News about Innovation in the Built Environment

Digital Discernment: Creating a Digitally Mediated Project Communication Platform

In Architecture 3.0, I write about new opportunities for design and construction professionals to help shape the industry beyond their traditional roles. Additionally, digital technology is continuously transforming the industry, advancing beyond many workers’ understanding and communication skills.
Technology moves formally analog information into digital data which moves seamlessly from office to trailer to the field through our handhelds. From BIM models to cloud-based PDFs, 3D GPS layout to IoT locationing, information engulfs us. While being able to carry an entire project on your phone may help you access the design and construction documents, it does nothing to help you understand the information inside the documents.

In addition to the carrying around the project data; we, the people who run the projects, need tools and processes to assist us in understanding and communicating what we know and don’t know about the project. In the past design and construction teams spent hours creating and examining paper-based design documents before building. The architect and design team would have spent thousands of hours hand-drawing floor plans and elevations, finalizing building sections and details, to confirm the project’s design requirements, before handing the final documents to the owner, who, in turn, passed them onto the builders who would review and construct the design into completion.

The digital acceleration of these documentation and review processes has not accompanied a similar acceleration in the understanding of the project. This lack of comprehension and knowledge has exacerbated the misunderstandings and miscommunications regarding the scope of the documents as more data becomes available to the people tasked to build the project. Furthermore, this information inhibits the ability of the project team to outline and communicate the project requirements. Discernment disappears as all data becomes accessible and immediate. Design and construction teams lose their ability to focus on the critical and necessary aspects of the project.

The creators of the software and processes that now create the digital documentation of design and construction; the 3D models, the multi-disciplinary plans and specifications of architecture, structural, mechanical, electrical and equipment data, argue that this data should not just become digital representations of past analog processes, but interactive participants in design and building activities.

How?

If we can give our buildings a voice and the ability to recognize and lead us post construction through IoT, why not enable the ability of these same buildings to communicate with us in their design phase, before and during construction? Furthermore, by starting a conversation with our building regarding issues that exist within its documentation, it will assist us in communicating its construction phase requirements.

Architecture 3.0 addressed disruption of the design and construction industry.

We are now faced with another disruption. Alexa and Siri and Google allow us to query the world. To not only search for movies on Netflix, but to find our way around new cities with interactive maps. If these tools and platforms enable wayfinding post construction, why not allow the ability for us, the people who create the building’s design and construction data, to query that information while still inside the models and documents?

Consider the lowly RFI

An RFI (Request for Information) is a document that the builder utilizes to query the architect about design intent.

Collaborative project goals state that every RFI should be confirming process with all questions answered and details worked out between the designer and builder and owner prior to even raising the RFI. This goal states that agreement to the RFI is formalized into the contract and cost and schedule adjusted accordingly. It ends with all parties shaking hands and fist-bumping.

But since it is us humans who are doing not only the design but also the uncovering, the identifying and communicating and eventually building around the variances we’ve found, our discussions fall prey to the complexities of human interactions and emotions. This results not in a kumbaya agreement, but in hard binary responses; this is right, or this is wrong, or I’m right, you’re wrong. You need to fix the drawings and pay me for these errors plus give me more time to build the project and the ability to reserve rights for future claims.

Since the builder generates RFIs, their purpose is to expose problems in the design documents. This exposure assigns blame and responsibility to the design team. While the design team responds to the RFI to help with the understanding of the project, they must still defend the design, and will attempt to communicate with a builder who obviously lacks the experience and technical expertise to understand and build the project from the clear design intent shown in the documents, and only won the job based on low cost which will be made up for by change orders.

Instead of delivering understanding, the RFI process fuels these two teams; the architect and builder, into aggrieved third parties. The owner plays the role of Solomon, determining if the baby needs to be delivered whole or in pieces between the two parties.

Disputes and claims are born through project misunderstandings.

This article states the hope that by creating and incorporating a digital project neutral, a digitally augmented mediator, an Alexa or Siri chatbot who not only identifies and presents document variances, but outlines the system effects of the variance; how other drawings, schedules, and budgets are affected, along with proposed solutions based on similar data and information she’s found in the documents; this RFI neutral can create the first layer in an overall mediated project communication platform.

Cliff Moser, AIA, LEED AP, CSM works for Stanford Healthcare in designing and building the New Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto California. You can see Cliff dig deeper into this topic on Day 1 of BuiltTech Week in Atlanta Oct 22-24th. 

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