Big AE and BIM

September 2, 2011

We’ve all heard of Big Ag and Big Pharma. Have architects and designers ever considered their relationship to the industrial system that produces building materials and components the way critics have dissected the food and drug cartels? I suspect that, with very little digging, investigators would turn up the same kind of monopolistic, greed-filled and anti-competitive system in our part of the capitalist ecosystem that exists elsewhere. Would we also find a conspiracy to delude the public about safety, efficiency, and the transparency of the marketplace?

It is perhaps too soon to tell whether the current reorganization of architectural and engineering firms has yielded more quality, less waste, and a better work environment for design professionals. Now that AECOM has risen to the top of the food chain by buying up hundreds of smaller AE firms around the world, someone should ask whether mega-firms like it and Arup are indeed providing better design and engineering service to the world at large. Big Ag put millions of farmers out of business, and has diminished the diversity of crops available to the public. Will we see fewer choices in the building industry soon?

With the current economic slump, it seems clear that only the strongest, and largest, AE firms will survive to compete in the global market. We already have giant construction companies like Bechtel, Brown and Root (under the Halliburton umbrella) and Turner dictating the terms for big projects worldwide, not to mention similar nationalized companies in China. It is only a matter of time before these AE Walmarts snuff out their competition in the largest markets.

Another, more insidious trend has entered the design marketplace through a clever and apparently benign technology–software. Building Information Modeling, which one of my students anticipated years ago in a masters thesis, has crept into the mainstream with little fanfare. Though “high design” architects pretend it isn’t an influence on their creative output, the construction industry isn’t waiting to be told whether or not to adopt a cost-saving and logistical tool that can increase profits. Like AutoCAD’s primitive Architectural Desktop, BIM reduces the assembly of building components to a standardized palette, forcing designers to exclude hand-crafted, low tech, or custom elements from their built work.

Moreover, the largest manufacturers and holding companies in the construction marketplace can now insert their products into the palette via BIM, making it too easy to accept a limited number of choices among say, glass, brick, or curtain wall brands. Soon, the kit of parts we manipulate will be reduced to a kind of fast-food menu in the supermarket of industrial and technological products controlled by an ever shrinking group of multi-national companies. Already, longstanding manufacturers like Baldwin Hardware, Morgan Millwork, and several lighting brands have been acquired by such rapacious giants. The result: less service, poorer quality, longer lead times.

We’ve grown fat and lazy on plastic, fast food produced in giant industrial plants, taking little notice of the harmful effects on our bodies. Modern technology made such miracles possible. It’s time we woke up and looked around at what this system is doing to the built environment too.

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