“THE PROBLEM WITH REVIT….”
By KELVIN DONALDSON, DIRECTOR, GILBERTS
Let me just start by explaining that I love Revit and am totally convinced that BIM in general and Revit in particular are the future – without question. This article sets out to be supportive of that position, but to recognize the shortcomings of where we are now and what is needed to ensure that the continued development of the utilisation of Revit delivers the benefits to the construction industry in general and in particular to architecture within the UK that it should do. My particular focus will be, because it has to be, the problems encountered by developing Revit use within a small practice.
Allow me to tell you a little about me. I am an architect and qualified as such in 1984. When I went through my five years at Edinburgh College of Art in the 70s & 80s, the only computing that I did was to write a programme on my Sinclair Spectrum to perform a simple Building Regs. calculation. Since then, my utilisation of technology in the design and construction of buildings has steadily grown.
I started using AutoCAD as Release 10 but at that time a significant portion of my time was still spent on the drawing board. There wasn’t a computer for everyone and you had to book or negotiate time on the CAD workstations, mostly located in the nicotine filled CAD room (how times have changed, Alex). By the time I joined forces with George to form Gilberts in 1992 one of the first decisions we made was that everyone would be armed with a computer and each technical member of staff (technicians, architects & students) would utilise AutoCAD as the ‘workhorse’. In 2007, as the director specifically responsible for driving the development of technology utilisation, I recommended and championed the adoption of Revit in parallel with AutoCAD, with a view to it replacing it entirely in the fullness of time. That plan was progressing well, with a solid core of Revit power users pushing its adoption on many projects. At that time we were a practice of almost 30 technical staff, turning over well in excess of £1 million per annum in fees. Much of our work was in flatted residential development for local, national and international residential developers.
Then came Autumn 2008 and since then all of those enthusiastic young guns have gradually departed, leaving me to continue to push and champion Revit on as many projects as is practical, with the assistance of my co-directors and a small core of our original staff. We are now a practice of 4 full time directors and 3 other part time members of staff. For a variety of reasons, we have been hit very, very hard.
Now that is all very well, but anyone who knows me will be aware that I am not a technical junky. I am by no means a Luddite, but when the conversation goes to LISP routines, customisation and programming, I just can’t help but glaze over!
At the outset, I think that it is only fair to accept that a lot of the following challenges are more general to the construction industry rather than to BIM practitioners, Revit users and / or Autodesk in particular. Many of the points relate to working practices and habits entrenched within the industry and influenced by the major players who control how projects are developed. They are much bigger than software or hardware problems and much harder to solve, but that doesn’t make them any less real and in many ways it makes them much more fundamental to successfully integrating BIM within architectural practice in general and the construction industry as a whole.
In my opinion there are four fundamental barriers to the successful adoption of Revit in general and in a small architectural practice in particular:
At the heart of all of these challenges is the chronic under investment in the British construction industry as a whole. This shows itself in many ways and in many places, but never more so than in the joint pressures of time and money on most architectural projects and practices.
In a marketplace where architectural fees are often cut to the bone and more often than not pushed back and concentrated within the construction phase of projects (to minimise cash flow pressures on developers), this is diametrically opposed to the pressures exerted by a BIM process, which seeks as much and as detailed information to be decided upon (to some extent at least) and incorporated within the BIM as early in the process as possible. This is reflected in the new BIM overlay produced by the RIBA in response to this particular dilemma. However, how much leverage this will have within the industry at large is questionable, being realistic.
The reality is ever growing pressures to minimise the time and expense of producing information at the early project stages, cutting corners and producing wafer thin information – the bare minimum to suffice at every stage of the project. This is hampering BIM absorption within practices which in itself is making the construction industry in general and the profession in particular less and less efficient.
In addition, time allowed for these early stages is often compressed to well under any realistic practical period. Again this happens because it is convenient for developers to compress the design period, giving the design team a reduced period to produce project design information, hemmed in by the conclusion of legally binding missives at the front end and the backstop date for purification of those missives at the other. Insufficient time is left to design the building and gain the planning consent required to allow the project to proceed. All of this conspires against the production of technical information in anything like the detail that we should be producing it in, all in order to reduce the client / developer’s exposure or at very least to delay it until as late as possible within the construction process. None of this has any benefit to the efficiency of the project, but the corrosively cynical view often prevalent is that the overall efficiency of the project as a whole might de-risk or reduce the exposure of the project funder’s money, but that is not as important as reducing the exposure of the developer’s (client’s) money at the front end.
This is closely linked to the short-termism mentioned above, either as a cause or an effect. Architectural practices are being operated on shoe-string budgets in this climate and as such there is no leeway for putting in more effort ahead of the reward on the basis that it will be more efficient for the project as a whole. This is as a result of crippling competition on fees and the resulting low percentage fees being earned on projects. The result – practices forced to work in an inefficient manner to sculpt their effort to match the fee payment stages, as mentioned above, often geared to focus on the later stages of the project where the contractor, not the developer, will pick up the ultimate bill.
The irony of this is of course that the project will have to bear the cost of the architectural fees anyway and in addition, it will have to bear the cost of the inefficiencies, errors and clashes resulting from a more traditional, less BIM orientated way of working. Clients have to be persuaded of two critical facts:
1: That reducing architectural fees to a minimum and below is counter productive to the overall efficiency of the project and equally or more importantly to the quality of the end product.
2: That re-structuring the fee payment schedule to reflect the new plan of work and the work patterns inherent in a BIM approach will deliver efficiencies to the project many times greater than the relatively minor cost increases to the project of moving the payments forward in reflection of these work patterns.
This is a very real and growing problem to the adoption of BIM and the take up and development of the use of Revit. The demands placed upon small practices by Software giants such as Autodesk are out of proportion with the returns their products can deliver in the short term.
Firstly there is the ever growing demand on hardware placed by their burgeoning programmes and ever growing packages of products that they insist on bundling together. The raw demands of each new version on storage and processing power is inevitable and at least to a great extent offset by the ever cheaper relative cost of hardware. However, in software terms, much like supermarkets enticing you to buy 3 for the price of 2, when in reality you can only possibly use 1 before the “use by” date anyway, we are offered “suites” of incredible products few of us know how to use or could ever have use for. In addition, particularly with products like Revit which do not permit the “save as last years product” option (understandably), offices are railroaded onto the Subscription bandwagon which then churns out new versions on an annual basis. In my opinion, there is absolutely no technical reason for this, only marketing and commerce. Having to get used to a new product every year is ludicrous and this is borne out by the very marginal improvements from one version to another, never enough to require training to understand it, so therefore hardly earth shattering.
I propose that it is not in the users’ best interest to be faced with annual upgrades that have become so en-grained that their date based numbering system is actually 9 months ahead of when it should be – is this an admission of guilt, an acceptance that the annual upgrades are so much of a burden that they will take 9 months to implement in most practices at best (how many people are actually using Revit 2013 yet?) - or both? Personally, I believe that upgrades when technically justified - realistically every two years at most - would ensure the following:
1.That there was sufficient time to ensure that the upgrade was adequately tested, avoiding the assumption on the part of almost every user that the first version of every new release will be so ridden with bugs that it should be ignored.
2.That there was sufficient technical advancement in every release that there would be an enthusiasm on the part of the users to obtain it and implement it, rather than the dreary, almost exhausted “oh for god’s sake, is it that time already” reaction that greets it at present.
Another aspect of the technical development of Revit in particular that continues to hamper it’s advancement is its lack of genius loci – it doesn’t relate well to its context and it’s authors do not give enough emphasis to localising it’s families in particular.
It is evident that this is starting to improve, but because of third parties such as the National BIM Library encouraging / cajoling / dragging manufacturers by the nose (make your own choice) to produce their products as Revit families / IFC objects, not because of the efforts of it’s producers to tailor its product to suit its specific market areas. Perhaps this is as it needs to be, but there seems to have been no encouragement from Autodesk for manufacturers and I personally believe that their buy in earlier in the development of the product would have greatly accelerated it’s use and effectiveness.
My final plea in this category will probably seem intensely counter-intuitive to the executives at Autodesk, but I believe that all BIM software has to very genuinely address the issue of inter-operability between their products (possibly by means of translating hubs rather than necessarily true interoperability as such). It will never be the case that everyone will be operating the same software and the commercial reality is that would be an intensely bad situation. There are a variety of reasons for this, not just diversity in each market but also a growing diversity of disciplines feeding into each BIM project. It could and should be very much easier for these parties to cross reference but I strongly believe that the leading players have actively resisted interoperability (whilst saying the opposite) for many years. The reality is that this has held back the development of BIM and has therefore held back the sales profiles of all their products.
This is perhaps the most personal and anecdotal of the issues, but we as a firm have found an intense disinterest on the part of medium sized contracting organisations to being involved in construction projects utilising BIM to ensure that it is run more efficiently.
We have never had a client demand or even enquire about the use of BIM to deliver efficiencies. That may be a reflection on the commercial, medium sized nature of most of our clients, but we cannot be alone on interfacing almost exclusively with that type of client. Now, that is not to say that opportunities do not present themselves with such clients. We have a number of very respected client organisations who are very successful and are hugely respected in their own fields who are driven demented by trying to navigate their way through 8 volumes of CDM generated Operation & Maintenance (O & M) Manuals. We are often called upon to translate their techno-speak and are actively examining BIM-ing this information for a number of organisations. This is an opportunity both in the BIM-ing of this information and the future operation and maintenance of that BIM.
In my experience, contractors at all but the very largest end of the industry are still very conservative in their approach to construction and project management. Our main opportunity to drive a change in such organisations is through clients such as those mentioned above, clients who will occupy and operate their finished buildings for decades to come and who wish to be able to manage them more efficiently than they do at present. We are actively encouraging such clients to demand a BIM buy-in from tenderers as a pre-qualification condition. Our hope is not only to be able to realise a more manageable end product for these clients but also to demonstrate the benefits of such a process to these contractors and therefore build better relationships with them in the process. However, we do feel that we have to drive these opportunities; the impetus is very rarely coming from the contractors.
We have found a very similar experience until recently with possible consultant partners on projects. Particularly in the M & E field, there are very few small to medium sized practices with any Revit experience and fewer with any knowledge of the BIM process. I am very happy to report that this situation has changed with Structural Engineers, many of whom in the small to medium sized range are now developing their expertise and enthusiastic about developing BIM relationships on projects. However, I have yet to find a single Quantity Surveyor who is working on small to medium sized projects who has any BIM or Revit experience. This is a major difficulty in making the process complete.
Another missed opportunity to drive efficiencies into the very heart of the construction process in Britain in general is that of regulation. The government has at least committed to BIM on all of its building projects in just over 3 years time (but not the Scottish Government – well done Alex). However, there is no initiative at all to encourage adoption of BIM modelling and analysis in processes such as Building Control, for example. The Building Regulations are subjective rules applied to buildings and as such capable of technological analysis of a BIM version of the building. This has, I believe, been compulsory in the likes of Singapore for many years. Yet in the UK, Building Control feels at the bleeding edge of technology if they can accept their applications electronically (PDFs submitted via a website, although hard copies are still required to conclude the process!). This is nonsense.
1.I would suggest carefully targeting the clients most likely to understand the medium – long term benefits of BIM – those that are developers and operators. Organisations that will have to run and maintain the buildings we are erecting over a long period of time and possibly even demolish them at the end of their useful life are much more likely to see the benefits of a BIM model that can grow, adapt and develop in parallel with their building. Clients such as this – in our terms the likes of Housing Associations & Nursing Home Operators – are much more likely to realise the benefits of a BIM model not just for the construction process but beyond, into the facilities management realm. The BIM model can replace the shelf full of folders that nobody ever wants to look at (the O & M Manuals) and be infinitely more efficient as a source of maintenance information. Plus and very importantly, a small to medium sized organisation of this type will almost certainly not have nor wish the Revit expertise in-house, so this is a market for an additional, long term service which will be both profit making and an aid in developing a long term relationship
2.The owner/occupier clients who buy into the BIM approach must then be the ones who are targeted to amend their fee structure to reflect the change in emphasis on input & effort required to produce an effective BIM modelling project. Thereafter, these projects can be used as demonstration projects to persuade other client organisations of the benefits of the process. If needs be, the amended cash flow model on the committed BIM projects might also be utilised to assist in the financing of the BIM process on select projects for less committed clients. This can of course not be allowed to be a permanent solution, but if it allows the cash flow gap to be bridged, it allows a project to be more efficiently run than it would be in a non-BIM environment and ultimately therefore allows it to be more profitable.
3.I would encourage practices to add additional, complimentary beneficial services on to their normal offering as a means of demonstrating the fringe benefits of BIM. For example, at our practice we have invested in 3D printing technology which enables us to output physical 3D models from the digital data at any stage of the BIM process. We do offer this as an agency service also. Other add-on benefits can be very straightforward, such as scheduling, energy analysis, daylighting studies, sun studies etc. Being able to offer these benefits starting early in the design of a project and developing the design on the back of such studies is a clearly identifiable benefit of a BIM process.
4.To counter the lack of UK specific Revit families, I would suggest always seeking them from manufacturers. Sales ‘reps’ will never be the correct people to badger about Revit families of their products, but if their offering is not being selected because they do not offer such virtual representations of their components, you can be sure that word will soon get back to the right ears within that organisation. It might be the wrong reason to reject a product, but the repetitive threat of so doing so from numerous sources will soon have an effect. In addition, you can also offer to assist by either modelling these families as a service to these manufacturers (another potential income stream) or refer them to the right organisations who can do it for them in a comprehensive manner (National BIM Library, for example). If neither of these routes proves successful, there is always the path of modelling the family for your own, in-house purposes. In many situations, this doesn’t require to be a fancy render-able object, but a very simple bit of geometry with the key data attached.
5.This is an undisguised plea for your involvement, but it really can make a difference. Join and become involved in AUGI UK, where we attempt to foster peer to peer support across the range of Autodesk products and in the Revit arena in particular, we will continue to seek much improved country / area specific content from Autodesk and its partners. It is unlikely that we will ever have the influence to change Autodesk’s thinking on their annual subscriptions policy or the annual version upgrade path they are so committed to, but we can, should and will continue to seek better UK specific content.
6.Use the projects that you are proceeding with in partnership with your enlightened clients to insist upon contractors either with proven BIM experience or depending on the size and complexity of the project, use the project as an opportunity to assist with the development of such skills within a preferred contractor partner if they are willing to do so. Also, always be willing to sell your expertise to enlightened contractors who show willing to develop their in-house skills, or put them in touch with the right partners who can assist them in developing their skills. All the above is also equally as appropriate in respect of the rest of the design team.
In summary, we believe that there is no commercial alternative but to develop BIM skills to ensure your architect’s practice is empowered to progress in the modern world of construction. It is by no means an easy path at present and will continue to be a challenge in these financially constrained times. But with the right expertise and clever application at the right times on the correct projects, BIM in general and Revit in particular will be an enormous benefit to your practice and to the clients you need to encourage and retain.