Loraine Elyse DeBelser

Loraine Elyse DeBelser, AIA
Technical Director – AE Content
GRS | Corteq

I recently had the opportunity to attend the annual American Institute of Architects expo in Atlanta—and it was a truly amazing experience.  AIA Convention 2015 is one of the largest gatherings of architecture and design professionals in the world—with nearly 800 exhibiting companies representing software and technology, energy efficiency, building systems, finishes and more.

Building Information Modeling (BIM) was the most-repeated phrase of the event. “Get with it, or get out of the business,” was the unspoken message of the show.  BIM has come of age.

BIM is the evolution of design and preparing construction documents. Instead of drawing lines on paper, or using a mouse to draw lines on virtual paper (CAD), BIM creates drawings by creating groups of “objects.” Each of these objects has a host of metadata, including size, exact dimensions, cost and can also include data about engineering strength, performance, etc.

These are often referred to as 5-D objects. Some can be as complex as an HVAC unit, or as simple as a single bolt. BIM drawings are three dimensional, and are exact, full-scale replicas of the building proposed. When the documents are complete, most contractors can pull exact costs and quantities off the documents and propose tight completion schedules.

The creation of a building is no longer Design/Bid/Build. The contractor and designer are often chosen at the same time and must work together throughout the process to both create and value engineer the project. During that endeavor, some systems can go out early to the subcontractors (think steel fabricators) to start work on the project. The BIM process saves the owner months in design and construction, takes contingency down to single digits, means very few problems that require change orders and field resolution, and saves the contractor and owner a great deal of money, as there is little or no waste. There’s not much advantage to the architect other than fewer trained staff to complete a project, with emphasis on “trained.” And training is expensive.

This not only applies to new construction but also to remodeling and retrofitting: instead of sending out a team with tape measures and paper, they are sent out with laser scanners that create 3-D documentation of as-built structures, right down to that nick in the wall. There are even companies that scan historic buildings to create “objects” that can be reused for other new design projects.

The message for architects is the same one that I heard rumblings of back in the mid 1990s:  “Contractors are eating your lunch.” In the late 90s, it was: “Contractors are beginning to eat your lunch.” Now it’s: “Contractors have already eaten almost all of your lunch, and you’d better do something about it or go without.”  In other words, get with BIM, or you will only be doing tiny residential remodels in three years!

My guess is that the best architects will either be working with contracting firms or will die out within the next five to 10 years. Design will always be important, but it will be done by or through contracting firms (as most design is done now).

The bigger contractors, like DPR in California, are positioning themselves as Design-Build-Manage.  They are preparing life cycle estimates when the buildings are built, and are taking on the life-cycle management as well.

Will these contractors eventually be who lenders go to for PCA work?  What do you think?