Sunday, March 31, 2013

Grilled Salmon in Grape Leaves and should the UK Governments’ dabble in BIM?

When a person has been working with BIM for a long time – s/he is likely to develop the habit of extensive use of allegories.
Having also fallen a victim to this phenomenon, I can only explain its lure as a less painful alternative to trying to describe relatively complex-concepts, over-and-over again, relying purely on the badly defined and highly limited field-specific jargon that is on offer.

For example, when I explain the difference between ‘informative’ and ‘instructive’ DRAWINGs I usually still get somewhere…
but, when I try to apply the same concept to digital models – I almost always draw a blank.

So, here is my analogy I use on ‘informative’ and ‘instructive’- digital models:

I ask people to visualise an expertly prepared, high quality dish!
(say a ‘Grilled Salmon in Grape Leaves with Tomato-Raisin Relish’);

This, then I say, is the equivalent of a fully defined design for a building
(i.e. the client – via the designers knows exactly what the dish will need to look like, taste like, smell like, feel like etc. etc…)

If this client then provides to an ‘unrelated chef’ a representation of this dish (building design) for the purpose of obtaining a proposal for the preparation of a dish equivalent to the ‘designed’ one this process is pretty similar to an AEC tender;

The representation can be a picture (2D) with labelled explanations on what is what, a 3D digital model of it with metadata included on each component (3+Ds) or a copy of the dish itself…
And no matter how good a quality these representations were, without a recipe, these would be ‘just’ ‘informative’ models or drawings/pictures and offer no certainty that the replica will indeed be of the same condition.

A recipe accompanying this dish (again can be in many formats, written, drawn, recorded as a Youtube video) is what will turn the ‘informative model’ into an ‘instructive’ one, making it much more straight forward to scope-, price-, plan for.
Not a guarantee for quality but a contractually much safer bet for the client.

In the 1990s AEC environment ‘explicit instructions’ were out of fashion ‘performance specification’ was the norm;
The promoters of the approach claimed, it was best to leave everything to contractors to figure out, pricing and then building jobs from loosely drawn concept designs.
They validated their approach by identifying contractors to be the ones to best know their ‘means and methods’, i.e. the true masters of their trades!

One can argue similarly, that in the dish-proposal, COMPETENT chefs would just as easily figure out what needed to be done, how and when and should be unnecessary as well as counter-productive to constrain them with overly ‘prescriptive recipes’.

Yet practice shows that this is unlikely to work – ambiguous scopes, lose instructions lead to paralysed projects more often than not. Imagine 2-3 subcontractors working from performance specifications trying to simultaneously install wall/facade/joinery systems that have no clear, unambiguous ‘skeletons’ given to them to work from. Even preparing shop-drawings would easily turn into a never-ending game of chasing each other’s tails, let alone work on site.

On the other side, it does not need to be all-or-nothing, between whether clients should prescribe or describe.
Offering ‘chefs’ (or in the AEC equivalent contractors/subcontractors) the option to come up with ‘as good/or better’ work alternatives that will still match the specs of the desired outputs by drawing on their own specific knowledge can be extremely useful for all.
However, substitution needs to be carefully managed and preceded by clear, clean, unambiguous recipes forming an explicit baseline to work from.

The company VICO has long ago figured out that ‘recipes’ can be useful to describe the non-graphical qualities of the metadata in their AEC projects.
While their recipes were initially created for the purpose of time/cost scheduling by the contractor there exists the possibility to expand them further into including ‘other instructions’ like directives on manufacture or installation.
This is at least one toolset that is able to be developed to meaningfully serve ‘instructive models’ should there be a real demand for them and I know of attempts made by various other software vendors.

So, it is safe to assume that mandating for standardised, ‘instructive models’ by any AEC client is a totally valid and in time practically feasible idea! 
In line with that thought, looking again at the UK Government’s initiatives I ask again:

Should the UK Government, as a large building owner prescribe how its buildings are designed and created?
Should it be highly specific on the deliverables expected from the various providers?
Is it heading in the right direction with the way it is mandating BIM?
Absolutely NOT.

To close off my argument I’ll return to the ‘dish’ analogy:
The UK Government is currently prescribing the spoons, the knives, the spatulas its ‘building chefs’ must use.
Oh yes, and the kitchens they are to operate in, down to the floor tiles and the specs of the ovens.
But, no word on the need of ‘instructive models’ or simply called: recipes.
As if assuming that those tasked to build-off these ‘mandated’ (information) models could easily reverse-engineer the information without the need for the instructions.

An extremely brave assumption, that is.

Understanding the difference between ‘informative’ and ‘instructive’ DRAWINGs and mandating for the second NOW would be a good first step and definitely a prerequisite to dabbling into a highly ambitious BIM approach.

Note: in this post I ignored the many challenges that the process of ‘getting a viable design together’ – or if you like, defining the ‘dish’ (building) poses in the first place, not because this issue is less relevant to the topic but because in the scheme of things, it is still less damaging:
i.e. consultants are generally still more capable to design and describe their buildings then meaningfully instruct others on how to build them.
(Design & Build schemes have their own ‘extra’ flavourings to bring into this picture too, I left them out to keep the argument as simple as possible);

Sample recipe from:

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Construction Industry Council (CIC)’s Protocol on building information modelling (BIM) is out, and the news is ALL GOOD!

I wish. Or more precisely, they wish.
They, being the CIC, the ‘architects’ of this document and its sisters, the various guides and ‘best practice’ manuals.
Also the authors of close-to-3000 links that Google offered up as a response to my inquiry on the topic.
Admittedly, I have not checked them all out individually, but the consensus is there (again) –
BIM as described by CIC is here to stay, they have the best recipes on how to do it, no worries regarding insurers, trust them…

Well’ let’s look at this insurer issue again!

What the supporting guide says is this:

“…So, the first time you enter into a contract which utilises level 2 BIM, make contact with your PI broker to ensure that they (and your insurers) are comfortable with what level 2 BIM involves and that there are no policy terms which could cause problems.
For the overwhelming majority of consultants, this will not be a particular issue and no insurance market with whom we have spoken has given any indication that level 2 BIM gives rise to significant concerns.
Similarly, no insurer has indicated that any particular “endorsement” or policy modification is required to note this activity, which although novel, is not sufficiently different from the norm to warrant any significant affirmative action from insurers….”

Maybe things are truly much better in UK than in the rest of the world I’ve been working in over the last 2.5 decades.
Maybe I’m looking at things the wrong way, from the wrong end or just being unnecessarily negative – but let’s just examine the above statement in the context of a ‘real project’ and to make it even easier, let’s assume we are operating on Level 0 (CAD drawings!) of the BIM Maturity Chart;
(i.e. what is currently industry practice)

Consider a fairly typical project:

I am the architect of a medium sized apartment building (8 stories high, 12 apartments/ floor – 100 apartments all together, including a couple of penthouse units)
As part of my IFC document-set I provide to the contractor CAD files showing the outlines of the slabs of all of the floors.
The contractor receives these CAD files and distributes them between various impacted subcontractors as well as uses them to prepare own shop drawings.
There are no figured dimensions; each party is free to ‘use’ the ‘model’ as needed.

This is excellent: In contrast to current everyday practices where often 20+ different disciplines ‘run-around’ each other’s shop drawings to find some approved physical anchors to fix their own products to – everyone will use the architect’s drawings and work in parallel.
Major savings in time and cost on offer and we are only talking Level 0 BIM!
Pull that up to Level 2 and the savings will be enormous!

Or, will they?
We could ask a number of practicing architects to run past their PI-insurer the idea that from now on, they will provide no dimensioned drawings, just ‘Level 0 BIM/CAD’ files for construction.
Would the insurers really say, ‘please, be my guest? After all, it is all in line with the CIC protocols’…

Or would they rather be laughing their heads off instead?

Feel free to call me an anti-innovation, obnoxious, party pooper.
But also, why not treat me to an explanation on, how is this idealistic, dogmatic and rose-tinted way of looking at BIM going to help anyone, anywhere doing real AEC projects?

How will it support a single contractor to accept a digital file (albeit at Level 0) provided by a consultant and use it without the worry of being sued from 3 different directions for ‘interpreting’ it wrong?
Or, even better, how will it encourage even one consultant to stop producing ‘masses of drawings by weight’ (soft and/or hard version) and take full responsibility for their design and outputs?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Why will mandating BIM do nothing to improve communication between AEC parties on projects...

...and are there alternative approaches available that might?

Many problems of poorly executed AEC projects can be traced back to uncoordinated documentation.
The blame for the latter is usually assigned to ‘inadequate communication’ between the practitioners of different disciplines and in turn the tools they use.

Bringing BIM into this, promoters of the ‘new’ BIM-approach tend to build-up their arguments based on the theory previously described and propose, that within similar circumstances ‘superior tools’ will make the SAME practitioners communicate superbly producing extraordinarily good, coordinated documents.
All else staying equal, they imply, changing the toolset will make the results significantly better.

I see this as a case of arguing from a false premise.
While the reasoning might sound totally credible to the hundreds of thousands of BIM-enthusiast of the global AEC, that are spreading it like a mantra, for me it makes little sense.

First, it attempts to re-interpret history, to cover up for other, significantly bigger issues that are holding back the industry, like widespread incompetence of its professionals and gambling-like environments for delivering projects...

It suggests that for thousands of years before BIM (and CAD!) AEC related professional-people due to their lack of access to these ‘superior tools’ were unable to communicate and deliver clash-free, coordinated buildings.

Oh, no it does not say that! – one might be tempted to counter-argue.
You can’t compare the two eras, things have changed drastically; buildings are more complex, markets more competitive...
Blah-de-dah...the works...

OK then, what if, due to some weird magic, a generation of engineers, architects, construction managers and builders of the past turned up now and we could assign them the tasks of delivering our ‘buildings of more than ever complexity’ – would they really be paralysed, unable to perform due to lack of CAD or BIM skills? Unlikely;

What I know from historical research, a lot of them would get on with the job and do it properly, no matter of what toolsets they had at hand.
Some would use their old and tried communication methods; others learn the new ones....

The problem is not in the tools, it is in the people, an entire industry-wide group of people that have lost (or never acquired in the first place) the ability to deliver projects successfully.

There ARE exceptions of course too, exceptional individuals working in the AEC, teams of them, even companies, but let’s not get bogged down with them on this particular issue, because they are a minority by far and are usually not the ones that set the direction for the rest to follow.

My reading of the industry stands as:
The SAME practitioners that operated poorly in CAD environments will not operate well in BIM environments.
In fact, I can bet my last dollar that they would-have operated even worse in the pre-CAD environments.
Most likely, would’ve never survived under those ‘traditional’ conditions...

In my opening question, I hinted to a belief that there could be alternatives to mandating BIM that have the potential to achieve major improvements in the performance of the industry.
I’ll write about them soon and the ‘fluffy post’ from a couple of weeks ago is a good example of one.

Gaudi’s world poster: