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FMI Quarterly/September 2013/September 1, 2013

The Power of Collaboration in Design and Construction

workingplans18_imageDuring the last decade, the evolution of design and construction functions has taken a leap forward with the transition from electronic drafting to high-resolution digital modeling (also known as Building Information Modeling or BIM). Ubiquitous digital connectivity, cloud computing and “big data” are some of the evolving drivers that are responsible for the current melding of engineering, architecture, fabrication, construction and other related disciplines, transforming the way industry stakeholders collaborate with each other.

The embryonic phase of BIM is already revolutionizing project delivery. Virtual design and construction now allows project teams to build a structure twice — once virtually and once physically. Design activities have been integrated horizontally across disciplines, while construction activities are integrated vertically through distinct supply chain stages. The demonstrated results include cost and time savings plus enhanced project quality and improved project safety.

Anthony Fieldman, president of RAFT Architects, states, “Today’s digital era demands an integrated approach to create and manage parametric processes (economics, planning, design and engineering) that directly feed and, in fact, physically control outputs (fabrication and construction). In other words, cross-disciplinary thinking is an emerging prerequisite to success.”

The business structures that support this type of interdisciplinary thinking and virtual collaboration are much different than yesterday’s siloed approaches. Thomas Z. Scarangello, chairman and CEO of leading international engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti, explains, “The tools of collaboration, such as BIM, 4D and 5D data utilization, cloud project hosting/delivery, etc., have made the ‘virtual project team’ a reality. We have reinvented the master builder’s brain in a virtual environment and it is completely turning around the siloed project team environment that delivery tools like CAD fostered for more than 25 years. This kind of ‘in-sourcing’ allows us to take full advantage of the diverse talents of our global workforce, not just for marketplace and cost diversity, but so every project can benefit from a creative and technical worldview as well as a 24⁄7 workforce.”

Technology has and continues to play a vital role in this trend toward virtual knowledge sharing and cross-disciplinary thinking. Although the construction industry still lags other industries in technology adoption (e.g., the manufacturing industry invests four times more in digital tools compared to the construction industry), things are progressing. A recent McGraw-Hill survey found that BIM adoption rates by architects and contractors are currently more than 70% in the U.S., compared to 28% in 2007.

Combined with other communication tools and cloud technologies, BIM establishes a common platform where people and businesses can instantaneously communicate and share data, tools and information on a global scale. Not surprisingly, these technologies are transforming the way project stakeholders interact with each other, which is leading to new delivery methods and collaborative partnerships.

COLLABORATION: GETTING EVERYONE ONBOARD EARLY

Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) is one such concept, which, according to the American Institute of Architects, “leverages early contributions of knowledge and expertise through the utilization of new technologies, allowing all team members to realize their highest potential while expanding the value they provide throughout the project life cycle.” Put simply, IPD fulfills large project owners’ persistent demands for more synergy and transparency among team members by encouraging greater collaboration and integration among stakeholders — from project concept to completion. This is a major departure from the linear hard-bid contract, traditionally driven by the owner spec.

The fact that BIM and IPD are gaining ground in the design and construction industry is part of a larger trend toward “cross-company” integration, which is further breaking down adversarial, silo thinking that once dominated the field. Traditional industry business models are being tweaked to accommodate customers’ specific needs, and in this kind of collaborative scenario, all stakeholders now work together toward a common goal or purpose. Brian Stieritz, senior vice president and director of the Transportation Design-Build Group at CH2MHill, adds, “We’ve learned that having everyone at the table when decisions are being made is critical. If it’s design-build or some other form of integrated project delivery, we all have a stake in it.”

One of the goals of more collaboration in design and construction is to get everyone who will work on or contribute to the project onboard earlier. Richard Chan, manager, construction process improvement, Union Gas Limited, explains that it pays to bring contractors in earlier in the process, for example, to look at constructability and whether or not there is room to work in a given area.

Large utilities and industrial owners in particular recognize the benefits of increasing collaboration, because they have continuing construction needs and often large, complex projects that affect many constituencies. Alliances and partnerships help make construction programs more manageable, and IPD helps to create win-win solutions by driving out the cost of conflict and taking advantage of the expertise each party brings to the table — an advantage that is particularly crucial when projects fall into the mega range.

LAYING A SOLID FOUNDATION

Combined with other communication tools and cloud technologies, BIM and IPD lay the foundation for a common platform where people and businesses can instantaneously communicate and share data, tools and information on a global scale. Most importantly, this digital ubiquity redefines relationships among industry stakeholders and gives everyone the opportunity to share wide-ranging knowledge and cross-disciplinary thinking.

Charles Thomsen, a member of FMI’s board of directors, notes, “IPD is just one strategy for pulling technical and cost knowledge from subcontractors and manufacturers into design. Design assist, BIM, PMIS, rotation and bridging also are effective strategies.” Although IPD has been touted as the next big thing in construction delivery, it is clear that it is just one more instrument in the construction delivery toolbox. Nonetheless, it is an important tool not just for building complex projects, but also as a philosophy or a target to shoot for in the evolutionary process of improving construction project delivery. While it may take some time for IPD to catch on at a larger scale, the idea has begun to influence how owners look at project delivery, which may make many project delivery methods a little more like IPD if not true IPD.

Ultimately, designers, engineers, contractors and other related project stakeholders, as well as owners, must become more informed on the needs of those they are working with and seek innovative means to find non-zero-sum solutions in a world that is increasingly complex and interrelated.

New business models may emerge in which the traditional builder and fabrication models are fused into one, for example, resulting in higher-level turnkey project delivery models with teams of skilled professionals to design, fabricate, assemble on-site and even operate facilities. Winners will rebuild, retool and refit their companies for a new game and drive continuous improvement in productivity and profitability, raising the industry to new levels.


Sabine Hoover is a senior research consultant with FMI Corporation. She may be reached at 303.398.7238 or via email at shoover@fminet.com.

 

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