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When it comes to building design, architects and engineers don’t always see eye-to-eye.
Cody Tharpe, Principal of Tharpe Engineering Group, recently asked a very simple, yet poignant question: why can’t architects and engineers just get along?
Noting that structural engineers are often seen as a “necessary evil” in the grand scheme of a project, Tharpe observes, “Sure, architects, builders, developers, and owners understand that they have to have our seal and signature on their drawings in order to comply with building code requirements and ultimately to get their building permits. But I don’t believe the value of what we have to offer is realized.”
Engineers tend to be concerned about architects’ lack of structural understanding, their tendency to delay asking for structural advice until it’s too late, and their perceived disregard for design collaboration. Conversely, architects are consistently frustrated by what they view as engineers’ lack of innovation and unwillingness to engage with architectural design ideas.
These tensions notwithstanding, as Tharpe sees it, the two groups “have more in common than they don’t,” as “architectural design and structural design are meaningless without each other.” In light of the promise of the cutting-edge technologies emerging from the virtual design and construction (VDC) movement, Tharpe’s optimism is not without foundation.
In its outline of what a collaborative design process should look like, a report by a consortium of New Zealander architects and engineers explains, “Collaboration involves the design disciplines working together, sharing knowledge, learning from each other, and, by that, designing a building that reflects a professional consensus.”
This kind of continuous knowledge-sharing has, until recently, been rather difficult. Considering how many parties are typically involved in a construction project — not only architects and engineers but contractors, subcontractors, developers, owners, and so on — ensuring that everyone is working with the same information can be nearly impossible.
It’s not unusual for dozens of versions of a design to be in circulation at any one moment, meaning even those eager to collaborate are stymied by inconsistent plans and incomplete information. This has become such a persistent problem that Construction Industry Council CEO Graham Watts believes that “the biggest enemy of the construction industry was the arrival of email. Two parties would make amendments to the drawings but they wouldn’t tell anyone else.”
This is why building information modeling (BIM) represents such an important shift in the AEC industry. By providing data-rich 3D models hosted in a common data environment, BIM solutions enable architects and engineers (and every other stakeholder) to access and share up-to-date designs from anywhere and at any time.
When paired with a virtual reality (VR) platform, a BIM model affords architects and engineers the ability to refine designs in real-time — even if they’re separated by thousands of miles — and literally show one another why any given detail needs to be included. It also allows engineers to work on a design in a virtual format that mimics the actual size of the structure, making it easier to explain why certain architectural features don’t align with engineering needs. This greatly increases the likelihood that a design will be the product of “professional consensus” as opposed to one party’s unwavering agenda.
BIM has been a buzzword for years now, but it’s more than just a tech pipe dream. Not only has it been proven to increase project efficiency, but it also allows for accurate cost estimating and virtual scheduling and sequencing. And who would say no to decreased costs, faster timelines, and better communication?
While robust BIM adoption in the U.S. is still somewhat behind the curve, encouragingly, many AEC firms are recognizing the communication gap inherent to AEC processes, and understanding that BIM offers a workable solution. According to a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit, when asked what factors constitute the biggest hurdle to improving productivity, 32% of AEC firms highlighted “poor communication and collaboration” among project partners. Only “lack of investment capital” was a more common answer.
When asked what technology or management strategy they believed would have the greatest impact on improving productivity in the AEC industry over the next three years, 36% of firms cited “virtual design and construction (VDC)/building information modeling (BIM),” making it the most frequently mentioned solution. This study strongly suggests that many AEC firms believe BIM will play a pivotal role in the future of the industry, and if this indeed comes to pass, Tharpe’s optimism will, in retrospect, seem particularly sagacious.
Getting architects and structural engineers to “play nice” is first and foremost an issue of improving communication and collaboration. BIM and other VDC technologies are specifically designed to foster these very principles, from pre-design all the way through final construction.
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