We live in a visual world. Many prefer TikTok to cookbooks, YouTube to instruction manuals, streaming to reading. We also live in a world increasingly demanding instant gratification: microwaves over ovens, Axios over the New York Times Sunday Magazine, drive-thrus over sit-downs.
I understand, and I often personify both trends. The Hallelujah Chorus is magnificent, fine dining is a treat, and walking into a neighborhood bookstore and ordering a book that might not be on the shelf is a satisfying embodiment of shopping local. But I prefer a little Jay-Z in my headphones when I’m running, a crawfish boil to coq au vin, and same-day delivery from Amazon beats in-store ordering most days.
So, what’s this got to do with architecture and the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry? A lot, actually.
We work in an industry that’s centuries old, one traditionally known for human sweat and heavy machinery, not office cubicles and nano-sized technology. But that’s changing, perhaps more quickly than many would have imagined. Read any article about AEC trends and you’ll see innumerable references to AI, BIM, 3D, and IoT.
The question I, and many other design professionals, wrestle with is a challenging one: What’s the ideal mix of sophisticated technology and human intuition? Let’s start with the toys.
At Prime Engineering, we’ve embraced a number of tools that benefit us and our clients throughout projects’ major phases: design, construction, operation, and maintenance. Building Information Modeling (BIM), rendering software, and 3D laser scanning are incredibly helpful to our work. For instance, BIM delivers multiple benefits, including:
- Highly detailed design renderings showing everything from duct size to seasonal sunlight
- Ability to store and modify everything in one place on a single platform, so no need for duplicates with every client and vendor
- Detailed history of design revisions and their associated impact on timelines
Collectively, such tools can improve precision, help our clients visualize what’s in our heads or on our blueprints, and save considerable time in the design process. 3D visualization is a wonderful tool for making concepts come to life in boardroom pitches and regulatory reviews of projects. We work on a large number of complex projects, and project management software can really help the “technology of coordination” become a reality when dealing with multiple vendors and clients. That’s particularly important when you consider this little nugget:
PlanGrid, a leader in construction productivity software, shared results from a new industry research report (administered in partnership with management consulting firm FMI Corporation) featuring input from nearly 600 construction leaders. The report analyzed how teams spend their time on construction sites, communicate during projects, and leverage their technology investments. The survey indicates that time spent on non-optimal activities such as fixing mistakes, looking for project data, and managing conflict resolution accounts for $177.5 billion in labor costs per year in the US alone.
We’re about two years into an era of fragile and frustrating logistics and supply chains. The average time to construct a pre-engineered metal building has ballooned from 13-18 weeks to 42-45 weeks. Rooftop heating and cooling units are taking 34-36 weeks to deliver. With such dramatic order-to-installation timeframes, BIM design technology allows us to adjust our specifications to constantly changing conditions in equipment procurement and market conditions, ensuring that the right product is ordered without exaggerated lead times.
There’s no question that, used intelligently, digital technologies help reduce costs, improve efficiency, enhance visualization, improve data sharing, reduce building waste, increase productivity, achieve greater sustainable performance, improve safety, and boost quality, all while attempting to reduce delivery time.
Yet as a designer in the realm of the built field, I am also an advocate for the benefits of human experience. At my firm, Prime Engineering, I’m grateful for the decades of experience and creativity our leadership brings into our work every day. Our architects and engineers’ decades of experience have taught lessons and truths to all of us in this industry.
You can’t replace that experience, that perspective, that insight, with software. Hold onto your people. The underlying truth is that our people are the spirit of this industry. Hardware and software are merely the instruments we use to apply that experience to our daily opportunities.
It’s also important to consider the IT infrastructure required to support the technologies that everyone is considering. Do you have the IT staff and training capacity to embrace AI, virtual reality, drone technology, robotics, digital twins, and other products? If you do, bravo. Embrace, lead, and conquer. If you don’t, the likelihood of adverse consequences during implementation are high. It’s not enough to have one or two people who can utilize these various tools. For them to work effectively, the team must work in concert—become interdependent—and that requirement is a tall order for most AEC firms.
Finally, it’s important to consider the technological sophistication of your clients and the projects they undertake. To paraphrase an old saying, you don’t bring a cannon to a rabbit hunt. So too, you shouldn’t over-engineer client needs and preferences. From my perspective, I lean more toward the Richard Dreyfuss/Bill Murray School of Psychology, “Baby steps, Bob.”
I’m a firm believer in nudging our clients to adopt new technologies for clarity and convenience. That said, technology isn’t the endgame. Creating the design to meet our clients’ needs and vision, building the structure, adhering to time and budget goals: These are the objectives. The challenge we in the AEC industry face is: How do we assimilate these exciting tools to achieve our larger objectives?
Finding the equilibrium, that interdependency between technology and people, productivity and passion—from client to contractor to subcontractor—should remain Job #1.
I’d love to hear how you’re balancing these variables. Please feel free to reach out to me and share your thoughts at CDupuis@Prime-Eng.com.