The AJ and Deltek invited a group of industry experts to discuss the growing importance of software
From business management tools to design software, the influence of technology within architecture continues to grow. The Architects’ Journal, in collaboration with global software provider Deltek, assembled a panel of leading industry figures to discuss how they were using software. The panel examined the importance of good business management software and how it influences decision making, the ability to share information and how BIM was transforming the construction process.
Alex Wall, managing director at WCEC Group, began the discussion by explaining how integrated business management tools were important if a practice was to make informed decisions regarding taking on work. He said: ‘It is a fairly buoyant market so if you can see how you are performing, for example which clients pay and which don’t then you can be choosy about which commissions you accept.’
For Michael Olliff, managing director at Scott Brownrigg, the importance of good software was fundamental to running a modern practice. ‘If we don’t manage our finances then we cannot serve our clients and we cannot design buildings. You need strong business intelligence to support the work that architects do,’ he said.
ADP chairman Roger FitzGerald said that his practice had been undercut on higher education projects and from the data they had collated could ascertain that their rivals were certain to make a loss on the project in question. He said: ‘We have enough data to know what it will cost us, so we wonder whether they have decided to take a view on the job or don’t have the information that we do.’
But data is only as good as the person that entered it into the system, warned AHR managing director Michael Walters. ‘A lot of decisions are taken by this dashboard snapshot but there is always that suspicion whether or not it is the latest data or that it has been entered correctly.’ He added that, with so many aspects of the business to keep an eye on, practices often ended up with several disparate systems. ‘There are good systems but, for example, your information management system is not necessarily integrated with the accounting system.
We don’t want to turn the practice into a bunch of accountants but for those that want to know, it is there.
Charles Walker director at Zaha Hadid Architects, agreed, saying that architects were still feeling their way when it came to management systems. The problem was that no one system was providing all the answers. Walker likened the situation to the advent of computer animated design, when practices initially tried to write their own software. ‘I feel like that is where we are now. It is a bit of a mash-up. There is stuff out there but half of it does not do what you want it to do. Some people are writing their own programmes and others are bolting together other bits of software that are already on the market.’
The panel agreed that a system which pulled together the various strands of information to one easily accessible place was the Holy Grail for any practice. In Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, David Appel said his practice had a full-time employee who pulled information from the various systems and presented it in one ‘web-based place’.
Deltek’s Kevin Van Kirk said: ‘At the end of the day architects just want to be architects. Systems are great tools to enable firms to integrate information and alleviate the admin tasks which stop this happening.’ Olliff said that architects were inherently good at collaboration and that meant they were less worried about sharing information. ‘In our practice information is available to everyone. We don’t want to turn the practice into a bunch of accountants but for those that want to know, it is there.’
As businesses grew, continued Olliff, the issue of corporate responsibility and duty to shareholders became more important. Business continuity plans depended on secure and robust data storage and this had prompted some practices to move their data onto the Cloud. ‘Mostly it has been driven by the need to handle large files. We had a situation where we were collaborating on projects in Singapore and it was taking them nearly half an hour to open up the Revit file and synchronise it. You cannot work like that. The spin off value is that if a server goes down the information is replicated by another server elsewhere.’
The conversation moved on to Building Information Modelling (BIM) and what it meant for the industry in the near future. There was a general consensus that architects needed to occupy the role of BIM manager as opposed to contractors or engineers, otherwise the industry would be written out of the picture. FitzGerald agreed, explaining how his practice had formed a company with a team of engineers aimed at ‘reclaiming the central ground’.
Walters challenged the industry, saying architects should ‘lead it in a direction we want as a profession. This is our opportunity to create better buildings.’ John Turner, board director at Broadway Malyan, pointed out that before the process of 3D modelling began, it was imperative the client and architect agreed on what they wanted to achieve from the process.
With ever more sophisticated software, architecture could begin to take on similarities with manufacturing
FitzGerald believed that BIM presented a way of architects resisting the split between concept design and executing a project because of the difficulties that arose when responsibility for a project was divided between two architects. He said: ‘We are getting tender enquires where someone has done the concept design and we are responsible for delivering BIM level 2 information to the contractor, but you don’t always know what you are picking up. You might suspect that the services aren’t integrating and you are being asked to price something when what the end product is isn’t clear.’
But the complex nature of the software was also throwing up new challenges. FitzGerald pointed out that profession needed to exercise caution when deciding whether to sign up to BIM level 2. He said: ‘We are pricing documents on the basis that we know exactly what is going to be required. There are some very onerous BIM requirements and if practices aren’t fully understanding what the consequences are then there could be a load of court cases where practices have signed up to BIM Level 2 and cannot deliver it.’
In the future, a comprehensive 3D model will become a legal construction document, according to Charles Walker.
But there was a skills shortage in the UK construction sector, according to Barton Willmore architectural partner Nick Collins. He said: ‘We are involved with a job where the client has gone to a European contractor because they know the company has delivered using BIM in Europe. The issue is their supply chain here is not set up at all.’
Walters said there was a danger that, with ever more sophisticated software, architecture could begin to take on similarities with manufacturing, so that buildings would be comprised of a series of components created from computer files. There was also the political will to bring design into the construction process and thereby make the process singular and uniform, he added.
‘Is that going to deliver good architecture?’ asked Olliff. ‘And do we want to get behind that idea? Or should we resist and say actually it is all about the skills of the architect?
‘There is only one profession that can take a blank piece of paper and come up with an idea. If we somehow let that get subsumed into a manufacturing process, we are dead.’