Adapting to a changing environment helped APAC’s architecture firms stay open for business, but it hasn’t been business as usual. The pandemic forced companies to adopt new processes and new tools. The changes promise to take the profession back to a previous gilded age.
As COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease, APAC's architecture firms are coming to terms with their own version of the new normal.
The last two years have been marked by project delays, reduced billings, workforce realignments, and rejigging operations to reduce overheads. Amid so much change and the risk of new disruptions, firms across the region have had to think hard about how they continue to deliver value to clients.
"Clients are asking for more assurance that things are being done correctly,” says Kate Frear, director at architecture firm Woods Bagot. “As architects, there's more onus on us to demonstrate that compliance is being managed well. There’s also been a sway towards understanding the full lifecycle of buildings and how that will impact the client’s business requirements, whether they’re holding assets or looking to get rid of assets.”
Disruption can be painful, but it can also spark intense periods of innovation. The 2007-2008 financial crisis allowed the nascent fintech industry to shine and helped kick off the gig economy. Both trends were backed by new cloud platforms and better mobile apps.
Some of the pandemic’s highest-profile tech stories have been the rise of video conferencing and the mass shift to e-commerce. In architecture, it's been the growing adoption of building information modeling (BIM).
In a time of remote working and virtual teams that collaborate across geographies, BIM has enabled APAC’s architecture firms and clients to stay aligned on design and keep projects moving forward.
Not that everything’s changed. “The main work is still the design of physical space and addressing how spaces will be used,” said Tetsu Yoshida of Japanese architectural, planning and engineering firm Nikken Sekkei. “What's needed now is multifaceted information processing that includes not only authoring but also project management from design to completion. We also need tools that help us design for added value during the building's operation."
What Is BIM?
BIM enables the creation of finely detailed 3D digital models of buildings. Architects use them to share an accurate representation of what the final structure will look like, inside and out, with clients and contractors.
A 3D BIM model can integrate data sources outside of design and allow architects to conduct energy, light, materials, and cost analyses that help owners understand how a building will operate once it’s complete.
But it does more than give a glimpse of a building’s physical features. BIM platforms are a single source of truth for every project stakeholder. From architects to clients, contractors, engineers, and inspectors, BIM offers a shared knowledge resource where ideas are stored, and complex calculations can happen quickly whenever something changes.
This has helped APAC architects update their workflows in response to pandemic restrictions and continue designing high-performance buildings that are cost-efficient, sustainable, and visually striking.
“Major architecture and engineering businesses like ours are shifting to digitization to improve coordination on design, structural elements, equipment, and materials utilization among project partners,” said Nikken Sekkei’s Yoshida.
He says that more firms are now using BIM to link design documents and data, making the complex calculations and recalculations that happen during construction easier to execute quickly. Past and present project data is being migrated to cloud-based systems to create repositories of intelligence that can be used for analytics, inform the creation of new 3D models for future designs, and create better digital twins.
Those capabilities are game-changers that potentially redefine architecture’s place in the construction process. The profession may find itself once again at the center of new projects, playing a leading role from start to finish, and beyond.
Back to the Future
In days of yore, architects were ‘master builders’, overseeing the process end-to-end from concept to completion. Over time, their function evolved into something more specialized. Architects naturally fulfill the designer's role, but once plans were handed off to contractors, they had limited responsibility for the outcome of the finished product.
Kate Frear says APAC firms are now seeing a shift back to a more elevated role. BIM's capabilities have moved more of the design and build process to the front end, with architects doing more to identify potential risks and deficiencies before construction starts, collaborating more closely through the build with contractors and engineers, and looking ahead to how a building will be managed and operated after it opens its doors.
"The procurement model is starting to change,” says Frear. “There’s a swing underway, moving us back to a more traditional role for architects. Some building deficiencies in Australia have called into question what the role of the architect is, what the role of the builder is, and what the role of the client is. That's made it critical to ensure that risks are placed in the right buckets and that we’re clear about who's taking the risk. That's changing how we interact with both clients and contractors, and the emphasis on deliverables like 3D models and the information used to create them.”
Clients Are Seeing Digital’s Upside
Digital will continue to be an enabler as architecture responds to shifting client demands. A recent survey by the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) points to augmented reality as the next big source of pipeline opportunities, with 17% of respondents saying their firms were currently generating revenue from AR services.
In the meantime, clients also seem to have caught the BIM bug. Close to half of clients surveyed by the AIA said they are eager to learn more about BIM and its applications.
APAC’s architectural firms should “embrace the potential of emerging technologies by deeply entwining it into their business models,” said AIA president Tony Giannone in a statement accompanying the research.
Woods Bagot’s Kate Frear says doing that is already helping firms like Woods Bagot work closer with clients and help them achieve more holistic objectives.
"It does change how we consider the project. We can model things like the efficiency of claddings, look at building services, and more. When clients are prepared to undergo that design process, what you get is a much more resilient outcome."
However, BIM is still an evolving technology, and there is scope for improvements to make it more accessible for clients and partners.
“To better meet client requirements, it’s necessary to have a common language to improve communication between the parties. The key to this is a BIM data viewer that anyone can use easily, just like PDF,.” says Nikken Sekkei’s Yoshida. “If we can securely pull data that fits the workflow from the environment like CDE, where BIM and text data is unified, each project stakeholder will be able to use the data more effectively."