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BIM CULTURE CHANGES IN DESIGN FIRMS

BIM, a behavior-disruptive technology, is changing the culture of many firms, and very little has been said or written about how design firms cope. When deciding to adapt BIM, the commonly ordained BIM implementation plan may serve as a good roadmap, but it is neither adequate nor suitable to help a firm deal with the cultural changes that come with BIM. To be sure, there are several changes, but the one with the most radical impact is in the “division of labor” between a design team and a production team in the same firm. This team format made sense, particularly for larger firms, because it plays to the strength of individual team members, based on their talent and experience related to design, production, or both.

BIM, as a newly-minted technology process, has neither been kind nor respectful of the division of design and production, because both now happen concurrently in the model in the early phase of the project. As the granularity of the BIM model grows, so are the rational decisions to make the pieces fit together in anticipation of the construction document phase, especially in response to a client’s demand for early pricing. The question becomes: Should BIM drive the culture of a design firm and the way its internal teams work, or should the latter hold firm and make BIM adapt to its traditional workflow? Or yet, should the answer be a combination of both.

We argue that BIM is a new paradigm shift that requires an open mindset and a willingness to adapt to change, however painful or awkward it may be at the outset. It requires fundamentally retooling a firm’s culture around BIM, and organizing and training its entire staff, starting with senior management, to speak the same digital language, and steer the ship in the same BIM direction. The question is: If you are a firm that bought into the team format of separating design and production, what do you do with the experienced and talent architects that are averse to working in a 3-D BIM environment?

Well, it depends. If we accept the BIM model as a central repository of most design data related to the building, do you carve out a production niche for those architects to be able to make good use of their talent and experience after the BIM model has reached production? This approach will not work well overtime because young architects working on the BIM model will learn how to put together a building faster, by virtue of the fact that the BIM model becomes their best and most instructive teacher, and overtime they will know the building better than anyone else distant from the model, and as such, they will not need as much supervision to play the role an experienced architect used to play in the construction document phase.

Now it is O.K. if some disagree with our argument, if they maintain that young architects working in BIM need a lot of supervision. But our counter-argument is that if young architects, who work in BIM, are properly supervised and professionally supported by the firm, it should not take them long to play an important role in the production of construction documents of a building they know very well, having built the BIM model in the first place. If our argument does not hold true with some firms, then the explanation is simply that such firms are not providing the young architects the necessary environment suitable for professional growth. So where does that leave experienced architects that are not on BIM, unless they otherwise can serve as project managers, project architects, or oversee contract administration during construction? Each firm must answer this question if it is relevant to its own experience and team organization.

But there are many more questions BIM raises related to the cultural changes in a design firm. Would another option then be to mix experienced architects with the BIM modeling team so that they can begin to look at the constructability of the building and feed that information back to the modeling team? What sort of climate of resentment does it create when the BIM modeling team becomes “super stars” in the firm due to their BIM skills, and model affinity and stewardship? How does a firm balance the need to maintain a fair salary structure with the fact that architects with significant BIM experience are in high demand, and therefore will expect more money, even if their experience level may not command it? In that case, do you let them join other design firms and find new hires to train? Or, does the firm face the music and pony up more money to preserve the coveted BIM skills in house and risk antagonizing experienced and valuable architects who do not use BIM?

It would not surprise us if there are many firms grappling with these questions today. However, a decade from now, firms may no longer have to deal with the culture changes due to BIM, because young architects, who will be replacing the retiring architects, will all come out of school architecture adept at the 3-D world of BIM. Until then, the way each firm copes and responds to the questions we have raised will say a lot about the firm’s culture and identity, as well as its potential of making BIM a revolutionary new tool for the success of its practice and workplace culture.

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