the-architect-is-truly-filling-the-role-of-lead-collaborator-by-maintaining-a-minimum-level-of-understanding-of-all-components-to-be-assembled-in-the-buildingMany of us in structural engineering think we know architects. We know what they do, how they need to do it and why they need to do it. Every project is different, but we generally know our biggest client type. Or so I thought.

I recently spent eight full days in an architect’s office learning that we really don’t know enough about what our clients and project partners do. I was part of a PES team delivering a hands-on Revit training course to our client’s full production team. The format of this training typically has everyone in a conference room sitting behind laptops and allows for direct interaction between instructor and pupil with constant monitoring of student understanding. Due to several constraints and preferences, the training for this client was best delivered with everyone sitting at their own workstations.  The training was delivered using GoToMeeting conferencing and individual headsets. The two lead instructors conducted the training remotely, while I provided the eyes on the ground and offered individual assistance to students. We trained half of the office in the morning and half in the afternoon.

This setup allowed for quite a unique view into the architect’s world. One aspect of their production environment that caught my attention right from the start was the significant amount of drawing that takes place on a blank canvas. I was even genuinely impressed to see that hand drawing and sketching is still very much a part of the process. As a structural engineer, we most often start a project with an architectural layout or background. An architect on the other hand is starting with a vision and merging owner requirements and building code provisions to conjure a space that is both functional and attractive. I’ll be the first to admit, it can be easy to forget their level of effort on a project.

Other aspects of the architect’s responsibilities that stood out to me is just how visual their work needs to be. This was especially apparent by the shared rendering workstation always chugging away to the storyboards of interior design samples.  The concept of owner acceptance is not just a term, but a day to day necessity. I also found myself intently curious of the type and breadth of reference material found throughout the office. From building codes to building product literature, the office was filled with bookshelves around every turn. Of particular interest however, were the reference manuals for all disciplines of the building profession, from steel codes to electrical manuals.  As the traditional prime designer, the architect is truly filling the role of lead collaborator by maintaining a minimum level of understanding of all components to be assembled in the building.

Thanks to many advancements in technology and a wider acceptance of BIM, the AEC industry is buzzing with a more intentional approach to collaborative project delivery. However, my experience in the architect’s office helped bring to light a danger that can’t be ignored. We can’t rely on technology alone to drive effective and meaningful collaboration. We need to seek a higher level of understanding of how all members of the team work and what they do to deliver their scope of the design and construction. Sharing a BIM without this heightened understanding is simply tossing a model over the proverbial wall.

In an effort to parlay my newly gained appreciation for the key attributes of successful collaboration, I have been leading a series of discussions for our local BIM Council in Connecticut geared towards increasing awareness of the inputs and outputs each of us need and provide throughout a project. The intent for this increased awareness is to help improve the contents of our BIM as well as timeliness of information exchange to truly impact our communication and collaboration. Most recently we conducted a working session to develop a process map identifying all information exchanges that occur from conceptual design through construction and ultimately, hand-over to the owner. The map seeks to illustrate all parties that need the information and when they need it.  The next step is to identify all exchanges where a model positively impacts the sharing of information.

My time in an architect’s office made a significant imprint on my level of respect for how buildings are designed. It is sometimes said that we don’t empathize unless we walk in someone’s shoes. I don’t claim to have walked in an architect’s shoes, but I do hope that spending long days on an architect’s production floor has helped me to be more understanding of how my clients do their jobs. Although advancements in technology and web conferencing have alleviated much of our need to collocate for collaboration, perhaps there is an underlying benefit from working side-by-side more.

casual_dave-aucoin-1Author: David Aucoin, PE, Senior Associate

David is the leader of our New England office as well as our BIM Director.  He has always been interested in technology, efficiency and process improvement and was a founding member of our BIM Integration Team in 2006.

For more information, contact David at daucoin@pesengineers.com