April 17, 2020

Design Technology Contributes To Billions In Losses


With technology comes the elimination of the “old” practices in the construction industry. One of those is the plan room. Remember the plan room? If you were born after 1980, then probably not.

In the days before computer-aided design (CAD), the plan room was the central repository for a building’s paper-printed plans. After a building was fully constructed and operational, a big truck would arrive and deliver case upon case of documents, drawings and photos from the architect’s office for storage. This was the literal handoff from the design and construction phase of a building to the facilities management phase.

If you had a question about the building, how it was constructed, a mechanical system or the size of a structural element, you consulted the plan room. The process was sometimes a slow one — it required the pulling down of bound drawings from the drawing rack and a manual search through the books — but it resulted in information and knowledge transfer.

Today’s transfer of information no longer carries the smell of ammonia-soaked blueprints; in fact, the big knowledge handoff comes with little paper at all. Today’s building information transfer typically occurs digitally via a cloud link, email or jump drive. Things have changed, as they always do, but is this change for the better?

Yes, at its core, the transition from the drafting board to CAD and building information modeling (BIM) is a good thing. But we did lose something tactile and personal from the pen and paper process: readily available access to information.

Today’s computer aided facilities management (CAFM) is sophisticated and digital. Access to information and the history of property requires expertise in a variety of complicated software programs. Even then, much of the information remains buried in the magnitude of data and disparate programs.

In the past, all the information available for the whole life of a building could be found right there in the plan room. Its physical presence almost invited the occasional visitor to come in and consider the history, or the information kept inside. Now, all the building information is buried in CAD files and thousands of disconnected emails, often never to be seen again. It’s a fact that comes with hidden but substantial costs.

A recent event held by the Getty Center determined that a standard, conventionally constructed building often reaches a lifespan of 120 years. Alternately, a modern office building only reaches about 60 years. If it takes two years to design and build the average commercial building, then the design and construction phase accounts for roughly 2% of the overall life cycle of the building.

Though the building phase is brief, it is critical for intelligence. Nearly 100% of the information needed to manage a building is collected during design and construction, but most of that information is lost or made virtually inaccessible at the handoff from the design and construction team to the owners and facility managers.

So, instead of handing off a truckload of bulky but useful paperwork, we now lock information away on a computer network in a format only accessible from within sophisticated programs built for architects, not building managers. This practice has a material impact on building management. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and its partners published findings in the Sustainable Building Technical Manual, which found that just 2% of the first 30-year cost of a building is construction, while 6% come from operational costs and 92% from personnel costs.

Excluding personnel costs entirely — which we don’t have the luxury of doing in real life — the cost of operating a building is still roughly three times that of constructing the building and in less than half of the building’s life cycle.

We need a more efficient building management process that retains the advantages that CAD and BIM provide. There are benefits to the “new” design and construction process that must be retained.

For example, the costs of change orders during construction have dropped dramatically since the advent of BIM, along with advances in project management software. Energy requirements have also improved with the combination of BIM, government mandates, improved design practices and initiatives such as LEED Certification.

But what about the other costs, the operational, maintenance and repair (OM&R) costs? What about the fact that most of the information that would reduce operational costs is buried in a myriad of complicated technologies before it ever reaches the very people who need it to manage the property? The Facilities Management and Operations Committee of the Whole Building Design Guide (WBDG) states that “the long-term operational success and viability of a new facility…is dependent on three components, facility readiness, people readiness, and information readiness.”

Even if the building has not suffered compromises during the preoccupancy phase and was perfectly planned and constructed, all the information must be shared in a manner that facilitates the ability to operate, maintain and repair the structure, all in a readily accessible format.

Today, the owners of engineering firms, construction companies and properties experience the benefits of more efficient design and construction through technology, as well as the drawback of largely inaccessible information.

To close the gap, we need a new approach. We need a revolution in our tactics to better allow the collection and combination of information from nearly any source — whether drawings, 3D models, communications, documents or photos — into a single platform for use across design, construction and ongoing management. Until then, we are forcing a choice between better building construction or efficient property management. But there are new technolgies under development that will democratize access to information, delivered in a manner intuitive to the layman. But until these are in your hands, we can prepare by keeping all digital files in logical locations, keeping any changes up to date and by requesting both native and generic format file types (Excel, FBX, etc).

By Mitchell Hughes

Leave a Reply