The Secret Life of Design Meetings

Words by Katie Puckett

Illustration of two men watering their flower heads

A sociologist analyzes BIM

Sami Paavola is an educational and social scientist who studies the impact of technology on collaboration and learning at the University of Helsinki’s Institute of Behavioural Sciences. Since 2011, he has been part of an international multidisciplinary group researching building information modelling. The Possible spoke to him about his work and how BIM is changing the way teams behave.

TP: How does a social scientist come to be studying BIM?

SP: I was studying the use of technology in higher education, and in 2011 I was asked to join a multidisciplinary research project on building information modelling. They wanted someone who was interested in trying to understand the affects of technology on our working lives. There are different approaches to social science, and I take this kind of practice-based approach.

TP: What does your research involve?

SP: My main focus has been on collaboration between designers — architects and engineers in specialist fields. Our approach is to go and look at how people actually use these technologies. We have done interviews, but we have also been following design meetings.

Within our research group, there are people from social-science backgrounds and people from engineering backgrounds, and that has been really valuable. We have started to merge our approaches to research — I wish that there were more projects like this. There is an expectation that social scientists come and say how people behave and how they are organized but it’s not that simple. We need to think about it from different angles and try to merge these perspectives together.

"Pre-BIM projects were leaner. Now collaboration is more intense and it takes a lot of organizing so that people are not sitting unnecessarily in meetings"

Sami Paavola

TP: What can the social sciences teach us about BIM? What insights does it offer that other approaches don’t?

SP: Both engineering and social sciences try to understand development and change but we come at it from a different angle. In the social sciences, we want to understand what people are really doing and how things are happening. Engineers are constructing solutions, whereas in the social sciences we are trying to problematize things more …

The usual approach to BIM is to look at novel solutions and how to implement them and educate people to use them. Whereas our approach is more oriented to the specific challenges and problems that people have. We need to understand the viewpoints of different partners within construction projects, and build new solutions for their specific problems. Typically when we interview people or we go and look at what they’re doing, we find that reality is different to the promises that are made in the literature. Our point is that we should look at these situations more realistically and then build new solutions and new technologies.

A good example is the use of BIM in the maintenance phase of projects — the literature on BIM gives the impression that models are used in the maintenance phase, but it seems to us that it’s hardly used at all.

TP: Why is there this gap between how BIM is supposed to be used and how people are actually using it?

SP: One way of looking at it is that it’s quite a natural process. It takes time to develop new technologies and tools in such a way that they are really useful. For example, maintenance is a complex area and there is already quite advanced software. It’s not easy to replace established technologies and ways of working, especially when the old ones seem to be working relatively well.

TP: How has BIM changed the way design teams interact?

SP: It has changed how their work is organized so more people need to collaborate in earlier phases of the project. Pre-BIM projects were leaner in a way — a few people did something and then they handed the information over to the next person or organization. Now collaboration is more intense in various phases and it takes a lot of organizing so that people are not sitting unnecessarily in meetings.

TP: How were the teams you observed coping with this?

SP: Typically, within this kind of research project, we are looking at partners and firms who are already interested in changing how they work. But it is difficult because they are trying to find new ways of doing things all the time and construction projects are typically very time-constrained.

TP: How does BIM change people’s behaviour and the relationships between them?

SP: There are many changes because it gives people new means of collaboration. But the basic things are still the same. It’s much easier to share plans and models and put them together in BIM than it was with paper drawings. People don’t need to be in the same place to share information — they can have meetings via Skype, for example. On the other hand, it seems that they do need to have face-to-face meetings when they are looking at how the plans fit together and where the problems with the design are.

Most people I have seen welcome this new technology because they see so clearly that it helps and that it’s the future. There are some specific problems — the technology does not always work well and they can’t do everything that they would like — but I don’t think designers are resisting it.

TP: What are the most important success factors in implementing new technologies or ways of working?

SP: One should understand the complexity of the process. You need to involve people from different levels, representing different roles. You need to have guidelines, and education and also some kind of policy within the industry because many organizations are involved.

It takes time too, always. We cannot change everything at once, so we need people who are interested in experimenting.

I think the biggest barriers occur when change is brought only from above, and when people do not have enough resources. My experience is that people are quite willing to develop the way they work if they see the rationale and how it helps, and if they are given the resources to do it.

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