Leading in the Age of BIM

January 5, 2012 · by Randy Deutsch

Leading at any time is hard. Leading during turbulent times is even more difficult.

Design professionals at all levels of organizations are experiencing turbulent change due to economic conditions, disruptive technology, and increasingly collaborative work processes. When we think of building information modeling we often think of change brought about by technology, not necessarily process. But the message is clear: Firm leaders need to embrace both the technology and the process. Because working in BIM dictates its own process or workflows, leaders cannot be overly attached to old ways of doing business.

These new workflows involve collaboration. Firm leaders need to be able to tell their troops:

The introduction of BIM into the workforce has education and training implications, too — factors that impact firms and practices, especially those that hire directly out of school. These factors also affect human resources, hiring practices, recruitment, and ultimately the makeup of the firm — its organization, if not its organizational chart.

BIM Changes the Leadership Playing Field

At the beginning of most projects, a great deal of jockeying for position occurs.

While leaders are thought of as those who assume, seize, or inherit positions of authority, architects will tell you that the person with the best understanding of the design and command of communication (verbal and graphic) will lead. Contractors, on the other hand, might identify the leader as the person who is familiar with all of the major issues impacting how the project is built and is the most assertive or aggressive. Owners usually don’t care who leads as long as someone moves the process forward.

Helping a firm that works in CAD to become one that works in BIM — from where they are to where they need to go — requires leadership. Although buy-in and support from senior management are critical, they don’t compensate for the absence of leadership. BIM changes not only the technology, process, and delivery but also the leadership playing field. I asked several A/E/C industry leaders how BIM is shaping their roles as leaders and received some interesting feedback.

BIM magnifies the architect’s role as leader. Is there a special or particularly keen need for leadership working in BIM? “What BIM does is magnify the architect’s role as the leader, a role that we should always have and something that we lost due to our walking away from liability,” says architect and BIM consultant Bradley Beck. “What BIM can help us gain back is the role of leader of the design and building process. BIM enables architects to retain responsibility by having architects put information into the model and drawings and be responsible for it, something that we continually stepped or shied away from because we know it may potentially cause a lawsuit down the road. When a detail fails in the field, you first look at the drawings to see if it was shown the way it was built because then it is the architect’s fault. What BIM allows architects to do is think about the constructability of that detail when building the model of it so that it’s not going to fail. The liability is actually lessened because the detail is well thought-out in advance, assured that it’s not going to be a problem. BIM will allow us to take that leadership role.”

How important is it to have a leader on a BIM-driven project team? “Leadership is something you’ve always got to have, whether you’re working in 2-D, 3-D, or 4-D,” Beck adds. “BIM is still the tool that provides the architect with a greater leadership role in the entire process. BIM is a revolutionary tool allowing architects to truly present a complete, coordinated design solution that doesn’t require interpretation, while maximizing the architect’s role as the leader of the design and building process.”

Technology offers emerging professionals leadership opportunities. While BIM provides leadership opportunities, it is also fraught with challenges. When does working in BIM pose leadership opportunities for emerging professionals? “Only in this infancy stage that we’re in,” says Beck. “My firm is a great example of a firm where technology creates opportunities for emerging professionals. The three principals are younger than most of the design staff. I attribute that to their coming in when CAD was just becoming the standard. That provided them an opportunity to really show off their technical expertise and provide an asset to the firm that helped promote them quickly through the ranks. A number of emerging professionals have gotten promoted because of their grasp of the technology, and that came to an end when everybody eventually knew CAD. That opportunity was no longer there. As BIM permeates the industry, it will no longer provide that opportunity because everyone will be using it. Right now is the prime time to take advantage of BIM’s leadership opportunity.”

BIM consultant Aaron Greven accentuates the need for experience to ensure success: “A good example of this comes from a recent project MEP coordination meeting I attended. The meeting involved eight or nine subcontractors working on a large hospital project, all using BIM tools to coordinate their work. An engineer from the GC [general contractor] was leading the group with the project file in Navisworks on a projector. The technology was impressive, clearly showing conflicts and issues that wouldn’t have arisen otherwise. But there was a problem — no one was taking notes, no one was assigning responsibility, there was no agenda. In essence, no one was leading the meeting. This young engineer from the GC was leading because he knew Navisworks and was proficient in the technology, but he had no idea how to run a coordination meeting [and] do all the things his predecessor would have done while using the traditional light-table coordination approach. Technology alone only takes things so far. In my mind, we’re replacing project experience, the real knowledge of how to put a building together in a collaborative way, with technology users — a recipe for failure.”

Leaders determine how far you take BIM and then how far BIM will take you. What was the catalyst for a large firm such as Perkins + Will going over to BIM? “In 2006, Phil Harrison, P+W CEO, said straight up in our leadership group meeting — to all our managing directors, all our global market sector leaders, the heads of finance and IT — we’re going to be 100 percent BIM from this point forward. It was a bold statement and that’s what you’d expect the CEO to say,” says Rich Nitzsche, Perkins + Will chief information officer. “The reality is that we do have some asterisks on that statement. What we’re trying to do now is remove barriers, get rid of those asterisks. One reality is that you’re not going to convert a project that’s already well underway. Reality number two: If a client says you’re going to do it in another program, fine. Reality number three is we didn’t really have a platform that was facile enough for rapid deployment of standalone interiors groups. We didn’t want to force-feed Revit to folks with the ramp-up time that’s required.”

Technology plays a role in advancement. Those who are selected for training in BIM (not necessarily those who excelled in CAD) should have a few attributes in common: They should be intra-/entrepreneurial, self-starters, self-motivated, and show leadership potential. The last is important because the earliest adopters will be those who teach the others.

Perkins + Will follows this approach: “A couple of years ago we instituted a program called Design Technology Leaders [DTL],” says Nitzsche. “These are not IT people, they’re architects or interiors people. You overlay this role on top of your firm role with the idea that there’s some leadership credit toward your career. There’s some extra compensation and some fairly defined limits on how much time is taken over by this kind of supporting role. The DTLs would field the easy-to-answer questions, help facilitate project setup … . The offices that have done this have become much more proficient, and the DTLs have created their own communities of practice.”

“It’s exciting because they’re excellent users,” Nitzsche continues. “They want to be designers and architects first; they don’t want to be technicians. But they recognize that they’re good at it. We try to de-stigmatize it so we don’t fall back on the old CAD monkey and plot weasel modalities. I’ve had people in this office who have said that they are getting ready to quit because they’re taking their architecture away and making them the BIM monkey. Hearing that, that’s why we put a 10-hour time commitment cap per 40-hour work week. It’s a leadership shift. If you want to advance, this two- or three-year tour is part of the deal.”

Working in a BIM environment provides opportunities to lead. Until BIM is put into practice, its potential and value are unrealized. The potential and value of individuals working in your firm goes unrealized as well because BIM makes for better architects. For those who might have been floundering in CAD, BIM makes them leaders, better communicators, collaborators, and more valued and valuable employees. The BIM workflow requires that team members communicate with each other more frequently than they are used to or comfortable with. Working in a BIM environment provides opportunities to lead that may not have been there otherwise, or that may have arisen only when an employee leaves the firm or is eventually promoted.

In mandating BIM use from its vendors, the U.S. General Services Administration originally took the lead in seeing that BIM is used widely across the profession and industry. Who in the A/E/C industry will take the leadership role in the BIM process: The architect? Contractor? Owner? A third-party facilitator? “Each team needs to determine who is the best planner, innovator, problem solver, speaker, et cetera, and let them fill those, and the team is stronger for it,” says GSA’s Charles Hardy. “The same holds true here. The leadership role of BIM should be borne by the team member most capable of assuming those duties.”

Leadership today is top-down and bottom-up. The ultimate goal for the architect is to lead the process and create the ultimate BIM and integrated design experience for all involved. It is not a question of learning software. It is a question of becoming familiar with the process and how this awareness is learned and acquired.

Perkins + Will is one of the world’s largest architecture firms. How exactly does a firm the size of an aircraft carrier turn around to embark on an entirely different IT direction? “First of all, you have to have buy-in from the top,” says Nitzsche. “Phil Harrison had completely bought in to BIM. He was convinced that this is the future and this is what we need to be doing. Getting Phil on board was easy. Getting Phil and the rest of the executive leadership team on board with this — we were working from the top down and also started working from the bottom up. We could have done a better job on the bottom-up part. We’re a bit savvier now about how to build buzz. We have to communicate in so many modalities. Not just once. We have to repeat ourselves, be consistent with the message, and approach it from a lot of different angles. You need to build momentum.”

Who Leads in the Future?

Are architects better suited and positioned to lead this effort than contractors? “Architects ultimately will be the leaders of the building process,” says Beck. “BIM is just a tool that allows us to take back the loss of leadership that we’ve experienced.”

Jonathan Cohen, vice president of Brookwood Group, feels otherwise. “I wanted the architect to have this role for the industry,” says Cohen. “It’s getting late and not looking good for the architect. And frankly, IPD could turn out badly for the architect … . Architects are going to do less detailing in fewer hours and make less money unless they can exert more leadership. So IPD could turn out to be not such a great deal for architects. I’m proud to be an architect, but I’m surprised and disappointed that the profession has not taken on a stronger role in this.”

“I, along with others, have been telling architects that they need to step up and exert leadership because they are the natural party to do that. Because of their training, they know how to solve problems and they are typically involved in the project longest,” continues Cohen. “I really thought architects were the ones to do this, but it hasn’t happened so far, and frankly I’m worried.”

Before BIM, architects were seen as incomplete. Since the 1970s they had given up a great deal of responsibility to other professionals and with each passing year since have been seen as ever more tangential to the design and construction process. In some people’s view, BIM allows architects to regain some of what they lost along the way. As Winter Street Architects’ Senior Principal Paul Durand explains, “BIM has made us more complete architects, gave us a tool and brought everybody to the front of the project with us to help us do a better job. What we want to be are better architects. More complete architects.”

Durand sees BIM as offering architects an opportunity to lead the process: “BIM allows us to be better architects. It brings back the master builder model to our work where the architect is in control, masterfully bringing art and technology together. We lost control in our industry and are often considered a necessary evil while others have taken art and quality from buildings to build them simply, quickly, cheaply, and for greater profit. Today we are on the brink of a changing industry, and there is more opportunity for architects to lead again and keep architecture and quality in the building equation.”

Whether or not the architect recaptures the role of master builder, this is the architect as master facilitator or strategic orchestrator, orchestrating people and the process. By working not only with but through others, we get the most out of fellow teammates. What would architects need to do to recover a leadership role?

“My experience on the design-build side showed me just how far I believe architects have left the master builder mold behind,” says Greven. “Too often architects are washing their hands of knowing or commenting on anything to do with constructability, cost, schedule, operations, even energy. This is what added value most to architects’ services throughout history — we knew better than anyone else how best to build. I think architects are marginalizing their own usefulness by not grabbing these responsibilities back — and knowing more about their design and the impact of their decisions. BIM gives us the opportunity to know more, anticipate more, and analyze more. I think too often firms are looking at BIM as a way of drawing better but are missing the point. Architects have to reinvent how they deliver their services beyond the paper sheet. Architects can focus less on documentation (because BIM tools will automate much of it, and builders will find less value in it) and more on analysis and prototyping to improve the end product. Especially in a tight economic climate, owners are going to demand more certainty and early in a project’s life. Architects have the opportunity to do this by working with more data and sharing more information.”

A Shared Vision

Does integrated design mean a return to the role of master builder? Yes and no. No, not in that there is any one person on the integrated design team that plays this role. Yes, in that the entire team — including the core members, engineers, subcontractors, and fabricators — together form a master builder unit.

“The ability to collaborate and work productively in teams — historically subjects better left to psychologists and operations — will be the most critical skill sets design professionals will need to master if they are to survive the current professional, economic, social, and technological challenges,” says Autodesk’s Phil Bernstein. “Especially with the growing use of BIM and integrated design-led projects, the need for collaboration — and utilizing collaborative skills — will be required of every design professional. If they are able to learn the mind-sets, attitudes, and skills necessary to truly collaborate with others — and learn how to design buildings that are optimized to give owners, contractors, and other team members what they need of high quality, low cost, sustainable, delivered faster and with less waste — then architects will be trusted, newly esteemed, and return to their rightful role of virtual master builder.”

This article is adapted from the book BIM and Integrated Design: Strategies for Architectural Practice (Wiley, 2011).

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Randy Deutsch is an architect, speaker, and educator. He has served as the lead designer on more than 100 large-scale projects and co-founded the Integrated School of Building. He blogs at www.bimandintegrateddesign.com and www.architects2zebras.com. His book BIM and Integrated Design: Strategies for Architectural Practice was published last year.

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