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Interpretive Flexibility and the Price of Documentation

Design and construction are rooted in layers of historical work practices that enable temporary teams of experts to quickly establish collaborative routines. However, work practices, drawing sets and written specifications that functioned well in the 2D environment may constrain teams working in 3D, and shape the ways they generate and discuss alternative solutions to problem. In this paper we present a model that allows for the analysis of the dimensions of interpretive flexibility, malleability, and documentation across the project process. We use qualitative ethnographic observations of three different building projects using BIM over a five-year period and 70 interviews of architects, engineers and builders across the USA. For the experts on these teams, documents with “interpretive flexibility,” the degree to which documents can be read in multiple settings, can be generative, helping people “see” creative solutions to design problems within such documents. However, interpretive flexibility is also a liability at other points in the construction process, because of the possibility for multiple interpretations to cause confusion and costly rework. Three-dimensional models and data support collaborative conversations that are good for the discovery of problems, but the technology is no replacement for dialog amongst team members. We find that interpretive flexibility is reduced by 3D, and this reduces the ability for teams to generate solutions to discovered problems. As a basis for issue and conflict discovery, BIM acts as a site for conversation, but stops short of supporting exchanges around solution generation. Once design and construction teams develop solutions and alternatives, BIM then serves another useful role in helping to test and explore these solutions. In this way, BIM-based information exchange does not replace the need for expert interaction on design and construction projects, but enhances these interactions.

Dossick, Carrie Sturts and Gina Neff. “Interpretive Flexibility and the Price of Documentation,” Proceedings of the Engineering Project Organizations Conference, Winter Park, CO, July, 10pp.

Winner, Engineering Project Organization Society 2014 Best Paper Award

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