Phillip G. Bernstein, FAIA
Phillip G. Bernstein, FAIA

Building information modeling (BIM) has been ingrained into the vocabulary of design firms around the world, but the degree to which it is implemented varies widely. Its debut into the mainstream practice in the early 2000s coincided with the rapid digitization of building tools, leaving many firms grappling for strategies to integrate and implement these technological advancements effectively.

Phillip G. Bernstein, FAIA, vice president of strategic industry relations at Autodesk, lecturer at Yale School of Architecture, and coauthor of BIM in Academia (Yale, 2011), sat down with ARCHITECT to discuss where the building industry is going and what architects can do to survive.

How will improvements in design and construction efficiency due to tools such as BIM affect jobs?
The nature of the building industry work will be different. Design work will be about model-based representation analysis. Construction work will be about model-based construction management. Larger components of building will be pre-manufactured or mass-customized, which means skill sets in the field are going to change. More construction work will happen on factory floors instead of on jobsites.

Across disciplines, there’s going to be some integration of practices … and a demographic shift in the practice of architecture. With the emergence of these very large-scale, super-integrated firms with somewhat ambiguous missions, there’s going to be pressure on mid-sized design practices. There’s going to be a consolidation, and mid-market contractors may find themselves gone because in order to play at a certain scale, you’re going to need a certain-scale business set.

Does the movement toward modular building systems infringe on design?
Most architects would argue that unless the systems allow design flexibility to a degree, the answer is yes. My response to that is, “OK, go design those systems.” I don’t disagree that it’s a problem, but rather than fight the inevitable, why not get involved and try to figure it out? If our profession sees this particular transition and interprets it in the same way that we’ve interpreted the transitions in the past 40 years—the liability crisis, the construction management process, the sustainability issues—we’ll be rendered largely irrelevant. A bunch of newly enabled, digitally empowered, educated construction management types will take away the construction industry. We’ve got to fuzz that line up in between the two disciplines [architecture and construction] … in school and in the field.

List five things architecture firms should do to prepare for the future.
The first thing that I’d do is spend time thinking about what your firm will be doing in five years. If you think that your firm is going to be doing the same thing that you’re doing now, you’re really wrong.

Secondly, you have to position your use of technology as a strategic decision, not as an operational decision. The firm that treats BIM software like a Xerox machine is going to find itself back on its heels. The transition from the non-digital to digital processes is very fundamental, much more so than the shift back in the early ’90s from hand-drafting to CAD—[that change] involved a lot of hardware and training, but it wasn’t a shift in the frame of reference or in the business model. It was a shift in responsibilities.

So … [third,] you have to think about what you’re going to do to make that shift. Competitive pressures are coming from all sorts of places: the economy, larger practices, and global competition. Right now we see the early signs of that. For example, in the construction projects that are going on, you will not see a major contractor pitching a job without BIM—even if it’s what the contractors like to call “Hollywood BIM.” Nobody shows up to pitch a job without a model-based approach.

Number four is asking yourself, based on numbers one, two, and three, what sort of talent do you need in your office? Can you transform the talent that you have or do you need to go out and upgrade? By upgrade, I mean that you might need younger, more digitally savvy, less experienced, more flexible, less pedantic, more hungry staff. There might be some actual trade-offs.

The fifth thing is that you need some willingness to experiment, and the expectation that some [of those] experiments are going to fail.

My friend Scott Simpson from KlingStubbins loves to say, “Architects love to change things on everybody but themselves.” The demands that are going to be put on architects by owners, their collaborators, and contractors in the next five years are really going to change: the degree of collaboration, the kind of information flows, the risk-management scenarios, and the alternate project delivery constructs. Some firms may be able to hide from that if they have been doing projects for the local school board for 20 years. But the practice doesn’t work that way. It just doesn’t.