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Supporting roles at architectural firms rapidly evolving

Due to its fragmentation and complexity, architecture and construction have lagged behind most other business industries in adopting the latest technological innovations. However, this is now quickly changing, according to Dr. Larry Barrow, AIA, director of the Mississippi State University (MSU) College of Architecture, Art + Design (CAAD) Graduate Program.

“This is true in every aspect of the business enterprise,” Barrow says. “Technology support, marketing Web sites, 3D modeling, digital design, rapid prototyping, collaborative design-build integrated project delivery models and extranet project management Web sites are only a few of the areas that are now becoming the norm versus the exception in architecture and construction.”

As a result, the major support roles now needed for architectural firms are both external consults as well as firm/company hires to assist internally with new design and management technology issues that are critical to the success of the firm.

“All digital design and information management-based skills are in high demand,” Barrow says. “And all business sectors are encountering information technology competition and global business models. In order to compete, the 21st century firm will have to compete within the context of shifting markets, competition and within information technology strategies.”

The MSU CAAD Graduate Program currently has artists, graphic designers, architects, builders, interior designers, landscape architects, and engineers in its multi-disciplinary master’s degree program. That is an example of the need for digital design and information technology knowledge and skills in a wide array of fields and disciplines.

“Depending on the needs of the firm or company, technology and business management skills are available from local vocational technical program, on-line courses, colleges and universities such as the many outstanding programs we have here at Mississippi State,” Barrow says. “We are currently expanding our master’s degree focus areas to assist in this expanding area of multi-disciplinary and cross-discipline education with a focus on design, technology and business strategy.”

Graduates from the program are having no problem finding jobs. Employment placement for architectural and construction management graduates is projected to remain strong. Employment and advancement opportunities are enhanced with certificate program and graduate degrees, particularly when balanced between technology and business management knowledge and skills.

The technology support jobs are critical for a new major trend in the architecture construction industry typically called building information modeling, or BIM, which is the process of generating and managing a building information model that uses digital representation of the building process to facilitate exchange of information in a digital format. Barrow says it is becoming more common for architects, engineers and contractors to model buildings to not only communicate designs to client, but also amongst themselves in terms of design, construction and scheduling issues.

“This is a really big buzz word with practicing architects and contractors right now,” Barrow says. “Architects and contractors are evolving into new types of project delivery models where they collaborate with the owner, architect, engineer and construction management or construction company. This is a huge shift in the business model organization and the contractual relationships between the owner, builder and architect.”

Progressive private sector companies have been doing design/build in many areas of the country, and this integrated project delivery model is now being used increasingly in public sector projects. That has brought the need to the forefront of organizations like American Institute of Architecture (AIA) and Associated General Contractors (AGC) in dealing with this trend in terms of contractual relationships.

“The largest real estate owner in the world is the U.S. government under the auspices of the General Service Administration (GSA),” Barrow says. “The GSA has now put into current procurement methods integrated project delivery built about BIM involving concurrent partnering between the government, architects and construction companies. There is a real shift in relationships and models, and a huge shift in legal contracts and the relationships between the owners, architects, engineers, contractors and subcontractors. It is a huge legal issue and big professional issue.”

The trend towards BIM has been occurring across the country in the private sector for years. But the real news is it is now moving into the public sector.

“Many in the architecture and construction industry thought it would never happen,” Barrow says. “But it is here. It has been coming for 10 years. It is a big deal involving a combination of technology, business strategy and management tactics.”

University curricula are adapting to meet the needs of the marketplace. MSU’s CAAD has recently started a bachelor’s degree in building construction science program that will teach progressive issues relative to integrative design-build organizational models. Also, MSU’s graduate program teaches techniques in digital modeling and related technology. It is also introducing management for students interested in design/build and construction management.

Deciding what kind of educational degree is fitting for the top job managing a project “is like the wild, wild West,” Barrow says. Top jobs are sometimes filled with engineers, architects, general contractors, construction managers or project managers.

“Someone is having to move into more of a management role outside of the traditional role of an architect doing plans and specs and putting it out to bid,” Barrow says. “Someone has to be put in the position of managing the entire process for the owner. In many cases, this has been moved out into the design/build team.”

Some of the architectural support jobs in most demand now because of the increasing technological nature of the business include designers, technical staff, information technology specialists, architects and project managers. Where are architecture firms finding support personnel to meet all the different types of rolls needed because of the increasingly use of technology? Growing the skills of existing staff is favored at JBHM Architects in Jackson.

Richard McNeel, AIA, a partner of JBHM Architects, says JBHM is finding new talent from within by internally growing the skills of existing staff.

“And then when searching for new employees, we are looking for people who have different skill sets that compliment what we already have,” McNeel says.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

About Becky Gillette

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