Should BIM time savings be invested in design time?


I’m writing this blog after one of those fierce debates that occasionally flare up on Twitter where 140 characters just doesn’t seem sufficient to express a point. This time it stemmed from a talk I gave at EcoBuild last week where I expressed a preference to spend time saved internally by automation through BIM on refining the design or investing it in our technology strategy and implementation.

Claire Thirlwall of @ThirlwallAssoc, who many of you will know from landscape BIM, tweeted her approval of BIM enabling more design time. The ensuing debate quickly polarized into camps who agreed and those that felt any time saved should be used to shorten the design period instead of allowing more design development in the project programme. This second position seems short sighted and demonstrates a lack of understanding about design process and the merits of quality in design. Why would it be desirable to relentlessly shorten the planning and design of a project by weeks or months when a building may stand for 50 years or more? Process needs to be appreciated, ideas tested and design allowed to develop even on the most commercial of jobs. Design quality is an aspect of sustainability that is too easily forgotten in favour of all things green and fluffy.

Design time may be often limited on projects but some of us still hope to be hired because at least in part we are known for paying attention to detail at every level of a project. This comes through in so many ways in a piece of architecture that has been well thought out. Good design can look effortless, even obvious, after you’ve seen the solution to a complex problem and it is rarely the result of anything other other than hard work and long hours. Is it that people don’t understand what designers mean when they use the phrase ‘high quality design’? Do some people mistake it perhaps for simple aesthetic over indulgence? Perhaps, but let’s think about the big issues that make a project work well or fail dismally. Take for example the spatial planning of a project with a complex brief on a constrained urban site that has a huge number of varied end users, such as a hospital or University. Without even too much consideration of what things will look like there are immediately a host of complex relationships that need exploring, structuring and communicating to kick start the design development and without time there can not be proper testing and proper feedback from stakeholders. Much of this is really the development of a detailed brief, the foundation of any successful design must be the briefing, imagine how wrong the building could be if this is rushed. Sure it may look glossy and expensive but does it work for the users? Sure we want things to look great and we enjoy the process of testing that out too, but without time there is no process.

For me this is why design consultants should defend strongly their right to spend the time they save internally on producing a better quality building, because these will surely be longer lived, longer used and longer loved buildings.