The role of the Architect

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With the development of Building Information Modelling (BIM) is there still a need for a lead consultant on a build?

The architect has always had the title of lead consultant, but with the development of Building Information Modelling (BIM) there is a justified argument to challenge this role. The title of lead consultant may in fact be divisive — is there still a need for such a title or role?

When Sir Christopher Wren designed St. Paul’s Cathedral in the 17th century there was no such thing as an architect. Wren was in fact a mathematician and back then it was the gentlemen of the time who were involved in the design of buildings. Such gentlemen would also carry out the structural engineering and provide all construction costs, as well as project manage the build.

There is no doubt that the architect has a central role to play in the early stages of the project and is the expert in bringing all of the parts of the process together. As the project moves beyond stage C there is a need for co-ordination and technical input, and this is where the architect starts to struggle on the bigger projects.

With the adoption of BIM, the design team will have produced information digitally and included geometry. Instead of trying to co-ordinate two dimensional information, such as drawings of a three-dimensional building, a computer programme will now carry out the review and identify any issues.

The lead consultant has always had responsibility of co-ordination; however a new role has come about. The BIM co-ordinator is a specialist in the use of proprietary software and has an excellent understanding of how a building should be assembled. The ideal training for such a role is as a project architect or technologist. It is a specialist role requiring specialist skill, providing the glue which can bring a project together.

The architect will put the case forward that this task belongs to them. I would agree with the argument and that certainly some of them do have the skills. However, it is no different to the development if the role is taken on by the project manager or the construction and design manager. The architect can do it but with a large complex building, they often do not have the focus to do it.

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On smaller projects it is easier as it is possible to be lead consultant and project manager, but on large inner city projects with complex planning issues, the reality is that the architect does not have time to carry out the role.

Co-ordination is therefore done with a light touch and, even though no architect would ever admit it, the risk is passed to the main contractor and trade. This can and does work, however it is expensive and can be adversarial. Ultimately and most importantly, it is not providing value for the client investor.

The BIM co-ordinator can also take on the role of model and data manager. This responsibility has to be established at the outset of the project development if the maximum benefit is going to be derived. As with any database, it is essential that the initial outputs are understood and controlled throughout, with the BIM co-ordinator establishing and maintaining the protocols throughout the lifecycle of the project.

As buildings have become more complex with increased systems and fabric it is no longer possible to comprehensively co-ordinate all of its elements. Two-dimensional software is available for modelling and visual co-ordination of the building geometry in a virtual environment. The three main aspects of a building’s design are brought together into a single geometry and further software has been integrated to identify issues in the model. The computer power and sophistication of this software can assist considerably in resolving issues and enable building with confidence.

Architects are still keen to retain this role as it is a further erosion of the lead consultant’s duties. The reality is that there are new skills required to understand and operate the software. Co-ordination of buildings is now so involved that it has justified a separate role. The architect can carry out the role but needs the specialist software skills. The other main issue is that co-ordination needs to be given an appropriate priority — unfortunately the architect often has so many conflicting responsibilities that co-ordination can become a low priority.

The BIM co-ordinator or model manager can also add value to the building lifecycle beyond this. If appointed at the outset, data sets can be agreed and the information monitored throughout. The information can be used for scheduling through to costing, as built data also has yet untapped potential in operation.

While an architect may have the skills to carry this out, it is not sufficiently important to be a role in its own right — this is no different to how the role of project manager or engineer was developed for that matter.

The majority of architects work on small projects and operate as sole practitioner. On such projects they can carry out a wide range of services, however on more complex and high value projects there is a requirement for specialists in a number of fields. The architect should focus on the areas where he or she adds the most value and has unique skills. This is usually at the outset of a project resolving the conflicting challenges of briefing requirements, compliance and planning.

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