Hyperlinked Practice

Achieving meaningful digital communication in today's AEC environment


The technology of the Internet has not impacted the tools and processes of the Architecture, Construction and Engineering (AEC) Industry as much as other industries or modern culture in general. In some respects this observation is unusual considering the architecture process is one of the complex communication. From a neural standpoint it would have been logical to assume Internet technologies would have been quickly adopted given their theoretical ability to enhance communication. However from a professional viewpoint inside the Industry it is not surprising AEC digital processes are still very isolated.

Construction is a very demanding process that relies heavily on strong leadership and communication within a project team to achieve the desired result. Consequently from the beginning of human history complex organisational structures have been employed to formalise and manage these processes to attain a successful result. At the opposite end of human development the Internet is effecting profound change on many aspects of modern life through its decentralising ability to supplant formal, top-down media with personal, hyperlinked conversation. Business processes are being changed as management comes to the realisation that their workers actually understand what they are doing and need to be listened to. "While managers had gotten really good at bossing people around, they didn't know much about how things actually got made. This naturally resulted in many high-level executive-type conferences about 'The Knowledge Deficit'." (p162, The Cluetrain Manifesto) Almost overnight the field of 'knowledge management' was created for the new breed of intelligent 'knowledge worker'.

However whilst other industries have begun to embrace this distributed environment it is with some irony that the emphasis of current AEC technology lies in consolidation around a single Building Information Model (BIM). There are some very strong reasons for using a centralised model that revolve around control and change management. However BIM works against the hyperlinked principles of the Internet, stifling informal communication and fire-walling direct communication between workers. In order to benefit from the Internet an interface is required to BIM to enable Web-based navigation and hyperlinking of the model and its meta-data to other sources. Unlike the broad semantic models of BIM the hyperlinked practice would promote participant conversation through different personal and formal sources. Rather than interjecting completely new technology the success of the hyperlinked practice would hinge on the reutilisation of existing, proven Web and AEC methodology. Consequently richer project information repositories would be enabled as search tools could be applied within project teams as easily as they are deployed on the Web. The hyperlinked practice would acknowledge the complexities of the unified information model and instead focus on maintaining a common point of reference between different data sources. Instead of seeking unification through elimination the hyperlinked practice assumes data will be always be distributed across a number of formats and will work to promote understanding through open conversation.

A Future Scenario

Exactly how the hyperlinked practice would effect the industry is uncertain. It is envisioned through the following fictional story that the tightly controlled, adversarial nature exhibited by present day Industry professionals could be positively influenced by better comprehension of wider project issues and less formal communication channels.

Kelly stared at her list of tasks for the day and did not like what she saw. The architectural graduate was working under John, one of the Practice's directors on a large office development. The project was running behind schedule mainly because halfway through construction the Client had changed the brief requirements for the top floor when they realised the other floors would more than satisfy their initial needs.

For a week Kelly and John had been making design alterations. Before and after an element was modified in the Building Information Model the computer would bring up a list of important considerations drawn together from the workblogs and supporting documents of the project team. Kelly did not understand exactly how it worked she knew that by selecting a part of the model a search tool would go out and find relevant issues based on hyperlinks to and from that part of the building in CAD files and documents. Just like Google the more times something was linked to the more important it probably was. Kelly was surprised that the modification of a single wall could draw such sharp criticism from the contractor or invalidate so many design requirements identified in a concept design process she was never a part of. She wondered why the Client wanted to go to such trouble but John reassured her that nothing was ever easy in construction, but at least now the hyperlinked conversation helped identify issues quickly rather than waiting weeks for project meetings or a little longer for law suits.

Late in the afternoon just as the design modifications were nearing completion Frank the building scientist commented on his workblog that the functional change would break a key Government energy guideline. Frank previously had not been involved in discussions as his analysis work had been completed before construction began. Fortunately for the project team Frank kept his feed reader monitoring project developments for instances just like this one. In his post Frank hinted at how this guideline could be met but concluded by saying some further simulation would be required. John wryly smiled at Frank's post, the young scientist had a knack for picking up extra work by keeping an eye on project developments. He posted a reply to Frank's workblog that requested further simulation of the area be completed as soon as possible.

The next morning John and Kelly arrived at the office to find a summary of Frank's findings marked important in their news readers. The north windows were too large given the size of the HVAC system and the cooling load of the new functional requirements. John checked the construction news feed. The steel structure had been put in place a week ago without issue but fortunately the glazing had been delayed due to scheduling difficulties. He was about to ring the site when a follow up comment from the Foreman to Frank's post informed everyone that the construction team had been moved to the east facade until this issue had been discussed with the Architect. John quickly replied that he agreed with the Foreman's decision and he would be in contact as soon as possible with a revision.

While John was at a meeting with the other directors, Kelly opened her Building Model to checkout the problem area for herself. Some podcasts recording early client discussions about the northern facade had been hyperlinked to the model. In the recordings the client made some very clear aesthetic demands that contradicted the requirements set by the Building Scientist. Kelly made an entry in her workblog noting the contradiction between the briefing requirement for large north windows and Frank's report giving reasons for smaller windows. She rang the Client to inform them of the problem and arrange a meeting time for John later in the day. She recommended the client checkout the discussion between the various team members so that when John met with them later in the day they had a clear understanding of the issues.

In the afternoon John travelled to the Client's office to discuss alternatives. In the time between the problem being brought to their attention and the meeting with the Architect the Client had browsed the discussion thread and had thought through some acceptable compromises to bring to the meeting with the Architect. During the meeting the John made some quick notes and sketches on his tablet computer of the agreed upon design solution. In the taxi on the way to another meeting he uploaded the document to his workblog, referencing it to Kelly's previous workblog entry and the CAD file that would need modifying. He sent a text message to Kelly to inform her of what he had done and to move forward with documentation of the proposed solution.

Kelly modified the CAD file as the Director had requested and published the changes to the project registry. She then published her modifications and emailed the building scientist, notifying him of the change with reference to John's notes and sketches. The Building Scientist searched the project registry for the modified windows in Kelly's CAD file based on the hyperlink she gave him. A quick look at the layer's properties which the windows were now a lot smaller and slightly higher. He modified the simulation file and reran the simulation. Initially the simulation did not meet code but Frank found a slight increase in wall insulation levels would just allow the building to pass. Late in the afternoon Frank posted the successful simulation results along with his suggested increase in wall insulation to his workblog. In the blog he placed a hyperlink to the to Kelly's CAD file modifications and linked to the wall area that needed extra insulation. Just to ensure everyone understood the problem he placed a final link to his initial post pinpointing the code issue.

The Director returned to the office and checked Kelly's documentation against the building scientist's simulation findings. By this time the contractor had seen the unofficial design modifications on his news reader and had posted his unofficial approval of the proposal. Safe in the knowledge that the Contractor and Building Scientist were in agreement the Architect emailed the Client to get their approval for the change request before going home for the evening.