Georgia Institute of Technology professor Charles M. Eastman, long considered a research guru for computer-based building design and construction, displays parental pride in his latest brainchild: Georgia Tech's Digital Building Laboratory. Unlike Eastman's past efforts, starting some 40 years ago, the fledgling DBL, created in 2009 to help improve building design and construction through the aid of digital tools, is a collaboration among academics and players in the buildings-sector food chain.

“This is industry and academia together,” says Eastman, DBL's director and a professor of both architecture and computing at Georgia Tech, Atlanta. “To me, it is so obvious that we need each other,” he says.

Eastman's goal is to drive the buildings sector forward with technology by prioritizing research needs and developing digital tools that can be marketed. The lab also grapples with contemporary issues, such as building-team collaboration and product generation. There is a strong focus on topics such as building information modeling (BIM) and project delivery, including integrated project delivery (IPD).

“BIM and IPD are dramatically changing the workplace, and universities have to make changes,” says Eastman. “We have no [General Motors] to drive the industry forward, so we have to find a collaborative way.”

Digital design and fabrication is an area of concentration. Prototypes are made in a fabrication lab. Almost no building element, method or tool is off limits, from off-site fabrication with robotics to new building methods, such as mixing shop-based and field fabrication.

The lab's strong industry collaboration differentiates DBL from Eastman's earlier labs at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Georgia Tech, says Eastman. The lab's sole focus on buildings, rather than infrastructure, transportation or process plants, differentiates it from other research groups, such as the Center for Facilities Engineering and the Construction Industry Institute, he adds.

Contractors, fabricators, engineers, software developers and especially architects are sought as partners. “We have to figure out how to build value into business models of architects so their value contribution is known,” says Eastman.

Owners are included. At a May 24-25 DBL workshop called “Information Technology and Project Delivery: What Owners Need To Know,” attendees and speakers shared experiences about BIM, IPD, facilities management (FM) and lean construction methods.

William R. Seed, vice president of design and construction for Universal Health Services Inc., Philadelphia, said part of the problem is that few people know how to do IPD and follow lean construction practices. “No one understands the process; no one is prepared,” he said.

“Every project we are involved with has some lean construction elements,” said Seed.

Fifteen of Universal's 150 current projects are contracted using an IPD multiparty agreement. This represents 75% of the dollar value of the nearly $1 billion worth of projects under way. “They are not all [IPD], but they are heading that way,” said Seed.

As far as BIM and FM goes, attendees said there is a giant disconnect because the software is incompatible; consequently, as-built BIMs gather dust. In addition, building operators are not at the table during design and construction meetings, so their model content needs are not taken into account by building teams.