Is Compliance the New Aesthetic?

 Bill East
 Lean Handover Production and Consulting

Looking back on my career, I am surprised it took me as long as it did to understand quality in the context of building construction. Like some of you, I lived Quality Control and Quality Assurance. I conducted preliminary-, initial-, follow-up inspections, and wrote and checked punch-list items. It wasn’t until I wrote the same change order over and over again, that I realized my job was not about quality. My job was about contract compliance.

One reasons I find BIM so great is that it has reengaged my broader, more human, sense of quality. Better yet, this aesthetic can now be shared with everyone. We experience the joy of good design! Who of us does not love the fly-thru movies? We love the technology and seemingly magical results of its use.

While we rightly love this new technology, these visualizations have muddied the quality-compliance dichotomy.

I think there’s a good reason we are re-confused about quality and compliance. Movie makers call it “suspension of disbelief.” When we see a building in a movie we assume that the whole building is there, when it could just be the facade or a matte painting. It takes work to stop believing in the magic, to look behind the movie set. When we do, we are most likely disappointed.

To look behind the facade of BIM, we must think about information the same way we think about physical deliverables. We already know how. We do it every day in construction contracts. Let’s see how…

In any "engineering discipline," there are three classes of documents needed to establish a solid contract requirement. The first document is an agreed-upon definition of technical details - a “code.” The second document is a description of how to apply the code - a “commentary.” The third document describes how to apply that code to a given project - a “contract.” While a code might be applicable anywhere in the world, the commentary and, especially, the contract will be adapted for regional-, owner-, and project-specific contexts.

In an "information discipline," these same three documents can be employeed. All three are important. Without a code that identifies precise testing requirements, there can be no objective evaluation of compliance. Without a commentary, tailored to local conditions, it is not possible to know what parts of the code apply, and which do not. Without a contract, no one has to do anything. With these three documents there is no reason to invent new theories of collaboration or jargon whose purpose seems to be to confuse designers and builders.

As of May 2016, I know of only one example of an information discipline that has all three of these required documents. It is the information discipline of construction handover. The standard is called the Construction Operations Building information exchange (COBie). The three documents are found here:

Given the three documents, customized for the region, client, and project, we can use a quality control process to ensure compliance. But that’s a story for a different day.

For now, let’s end where I started. Let’s go back to the idea of “quality.”

I never really wanted to learn the difference between compliance and quality. I can’t really say that the “joy” of a 28-day concrete compression test will ever measure up to the joy of being in a truly remarkable building. But the fact is that few of us are artists. Most of us are in the contracting business one way or another. We are in the business of building. Compliance must be our aesthetic.

Published May 2016