There is no question the role of the architect has changed in recent years. BIM can help those in the profession regain ownership of projects.

There have been many changes in the way the construction industry operates over the 40-odd years I have been working in it. While some have been for the good, others have been not so good, and three in particular stand out. When I was asked recently about the future of architecture, I began with George Santayana’s proposition: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

First, consider the declining level of trust between client, designer, and constructor – and it’s gentle to call it a ‘decline.’ The dramatic change in the size of consultancy and contract agreements is a simple but effective measure of this. As a young lawyer, I learned the ins and outs of the then most common form of construction contract, the E5b, a standard form published by the Master Builders Federation of Australia (MBFA) and the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA). It ran to 40 or so pages, and it was rare for special conditions to deal with project or site specific matters to exceeded that number. Now, the contract forms regularly encountered by practitioners, their length and complexity, make your eyes water.

Second, there is the loss of the architect as the client’s principal and trusted adviser. The architect was formerly responsible for design, documentation, procurement and construction supervision, and contract administration. Now project managers, lawyers, and probity advisers/auditors all seem to share most of that, bar the design and documentation roles. Fees for architects, but also for engineers and project managers have been reduced to nerve-wrackingly low levels.

Thirdly, there is technology – 3D, 4D and 5D design tools, email communication, teleconference and video conference capability at low cost, and no more smelly die-line printers. It has all enabled great improvements in efficiency and accuracy in design, and speed of communication. BIM enables architects to anticipate and address coordination issues, clashes, ingress and egress issues, shading and climate concerns, and of course plan for efficient buildability. The power of BIM to revolutionise asset management is only just being realised.

So, what caused the first two changes, and what opportunities does the third wave of changes offer architects?

Industry standard contracts dominating the market in the 1960s and 1970s developed by constructors and architects were at best self-serving and excluded clients. The collapse of several large contractors in the 1970s hurt clients badly, borne by militant unions’ industrial warfare and hyper-inflation. Until the late 1970s, the people funding the gig were subjected to the consequences of industrial warfare on the one hand, and were exposed to the commercial costs of the attendant disruption by inadequate contracts on the other.

The existing standard form contracts did not protect clients. Public sector building clients started to develop their own forms of contract in the 1970s, followed by private sector involvement in industry standards later in the decade.

The mistrust that was bred during this time contributed significantly to the marginalisation of architects in their role as project managers, and led to the much greater involvement of lawyers in the construction process. With the frequency of litigation and arbitration around building projects, construction law moved from being a legal backwater to a thriving growth area in legal practice.

From the late 1980s onward, clients argued for a key change to industry standard and other construction contracts: the splitting of the role of the architect as both contract administrator and adjudicator. This was fiercely opposed by representatives of the profession, but clients argued that it was inappropriate for the person designing and documenting the work to also adjudicate on claims for variations and extensions of time arising from that design and documentation.

The profession’s resistance to splitting the roles, leaving the architect to design and document, was in my view a mistake. This was the opportunity to recast how contracts were administered, to split out the adjudication role, leaving them to administer contracts. By not doing so, project managers could market themselves as impartial contract administrators and adjudicators. Clients took them on in that role, cut the fees paid to architects, and watched appreciatively as project managers – many of them former contractors – protected themselves with construction contracts with layer upon layer of risk averse provisions. The degradation of the role of the architect was accentuated by the widespread adoption of design and construct contracts, with the architect initially engaged by the client being novated to the main contractor.

The outcome is that the contractor is incentivised to “value manage” the design, in effect cheapening the quality of the components. The client loses quality and dependability. The architect loses the role of trusted adviser, interested in the long-term functionality of design and the services or benefits the completed work delivers to end users.

In short, architects have been commoditised.

Now, there is a new opportunity for the profession – or at least for individual firms – to seize the initiative, and go back to the future. The one thing a client wants above all else is predictability. When applied comprehensively from option development to asset management, BIM has the capacity to provide the client with long term surety of outcomes. BIM can be the perfect 21st century Trojan horse, enabling the one holding the reins to persuasively show clients there is a better way to deliver predictable outcomes.

5D BIM minimises the risk of unpredictable outcomes in terms of time, cost and function. It provides critical asset management data to enable the client, end users and investors to anticipate asset performance, even before a hole is dug. Even with design construct contract strategies, the consequences of poor potential substitutions on cost grounds can be demonstrated.

Who should be the trusted, principal adviser in charge of this tool? Step up, architects. They are calling for you.