BIM - the Architects' Trojan Horse

Peter Barda , 17 September 2015

Peter Barda argues that BIM offers a way for architects to regain their role as trusted advisor.

Recently – with about 60 seconds notice – I was asked to make some observations about the future of architecture at a staff meeting of an architectural practice. I have since had time to think through the ideas I shared then, and to order them a tad more logically. Here goes.

Let’s begin with a proposition from George Santayana: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Apart from a few years as a labourer in a smallgoods factory, I’ve spent most of my forty-some years working life in and around the construction industry. There have been many changes in the way the industry operates over that time. Some have been for the good, others not so good. Three stand out.

First, the level of trust between client, designer, and constructor has, at best, declined. A simple but effective measure is the size of consultancy and contract agreements. As a young lawyer I learnt the ins and outs of the then-most common form of construction contract, the E5b, a standard form published by the Master Builders Federation of Australia (MBFA) and the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA). Unless memory has entirely failed me, it ran to about 40 pages. Special conditions to deal with project or site specific matters rarely exceeded that number of additional pages. Compare that to the plethora of contract forms regularly encountered by practitioners now, their length and complexity. It’s not a favourable comparison.

Second, the role of the architect as the client’s principal and trusted adviser has been degraded. Forty years ago the architect was commonly responsible for design, documentation, procurement and construction supervision, and contract administration. Project managers, lawyers, and probity advisers/auditors now seem to share all but the design and documentation roles. Fees have been reduced to nerve-wrackingly low levels – not only for architects, but also for engineers and project managers.

Thirdly, technology has enabled great improvements in efficiency and accuracy in design, and in speed of communication – 3D, 4D and 5D design tools, email communication, teleconference and video conference capability at low cost, no more smelly die line printers. The smallest firm can sport web pages promoting its work and capability. BIM enables architects to anticipate and address coordination issues, clashes, ingress and egress issues, shading and climate concerns, and of course plan for efficient buildability. The power of BIM to revolutionise asset management is only just being realised.

So, what caused the first two changes, and what opportunities does the third wave of changes offer architects?

The industry standard contracts that dominated the market in the 1960s and 1970s were developed by the representatives of constructors and architects to the exclusion of clients and were, at best, self-serving. The hyper-inflation of the 1970s, militant unions’ industrial warfare and the subsequent collapse of several large contractors hurt clients – badly. The providers of capital were subjected to the consequences of industrial warfare and were left exposed to the commercial costs of the attendant disruption by inadequate contracts on the other, until the late 1970s.

Clients realised that the existing standard form contracts did not protect them. Public-sector building clients began to develop their own forms of contract in the 1970s, followed by private sector involvement in industry standards later in the decade.

The mistrust bred during this time was to contribute significantly to the marginalisation of architects in their role as project managers, and the much greater involvement of lawyers in the construction process. Litigation and arbitration more frequently attended the completion of projects. Construction law moved from being a legal backwater to a thriving growth area in legal practice.

A key change to industry standard and other construction contracts – argued for by clients from the late 1980s onwards, and fiercely opposed by representatives of the profession – was the splitting of the role of the architect as both contract administrator and adjudicator. Clients argued that it was inappropriate for the person designing and documenting the work to also adjudicate on claims for variations and extensions of time arising from that design and documentation.

The resistance of the profession to splitting the roles, leaving the architect to design and document, was in my view a mistake. Architects had then an opportunity to recast how contracts were administered to split out the adjudication role, leaving them to administer contracts. By not doing so, they encouraged project managers to market themselves as impartial contract administrators and adjudicators. Clients took them on in that role, cut the fees paid to architects, and watched appreciatively as project managers, many of them former contractors, set about protecting themselves by adding layer upon layer of risk averse provisions in construction contracts. This degrading of the role of architects was accentuated with the introduction and widespread adoption of design-and-construct contracts, with the architect initially engaged by the client being novated to the main contractor.

The outcome? The contractor has every incentive to ‘value manage’ the design, code for cheapening the quality of its components. The client loses quality and dependability. The architect loses the role of trusted adviser, interested in the long-term functionality of design and the services or benefits the completed work delivers to end users.

Sorry architects, but you’ve been commoditised.

There is however, another opportunity for the profession – or at least for individual firms – to seize the initiative, and go back to the future. If there’s one thing a client wants above all else, it’s predictability. BIM, when applied comprehensively from option development to asset management, has the capacity to provide clients with long-term surety of outcomes. It’s the perfect twenty-first century Trojan horse, enabling the reinsperson to quietly and persuasively show clients there is a better way to deliver predictable outcomes.

5D BIM minimises the risk of unpredictable time, cost and function outcomes, and provides critical asset management data to enable the client and end users and investors to anticipate asset performance, and before a hole is dug. Even with design construct contract strategies, the consequences of poor potential substitutions on cost grounds can be demonstrated.

Who should be the trusted, principal advisor in charge of this tool? You. Go get that role back.

Peter Barda is CEO of the Australian Construction Industry Forum (ACIF).