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Building Better Models by Building Better Relationships

The prevalence of technology in the design business today means that team members are literally sharing gigabytes of information at fiber optic speeds.  For the most part, this is great.  We can work faster and almost anywhere in the world with near instantaneous access to the latest update of the last square foot.  Lately, though, I have come to think that in our zealous embrace of data and information, we risk losing the understanding required to foster solid relationships among individuals and their firms.

I’m revealing a little about my age here, but when I first started in this industry, CADD (computer-aided design & drafting) hadn’t entirely taken hold.  I still recall drawings that were drawn by hand.  When a late change was needed, either by an engineer or the architect, it was made on Mylar with an electric eraser. What a pain, right?

However, there was one good thing about that process:  It was communication-intensive.  Without email back then, project team members were forced to pick up the phone and actually talk to one another.  In the course of these conversations, other relevant information was usually exchanged, such as the reason for a change and possibly the logic that led to it.  The ensuing discussion just might have led to better understanding not only of the project, but also of each firm’s operations.

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Often the conversations also would have evolved from strictly business topics.  Maybe discussions included how well a child’s sports team did in their game the night before, or where the family planned to go on their next vacation.  Is that kind of chitchat irrelevant to work?  I don’t think so.  Better understanding is built on a personal level; as is better collaboration, also known as teamwork.

In contrast, consider the communications process today.  Building Information Modeling (BIM) and e-mails can be exchanged with a few mouse clicks, often without substantial dialog or conversation.  By reducing communications to messages passed in cyberspace, we not only lose the “personal touches” in our conversations, but we may also create the potential for problems.  The amount of detail in a 3D model is so great that it can be challenging to know what’s most important to the various team members as they coordinate their design work.  Although the information exchanged is exponentially greater than before, some of the intricate understanding of the project as a whole, including team members’ needs and priorities, may be decreasing.

The seemingly endless capabilities of modeling technology pose a further risk: redundant or unnecessary effort.  For example, how accurately does the model need to depict various building elements?  Does a particular decorative chandelier need to be rendered accurately, or can a simple cylinder play stand-in?  The answer depends on the purpose of the model.  If it’s for a contractor who is bidding and building the project, a 2-D symbol on paper will probably suffice.  If it’s to be used to convey the “feel” of a space as part of an interiors presentation, it’s worth finding (or creating) model content to match the fixture.  A good-old voice to voice conversation keeps everyone on the same page.

“In our profession these days, we definitely communicate a lot. In fact, we average 4 hours per day on email, according to Mimecast ‘The Shape of Email 2012’.  The issue is, however, do we communicate well?”

MIT Professor Sherry Turkle wrote a book last year called “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” in which she cites numerous studies that indicate over-reliance on technology as opposed to conversation saps our empathy and our ability to communicate.  Writing in the New York Times, she says, “Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.”  Why?  Because unlike software, it is unpredictable and serendipitous, two of the essential qualities that differentiate you and me from the machines.

Turkle is especially concerned with the effect of smart phones, but I think her point is well taken for any communication mediated by digital technology.  In fact, even beyond BIM, the volume of digital noise bombarding today’s workforce is sometimes deafening.  Studies by McKinsey and Radicati in the last four years show the proliferation of business e-mails: The average is more than 100 a day, and each must be dealt with one way or another.  Even deleting takes around 5 seconds each – 40 unproductive minutes a week.

I’m as guilty as anyone of letting the digital whirlwind carry me away.  But I hope this is a case of diagnosis being the first step to a cure.  From now on, I will strive to keep in mind the importance of periodically stepping back, regrouping and talking things over.  I would never argue against advancing technology, but in the end our business is about relationships between people.  It’s important for all of us to remember that these relationships require clear understanding and communication if they are to flourish – and if we are to prosper.  Let’s talk soon!

Mark D. Layfield, PE, LEED AP

Mark is a Licensed Professional Engineer, a LEED Accredited Professional, and Principal-in-Charge of Reese Engineering’s Denver area office.