A/E Design Coordination: Why your tools are “failing” you and what to do about it.


In a previous post I described how changing the way we approach projects in the A/E industry, is key to ensuring quality in the designs we produce. The following is a deeper dive into the general topic of coordination, more specifically the use of modeling tools in design coordination.

I’ll be the first to admit, 3D modeling programs are great, but they have their problems. Despite working with some truly wonderful platforms there are certain nuances that admittedly, annoy me on occasion. Despite the advantages provided by all the bells and whistles, and the glorious power they put at our fingertips, at the end of the day, projects produced in 3D models are only as good as the information put into them.

Capturing the Complete 3D Perspective

I’m a self-taught REVIT person, and by no means am I a “guru”. But, I do know my way around, and I am fully capable of producing a complete 3D electrical design project from start to finish. From my experience, what I like most about working in REVIT is the hands-on, dynamic environment. The ability to design a new electrical system in a virtual environment provides a unique opportunity to alter our perspective of the design, in real time. Seeing wall, ceiling, floor structures, and other details such as cabinetry and casework in 3D, while executing the engineering and design, truly works to promote creative thinking. It also stimulates a more pro-active thinking, giving designers the ability to address coordination challenges before encountered during construction. One great example of this… wall-hung art.

Coordinating wall decorations with electrical devices is rarely a simple task. Sometimes the interior design lags behind engineering design, never catching up until the very end when electrical designs have already been finalized and are under QA/QC review. Missing details as seemingly simple as wall-hung art, can equate to missing the needed wall-mounted art light. Or, as is often the case, the electrical design may place a fire alarm device on the wall interfering with the placement of art or other decorative element. When these details go unnoticed until the sub-contractor submits an RFI, the end result is a change order that could have very easily been avoided.

Again, I am no guru, but I have learned from experience that working in a 3D environment increases your chances of identifying those small coordination items that may otherwise go unnoticed. After all, in 2D, wall hung art may be nothing more than a line on a page, blending in with the wall. But in 3D, you see it. This is just one simple example. There are countless others. Whether it is the sin of living solely in a 2D world, neglecting the power of built-in schedules, or failing to impart the intelligence into the modeling components, some facet of the program’s capabilities is limited.

Admittedly, on nearly every design project I have worked on in the last five years, all of them using the REVIT platform, the design team has failed to leverage the full power of the program. To be clear, I’m not just talking about the MEP team but rather the entire project team (Architecture, MEP, Civil, Structural, Lighting, Security, Food Service, etc.). We (as an industry) probably fail to leverage the full power of the tool, more often than not. But, why?

Inconsistent Skill Levels Lead to Inconsistent Models

Skill levels vary from person to person. In the exchange of models, often the origins or the scale have changed in one of the models, resulting in non-aligned floorplans. There are many other examples like this, of “little things” that can easily be avoided, yet when encountered, always wastes time, adding confusion to the process of coordination. I think these are truly one of the more aggravating challenges that can really make or break the success of a project.

Generally agreed, Building Information Modeling (BIM) has proven its value and is the real future of the construction industry. But what can we do as Architects, Engineers, and Designers to address these challenges and drive the industry towards greater efficiencies in technical coordination? The answer is somewhat complicated, yet sounds very simple… “We have to learn how to use the right tool, the right way.”

I’ll pick on my counterparts for a moment to illustrate a good example. In the glory and splendor of the mechanical world, many engineers and designers I have encountered are very hesitant to use the tools built into programs like REVIT, for much more than, well… drawing. To this day, I am still quite puzzled as to why someone would elect to use a hand saw when there is a power saw available for the job! Nine times out of ten, when I pose the simple question “why”, the answer is “the program does not perform the calculations correctly”. Other answers include “I don’t know how to use it”, or “the spaces aren’t defined correctly in the linked Architectural model”. Then there is my favorite response, “I can’t trust it…”. As an electrical person, I won’t pretend to be a mechanical expert, but I find it hard to believe that the reality is much more than a classic case of Garbage In = Garbage Out. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the real issue is that we just don’t know how to use it the tools correctly. (I find myself whimsically picturing a caveman with an iPhone.)

Define a Plan. Implement it. Stick to it.

Inter-discipline coordination between M, E, & P is one thing. But cross-functional coordination with other consultants can be tricky. How do we ensure everyone is playing on the same field? I think the right answer therein lies in having a well-defined BIM Implementation Plan for the project. I won’t go into detail here with regard to what constitutes a solid BIM plan, but many examples of varying degrees exist in the public domain. (One such example can be found here.) Instead, the key takeaway here is simply the importance of defining a plan, implementing it, and sticking to it. Successful coordination across the entire team, regardless of whether the medium is verbal, written, or model-based, requires effective communication and a clearly defined process for how the project information should flow, something the BIM plan should clearly define.

Typically, from project to project, overall accountability for effective communication and coordination rest primarily on the Project Manager. As project managers, we can work to emphasize the proper use of the tools at our disposal. As firms migrate from one platform to another–Micro Station to AutoCAD to REVIT–many team members are resistant to change. And while it is the individual firm’s responsibility to implement that change successfully, Project Managers leading multi-consultant design teams can be very effective allies for firms initiating change, by underscoring the importance of an effective BIM plan.

Take the Time to Embrace Change

Technology has advanced so rapidly; in most cases we struggle to keep pace with understanding its ability to increase our effectiveness. Across our industry, users are customizing these tools with add-ins and custom features, to perform to their respective needs. We like to use the term “smart” when referring to these wonderful gadgets and programs, because they are intended to make us more efficient. But the reality is, we aren’t much different than a caveman with an iPhone if we don’t first take the time to learn how to use them effectively.

Part of changing our approach to projects in the A/E industry means embracing technology and committing to leveraging its capabilities to the maximum extent possible. Doing so will help ensure that we are able to maintain effective, efficient communication and coordination on the projects we undertake. (Maybe that equates to trying a BIM cloud for real-time coordination on the next project, investing in more intensive training, or re-evaluating our BIM plans.) Whatever the circumstances are, we first have to be willing to fully embrace change. That means commitment and time to master the tools we have at our disposal. The bottom line is a better product, better service, less stress, and sustainable culture for success.

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