The Haphazard March of Progress
Author: Andrew Krebs, Digital Studio Manager, Sweco
It is undeniable that as human society progresses, it does so alongside the technology it is underpinned by.
Looking closely, there’s an uneasy link between the progression of technology and that of societies. It can be the society which drives the technology, or vice-versa. Usually there is an unquantifiable mixture of both meaning the march of progress resembles more of a stagger.
Today is no exception, our society is beset with information like never before, connected devices are in our pockets, on our tables and even mounted on our walls. To simply read the time from a clock can be to interact with a device which connects with every country on earth, albeit in a rather abstracted manner.
There is another reason for this, we are all, in our own way, addicted to information, to connection and to the hormonal cookie delivered every time we connect with someone or something in what we take to be a constructive or affirming manner. Thanks to dopamine, I think it’s safe to say that human beings will always congregate around technologies or social structures which enable connection, come what may. (I mean, we tolerate Twitter in our lives because it enables us to feel heard) To take a physical example, our ability to speak in the complex manner we do, has come about partly by the unique position of our larynx in our throat, which has come at the not-inconsiderable cost of being able to choke on our own food! A penalty that no other animal has adopted (1), but humans have accepted, to enable us to have arguably the most complex vocal communication capability on earth.
“Why am I reading all this in a blog about digitisation and the march of progress in construction?”
It’s a fair question and I think we should start to link the subjects. Let’s recap; humans and society continually develop, we change every day and are never the same twice. I have highlighted the role communication plays as both a driver and an outcome of these changes and it’s that theme I wish to connect to the topic you were maybe expecting to read about.
I came into the sector in 2008. At this time, I was sat down in front of a computer-aided drafting (CAD) package and taught how to create lines. Even at the time, I assumed I was creating more than just lines. These weren’t lines, they were luminaires, they were cable containment, they were information which allowed someone else to interpret what I was creating, and ultimately, reproduce it in the physical form of installed electrical services.
Before long the opportunity arose to go onto sites, to witness the physical manifestation of my lines. To my surprise it wasn’t anything like I had visualised. My nuanced and calculated lines were to the next reader simply lines. The installer added their own nuance and pre-conceptions, and guess what? They were different to mine.
Before too long I was sat down by a partner at my firm and told I was going to be on the team for our first building information modelling, “BIM”, project and was promptly given Revit 2011 and a ticket to the USA where I was to go for 2 weeks to learn how it worked. Upon returning it became clear that not only was I to design on Revit, I was now to teach every other electrical engineer how to use it!
I had gone from Average-Grad #4 to Cutting-Edge-Grad #1. I was now the future.
The biggest difference between this new tool and the old was that I was no longer creating lines. I was using objects and those objects had an absolute identity, they had characteristics captured as metadata and were significantly harder to misinterpret than the lines I had been drafting.
Well except for the fact that all my amazing 3D modelling got flipped onto 2D plans and printed out at A1.
So was my amazing new data rich work for naught? Well, no, whilst the installer bolting the stuff to the soffit may have been using a paper drawing as always, what happened was that the design and construction teams were engaged in ever more detailed coordination sessions using the design models, so that when the fitter got their drawings, they were in receipt of more rigorous information than ever before. Time on site fixing my naivety was greatly reduced, and how? Because the new tech allowed us all to spend more time communicating in a coherent and valuable manner! Aaaahhhh dopamine.
Since then we have gone from BS/PAS 1192 to ISO 19650, sheaves of drawings became Extranets then Common Data Environments and the amount of electronic information we produce has vastly overtaken the amount of paper we create. The emails we send are now being replaced by online environments where we can track and collaborate, in real time on specific issues. As a result, the 4 weeks I spent (literally) climbing around the main riser of an existing hospital building surveying with clipboard and 4-coloured-pen has been replaced by one week’s laser scanning which can be directly transmogrified (I am told this is the correct term) into a 3D model for all to use.
This is happening in, what is officially, the second most change-resistant manufacturing industry in the country. We resist change like few others, yet the industry today is vastly different to how it was a decade ago. Yes, a decade feels like a long time, but when you step back it’s not really. It’s a fifth of most people’s careers. The result of this progress is that we have quicker projects, better cost certainty, better coordination and the ability to routinely create geometries that were previously only the dream of the most incense ridden of architects.
In construction, the march of progress has been inexorable and in my next blog we will explore how this is manifesting in the physical world.
1 - https://www.si.edu/newsdesk/factsheets/did-you-know-human-origins-facts#:~:text=Humans%20are%20the%20only%20mammal,choke%20on%20its%20own%20food.
About the author: Andrew entered the industry in 2008 as a graduate electrical engineer in a building services consultancy after spending 4 years as an apprentice electrician in the manufacturing industry and studying electrical and electronic engineering at University. Andrew was an engineer on his employer’s first BIM project in 2010 before becoming their first Task Information Manager in 2015 and has spent years working to define the topic and role of Information Management within the consultancy sector, Andrew joined Sweco in 2021 as the Building’s Digital Manager and became the manager of their new Digital Studio in 2023. A long serving member of the CIBSE Digital Steering Group, Andrew was one of the founding members of the Society of Digital Engineering of which he is now the Chair. Andrew has contributed to numerous industry documents and standards from BSRIA BG6, through to the CIBSE Digital Engineering Series and Guide K: Electricity in buildings.