Lessons from London, Hotbed of AEC Innovation

Photo by João Barbosa on Unsplash

Originally published by AECNEWS, April 2003

By Randall S. Newton

More world-class architectural and A/E firms are located in or near London than in any other metropolitan area on the planet. This makes not only for spirited competition and a large pool of talent, but allows greater opportunity for research, innovation and risk-taking. I’ve been watching the AEC scene in London for several years now, and I’m convinced there are lessons being learned there to which the rest of us need to pay attention.

For the past three years some of the largest and most successful AEC firms in the United Kingdom have participated in the Teamwork Initiative, a “learn by doing” consortium that seeks to explore and document best practices in collaboration and the use of information technology in AEC.

Starting in 2000, each June the Teamwork Initiative has sponsored Live Week, when AEC professionals work as shadow participants on current London area projects. Mid-week, each team is given a major revision to their project, to better test how the cooperative technology and relationships work. A follow-up conference in November gives participating firms the opportunity to share results, analyze lessons learned, and chart the initiative’s next steps.

“It is our goal to enable delivery of built facilities which meet client needs through effective teamwork across all design, construction, and operational activities, using virtual prototyping” says Teamwork co-founder Christopher Groome, a construction industry consultant. Fellow co-founder and architect Paul Fletcher puts it bluntly: “The objective of Teamwork is to secure a paradigm shift in the industry, using IT for virtual prototyping, to build before we build, to occupy before we’ve built.”

The shared vision that led to the founding of Teamwork is based on the notion that AEC needs to merge state-of-the-art information technology with a reformed AEC culture where collaboration is the norm. Teamwork’s current participants buy into the vision thing, but they are clearly in it for the money, too. Three-piece suits are the uniform of choice at the November conferences, where senior executives from participating firms describe the lessons learned and new practices implemented. They realize that change for change’s sake is a dead end. They are exploring how to improve communications, increase competence, enlighten the culture and improve cooperation because it is good for business. When they applaud the use of building information modeling or more structured training regimes it is because these elements drive increased profitability.

While there are individual exceptions, overall the construction industry has not embraced information technology to solve the problems caused by incomplete, inaccurate, and outdated information in the construction process. And it has barely begun to address the problems that come from what are often called the silos of automation. Each step in the process takes information from the previous stakeholder and reworks it—sometimes from scratch—to complete their part of the process. It is this lack of cross-discipline teamwork and the shortsighted, vertical use of IT that drives the Teamwork Initiative membership.

Sixteen Lessons from London

In a series that begins this month and continues for the next few issues, we will present observations and analyses drawn from our study of the UK AEC industry, including our review of the first three years of the Teamwork Initiative. The final installment in this series will also analyze Teamwork’s goals for the next three years. Included in this issue are Lessons 1 and 2.

In order of coverage, the lessons are:

1 Design is a modeling process

2 Offer value, not cost

3 Implement building information modeling in phases

4 Manage expectations to properly exploit technology

5 Collaborate in real time and virtual space

6 The value of building information modeling in a project is proportionate to the square of the number of users

7 Virtual prototyping starts before the project

8 Building information modeling offers accelerated returns when implemented throughout the AEC project cycle

9 Give the construction team early access to the shared building information model

10 Aim to surpass owner expectations

11 Use the building information model to divide responsibilities

12 Believing is seeing; senior leadership must impart the vision

13 Training must be an ongoing part of the corporate workflow

14 All project communication must be based in the shared building information model

15 Building information modeling through time should be a loop, not a string

16 Improvements in AEC data interoperability are essential

Lesson Number 1: Design is a Modeling Process

When the famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi needed to explain his idea for a pseudo-parabolic arch, he did not draw; instead he built a model with chains. A short section of chain hanging from the end points represented pure tension. Glued and inverted, the same curve became pure compression. Draped with cloth, the chain became a model of his arch. As structural engineer Mike Cook, a partner at Buro Happold explains, Gaudi used the most efficient method possible to communicate design intent to all involved in the project—the model.

“The goal of collaborative modeling is absolutely right, as long as we don’t over-focus on any one aspect,” says Cook. “Design is a modeling process.”

The modern building project proceeds from concept to construction in stages. Cook sees the intersections between each of the stages as the points where various aspects of modeling are the best way to communicate design intent. “We must think of the whole process. I don’t want to lose sight of the whole spectrum, because modeling is about communicating to all who help create the project.”

When Buro Happold did the structural engineering for the steel grid roof on the Great Court at the British Museum in London, the project model was shared—and contributed to—by the architects at Foster and Partners, the structural engineers at Buro Happold, and the fabricator, Bourne Steel. The project model was center of communications and the data stayed intact; the fabricator used the data directly from the model to create the steel beams.

It is important to make the building information model a shared model, Cook says, because “physical models have to follow the laws of physics, but computer models can lie.” Having all stakeholders share in the creation and use of a building information model keeps things honest.

“A building services engineer views a building in a completely different way from an architect or a structural engineer,” notes Teamwork co-founder Fletcher. “The shared model eradicates two levels of ambiguity from today’s construction design process.”

Adds Fletcher, “In a conventional project each discipline’s design intent is ambiguous to the others because they use different symbology to represent building features and they don’t know enough of each other’s discipline to accurately interpret each other’s design intent from a two dimensional drawing. Designing from scratch in 3D means no need to interpret, because the design intent and the features that would normally be represented by symbols are staring you in the face as 3D objects.”

Lesson Number 2: Offer Value, Not Cost

At the 2002 Teamwork conference, Richard Saxon, vice president of the Royal Institute of British Architects and former chairman of A/E firm Building Design Partnership, asked the attendees to imagine the following conversation. A firm’s technology director says to the CEO, “What do you want IT to do for the firm?” And the CEO replies, “What can it do?” “Now make that an endless loop,” says Saxon, “and you have the situation at many AEC firms today. The CEO has no idea of the potential of IT.”

Saxon has a better reply for the CEO. “He should say, ‘I want IT to support evolution of an Integrated Built Environment Solutions business. I want to add serious customer value.’”

According to Saxon, AEC sees itself as a cost to the owner/client, not as adding value to the client’s business. “Construction sees itself as a cost. It enters after value goals are set and leaves before they are delivered. Without understanding value, construction cannot become lean. Construction needs IT that brings the information it needs to break out of the box. This requires that we move from construction to becoming integrated solutions providers.”          

Saxon acknowledges that this is new territory. “Integrated solutions for property/construction/facilities is an uncharted complex product system; there are no accepted business models for integrated solutions in our field.”

AEC needs to view itself as a value chain, Saxon believes, the way suppliers do in a manufacturing environment; each participant adds value to the final product. Added value is the difference between the market value of a firm’s output and the costs of its inputs. Value accumulates at each stage of the project to make up the overall value chain. To Saxon, this is not just about design/bid/build, but also about the complete building lifecycle.

“How will you know if you are adding value if you don’t know what it is?” Saxon asks rhetorically. To answer the question, he offers the following formula:


V=Value, B=Benefit, C=Cost

AEC needs to clearly understand going into a project that its role is to add value to the client’s business, by delivering a building that provides benefits. Using this formula, AEC needs to deliver a value of 1 or higher to be successful.  

If the use of building information modeling is to support an integrated production cycle, Saxon says it must:

  • Capture the business case for a project as part of the design strategy
  • Simulate design solutions for approval
  • Specify from appropriate standards, in effect making standards a form of knowledge management that drives the project
  • Import supplier solutions into the building information model
  • Simulate construction and maintenance in the model
  • Drive the manufacture and delivery of building components using ‘just in time’ techniques.

Eventually, Saxon sees the use of the building information model as the driver of not only project communications, but actual construction and building management, using embedded instructions to drive the ordering of materials, robotic assembly of systems, and intelligent monitoring to support integrated facilities management using the same model.

Research shows that, on average, the construction cost of a commercial building represents 1/250th of the income that building will produce. Design is generally 1/10th of the cost of construction. Put the two ratios together and you realize that design has the potential to leverage the value of construction 2,500 times its cost. To reap this value for the owner, AEC must move away from its linear process and use the building information model to support, in Saxon’s words, “an integrated cycle that feeds all knowledge back to the database for the entire cycle.” Such an integrated knowledge base adds benefit to the product, it removes cost from the process, and it creates customer value.  

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