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Long ago, project roles were well defined. Architects and engineers designed, contractors built, and owners wrote the checks. Over many decades, however, the lines defining those roles have blurred, with contractors increasingly handling or overseeing elements of design.

And it’s a trend that’s accelerating. More than 43% of contractors are gearing up to perform design work in-house, a 5% increase from 2018, with another 25% considering such a move in the near future, according to the “2019 AGC/FMI Risk Management Survey” from Associated General Contractors of America and FMI Corp.

While closely integrated design and construction organizations have long been routine in certain sectors, energy and industrial process work among them, the findings of the AGC/FMI survey reflect an environment increasingly influenced by time, technology and, of course, money. Compressed schedules are now the norm, say many industry leaders, in part because of more design-build. Off-site prefabrication also is a factor, with both GCs and specialty contractors taking advantage of production efficiencies to save on manpower and materials.

Adapting to this restructured landscape has not been universally smooth. Participants in the last two AGC/FMI risk surveys have complained of incomplete design documents, inadequate risk allocation in design-build, insurance and liability concerns, and issues coordinating with design teams.

Individual contractors’ approaches for expanding in-house design capabilities run the gamut from adding a handful of specialists as liaisons to developing full in-house design services, either organically or via acquisition (see graph 1). For example, Joseph Poliafico, Flatiron Construction’s vice president of safety and insurance, says his company has made a concerted effort to promote earlier and better communication with its design partners by using in-house staff to “look over their shoulder” as a design evolves. “It’s the reality of the market now,” he adds.

At the other end of the spectrum, Kiewit is among major firms that has significantly expanded in-house design capabilities, as the contractor seeks to apply the integrated design practices of its power business to other markets. Dan Lumma, president of Kiewit’s engineering group, says broader in-house engineering capabilities allow the company greater flexibility in adapting to specific problems in projects, especially those with complex requirements.

“We know that it’s impractical for us to do 100% of design and construction for every project in every market,” Lumma says. “In some, we will do it all and sign off as engineer-of-record. In others, we will work with design partners who understand and share our integrated approach.”

Key questions emerge: Is the need for in-house design indicative of growing pains that accompany any industry-wide evolution? Or, are there more deep-seated problems to be addressed? The answer, as many industry leaders point out, depends on the source.

Incomplete Design Documents Adding in-house design capabilities to augment and finalize design documents might seem, at first glance, a logical move, especially to support best practices in design-build. After all, initial designs are expected to evolve gradually through collaboration among the project team.

Twelve months ago, however, 92% of participants in AGC/FMI’s 2018 risk study reported that design documents were less complete than in the past.

Their concerns are not limited to specific project delivery systems.

“We’re seeing this across the board,” says AGC General Counsel Michael Kennedy. “Contractors are having to connect more dots on their own to keep projects moving.”
SHoP Architects, a young, award-winning architecture firm with an innovative design approach, shares its perspective on AEC technology in this Firm Profile.

What is the history and background of the firm?

SHoP Architects was founded twenty years ago to harness the power of diverse expertise in the design of buildings and environments that improve the quality of public life. Our inclusive, open-minded process allows us to effectively address a broad range of issues in our work: from novel programmatic concepts, to next-generation fabrication and delivery techniques, to beautifully crafted spaces that precisely suit their functions. Years ago, we set out to prove that intelligent, evocative architecture can be made with real-world constraints. Today, our interdisciplinary staff of 180 is implementing that idea at critical sites around the world. We are proud that our studio has been recognized with awards such as Fast Company’s “Most Innovative Architecture Firm in the World” in 2014, and the Smithsonian/Cooper Hewitt’s “National Design Award for Architecture” in 2009.

What is the firm's current focus? What are the key projects it is working on?

Since 1996, SHoP has modelled a new way forward with our unconventional approach to design. At the heart of the firm’s methodology is a willingness to question accepted patterns of practice, coupled with the courage to expand, where necessary, beyond the architect’s traditional roles. We are proud to have worked with clients such as Google, Goldman Sachs, and the United States Department of State. A snapshot of our current work includes a 1,400 ft Manhattan skyscraper at 111 W57th Street; the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York; 447 Collins, located in the heart of Melbourne’s Central Business District; the Botswana Innovation Hub in Gaborone; the Syracuse University National Veterans’ Resource Complex; and Uber’s new headquarter offices in San Francisco (Figure 1).

When did the firm start using AEC technology, and how is it being used today? How important is AEC technology to the firm?

At the heart of our process is set of evolving tools and techniques that have come to be known as Virtual Design and Construction (VDC). In a multi-dimensional environment, VDC is the process of digitally simulating the complexities of a design project under the lens of construction processes. This can include geometric rationalization, systems development/fabrication, logistics analysis and cost estimation, from concept through construction (or fabrication through assembly). The VDC workflow leverages emerging, cloud-based technologies to promote collaboration throughout all phases of design, production and building operation. SHoP has been a long-time pioneer of building information modeling (BIM), bolstered by Virtual Design & Construction (VDC) processes, a focus which has resulted in unparalleled architectural results under challenging delivery environments. SHoP identity has always embraced technology as a means to magnify creativity without sacrificing rigorous quality standards. SHoP views technology as a tool to embolden the rich nature of human collaboration. Some examples of SHoP’s technology implementation are shown in Figures 2, 3, and 4.

Does the firm have a specific approach and/or philosophy to AEC technology? If so, what is it?

For nearly two decades, SHoP has pioneered architectural design, encouraging owners, architects and contractors alike to form strategic relationships and deliver built work. The reason we do this is simple. By demystifying the process of construction, by presenting complex processes in a manner that even non-specialists can immediately comprehend, we can access the knowledge of every stakeholder in real-time. The result is broader, more fruitful, more fluid, and far more equitable collaborations. And that means better-performing buildings.

What are some of the main challenges the firm faces in its implementation of AEC technology?

A major challenge is that the standard AEC toolkit is not robust enough to facilitate the federated way that we should be working. We should have much more control over the pieces, parts and products, and their respective lifecycles, within a portfolio of projects. The platform should facilitate parallel processing as opposed to a linear construction. Our design work, in collaboration with all trades and stakeholders, should result in a digital twin of the project that can be meaningfully leveraged for the delivery of the project. Traditional