AEC Collaboration: Crucial Step for the Building Industry

The key to becoming a bigger, better construction industry is collaboration on all levels.

Studies show that over the last 50 years, the building industry has lagged behind others in terms of increased efficiency and effectiveness. Why? A lack of collaboration among the various sectors of the industry.

My perspective on collaboration across the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry is influenced by experience: I have worked construction jobs, in a structural engineer’s office, and for architects. I am a licensed architect who has had my own architecture firm with partners and have been a solo practitioner. I have also taught in a number of college-level architectural programs. 

“We can create collaborative team members with mutual respect for everyone’s role in contributing to one of the oldest, most important industries on Earth.”

I have concluded, based on my 40 years of experience in this field, that increasing collaboration across the AEC will improve the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the entire industry.

The Silos of the AEC

I first experienced the siloing of the AEC in college, when I attended a very good university architecture program that had recently split with the engineering school due to conflicts between the administrations and faculties. We had classes where architectural design, structural engineering, and mechanical engineering were taught as separate courses. This meant we had to design three separate buildings, none of which took all three factors into consideration.

After that experience, we convinced the school to change to a model of team-teaching for one combined course in architectural design, structural engineering, and mechanical engineering. In that way, we got to see the interrelated considerations of how simultaneously working with all three aspects of design and engineering worked when applied to one building. 

We were told that “it was not the way it had been taught before” and that “it would require the professors to collaborate, and they haven’t done that before.” It was not easy to get the school to evolve to that way of teaching. 

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Renowned structures such as the San Francisco Ballet Building are the result of extensive communication between builders, designers, and engineers. Credit: Brunnelleschi9/Flickr

Many architectural schools today still do not teach an integrated approach to AEC. In fact, having taught in universities at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels in architecture, I can say that many students graduate with a limited knowledge of buildings. 

Many of them graduate without ever having visited a construction site, let alone actually having worked in construction. This shifts education responsibility to architectural firms, which have to continue educating graduates on the job.

Each component of the AEC—architecture, engineering, and construction—can significantly increase collaboration across and within the AEC, and each will benefit from that increased collaboration. I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to create and lead collaborative teams on my projects in all ways possible.

I led a hospital design project where I met frequently with all members of the engineering team, from the beginning of the project through completion of design. I also was Architect of Record for the San Francisco Ballet Building, where we had a range of excellent consultants that included structural, mechanical, electrical, and acoustic engineers. We also integrated a number of key product representatives to assure the careful integration of dance studios, offices, and locker rooms. 

In addition, I provided the construction period architectural services for that project and got to see the execution of every detail of every part of the building. We had an excellent general contractor that encouraged my complete involvement during the construction period. We often worked out a number of issues on the site as they came up.

This is not unusual in practice. Many good AEC companies work collaboratively on projects. Encouraging this kind of interaction, increasing this kind of collaboration, and teaching about it in schools will further improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the AEC industry on everything from home projects to the largest complex of buildings.

My single-family residence projects—while significantly different from commercial and industrial projects—have benefited from the combined knowledge, experience, and talents of a range of consultants and subcontractors. These projects successfully incorporated, reflected, and satisfied the homeowner’s needs, requests, and requirements all while meeting building codes.

I could not have done such good projects without this type of advice on designing, creating the drawings for review, approval, and for the construction of each project.

If architects visit the site often during a project and are open to suggestions that improve the project and encourage learning, they can bring valuable information back into the design phases. This can include information from subcontractors about a better way of drawing a detail than the way that may be typically drawn in the architect’s office. 

Architecture is a continuous learning experience. Who better to learn from than an engineer who has done something many times before, or the contractor or carpenter that has to actually build a detail?

Making the Lights Go On

This leads me to another issue. I once taught in a Ph.D. program in a construction department where I was asked to present to 14 students who were about to get their degrees. During my class, when I held up a detail and asked if anyone could explain what each line of the detail represented, no one could do so.

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I then showed them the same detail on a clear sheet of plastic mylar. I pulled forward a short wall section I had built earlier that day, for the purposes of this demonstration. I laid the clear detail against the built example, so they could see each line of the detail over the actual elements. And the light bulbs in their heads went on. 

A collaborative approach to the AEC is what needs to be presented in every AEC course, globally. We need to teach what buildings are and about to all of the players in the AEC. Each of us doesn’t need to know everything about what everyone does and how to do it, but we certainly need to be aware that they all exist. 

We can create collaborative team members with mutual respect for everyone’s role in contributing to one of the oldest, most important industries on Earth.

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Increased collaboration will improve the industry’s overall efficiency and effectiveness.

I attended online conferences recently in which construction companies referred to “the construction industry,” and didn’t use the words “architects” or “architecture,” but referred instead to “pre-construction services.” And an engineering conference I attended online referred to “design engineering” instead of architecture. 

As architects, we can do a better job of integrating ourselves into the building industry and can benefit from that when we do.

Today’s AEC industry can seem somewhat disjointed and discontinuous. We need to increase our ability to successfully, efficiently, and effectively communicate building information across the AEC for the benefit of the entire industry—beginning in our schools. This can actually unite us in a common goal. 

We need industry members aware of the benefits of increasing collaboration across the industry. There is need for—and room for— improvement.

During this current pause of AEC work due to the pandemic shutdown, I encourage AEC professionals to consider how we all can be more collaborative in successfully working across the AEC. We have the opportunity to improve the industry for its own benefit, and for our clients. 

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