October 25, 2007

Is the A/E/C industry ready for process reform?

  • Higher quality at lower cost can be achieved using sustainable design, building information modeling and integrated practice delivery.
    Special to the Journal

    Rendering by MulvannyG2 Architecture
    CarrAmerica’s Westlake Steps is using an integrated project team, building information modeling and sustainable design.

    Today’s commercial real estate market and environmental conditions require the construction industry to adopt new strategies to remain competitive. Construction costs are skyrocketing, materials and crews are in short supply, and the demand for office space keeps going up. The question for industry players is how can you control construction costs, reduce operating costs and get revenue streams flowing faster — all while making buildings more sustainable?

    We will examine three strategies to manage market conditions and challenges inherent in the construction industry:

    • The integrated practice delivery process.

    • Building information modeling.

    • Sustainable design.

    A new delivery model

    The architect, contractor and engineers traditionally work in silos — dealing with design, construction and operations as separate functions. Integrated practice is a new delivery and contractual model that is the cornerstone of a more cost-effective and efficient building process. The A/E/C community has discovered that integrated practice is the most effective method for tying together traditionally disparate systems.

    In the integrated practice delivery process, everyone with a stake in the building’s design and construction, from architect to mechanical subcontractor, meets face-to-face throughout the design process, contributing their specialized expertise or perhaps some beneficial, yet out-of-the-box thinking. This shared design responsibility offers the possibility of significantly increased productivity and efficiency.

    By collaborating during the preconstruction and schematic design phases, MulvannyG2 Architecture and general contractor Mortenson Co. will avoid costly changes during the construction phase of Westlake Steps, CarrAmerica’s mixed-use development on the west edge of Lake Union. For example, by eliciting suggestions from the entire integrated team while working on the design of the underground parking, the architects were able to find cost-effective solutions to geotechnical, structural and construction issues. Those solutions were used in the design up front, as opposed to fixing a potential problem several months later during construction.

    Using this integrated process, we have found the consultancy percentage remains about the same as in the traditional process. What changes is the “spread” so that the bulk of the consultancy is placed up front during the concept design. By the time we reach the traditional design development phase, there is less consulting required. In other words, more true design work occurs up front during schematic design.

    By involving key partners, including subcontractors and suppliers, early on in the process we are able to cut the product cycle time from concept to market, reduce waste with leaner processes, provide higher quality at lower cost, and provide more choices to our client.

    BIM transforms design

    Photo by Robert Pisano
    Redmond’s City Hall was designed to LEED silver standards, a testament to the city’s commitment to sustainable design.

    Industries such as aerospace and automobile manufacturing have used enterprise-wide information technology to fundamentally change their ways of doing business. Similar to CATIA, the three-dimensional computer-aided design system that revolutionized airplane design, building information modeling (BIM) radically transforms the way building designs are created, communicated and constructed. BIM is not just the electronic transfer of paper documents; it greatly increases the ability to control, modify and analyze information. It also allows construction options to be designed in an unprecedented and interactive way.

    For example, MulvannyG2 used BIM to study the impact Westlake Steps would have on the neighborhood. By viewing the 3-D building model, which realistically replicated the completed site, the design can be adjusted to minimize negative impacts while maximizing value, such as well-proportioned floor plates and optimal views. In addition, this technology is allowing the team to study various parking scenarios and compare them for cost, efficiency and flexibility.

    BIM technology also significantly improves team coordination, leading to fewer miscalculations and changes in the field. When all the structural components and mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems are superimposed on each other, we can immediately identify conflicting construction points.

    In the construction industry, a request for information (RFI) is initiated by the general contractor, answered by the architect, distributed to all stakeholders, and generally accepted as a change to the scope of work. RFIs usually translate to longer production time and increased costs. By using BIM technology and an integrated practice delivery system, we have found that RFIs could be reduced up to 99 percent in some projects. BIM technology also enables engineers to manage or maintain a facility remotely through the Internet.

    The move from paper-centric information to parametric, model-based information means that the digital design can be used for cost estimations, scheduling, energy analysis, simulations, structural design, facilities management and other functions. We have only touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of application potential of information technology in the A/E/C industry.

    Our impact on climate change

    With so much attention given to transportation emissions, many people are surprised to learn the “inconvenient truth” that buildings are the single largest contributor to global warming. In fact, buildings are the major source of demand for energy and materials that produce by-product greenhouse gases.

    Here are the facts provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration and Building Owners and Managers Association:

    • Buildings are responsible for 48 percent of all energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions annually. Globally, the percentage is even greater.

    • Commercial buildings account for 18 percent of total energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions annually.

    • More than 75 percent of all power plant-generated electricity is used to operate buildings.

    • Energy costs represent 30 percent of a typical building’s annual budget and are the single largest operating cost.

    Because the A/E/C industry’s impact on climate change is so significant, many Fortune 1000 companies want and, in some cases, demand sustainable buildings and office space. Reduced operating costs are one obvious benefit, but it’s also been proven that green buildings help recruit and retain employees, increase productivity and morale, and reduce absenteeism. A range of sustainable practices, from using recycled materials to positioning a building to maximize energy conservation, are increasingly entering the mainstream.

    From a business perspective, it makes sense to invest in green buildings. The actual costs are easy to measure and the benefits include energy and water savings, faster lease-up, higher resale value, financial incentives and tax credits.

    Keeping up with the green building trend, construction companies such as Mortenson are finding ways to maximize reuse of on-site building materials and to recycle a large portion of the site’s demolition and new construction waste. They are setting up projects to facilitate LEED credits, such as the use of advanced commissioning. While the architect is responsible for many of the LEED credits (material selection, building orientation and performance), the contractor’s main role is facilitator for the team. Few LEED credits can be obtained without a total team effort.

    Retrofitting old office buildings is also achievable and can earn a LEED rating. However, retrofitting can be more challenging because new technologies are being introduced into old systems. Green HVAC solutions, day lighting, and energy-efficient light fixtures and controls are often targets for retrofitting existing buildings with the goal of enhancing the workplace, promoting greater worker productivity and reducing energy consumption.

    Continuous improvement

    We have covered three strategies that touch on a new model for collaboration, the transformation of building design through information technology and the timeliness of sustainable design. These strategies present an unprecedented opportunity for process reform in the construction industry.

    Fortunately, we are part of a community known for its leadership in green building and are considered a bellwether by international sustainability experts. Seattle is also recognized for the partnerships we have among building professionals, government agencies and utilities. Our growing expertise and resources — including architects, developers, contractors and materials — provide a significant benefit. Indeed, the spotlight on our city places us in a unique position to continually improve by optimizing the existing cooperation in the A/E/C community and using the evolving information technology tools at our disposal.

    Eric Anderson, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, is a senior associate at MulvannyG2 Architecture and project manager for the CarrAmerica Westlake Steps project. Mark Wagner is director of preconstruction services at Mortenson Co. and lead estimator for the Westlake Steps project.

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