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Innovation Through Practice: The Messy Work of Making Technology Useful for Architecture, Engineering and Construction Firms and Teams


Through the study of visualizations, virtual worlds, and information exchange, our research reveals the complex connections between technology and the work of design and construction. Our studies focused on architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) teams as they grappled with adapting work practices to new technologies and the opportunities these technologies promise. Over the past decade, as new information technologies have been introduced to the AEC industry, they have been in tension with established norms of practice, including those set up by contractual standards and case law (e.g., the separation of design intent from construction means and methods) as well as social and organizational norms that frame team member expectations about how they should engage with others on a project. We argue that technology alone does not change practice. People who modify practices with and through technology create innovation.

In this talk we will touch on three lines of research. First, in studying the emergent use of technologies such as Building Information Modeling and Energy Modeling, we found that these new analytical tools required experts to come together in dialog to both create meaningful output and to understand the ramifications of the results that guided decision-making in design and construction teams. When we studied distributed AEC teams, we found that new visualization tools are additional ways of seeing design ideas and communicating analysis. These tools are not replacing traditional forms of representation (2D drawings) and interaction (sketching), but adding to the multiplicity of media available for design and construction work. Furthermore, sketching and gestures are essential practices to support productive AEC team interaction. These interactions are where team members discover and explain problems and vet new design proposals with multiple disciplines. Third and finally, we explore the processes of repair and breakdown in the context of information exchange. As we have studied the efforts to exchange data from Building Information Modeling to facilities management databases (e.g., computerized maintenance management systems or enterprise asset management systems), we have discovered the work that is required to get the data to “work.” This confirms emerging understanding from the broader area of critical data studies: Data are not absolute; they are constructed. Data have their own logic and structure. Whether it is a BIM manager looking to consolidate subcontractor’s models, an energy modeler seeking to improve building performance, or an operations engineer looking to use design documents, it takes reflection, creativity, patience, and expertise to make tools work and create new ways of working that leverage technology for more effective and innovative collaboration and communication.

Dr. Carrie Sturts Dossick, P.E. and Dr. Laura Osburn