I've just finished a couple of weeks of travel (on either end of vacation) tied together by a common theme expressed most clearly by the topic of this summer's Chicago BIMForum: "Where Does Design End and Construction Begin?" The phrasing of the question expresses the fundamental tension--that somehow design and construction are deeply separate phenomena--and implies that the distinction is really important. Is it?
Before my break I visited several firms in Seattle, including architects, engineers and even a "DBOM" (Design/Build/Operate/Manage) practice and all of them, in some way, were struggling with this boundary condition. I saw architects placing themselves directly in the connection between their design strategies for building enclosures and the fabrication of curtain walls, directing the work of the subcontractors even as their official "place" in the delivery structure was "Design Architect." One of our customers, the DBOM firm, overtly challenges and blurs the design/construction boundary and extends their reach into building operation--designing, fabricating, installing, and then operating energy systems for entire building portfolios and reveling (not to mention thriving) in their resulting span of influence and control.
My summer beach reading (no letters, please) was Mario Carpo’s The Alphabet and the Algorithm. Carpo, who introduced me to the idea that the Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti first asserted the ideas of both design modeling and the design-construction schism. In this slim text Carpo explores Alberti’s declaration that the architect’s design should be executed without deviation by the builder and that, almost six-hundred years later, BIM somehow collapses that divide once again, returning not back to the age of the “Master Builder” (forever gone in my view) but something new where roles are restructured in ways yet unknown and boundary conditions between design and construction again redefined.
At the BIMForum, a non-denominational assembly of AEC players interested in process change through technology, a series of presentations explicitly explored the demilitarized zone between design and construction. Not surprisingly, architects presenting suggested that construction in some ways was a form of design, and builders presenting asserted that construction would be better done with “better design.” One contractor colleague went so far as to posit that a solution to the divide was for architects to take design into much further detail (think shop drawings) so that construction could be commoditized into a “procure and assemble” process. There was, of course, lots of BIM enthusiasm amongst the converted, including a two presentations: “BIM Amongst Friends” suggesting that the technology was the connective tissue between willing designers and builders, and “BIM Amongst Non-Friends (Enemies?)” a skit where I played an BIM-enabled architect unwilling to cross the boundary with information desperately needed by my BIM-starved construction manager. It was just play-acting, but amazing how easy it was to fall back into a mode of self-protective, fee-protective self-interest absent any other inspiration to the contrary--despite all my alleged BIM power as the fictive architect.
Later in Chicago I observed a focus group of construction technology leaders exploring issues of BIM use in their realm. During the conversation about “BIM in Preconstruction” I was struck by two thoughts about life in the boundary condition. First, it was clear from these folks that they deeply understood the implications and possibilities of BIM even early in the design process, and that the sorts of information made possible by model-based early design gave them real entre into the conceptualization of the building. That was the good news. Not so good was the language being used: “If they would just do this, then we could do that…” and very little use of the idea of “if we did this together, then…” or “they need this to design, and we need that for construction.” This was all expressed in terms that did not at all acknowledge an understanding of the structure, flow and intent of a design process. If we’re going to blur the boundaries here there’s much work to be done across the aisle. I’m confident that a similar meeting of designers would suffer from the same asymmetrical understanding.
My trip ended in Washington with a talk to a group of leaders from architecture schools across the nation, and I took the opportunity to suggest that, despite otherwise dire prospects for employment out there right now, it was the boundary condition that provided their greatest opportunity. This generation of young building professionals brings three key characteristics needed to really, deeply address the divide: terrific digital skills, a willingness to experiment, and a complete disinterest in the rules of engagement as currently constituted. The hierarchical sensibilities of command and control brought to you by the baby boomers (and I’m one of them) are charmingly absent from these folks. Maybe it’s that willingness to look beyond those norms that will eventually make the boundary between design and construction uninteresting to the point where we just call the process “building.” One can only hope.