Change Leader Interview: BIM Aids Process, But Further Promise Lies in Interoperability
Patrick MacLeamy, CEO of HOK, has been a proponent for greater efficiency, going back decades with his conceptualization of the MacLeamy Curve, which emphasizes design earlier in the project process. Informed Infrastructure Editor Matt Ball spoke with MacLeamy about his work to further efficiency and improve outcomes. The discussion touches on the impact of BIM and public-private partnerships to allow for better information exchange and shared responsibility for outcomes.
I2: With your work with buildingSMART, interoperability is one of the changes you’d like to see. What is the promise of interoperability?
MacLeamy: The whole world needs to go to open and interoperable standards for exchange of information (data). A lot of the world is doing that now. I just dialed you using a telephone number, and the whole world has gotten together on the protocol between phone companies that allows people to call each other with a set of digits.
I’m old enough to remember when you had to go through an operator to call long distance, and it was very expensive. We take it for granted today that we can do these things easily and inexpensively, but it’s because we ended up with digital standards for the phone system. The necessary agreement within and among countries took place for an open protocol for dialing from one system to another.
The architecture, engineering and construction process needs that same kind of evolution—and really revolution. The architect and supporting engineers, contractors, subcontractors, fabricators and owners all need to be exchanging data seamlessly. I don’t care what software someone is using, I want to use my software to do some part of the job.
You and I are speaking English to one another, and that’s fortunate for us, because we can communicate. If you were speaking Chinese, and I didn’t understand that and you didn’t understand English, we’d have to hire someone to translate. If you go to the United Nations, you hear 150 different languages, and there are translators everywhere to facilitate interactions.
What we want is a translator that can speak any digital language and translate anybody else’s language for the efficient transfer of data. It’s that simple. Open means that it’s not a closed system. I don’t want to just use Windows or Apple products, I want to use any piece of software that allows me to do my work as efficiently and effectively as possible, without worrying about translation.
I2: You’re famous for the MacLeamy Curve, which is all about process change. What was the impetus for the idea?
MacLeamy: The impetus came from my own practice. I was shown how to describe buildings by drawing on pieces of paper or vellum with a pencil. You describe a building by plans, sections, elevation, and then details and specifications. What I began to realize, after I got out of school and into HOK, where I’ve spent my entire career, is that the process works fairly well to describe something simple like a house. People relate to a floor plan and an elevation of the front of a house. But when you get into big, complex projects, where there are thousands of parts and pieces, that system of describing parts and pieces breaks down. It doesn’t work, because the need to coordinate in three dimensions is so acute.
That caused the architecture and design professionals to describe the process with which we work through the AIA contract between architect and owner. That contract described how much effort we would make and how much we would be paid for each phase of our work. The smallest space was design (at 15 percent), and the biggest phase is in construction or working documents (blueprints). So although I was trained as a designer, most of the effort I expended and most of the fee I earned was not in designing anything; it was doing working drawings or plan-section elevations and details, and writing specifications, rather than being thoughtful about designing.
As a result, I think the whole profession has struggled. There isn’t enough time for architects to be thoughtful about design as we were all trained. Instead we’re spending our time doing drawings to describe the building to a contractor. The working drawing phase is a big bulge in our effort.
Architects have gotten good about practicing defensively, where we quickly get a design that we think works. Then we spend a lot of time on working drawings so they’re adequate to keep us from getting sued by the owner or contractor for incompetence. The result is that buildings may get designed and built, but they tend not to be a great design—they’re just about cranking the project out to make a fee and earn a living. But they’re shot full of problems, because the issues that should have been resolved in design don’t get resolved until working drawings or the contractor discovers the problem when building.
This is not the formula for great success, and I think it has hurt the design profession. The architect and contractor have developed an adversarial relationship, where the architect is practicing defensive design by creating drawings that give the contractor only minimal information.
I2: What pushed this frustration forward into process change?
MacLeamy: I have thought about this a lot, and I was frustrated in our own practice here at HOK. I realized roughly 20 years ago, after talking with some of my colleagues, that we’re spending too much time producing the work, but not enough time designing and being thoughtful about design. We need to switch the roles to put more effort into designing, and have the working drawings or documentation phase much more automated.
That had been a very wishful dream until the computer came along. We began to realize that the computer and CAD and now BIM software will allow the computer to do much more of the tedious task of working drawings, freeing us up to be more thoughtful about designing and shifting our effort forward in time.
If you spend the right amount of time planning and designing, the rest of the project is very smooth. If you don’t solve the problems of how to fit the building to the site, achieving the client’s program and meeting the client’s construction budget, you’re rushing through design. We struggle with those problems today, but the computer software we’re using allows us to get a much better handle on that. It allows us to test the building to make sure that it’s meeting the program set forth by the building owner.
It makes a lot more sense if the effort can be expended earlier, and if we can have a much shorter and less-expensive working drawing phase, because the computer can take over a lot of the tedious labor. My goal was not so much to save labor; the original goal of the MacLeamy Curve was to support better design work, but it’s become known for much more.
I2: The trajectory of model-based design has been accelerating. In terms of further process improvement, is integrated project delivery the means to move BIM forward?
MacLeamy: It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, where building owners have been very frustrated by having two separate contracts, one for the design team and another for the contractor. Building owners have encouraged architects and contractors to design and build buildings as a team, making things easier for the owner. That has really taken off now through BIM. It’s forcing us back to our historical closeness.
If you go back a thousand years in time to old Europe, when the great cathedrals and other important buildings were built, they were built by guilds (carpenters, stone masons, glassmakers, etc.). If you were in the stone mason’s guild, you knew everything about how to build in stone, and the carpentry guild knew everything about building in wood. The master mason was the designer of stone buildings, because he had a lifetime of experience with that material. The master mason knew how high he could build a stone wall and how thick it had to be to keep it from toppling over, and how far he could span with a stone arch. There were no architects, there were master builders that were masters of building with a particular material.
That reached its peak just before the Early Renaissance in 1500. Then people called architects began to appear who increasingly disassociated themselves with the people who built things. Design and build began to be separate activities.
Going back about 100 years ago, you had the formation of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Royal British Institute of Architects (RBIA), and Association of General Contractors (AGC). These groups began celebrating their differences, and worked to protect and defend their piece of the industry. For 150 years, we’ve been driven apart, and we’ve prevailed on governments to protect our piece of the puzzle.
Now laws govern architecture and professional licensing. We feathered our own nests, but we got so far separated that architects and builders look at each other with mistrust or consider each other the enemy. What BIM is doing, along with enlightened owners, is forcing us to design and build as teams. I think it is extremely healthy and goes back to our historic roots.
It takes both of us to design and build buildings, and none of us can do it without the other. Why not admit that and work together from the beginning?
I2: Are the public-private partnerships (P3) and design-build-operate-maintain arrangements helping to accelerate further BIM adoption?
MacLeamy: I think P3 and design-build are helping. I think that design-bid-build, which has been our approach, is going away. It’s in the decline, because owners realize they don’t have to hire an architect separate from the contractor. They will begin to demand design-build proposals or variations on that for fully collaborative processes.
We’ve gotten involved in design-build-finance-operate. We did a major project for the London Trust, which operates hospitals and doesn’t want to be in the building business. They have cashflow to make lease payments, but not capital. The lease-to-own agreement spans 30 years, including operations for 30 years. This keeps us honest in terms of not cutting corners on design or construction. This is increasingly happening, where people are recognizing that we’re all specialists in something, and that we should focus on the things that we know how to do, and let others handle the things that we don’t know how to do.
That’s the other big trend: owners are asking design and build teams to also be maintenance teams, to operate and take care of buildings. That’s an exciting development, and it’s further enabled by BIM with a really good open BIM model, where anyone can add and extract data from the model. That’s enabling not only architect and contractor, but the operator, to engage with the model. Instead of glorified janitors, we’re seeing professionals trained in the operation process who are able to operate buildings most efficiently, with properly scheduled maintenance and repair, and properly planning for upgrades and changes to how the building is used.
It’s following the trends in manufacturing. Boeing makes as much money or more in the maintenance of aircraft as it does building and selling new ones. They’ve said that they know all about aircraft, and have freed airlines to focus on passengers and flying aircraft from city to city.
I’m personally thrilled by this change, because it will result in better buildings that last longer and provide greater value over time. It’s a different value proposition for everyone involved. It gets us out of the box of our individual jobs and gets us thinking about the project as a whole.
I2: There has been some back and forth on the definition of BIM, and I know you’ve been involved in expanding and clarifying that definition. How do you define and explain BIM?
MacLeamy: More people are talking about the BIM definition that we defined with standards. A building model is a 3-D model of a building on a computer screen that we can rotate around and fly through. Unless you add information to it, it’s just a BM, which doesn’t mean something good. We said that there has to be something more to it than just a model, and we had it wrong in the beginning.
If we’re designing a building, and we have a wall or floor, we not only need to see it in three dimensions, we need to measure it to know how many cubic yards of concrete or square yards of carpet or sheets of sheetrock are on the wall. We also need to count things, such as how many windows are there, so the contractor doesn’t make a mistake and order one too many or one too few.
We had the idea right, but we had the concept wrong, because the information is overwhelmingly the biggest prize. The idea of putting information into the building model, to make it a building information model, involves mega data. BIM starts with the architect’s design, then is used by the contractor to assemble the building, then is used by the operator to manage and maintain the building.
This sequence can be described as Building Information Model (BIM) to the Building Assembly Model (BAM) to the Building Operations Optimization Model (BOOM). The BOOM is the biggest payoff of all. I believe that if we design, build and operate buildings properly, we can pay for the cost of the building with an efficient operation over the life of the building that should be at least 30 years, and more like 70 to 100 years. It’s as if the building is free.
We’re now getting owners that are beginning to think about having their capital cost budgets and their operation cost budgets viewed in a similar way. If you do your operating budget properly, your capital cost is paid for by the efficiency of the design and operation of the building.
I2: At Informed Infrastructure, we’re excited about the expanding simulation and analysis capabilities within BIM. Are you doing more of that, with a focus on building performance?
MacLeamy: Yes we are, but we’re at the early stages. As an architect, I want to do a conceptual model of my building early on—the first week that I’m working. I want to be able to apply software tools for analysis to see how much it will cost, how energy efficient it will be, and I definitely want to see that it meets the client’s building program with the correct rooms and spaces, and I want to see how green it will be.
All of these testing tools help us immensely. We just did one last week with the design of an airport, where we wanted to test the flow of passengers through the security checkpoint to see what the capacity was and how it compared with the peak arrival and departure data. We have software that measures people flow and simulates the random movement that people make.
We can actually determine whether the security setup is adequate, and it applies to other flows of people such as in a football stadium. We could not have used this tool without BIM. There are more of these testing tools coming online all the time, with people literally working in their bedrooms. What they need is an open interoperable exchange standard, so they can exchange data with the large BIM platform providers. There’s plenty of room in this world for more tools.
We’re testing not only the obvious things. We’re testing solar gain and light reflectance. We’re using it to test the acoustical properties of spaces almost before we’ve drawn the first line. The earlier we can test these models for compliance with their requirements, the better the design will be.
The original intent of the MacLeamy Curve was to improve the quality of design and process all the way through, so we know before we’ve moved the first shovel full of dirt that everything will fit, we can afford it, it will be energy efficient, it will fit the client’s program and it will meet all the other criteria. We can’t get there unless we have open, interoperable BIM.