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Carl Galioto: Software That Should Be Unifying the AEC Industry Is Impeding Progress and Innovation

This Op-Ed by HOK President Carl Galioto, FAIA, was first published in the September 2018 issue of Architecture Today.

I still recall the excitement I felt when computers entered the architecture studio more than 35 years ago. Some of us immediately saw the potential for these promising new tools (even with the software and hardware limitations of the day) to revolutionize architecture and integrate the entire building industry.

Decades later, that fundamental promise has never been realized. From CAD to BIM and beyond, new technologies continue to come online, but they serve what remains a siloed industry. The vision of an AEC industry united through common tools and platforms remains a dream. We can—and must—change this.

In both the U.S. and the U.K., construction contributes to nearly 7 percent of the GDP despite the fact that our multibillion-dollar industry trails woefully behind others in terms of innovation and efficiency. Valuable knowledge routinely is lost through the life cycle of a project as it changes hands from designers to contractors to building owners and operators.

It’s true that new technologies can assist us in designing better buildings. Technology’s advanced analytical and integration capabilities allow us to create better performing, more resilient designs. In specific cases we also are using new tools to share data with fabricators that result in more interesting design solutions for a reasonable price. Yet these incremental improvements are not enough. We should be striving for a seamless, integrated environment that streamlines the process, allowing us to realize more in the built environment with better end results for our clients at a much lower cost.

Limits to Interoperability

There is no single ‘information owner’ in the AEC industry. We remain fragmented with numerous knowledge managers—designers, construction teams, fabricators, building owners and others—each holding pieces of information that, taken together, solve a greater puzzle. Yet when it comes to the software these stakeholders use, there is no mandate or incentive that these varied technologies communicate with one another. Therefore they don’t.

This communication challenge is the case in the U.S., U.K. and Europe, and it requires a united front across the AEC industry to rectify the situation. Our work is rapidly changing and will continue to transform with new technologies. An increasingly digitized workforce will increase efficiency and lead to fewer jobs of certain types. Yet it will also bring much more opportunity if we work together and take control of our digital world now. Greater efficiency in the process will reduce total project costs, allowing clients to pursue more new work in the future provided they have the assurance they are engaging in a better integrated, more efficient and cost-effective process.

Who Drives Innovation?

We rely on software companies to innovate, but they also need to allow for sufficient openness within their platforms so end users can assist in advancing the technology. Designers should be allowed to customize these software programs to create solutions that can be shared throughout the industry in an open environment.

The AEC industry understands the failings of the current process. We live with it every day and fully realize how contractual barriers limit software interoperability and the efficient flow of information. While we don’t “manufacture” buildings, we could apply some lessons of the production process to our industry. How do you make diverse, beautiful architecture but with the benefits of the assembly line?

If we think of software and technology as tangential to the “real” problem of creating buildings, then we have lost. It is essential that we think of technology as the means by which the art, science and craft of building is achieved in a collaborative and holistic environment that bridges the AEC industry.

AEC leaders need to drive innovation and change or run the risk of being marginalized by future disruptive forces. We cannot wait for the software vendors to develop better tools. We must demand more from them and engage a broader playing field of vendors and developers who are aligned with our philosophy. We must push the boundaries on every project from the ground up and engage in broad, results-oriented discussions at the industry level.

How do we drive this change? We begin by talking to our colleagues. Then we speak to the vendors. Is the value we receive from their digital tools equal to our investment? Or are we essentially just paying an annuity that enriches the shareholders of their companies?

We are their customers. We are the experts without which their software would have no value. We need to demand more. A future in which each building is better than the last will require not only interoperable design platforms but also integration with machine learning and artificial intelligence to help us reach our goals. Changing our relationship with software and technology is about embracing our responsibility as the experts who will drive innovation and change for the betterment of our industry.

Get Involved

At HOK, we’re pushing for these changes through our support of groups like buildingSMART International and a particular focus on:

  • Modernizing buildingSMART with a host of initiatives to help it better serve the industry.
  • Supporting open-source software projects.
  • Developing an industry consortium to help fund and seed future open-source projects for the industry.

We welcome your company and team to get involved. It’s only through our collective input and engagement that we will accomplish the integrated future our industry deserves.

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