The rise of technology in design

September 2013 » Features » SURVEY
Firms are becoming more mobile, investing in project websites, and boosting design technologies.
Christina M. Zweig

Technology investments are an area of seemingly unending possibilities and difficulties for most architectural, engineering, planning, and environmental firms. Surprisingly, only 86 percent of firms responding to ZweigWhite's 2013 Information Technology Survey said they had an IT department or at least one, full-time, dedicated IT staffer. That percentage is, however, increasing.

While investments in technology can be driven by customers who demand the latest and greatest design and delivery methods such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) as part of contractual negotiations, many firms also realize that technology is a business necessity. Both basic and more advanced processes such as knowledge capturing, dissemination, and management; project information management; and document archiving and retrieval are generally reliant on technologies that need to be kept up to date. Many systems, such as those used for HR management or CRM systems, can provide a firm with a serious "leg up" over competitors.

Some of the most influential new technologies are related to mobile access. For example, 60 percent of firms have remote network access available to all employees, and 29 percent have made it available to "some" employees. Almost half of all surveyed firms (43 percent) said they expected spending on mobile devices to increase in 2013, and 37 percent expected a spending increase for cloud computing.

Project websites
While almost all firms need a company website to be successful, the use of individual project websites is definitely on the rise. According to the Information Technology Survey, 57 percent of firms said they have created/set up a project website. This can be a costly endeavor, depending on how extensive the websites are. Seventy-five percent of these firms said they included a charge in the project fee to create and maintain this website, while 14 percent charged the client firm at cost. Seven percent of firms charged a markup on the project website.

A variety of project website systems are available. Microsoft's Sharepoint (58 percent), firms' own custom or in-house applications (40 percent), and ProjectWise from Bentley (27 percent), are the most popular project website systems. Two-thirds of firms reported they host their own project websites.

Once a website is created, setting access permissions follows. Client(s)/owner(s) were understandably the most popular audience given access (77 percent). Other groups include other design firms working on the project (74 percent), only employees from the given firm on the project team (66 percent), and contractors (60 percent). All employees at the firm were given access to project websites in one third of firms responding to the survey, and only 18 percent of firms gave access to the general public.

Popular content for project websites included working drawings (75 percent) and contact information (75 percent). Photos (70 percent), calendar/schedule (67 percent), meeting minutes (64 percent), correspondence (58 percent), and tasks/assignments (51 percent) were other common content.

BIM use increasing
A quarter of firms are using BIM in at least 50 percent of their work, with the top quarter of firms reporting that at least 31 percent of their staff are using BIM. More than half of firms said they plan to increase BIM use in 2013. Firm leaders said the advantages of using BIM include better coordination, increased efficiency, and fewer errors.

Primary disadvantages of BIM cited in the survey include a time commitment to learn the new software and cost. According to one survey respondent, BIM is challenging because of the need for "hardware and networking upgrades, more robust computers with more memory, RAM, high-end graphics cards, and multiple CPUs. WAN devices and bandwidth usage increases due to very large file sizes generated by BIM applications and the volume of information sharing arising from the collaborative nature of BIM projects. Storage costs for data also increase due to the large 3D models and emphasis on digital rather than paper project documents and files."

Other reasons cited to not use BIM include "insufficient quantity and frequency of projects to maintain skills or achieve quantities of scale," one respondent said.

Looking to the future, no matter what difficulties may arise, the industry is constantly improving from advancements in technology in the form of newer, cheaper, or more accurate sensors, scanners, cameras, robots, and satellites, as well as automated processes, improved data visualization, and real-time collaboration.

The "2013 Information Technology Survey of Architecture, Engineering, Planning & Environmental Consulting Firms" is available for $445 at www.zweigwhite.com/p-2157-information-technology-survey-2013

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