Fans of the Marx Brothers' film classic, "A Night at the Opera," will recognize the punchline to Groucho and Chico's contract negotiation routine. Elsewhere, Groucho Marx said, "Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies." Although he probably wasn't referring to our present system of disincentives for intelligently using digital technology in AEC, plant/process, and infrastructure projects, Groucho wouldn't have been too far off the mark, either.
In last week's LLetter™ (LaiseBoy™ Philosophy, Part 3) I argued that "we shouldn't be surprised that the relationship between 3-D digital models and the physical building is an almost total unknown." We do not lack for visualization, animation, and simulation tools that can accurately represent a building's appearance and predict its behavior (Bill Mitchell, FRAIA, Dean of Architecture and Urban Planning at MIT, has remarked that the only reason we can spot the difference between virtual and actual views of a room is because the virtual floor is cleaner). But, the legal, contractual, and liability issues that might connect 3-D or 4-D virtual building models to actual buildings are, at best, undefined—and, at worst, defined by incorrect diagnoses and misapplied remedies.
Our customary procedures and practices still apportion the risks and rewards associated with project documentation in a manner consistent with the 2-D paper drawings of the past and the 2-D digital drawings of the present. If engineers and architects chose to deliver 3-D virtual building models under today's rules (at least in North American practice), they would create windfall project benefits for the builder and the owner, while accruing no tangible economic benefit to themselves. Worse, in our adversarial business culture, A/E's of virtual buildings may expose their firms to new risks and potential liability by defining and describing things outside their professional scope of work and/or by revealing data and relationships within the model that exceed their contractual responsibility and authority.
At the recent Virtual Builders Roundtable (VBR) workshop and Virtual Building Environment (VBE) seminar, speakers from design practices as diverse as HO+K and the office of Frank Gehry bemoaned this problem. Jim Glymph, a Gehry partner, observed that, "To get everybody on board with a model would require moving human capital and money to earlier phases of the project, but there is no supportable case to be made to the owner to move that money around." Mario Guttman, Corporate CAD Director at HOK, added that, "The industry doesn't even have a formal sense, in information science terms, of what project documentation information is important and how it's structured."
Moving along the information food chain to the building contractor, the situation is little better. Outfits such as design-builder DPR Construction, Inc., with extensive experience in virtual building, have difficulty quantifying the benefits of 3-D/4-D modeling, and have even greater difficulty recovering the cost or earning compensation for the effort invested in their virtual models. Both Dean Reed, head of DPR's scheduling department, and Eric Lamb, executive VP for northern California, commented on the necessity for a new contractual and legal framework so that those who take (virtual building model) risk will gain corresponding benefits. Among DPR's "Deltas"—things they would do differently next time—regarding their virtual building projects to date, "compensation for modeling" ranks high on the list.
How to break the cycle? It's too easy to blame the real estate development community, which has devolved from build-to-own, through build-to-suit, to build-to-flip. Or, to blame the lawyers and the insurers. However, these folks are only doing what we as a culture have asked them to do: protect us from our own worst impulses. Perhaps what we need, as suggested by Stanford Professor Martin Fischer, is a system of "economies of familiarity," in which repeat participation in teams of like-minded designers, constructors, and owners leads to the kind of trust and mutual understanding that may, in turn, lead to better allocation of virtual project risks and rewards—an ever-escalating virtuous cycle. If we are to cultivate such economies of familiarity, then the Virtual Building Environment and the Virtual Builders Roundtable may be the best places to start getting familiar.
Let me know what you think.
Editor and Publisher, The LaiserinLetter™
Analysis, Strategy and Opinion for Technology Leaders in Design Business