Geo Week News

March 1, 2017

The Discomfort of the Comfort Zone: Opportunities and Obstacles to Change in AEC


In moments of complete candor, most architects, engineers, contractors, owner-operators, and other involved parties will share their frustration with the way things are commonly done in AEC. The problem is much bigger than individual frustration, however: Over the past 20 years, while manufacturing productivity in the United States (and in other countries) has roughly doubled, construction productivity has been stagnant. The problem is magnified for larger projects. According to a study by Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University, roughly 90% of megaprojects (i.e., projects costing more than US $1B) experience cost overruns, and it is common for those overruns to exceed the project budget by 50%.

It’s clear that the status quo is not working, but less clear why it persists. It should be in everyone’s interest to change, but alas, change appears to be an elusive goal. It takes courage to step outside of a comfort zone and drive change, especially when the “new way” of operating involves uncertainty and risk. The fragmentation of the industry makes change even more difficult, especially when the maximum benefits will result from systematic change, not individual action.

To understand the opportunities for change—and the reasons why change has not occurred— CIMdata conducted an industry survey in 2016.

Opportunities for Change

The most encouraging result from the survey is the widespread belief that improvement is possible. More than half of respondents estimated potential cost savings of 10% or greater for both design & construction (pre-commissioning) and operations & maintenance (post-commissioning). Also encouraging is the potential for widespread benefit—while respondents estimate that general contractors and owner-operators are most likely to benefit, architectural-engineering services firms and building products manufacturers also stand to win.

The survey also found that companies that increase investment in IT technology, consulting, and training to improve their business processes are outperforming the competition. These “high performers” are much more likely to use not only BIM, but also Virtual Design & Construction (VDC), reality capture, and other technologies.

While all companies consider cost savings to be a top three priority, those prioritizing investment in quality and skills development performed better than their peers.

Where will further improvement come from? The top opportunity according to respondents is improved design collaboration, with change management a close second. Improved interoperability and project collaboration rounded out the top four opportunities.


As compelling as the benefits are, they have met their match in the form of obstacles to progress.

Leading the pack is an obstacle that should be familiar to anyone in the industry—poor interoperability among technology solutions. Individual technology providers have focused on subsets of the lifecycle, resulting in islands of optimization. While BIM has proven effective at eliminating design errors, information from the BIM model is not being leveraged effectively for construction planning and project management, nor is it being used directly for operations & maintenance.

The reason for this is tied to the #2 obstacle identified in the survey—owners don’t know what to ask for. In the manufacturing industry, large manufacturers adopted Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) for their own businesses and then drove that discipline to their suppliers. In AEC, except for a few progressive organizations, most owners lack technology expertise and the ability to mandate effective changes.

There are two related obstacles that round out the top four, and in many ways, they are the most insidious of all. Respondents stated that no single organization can drive change, and that they can’t justify investment for any single project. Taken together, these two factors comprise the “hump” that companies find hard to overcome. Even companies that want to drive change find it difficult to do this in the absence of wider industry momentum.

Is the Situation Hopeless?

No, but progress will depend upon larger organizations establishing a vision and implementing initiatives with specific improvement objectives. Driving change depends upon larger organizations establishing a vision and implementing initiatives with specific improvement objectives. It requires creating a culture of continuous improvement that looks at past mistakes as learning opportunities. It requires industry associations and standards organizations to promote much richer interoperability among applications, to break down the barriers to information flow that exist today. Perhaps most importantly, it requires looking at cost from the perspective of the total lifecycle, something that owners and operators are in a particularly strong position to do.

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