AEC Tech News #152

4 Oct, 2005 By: Michael Dakan

Cadalyst AEC Tech News

In this Case, Change is Good

BIM isn't easy or inexpensive, but it will keep your firm viable and competitive in the long run

We've heard a lot about the impact of technology, and its impact to come, on the practice of architecture. In the Sept. 15 issue of AEC Tech News (click here for archives), I reported on several news items related to technology standards, including a report that the U.S. government's GSA (General Services Administration) has targeted fiscal year 2006 to begin using BIM (building information modeling) based on IFC technology to help analyze proposed government buildings.
Following these reports, I received an e-mail response taking issue with these moves. Some architects seem to regret and resent the encroachment of technology on the practice, and reader Thomas Irvin may be counted among those. Although this perspective isn't typical of my AEC Tech News readership, such views do surface from a sizable minority of architects who resent being forced into using otherwise unwanted technology. I also think Irvin's message fairly represents the feelings of many architects who have availed themselves of new technology, but do so grudgingly at best, and often with downright resistance.

Irvin writes:

"It appears that GSA, which is part of the government of the people, by the people and for the people, has embarked on a policy of limiting competition from A/E firms who can't afford to upgrade to software with BIM capabilities.

"In years past, I worked for governmental agencies and was involved in acquiring A/E services for my agency's building projects.  Part of the criteria was to promote competition and afford opportunities to the small- and medium-size firms, minority and women-owned firms to compete for projects in (nearly) the same arena as the big boys.

"While CAD capabilities were preferable, they were not considered as a plus or minus in the selection process.  NOW it appears not only do you have to be CAD-literate, GSA will require you to be proficient in a process which, from what I've read, is still in its infancy in development and fraught with errors and inconsistencies." 

Irvin later attributes this policy to the lobbying efforts of larger CAD developers at work in Washington, DC. 

The Other Side of the Coin
I understand and respect Thomas Irvin's views on this subject, but I don't agree.

Although BIM can hardly be described as fully mature technology, neither is it accurate to characterize it as in its infancy and fraught with errors. Sure, there's a lot of room for extensions and enhancements to BIM before it reaches its full potential, but many firms today are using it with good results. Obviously, the GSA sees enough potential benefit in it to initiate a series of pilot projects and testing to ascertain its short-term value and to prepare for the future. That sounds familiar -- it's just what architects have been advised to do for a number of years.

This change can be seen as penalizing small firms that have chosen not to remain technologically proficient, as this reader maintains. But it also rewards those firms that have invested the time and resources to prepare for the future. I'm all in favor of that, and I'm pleased that a government agency is taking a leadership position on this issue.

The GSA's mandate is to build as cost-effectively as possible, taking into account not just construction costs, but also long-term building lifecycle costs. BIM technology has the potential to assist greatly in achieving just those objectives. I don't think the GSA's mandate should involve supporting and propping up those architectural firms that choose not to remain technologically proficient, especially at the expense of those that have made the investment in preparing for the coming technology.

Technology Offers an Edge
The practice of architecture is a competitive business, and technology has become a major competitive factor, as much as some people might wish that were not the case. It's a fact of life today, and it will only be increasingly the case in the future, as more and more building owners and managers in both the public and private sectors demand better technological solutions.
It's certainly true that many smaller architectural firms have established successful practices without using much technology. But these firms realize their strengths and weaknesses, and they realize that they will not be capable or qualified to compete for certain larger project types without outside assistance.
Perhaps these firms will get to the point of assembling project teams that contain a BIM specialist as well as traditional engineering and other consultants. We've heard much about creating short-term, one-time "virtual project teams" for a specific project, and BIM expertise would be a logical extension of such a team. Perhaps this expertise could be provided by some of those CAD drafters who are concerned about the long-term viability of their chosen careers and who have the desire and ability to invest in learning BIM technology. 

A Positive Step
In any case, technological advancements have enabled smaller firms to compete with those firms that are much larger in terms of number of employees and in-house expertise. That's one of the things that initially attracted me to learning about technology and is a strong impetus for my interest even today: You don't have to be a giant to remain competitive with firms many times your size in terms of abilities and certain expertise.
Far from stifling competition, I feel the GSA's move toward using BIM technology could foster even more competition among firms of different sizes. But you have to be willing to make the necessary investment of time and money. If you don't, you'd better be willing to make the changes in your practice necessary to establish a niche where you can compete, and forget about many project types, including GSA work, in the future. 

Michael Dakan is an author and independent CAD and information technology consultant. E-mail him at

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