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  • Writer's pictureMaksim Markevich

One-sided points of view or ‘The most efficient building’ quests in the AEC industry

There are two main problems in the AEC (Architecture, Engineering and Construction) industry:

  1. The complexity of industry overall because of its contextuality. I am not even sure this word exists, but I am trying to say that every building has many contradictive contexts: planning, market, site, architectural, structural, construction, logistics and others. And usually, there is an army of people who try to marry those contexts. This is precisely why a building feasibility study is 80% about communication, and 20% is about producing a model, cost plan, appraisal and other digital assets.

  2. Slow technology adoption because the industry is still human-driven or process-driven, but not technology-driven. The procurement/delivery/relations are much more important than technology. If you think differently, tell me how BIM has changed the industry in the past 15 years? All the contracts still rely on 2D drawings as they used to be. It is not necessarily a bad thing (maybe, it is a risk-reducing mechanism that is hard to understand at a glance 😉). Also, we all know that process change and technology adoption should meet each other halfway. Still, currently, we are definitely at the human end of things. And it is even funnier taking into account the fact that the AEC industry is wrapped by building codes, permits and compliances (where there are more rules, there should be more straightforward automation).

Sometimes I think that the second problem is a result of the first one and the only problem industry has is problem number one. And I believe that there is a mathematical way to prove it, but I cannot make it. 😁


So why does the blog have this strange name, and how does it connect with AEC's problems?

When you have a lot of participants in a very complex process, and no one catches the whole picture, everybody starts complaining about the inabilities of others, and everybody sees their own 'the most efficient building'. Don't get me wrong, what I mean is that the phrase 'the most energy-efficient building' makes a lot of sense while 'the most efficient building' makes no sense at all. So when you use the word 'efficient', there should be a criterion somewhere near (please 🙏).

Thus delivering building is a complex process that should be considered holistically, but when it is not happening, we have a lot of one-sided points of view. This blog is about them 🤏.


Where do POVs come from in the AEC?

The answer is pretty straightforward - they come from participants. There are many different participants in the AEC industry; to name a few: Client, Developer, Architecture/Design Firm, Engineering Firm, Construction Management Company, General Contractor, Subcontractor, Manufacturer. And that's not taking into account numerous Consultancies.

We can simplify and say that every participant produces digital or physical assets, whether it's a cost spreadsheet, blueprints, or part of a building. Also, we can simplify that the goal of the whole industry is to produce the final product - a building with a specific function. But! We cannot facilitate the way industry participants serve this primary purpose. For example, the gang above can go many different procurement routes, such as Traditional Contract, Design-Build Contract, Management Contract, Engineering Procurement and Construction (EPC) Contract, etc. On the scheme below, I tried to visualise two of the most popular procurement routes and how they affect participants, their responsibilities and interactions.

procurement routes, design-build, design-bid-build, traditional contract

Let's analyse the design-build scheme to make sure that everything works well. First of all, I pushed some assumptions to make the scheme easier than it initially was. The first assumption is that the client and developer are the same individual/company. So everything starts when they prepare a project brief and begin planning application preparations. Then Developer or Client orders conceptual design from Architectural Firm, cost plan from Cost Consultancy and scheduling from Construction Management Company (Consultancy). At this stage, project participants (architects and consultants) prepare information at a very conceptual level:

  • there is not enough time, so architects create a very high-level model without facades, finishes or any information about building materials at all

  • there are not enough details to build a proper cost plan, so consultants rely on benchmarks and assumptions about materials

  • structural engineers are most often not even involved at this stage

  • planners produce schedules based on rough assumptions like 'building will be built traditionally' vs 'building will be built with pre-manufactured panels'

Then the fun part begins - General Contractors (GC) bid during the tender. GC that wins a tender goes further and becomes responsible for design and construction. In that case, the GC hires (when GC doesn't have its in-house forces) architects, structural engineers, MEP engineers and goes hard on the pre-construction phase. After that, GC builds a building on his own or with the help of Subcontractors.

Such procurement route creates skin in the game for GC or a single point of responsibility for the Developer or Client.

I skipped a boring contract part (there could be single-stage or two-stage contracts) because it is enough theory. Let's return to our one-sided points of view.

I emphasised that building delivery is challenging by showing you two procurement routes. And what is even more interesting is that every participant in the pipeline or procurement route has their view on the process itself. Everything is relative, right?

Let's dive a bit deeper into participants' points of view about the pipelines they involved.

Architecture/Design Firm. Architect's POV

Architects' process flow, project lifecycle

Cost Consultancy. Cost Consultant's POV

Cost Consultants' process flow, project lifecycle

Developer. BIM Manager's POV

BIM, project lifecycle

As you know, real-life still can be a bit different from what I drew. To make sure the flows above are the most common in the industry, I counted on some standards and practising friends:

  1. I took Architect's POV from the RIBA Plan of Work. Almost all architects I know are in love with RIBA stages, so am I

  2. The Cost Consultant's POV was taken from RICS NRM1 and adjusted a bit regarding the respectful opinion of Cost Consultants (friends of mine)

  3. I have many friends BIM Managers. They all have different points of view, even on the nature of BIM management itself. 😁 This is why the flow above is an average 'D'-based flow (do not judge harshly)

As you see above, seemingly, the same building delivery process is different for different participants, even with the same job titles. On the other hand, although, all these steps are connected between different companies because they follow the same goal (at least, in a healthy environment) - to build a building. Thus we can easily map Architect's flow and Cost Consultant's flows:

How project lifecycle different for architects and cost consultants

No doubt, there are many points of interconnections because of the reason I mentioned above. But, nevertheless, process flows are different, and everybody works in their solar systems. I hope that is something we agree on.


'The most efficient building'

Let's speculate here on what the 'most efficient building' means for different parties:

Developer/Client

Developer initiates construction of a building in order to make a profit.

There is a straightforward formula that helps developers make decisions about specific parcels of land:

RLV (Residual Land Value) = GDV (Gross Development Value) - DC (Development Cost)

GDV - is forecast revenue from the completed development (selling or renting).

RLV is calculated for any site considered by the developer and then compared to a site value benchmark. If the RLV is lower and/or not sufficiently higher than the benchmark, the project is not technically viable. DC - is the forecast cost of the completed development: site acquisition, construction cost, project/design team fees, etc.

So, the juicy site contains tasty RLV, and its maximisation is the main criterion for any developer.

RLV -> max

Note: I am not saying that this is the only criterion, but I am saying that this one is the most important. Some developers build affordable homes, some build posh ones, but the residual land value is still residual land value.

residual land value, gross development value, development cost

Architect

While developers worry about profit, architects worry about building function and the environment to make people's life comfortable with no harm to the ecosystem around them.

It is the tricky part, guys, I have spent a lot of time selecting words to describe the architects' headaches, and I am still far away from it. Every architect has their own opinion on this matter: some of them believe that architecture is a problem-solving process, some think that architecture exists and this fact is enough. Honestly, I have never seen a building concept without stories behind how it improves (objectively or subjectively) the life of people concerning the environment and ecosystem. I think that most disputes about architecture are connected with solving subjective problems because objective problems are easy to measure (no disputes needed). Let me give you an example, creating pedestrian ways or cycle links are quite objective solutions we can measure while reinforcing street edges or welcoming focus to the building's entrance are subjective solutions.

Architectural analysis of the site

But they are still solutions to specific or imagined problems, so in my opinion, architecture is a problem-solving process.

Let's speculate on what is 'the most efficient building' for architects. Making a building execute its function is rather an essential restriction than an objective, but reducing carbon emissions, maximising customer satisfaction and minimising surrounding architecture disruption are quite clear objectives or optimisation criteria. Besides what I mentioned above, there are many other purposes, so we have a multi-criteria optimisation here.

Carbon emissions -> min Customer satisfaction -> max Surrounding architecture disruption -> min ...

As you know, any multi-criteria optimisation can be solved as a single-criterion task if the correct function is found. There is an excellent abbreviation that is more commonly used in finance than in architecture - ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance). However, the ESG framework is a set of principles that many architectural firms follow as well. Environmental stands for carbon emissions and energy efficiency; social is about customer satisfaction, community, wellbeing and safety; governance stands for executing the first two principles. Thus we can invent a 'the most efficient building' criterion and call it E&S (environment and social). Imagine environmental and social polynomial functions; their intersections will give us E&S compliance points. If they don't intersect, we find spots where polynomes are closer to each other and call those spots trade-offs.

E&S compliance points or spots: environmental function (materials, energy, lighting, etc.) = = social function (building typology, context, network, etc.)

Structural Engineer

There is a lovely quote: "Any idiot can build a bridge that stands, but it takes an engineer to build a bridge that barely stands". We can change the 'bridge' to the 'building', and the quote will still have the same meaning.

Structural Engineers design structural frames that carry loads applied to the building, including building weight (dead load). The cost of construction materials (concrete, steel, wood, mass timber, etc.) used to build structural frames is usually based on their weights. Thus the structural efficiency is generally connected with the load structure bears and the structure's weight. That is why the most efficient structural frame for a specific load will be the most lightweight frame. Thus we can define 'the most efficient building' frame as a frame where load applied to the structure divided by the weight of the structure tends to the maximum.

Load Applied to Structure / Weight of Structure -> max

Contractor

We need to build some assumptions to define 'the most efficient building' for the contractor. First, let's assume that the quality and the time of delivering the building are fixed (a solid premise 😱). Then the only thing left is the cost. So the contractors bid on tender, declaring that they would build a building for a certain cost. And everything is included in this 'certain cost': logistics, staging, construction labour, equipment, materials. Suppose all those things are the same for the different contractors, so we can say that logistics, staging, labour, equipment and materials are our constants. In that case, the only difference between one contractor and another will be the operational efficiency (variable) with which they deliver a building.

So what does 'the most efficient building' means for the contractor? Is it a building that is easy to build, with typical repeatable structures and pre-manufactured parts, with enough space for proper staging and good logistic conditions? I think so; it is a combination of all the above things and many more, which can be conveyed through the cost of operations and logistics.

(Cost of Operations + Cost of Logistics) -> min

Manufacturer

Suppose the building has pre-manufactured components: 2D panelised systems or 3D volumetric modules. Manufacturing productivity focused on increasing the quantity of the pre-manufactured components. On the other hand, manufacturing efficiency (manufacturing operational efficiency) improves operations' effectiveness and quality. Thus 'the most efficient building' for the manufacturer is the building that contains components that can be produced at the lowest possible cost of operations.

Cost of Operations -> min

When materials for those components are confirmed, the only way to achieve the lowest possible price is to make the same components, so repeatability is the key for 'the most efficient building' when we talk about the manufacturer.

 

Fun fact: 'The most efficient building' definition is somehow related to the cost for all parties except architects 🤙.

POVs conflicts

All those different points of view they contradictory not only in comparison with each other but also within themselves. So, for example, the architect decided to use mass timber to reduce carbon emissions, but at the same time, the building needs to have extensive spans to carry out its functions; thus, we are having conflict between environmental function and social function. Therefore it is all about trade-offs.


Let's go through other examples of conflicts between different points of view.


Developer vs Architect

  • The architect has chosen mass timber as a primary material for the building to reduce carbon emissions.

  • Building floor plans required specific spans.

  • So mass timber beam needed has a cross-section height 100 mm more than the same load and span reinforced concrete beam.

  • Because of that, the architect couldn't fit eight storeys building within the allowed enveloping because of the height restrictions (potential reasons: sunlight/daylight calculations, St. Paul's Cathedral corridor view, etc.).

  • The developer gets one storey (six units) smaller building and, as a result of it, reduced RLV

Developer vs Architect, mass timber frame vs reinforced concrete frame

Structural Engineer vs Contractor

  • The structural engineer designed the most efficient structural frame.

  • It has 20 unique columns (different cross-sections dimensions for each one) inside a 1000 m2 building footprint.

  • The contractor needs to order additional formwork and organise labour specifically because of the frame efficiency.

  • As a result, the cost of operations for the contractor increases a lot, although the structural frame is indeed the most efficient one.

Developer vs Contractor

  • The contractor invested in Cunningham Parking Garage System (formwork) and achieved operational excellence for building rectangular parking garages.

  • The developer has an irregular site, and to get tasty RLV (residual land value), they need to develop 1130 stalls.

  • The contractor needs to build bizarre parts of the building where a well-thought-out formwork system cannot be used. But, of course, all this raises the construction cost.

  • Construction cost reduces RLV for the developer, and the developer needs to balance GDV (gross development value) and DC (development cost) to get more profit.

Architect vs Manufacturer

  • Without knowing that the building would be built with pre-manufactured 3D volumetric modules, an architect started the project. There were no hints about that at the beginning.

  • In pursuit of street edges respect, the building became oval shape with no repeatable units.

  • Which required more than 100 unique modules to produce. As a result, 3D volumetric modules technology is not the case anymore because it makes the construction very expensive.

  • DFMA (Design for Manufacturing and Assembly) abbreviation occurred after cases like this.

Well, we have a lot of points of view. So what?

First, we need to appreciate them ✌️. Second, we need to accept that designing and building a building is 80% about communication and interaction. No kidding, guys. It took me a while to get this.

What are the main conclusions we can draw from all the above?

  1. If you want to build better and faster, make participants talk to each other.

  2. If you build software for the AEC, leave some space for collaboration, notwithstanding the problem you solve.

  3. If you are a structural engineer and your wife is an architect, you will undoubtedly have tough times. 😁

I genuinely believe that the best way of making participants talk to each other is to gather them all in one boat (sail away from the shore but don't punch a hole in the bottom, it will not help). This one boat type is a vertically integrated company that contains architects, manufacturers and contractors aboard. That fact creates skin in the game for all participants and contributes to better building delivery. Amen.

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