC or Bar code solution, for example. UPCs as such won’t work, because designers need to deal in terms of generic components, not products; so a comprehensive, extensible catalog of construction components will be required. (See the UPC / Bar Code story in Stephen Brown’s “Revolution at the Checkout Counter”—a really fascinating account of a major industry transformation from the inside.)
These are just a few of the most immediate, most obvious impacts of BIM on construction. If you doubt the power of BIM’s perfect information, just take a careful look at your local High Street. Electronic Point of Sale (EPOS) technologies (such as Unique Product Codes, Bar Codes, scanners, local computing, etc.) were introduced into the American grocery industry in the 1970s. Since then, EPOS has spread like wildfire and has dramatically transformed the way in which the entire retail sector works—right around the world. EPOS is all about generating, capturing, and managing perfect information as the basis of technical and managerial decision making. So is BIM.
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