As chief technology officer of consultancy Gehry Technologies, Dennis Shelden spends a lot of his time talking with clients, design professionals and students about the profound changes that technology innovation is bringing to the computation and design disciplines. He would know. Shelden holds a Bachelor of Science in Architectural Design, a Master of Science in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and a Ph. D. in Computation and Architectural from MIT, where he also teaches design and computation.

But even as networking technologies become smarter in their ability to process data between models, many projects are still working through the "latency of the paper chase." The co-founder of the Los Angeles-based firm recently shared some thoughts with Engineering News-Record (ENR) about key disruptive technologies, as well as how garbage-in, garbage-out still applies—no matter how many powerful new innovations peek over construction's horizon.

Q: Can you share your ideas about addressing the 'latency of the paper chase'?

When we talk about technology innovation in the industry, what's interesting is that the process of project delivery took advantage of disconnects between documents to allocate responsibility and control—the actual process of transcribing paper sheets, and transmitting backgrounds, and then the evolution to CAD documents. That process of manually passing information, and coding and decoding it, has of course been disrupted by building information modeling tools and related emerging technologies; so things can be repurposed now in ways that are not always clear, or the authority that's bestowed is the same thing that's accepted when I give you a model and you do something with it.

That's been the big question about BIM information, which now takes on a life of its own. I think what we're trying to do with the new technology is find a way to reduce the cost of integrated practice, while maintaining that understanding of history and authority—who did what, even as these models and this information becomes more interoperable.

Q: Are we seeing more integration of BIM data among AEC/Owners?

A lot of people talk about design BIM and construction BIM but to us it’s all one continuum.  [In general], we often hear the term 'garbage in-garbage-out' regarding BIM because there's a sense that models made for one purpose are not consumable for another purpose. That's why you have to work within a global process change. You actually have to look at what architects are doing when they generate data so that it is valuable across the entire process.


Now BIM innovation and use are getting into the owner and operation side, which I think is where everybody thinks the huge value is, such as for energy efficiency and energy controls, and business operations of companies and communities.

Q: When you say true BIM, do you mean true as-builts?

I think it's beyond that. If you look at a large landowner or a real estate company and what they use to track their inventory—and the analytics and the tools they have to do that, it's [often] manually developed by a person walking around doing site measurements, which then becomes out of date.

Owners/operators build not because they want buildings but because they want operations. So I think we're looking to get beyond the building aspect and think about the community and the potential of using networking/communication technologies to reach the end-user of the building—this is a super-fascinating thing. We're not there yet but along the path for this kind of facilities management and space planning. From there, you have all these [iphones and smart devices] just waiting to be connected to that space. There's an opportunity for architecture to capture some of that innovation.

Q: At the AR Innovation conference, you said a lot of architects haven't really started to leverage Web technologies. Can you explain?

The point there was not that people don't use this stuff, or that they aren't taking advantage of the Web and Internet technologies. It's that they're using the same background tech and just sort of layering on, or wallpapering it with some user-specific functionality. But I think the potential for the Web [in the industry] is with black box hyperlinking—to the extent that open standards are about connecting black box objects with black box objects. With that kind of communication we can start thinking about space and geometry and we can start thinking of layering in information with the potential to connect everything together. I think  [open communication standards] point to this possibility, of developing a layer of communication that's about spatial information.

Q: What are some other next-generation innovations you see with today's technology?

I think for us really the unifying next-generation technology is the [next] Web and new forms of connectedness. From there come these ancillary innovations that start to take on a new life such as digital fabrication and sensors. But there are two dominant themes: interoperable media and the convergence of GIS [geographic information systems] and BIM—empowered by the ability for cloud and network technologies to create this immediacy of connectivity and interoperability. But you can’t connect different [domains and building models] if you don’t understand what’s common between them.

So those things become something you can download from the cloud—hooked into the model so we can express [the design's] intention, so that what I put into it as an architect somebody else can consume. There are a lot of initiatives that are starting to do that. You’ve got to work through it. BIM has created the basic layer of technology, capability and information but we now can layer on these new enhanced, and more connected information approaches.