Monday, 25 March 2013

The Lead Consultant....

When Sir Christopher Wren designed St. Paul's cathedral in 17th century there was no such thing as an architect. Wren was infact a mathematician. Back then it was the gentlemen of the time who were involved in the design of buildings. Such gentlemen would design the building, carry out the structural engineering and even provide all costs and project management of the build.

Sometime after this the term architect was used and the Royal Institute of British Architects followed in 1834. Over the following years buildings become increasingly complex as new materials and technologies developed. The development of steel, concrete and glass gave greater opportunity to the architect. The structural engineer developed and began to specialise in the complex calculations required. As society developed there was an increase in regulation and buildings needed to comply. Calculations were needed for all aspects if a building design to prove compliance.

With the development of electricity and the telephone in the late 19th century building systems started to become commonplace.The discovery of North Sea gas in the 20th century allowed the development of more complex heating and ventilation systems. This would then mean that a specialist was required and the mechanical and electrical engineering profession was born.

Along the way quantity surveying developed as a profession when building costs were increasingly made up of components and materials. The complexity of projects meant there was a role for the project manager and an increased interest in heath and safety meant the requirement of the CDM coordinator.

We have also seen the development of fire engineers, acousticians , interior designers and landscape architects.

Throughout all of these changes the architect has fought hard to maintain the Sir Christopher Wren position of total control of the build. Such a view is embedded in the universities where the architect is the single point at the centre of the construction process with everything controlled by the profession. The most recent evidence is the development of the specials role of the project manager. Architects faught hard to hold onto this role however specialist could easily show their value to clients.

As buildings have become increasingly complex the ability of the architect to control everything has become impossible. New procurement routes have moved away from a traditional approach toward design and build, which is driven by the need to apportion risk.

At the same time as buildings becoming increasingly complex architecture schools have focussed less and less on the technical aspects of construction and have placed emphasis on the art in architecture. The focus in the art is probably down to the fact that building are so complex it is difficult for the schools to give an appropriate level of understanding.

All of the above is very interesting but you may be wondering what this has to do with the present. We are currently in another period of change. The architect has always had the title of the lead consultant. With the development of Building Information Modelling there is a justified argument to challenge the architect as lead consultant. The title of lead consultant may infact be devicive. Is there still a need for such a title or role?.

There is no doubt that the architect has a central role to play in the early stages of the project and is expert at bringing all of the parts of the process together. This includes the briefing design and planning. In the current environment this is very complex and requires huge investment.
As the project moves beyond stage C there is a need for coordination and technical input. This is where the architect starts to struggle with more complex projects.

With the adoption of BIM, the design team will have produced information digitally and included geometary. Instead of trying to coordinate two dimensional information such as drawings of a three dimensional building, a computer programme will carry out the review and identify all of the issues.

The lead consultant has always had responsibility for coordination. A new role has developed in the past few years. The BIM coordinator is a specialist in the use of proprietary software and has an excellent understanding of how a building shold be assembled. The ideal training for such a role is as a project architect or technologist. It is a specialist role and requires specialist skill.

It is an addition to the project team and the glue which can bring a project together. The architect will put the case that this is their role and is what they do. I would agree with the argument and certainly some do have the skills. However it is no different to the development if the role of the project manager or CDMc. The architect can carry out the role but with a large complex building they often do not have the focus to commit. . On smaller projects it is possible to be lead consultant and project manager. But on large inner city projects with complex planning issues the reality is the architect doesn't have time to carry out the role.

Coordination is therefore done with a light touch and even though no architect would ever admit it the risk and coordination is passed to the main contractor and trade. This can and does work however it is expensive and can be advisarial. Ultimately and most importantly it is not providing value for the client investor.

The BIM coordinator can take on the role of coordinator but also model and data manager. This role has to be established at the outset of the project if the maximum benefit is going to be derived from the model and data. As with any database it is essential, the outputs are understood at the outset and are controlled throughout.the BIM coordinator will establish and maintain the protocols throughout the lifecycle of the project.

As buildings have become more complex with increased systems and fabric it is no longer possible to comprehensively coordinate all elements of a building with confidence in 2d. Software is available which will allow the modelling and visual coordination of the building geometry in a virtual environment.

The three main aspects of a building design are brought together into a single geometry and further software has been developed to identify issues in the model.

The computer power and sophistication of the software can assist in resolving issues.

Architects still are keen to retain this role as it is a further erosion of the lead consultants duties. The reality is there are new skills required to understand and operate the software. Coordination of buildings is now so involved that it justifies a separate role. The architect can carry out the role but does need the specialist software skills. The other main issue is that coordination need to be given an appropriate priority. Unfortunatley the architect had so many conflicting responsibilities that coordination can become a low priority.

The BIM coordinator/ model Manager can also add value to the building lifecyle beyond this. If appointed at the outset data sets can be agreed and the information monitored throughout. The information can be used for scheduling through to costing. The as built data also has as yet untapped potential in operation.

Whilst an architect may have the skills to carry out this role it is not sufficiently important to be a role in its own right. This is no different to how the role of project manager or engineer was developed for that matter.

The majority of architects work on small projects and operate as sole practitioners. On such projects they can carry out a wide range of services. However on more complex and high value projects there needs to be an acceptance that there is a requirement for specialisms in a number of fields.

The architect should focus on the areas where he adds the most value and has unique skills. This is usually at the outset of a project resolving the conflicting challenges of briefing requirments, complience and planning.

For the record I am a qualified architect and my views are developed over many years in pat active where I have witnessed the challenges across project delivery.

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