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Current Trends in the AEC Industry, Embracing BIM (Building Information Modeling)

By J.J. Tang, FAIA, FSAME Vice President, Principal, HDR

Current Trends in the AEC Industry, Embracing BIM (Building Information Modeling)

A nationally recognized leader in federal architecture, J.J. Tang has led the design of many federal facilities that are critical to our country’s defense and to US security around the world in the past two decades. As a business executive, J.J. has successfully led and pursued key program initiatives in the past 10 years, and have propelled his organization to the forefront of the industry.

Over the years, how has the AEC industry evolved? What has become a pain point in the building design?

About sustainable design: A couple of decades back, sustainable design was a buzz word in the AEC industry. The industry was looking for a leader to champion the sustainable design movement. The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system had just emerged. DoD (Department of Defence) was one of the first champions of sustainable design movement in requiring LEED silver rating facility design for all DoD buildings above a certain size. Since the federal government was the largest buyer of architectural and engineering services, this move received a lot of attention and started to put sustainable design on the map in the AEC industry. Now sustainable design is the norm, thanks to the federal government’s effort in championing this.

About design/build: Design/build as a delivery method had been around for a while before the BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) era in the 2000s. However, it did not really get much attraction until DoD started using design/ build as its primary procurement method of executing hundreds of billions of military construction projects. This move, once again got a lot of attention and started to put design/build on the map in the AEC industry.

Under the design/build delivery method, the government typically shortlists three to five design/builders based on qualifications and asks them to quote a firm price before selecting a winner for the project. The design/builder cannot quote a firm price until their designer completes about 15% of the design. Per The Brooks Act, architects and engineers working for the federal government are required to be compensated for their professional services. However, in the design/build method, designers have contracts directly with contractors, not with the government. As a result, neither the government nor contractors have the obligation to pay for a designer’s services during the bid phase unless the design/ build wins the contract. This approach of not compensating designers upfront during the bid phase has put a lot of stress on AE businesses. Because at least two out of three designs in every design/build procurement are not used, it also wastes AE resources. This has been a big challenge facing the AEC industry: We don’t want any party holding the short end of the stick involved in design/build procurement. Design/build has many merits in delivering a project, and we want it to flourish as a delivery method.

What young professionals need to learn is the human side of design

Owners, contractors and designers must work together to solve the challenge of requiring designers to provide up to 15% to 30% free design services during the bid phase.

About the current construction market: The current construction market is very active. Despite designers’ best efforts, industry estimates of the real construction cost usually end up 10% to 15% higher than estimated, and solving it has become a challenge. One way to address this is by encouraging designers, contractors and owners to adapt BIM software programs. A 3D BIM model of a building allows for better understanding and accuracy of design, cost estimates and construction. That’s because quantity, quality of building materials and systems with minimum conflicts are all incorporated into the BIM model.

Could you comment more on your 3D Building Information Management Initiatives?

HDR’s 3D building information management initiatives began in earnest in 1998. Before that, designers were predominantly working with 2D drawings, using AutoCAD. HDR designed pilot projects in Revit, trying to capture information and design in a true 3D model. At that point, HDR was the frontrunner to implement 3D building information management technology in the industry. Since 2015, all HDR projects have been using 3D BIM. One of the first, large scale, full-fledged BIM design projects implemented by HDR is U.S. Strategic Command headquarters building at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. Construction was just completed in 2019 after 10years of design and construction, using BIM. This is also the first large-scale DoD project for the Army Corps of Engineers. Our design services are getting a very positive response from clients and having a profound impact on the industry.

Please shed more light on 3D modeling in construction and building operation & management.

When we take the BIM model to contractors and owners, most are not familiar with the 3D model and how to use information derived from it. There is a need to educate them about the advantage of linking the BIM model to cost estimates and 3D visualizations. While the downside of the BIM model is the initial time investment for model creation and framework building, 3D images have the benefit of being easier to understand, and a 3D walk-through makes it easier to assume the design, along with the model issues or problems that need to be addressed.

Still, the industry faces two challenges. The first is to align the design fee structure with the BIM design approach–building a 3D model in the concept design stage is more time-consuming than a traditional design delivered in 2D. The second challenge is the transfer of data in the model so construction builders and owners and building operation and managers can take advantage of this amazing technology.

What information would you like to share with the Leaders in your profession to innovate and meet current demands and achieve success?

I would say the most prominent concern of everybody right now is how we are going to accurately forecast construction costs in the planning, design execution and construction phases. It’s a positive sign that the design market is active. Everybody has work to do, and demand is high in terms of scale. Therefore, it’s essential to examine the data, information and equations closely to get the most accurate cost estimates or construction numbers. Handling BIM practice norms takes commitment and experience. My colleagues in the industry should be able to take advantage of the 3D model design process to communicate and coordinate with general contractors and designers to provide more accurate take-offs and fewer conflicts in real-time construction. I would encourage all my colleagues in the industry to take the advantage of the 3D model design process for cost estimating, design crash detections, construction coordination and building operation and management after the building turns over to the owner.

  What would you advice the young professionals in the industry such that it would help them achieve success?

To the young professionals in the industry, I would advise them not to be too technology-dependent. Even with amazing advances in design, I feel this generation relies too much on the technology and starts to lose some of the basic, fundamental human design ingenuity. Even in this world of 3D modelling, I still feel designing is something very personal. If we look at a design, we start with conceiving some ideas in our minds first without much help of technology. We put these ideas on paper via hand sketches, drawing and sharing with our colleagues before we get technology involved in selecting, refining or implementing these ideas.

Finally, young professionals need to remember that people will ultimately live, work or play in these spaces, so they should bring their personal touch to the entire process.

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