Firm Profile: John Robertson Architects AECbytes Profile (July 13, 2017)

John Robertson Architects, an award winning architectural practice based in London, shares its perspective on AEC technology in this Firm Profile.

What is the history and background of the firm?

John Robertson Architects (JRA) is an award winning architectural practice based in Bankside in Central London and currently employs 100 staff. Since its formation in 1993, the practice has delivered a substantial number of high quality buildings both in the UK and abroad. JRA produces carefully considered, contextual and modern designs that aim to deliver real value to its clients. Its work is guided by the principle of contextual civic modernism, aiming to preserve the historic fabric and character of our cities, whilst adding to them contemporary buildings that enhance the experience of the city as a whole. Its work includes many large office and residential schemes, as well as restoration and redevelopment projects of significant historical and architectural value.

JRA has been featured in the AJ100 list, a ranking of the largest architectural practices in the UK, for the last six years and currently holds the 32nd position. The firm has won a number of awards, including the RIBA Awards, UK Property Awards and the British Council for Offices Awards.

What is the firm's current focus? What are the key projects it is working on?

JRA specialises in the design of complicated new build and re-positioning projects for corporate clients. Over the last 25 years, the practice has developed its portfolio of commercial, residential, historic and delivery projects. Its Workplace team has gained in strength in the last few years and it is currently leading the fit-out of Aldwych Quarter for King’s College London, one of the biggest fit-out projects in Central London at present.

The firm is also involved in several new build and refurbishment office projects, such as 33 King William Street (Figure 1), a new build office development situated on a prominent site in the City of London, and the refurbishment of the iconic Grade II listed Bracken House. In its residential portfolio, JRA is working on a number of prestigious developments, such as the delivery of 10 Park Drive (Figure 2). This new residential and mixed-use waterside development, part of the first phase of the Canary Wharf development, includes a residential tower of 43 storeys and a low-rise residential podium of 13 storeys.

Figure 1. The 33 King William Street project.

Figure 2. The 10 Park Drive project.

When did the firm start using AEC technology, and how is it being used today? How important is AEC technology to the firm?

JRA has been using AEC technology since its formation in 1993. In fact, JRA is among the first architectural practices in the UK which has been using a BIM authoring platform since the early 1990s. Therefore, it has developed extensive experience in 3D modelling throughout the last 15-20 years and has been among the first firms in the UK to undertake complex BIM projects. In the last few years, JRA has reviewed its approach towards 3D modelling and has started adopting a more holistic BIM approach, increasingly focusing on the ‘I’ in BIM, the information, and how to manage it efficiently.

The use of AEC technology following a structured approach is at the heart of the firm’s strategy. It gives JRA the ability to communicate its designs easily, assess buildability, extract quantities of elements and materials and digitally verify its models against its deliverables. It also enables the firm to coordinate geometry and information more efficiently across all stakeholders and minimise the possibility of errors on site (Figure 3), using rule-based tools in the design phase, and provide data that can be utilised throughout the lifecycle of an asset. By using AEC technology in this way, JRA has been able to offer added value to its clients and their projects.

Figure 3. Model coordination on a project is a core use of AEC technology at JRA.

Does the firm have a specific approach and/or philosophy to AEC technology? If so, what is it?

JRA strongly believes that each stakeholder involved in a project should be using the best tool for the job, as well as the tool they are most comfortable with. No stakeholder should be bound to specific file formats and software. Therefore, it fully supports Open BIM, an initiative of buildingSMART, which is described as a universal approach to collaborative design, realisation and operation of buildings, based on open standards and workflows. Open BIM supports a transparent, open workflow, allowing project stakeholders to participate regardless of the software tools they use. By adopting this approach, its data is made easily accessible to all parties involved in a project and at the same time it is future proofed for its clients as it is not associated with any specific file format or software tool. JRA’s data, geometric and non-geometric, is associated with IFC, based on ISO 16739:2013, Industry Foundation Classes for data sharing in the construction and facility management industries (Figure 4).

Figure 4. The use of the Open BIM approach allows models from different disciplines to be brought together into a federated model of a project.

What are some of the main challenges the firm faces in its implementation of AEC technology?

Implementation of (new) technology is usually associated with radical changes in the way people work. It usually means that people need to get out of their comfort zone and change workflows which have been used for a long time, and some have been associated with the perception that they work well. Unwillingness to change is the main challenge at any attempt of new technology implementation. It requires strong belief in the benefits that the change will bring and support from all levels within an organisation.

At JRA, the staff is still in the process of transforming its workflows from a siloed 2D/3D approach to a more open, structured, standardised and holistic BIM approach. This requires the firm to look deep at its methods, processes and procedures and make the required changes to them while remaining efficient and competitive for as long as this transformation takes place. In the AEC industry, in which projects last for several years, such radical transformation is a challenging and long task, which requires support from all levels and a clear strategy and vision to where the firm is heading. It has to motivate people to accept the change and support it, keeping in mind that people drive technology and that these people are the firm’s biggest asset and challenge at the same time.

How does the firm see AEC technology evolving in the future?

Technology evolves rapidly, at times too quickly, and the industry needs to catch up. It is very difficult to predict where AEC technology will be in the next 5 to 10 years. Some hints can be seen at present, such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning and the internet of things, so there is some indication of where the industry is heading, but it is difficult to be sure. JRA’s view is that wherever AEC technology will be in the future, it has to stay closely connected with the design, construction and management processes and bring more automation, reduce risk, create more sustainable assets, decrease design and construction timescales and improve health and safety. At the same time, it should be used as a monitoring tool for built assets, collecting feedback from the operation of these assets and informing decisions for potential refurbishments or maintenance. AEC technology will allow firms like JRA to keep exploring the built environment and learn from it.

If the firm had a wish list for AEC technology, what would it be?

Automation and standardisation. JRA’s involvement with BIM processes has shown that automation is key to mitigating risk and reducing errors. Standardisation is critical to efficient collaboration and it speeds up the design and construction processes. The ability to validate and verify any design and its associated data is key to the successful delivery of a project, with potential benefits at the operational phase as well (Figure 5). Currently, the industry seems to have a bit of both, but not the full package. JRA is looking forward to seeing software vendors actively supporting open collaboration and standardisation across the board. It has happened in other industries without affecting creativity and hindering companies’ unique selling points. It has actually aided productivity and has driven innovation. We have yet to see it in our industry.

Figure 5. JRA sees data validation as a critical use of AEC technology.

Any additional information/observations/insights on AEC technology implementation that the firm would like to share?

Not directly related to technology, but in fact essential for the correct application of technology, is education. Clients, contractors and consultants seem to lack education at present. Buzzwords and acronyms are often used without fully understanding the processes, workflows and benefits behind them. It is a shared responsibility between software vendors, evangelists, innovators and early adopters to educate the rest on the use of these new technologies and the workflows and the benefits that they bring to our profession and industry.

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