The Needle and the Damage Done

I’ve seen the needle
and the damage done
A little part of it in everyone
Neil Young “Needle and the Damage Done”

Ready for today’s physics lesson?

I’ll try to keep this simple (think of it as Physics for Architects.)

Think of a weight suspended from a pivot – so it can swing freely.

Think of it swinging .

Now, on one extreme is design and on the other construction…

 The Physics of Working in BIM

Like a pendulum, what architects sometimes need is that initial push. Just a little nudge.

Who will supply it?

Where will it come from?

Who will convince the architect to move from his complacent static state?


Not so fast. BIM is not the impetus but the enabler.

BIM is not the push – but the reaction to unforeseen (except for the industry’s seers) circumstances.

But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves in this lesson.

Bob the Architect

Recent changes in the AEC industry have displaced the architect from his position of resting equilibrium.

Let’s call this industry stalwart Bob.

Let’s subject Bob to a restoring force.

That accelerates Bob back toward the equilibrium position.

With me so far? Good. Let’s continue.

When released, the restoring force combined with the pendulum’s mass – Bob – causes it to oscillate about the equilibrium position, swinging back and forth.

Now, normally oscillating isn’t something you want to strive for.

Normally when architects oscillate it means they can’t make up their mind – while the building has not only been modeled and built but is well into its first renovation having recently received the 25 Year Award.

This isn’t that kind of oscillating.

But it is that very back and forth motion – swinging between the opposite poles of design and construction – that describes the architect’s current predicament.

DESIGN <———————————————————–> CONSTRUCTION

The time for one complete cycle, a left swing and a right swing, is called a period.

When working in BIM, depending on your focus and LOD, it can feel like your period is very, very slow.

Like, as in never.

But in reality, for every move in one direction, there’s a corresponding move in the other.

In reality (we’re getting quantum here) – the two poles don’t exist – they are one and the same. When you work in one, you’re working in the other. But we’ll get to that in a moment. (This, in journalism, is known as a teaser.)

I know. Don’t tease me bro.Here’s one cool thing: the period is independent of Bob’s mass. In other words, it doesn’t matter if Bob’s a heavy weight or a light user, if a senior member of the team or just starting out – the swing back and forth is the same.

Hanging with Bob

The word ‘pendulum’ is from the Latin pendulus, meaning ‘hanging.’

A reminder that architects will hang themselves by not making a move toward construction.

If there is a message here: Get your weight moving!

And fast. Not to one extreme OR the other: but like BIM, back and forth, back and forth. Ad nauseum. (Or is that ad infinitum?)

Ad infinitum.

But back and forth at a constant amplitude.

Because it’s all about your amplitude and mindset.

What’s so cool about the pendulum, once started, it will never stop*

*Unless it does. Subjected to friction and drag – which all architects can attest to experiencing from time to time.

The weight (Bob) keeps moving – back and forth – at a constant positive amplitude.

So what happens when Bob, a rigid body, has a bad amplitude? And is unwilling to move from his position or to change?

Bob dies.

He disappears. Nada. Ixnay. Bob no more.

No more Bob.

Do You Swing?

For many architects, their pendulum only swings in one direction – left of center – toward design.

And that is because – as most clients and contractors and consultants and courtesans know – architects are addicted to design.

Only they’ve seen the needle but not the damage done. The damage to designer’s reputation, responsibility, reliability and resulting reward.

If they’ve seen it, they’re not letting-on. Not by changing their behavior anyway.

Nor their negative amplitude.

Architects need to find a new balance – and equilibrium – between design and construction.

Not one over the other (to those who would say upon learning BIM, “If I wanted to know how to build I would have become a contractor!”) but moving, back and forth, continuously between the twin poles.

For continuing to hover only to the design side of the meter is not only impossible and unsustainable – it’s unnatural and perhaps most offensive of all to the design set, inelegant. Like a lopsided clock.

Or one even more sinister and dire.Perpetual wallflowers, architects need to crash through their real and perceived barriers. Through education and training. And working on their amplitude.

This will require crashing through the proverbial electrical and invisible wireless dog fence that separates wi-fido from swinging into the adjacent construction yard. (“Has your architect made you sick with worry? Wandering around the neighborhood, visiting all his construction buddies leaving you scared because you don’t know where he is?”) As if! Not a chance.

Designer Drugs

Many clients know that, for their architects, design is their drug of choice.

And treat them accordingly.

Owners have been known to withhold it when they want something and want to be assured of getting it.

I know of one client who would – for sport, bemusement, vindictiveness – give an architect a design assignment at 5PM on a Friday and say they needed it by 8AM on Monday and when that time rolled around they never called. The only thing rolling was the client in hysterics on the carpet.

And the architect’s tired eyes.

How did they know the architect would spend all weekend working on it, for, say, no pay?

They were once architects themselves.

Or – as clients – still are.

There are interventions for architects who need to wean themselves off the designer drug and the best 12-letter, 12-step program I know of is spelled C.O.N.S.T.R.U.C.T.I.O.N. (count ‘em.)














When you break construction down to its constituent parts architects realize it is less threatening because construction is really design’s missing twin and other half – opposite swing – of what architects do.Construction contains the very essence of what defines design – and vice versa.

To see design and construction as somehow separate has been a convenient, ill-advised and largely wrong-headed contrivance for the past half-century. A century for architects that apparently has yet to end.

Design contains construction, and construction contains design. They are both part of each other, of the pendulum swing, dependent on one another.

Lesson wrap-up: If you have the sort of pendulum in which most of the mass is concentrated in Bob, the center of oscillation is close to the center of mass, and Bob swings more freely between design and construction.

To put that another way, if the decision to move (toward BIM, toward IPD, toward the Future) comes from within – if it is an inside job – and not forced, coerced or manipulated from some outside source, Bob is more likely to continue moving.

Moving is good. It means you’re not dead yet.

And not dead yet is a good thing.

Gyration? Spinning? Dizziness?

One of the earliest known uses of a pendulum was to sway after being disturbed by the tremor of an earthquake far away. Think of recent changes – economic, political, environmental, technological – as a not too distant earthquake. These changes in the AEC industry and the profession are enough to get Bob moving into action.

Or so you would think.

An 8.8 magnitude earthquake could occur right beneath your pendulum and for some reason Bob just sits there, like nothing’s happened.

There is an explanation in physics for such inexplicably erratic behavior.

But this is a family BIM blog.

Like BIM itself, pendulums (penduli) had many uses – and also like BIM, most were not immediately utilized. Besides the low hanging fruit of determining the location of distant earthquakes, pendulums were used to locate satellites (before they were invented!), the turning of tides, as power sources for operating reciprocating saws and bellows, for pumping.

And for adorning end tables and nightstands.

But with its use for timekeeping, the world experienced something of a pendulum-mania much like the BIM-mania we’re experiencing today.The Curious Case of Collaborative Pendulums

Is it possible to take a metaphor too far?

Just watch.

Think of Integrated Design as coupled oscillators.

Fancy this. Two pendulums placed on a mantlepiece soon acquire opposing motions.

That is, the pendulums beat in unison but in the opposite direction, 180° out of phase.

Kind of like when architects and contractors were at odds years ago back when they worked in something then called the “Design-Bid-Build” delivery method.

Regardless of how the two clocks were started, observers found that they would eventually return to this state, thus making the first recorded observation – outside of an architectural partnership – of a coupled oscillator.

The cause of this weird, inexplicable behavior was that the two pendulums were affecting each other through slight motions of the supporting mantelpiece.

Which just goes to show that collaboration requires a strong foundation – built of trust, but oak will do – in order to act in unison. For more on pendulums go here.

Trust the Pendulum

Howard W. Ashcraft, Jr, a Fellow of the American College of Construction Lawyers – featured here in a recent post and mentioned here in a recent interview in the now defunct** BD+C  ‘IPD is light years ahead of traditional delivery’ – that for architects, the needle has swung too far away from responsibility.

BD+C: Do architects and engineers need to “own” their risk more often?

Ashcraft: The needle has swung too far in the direction of insulating oneself from liability and separating oneself from the other parties in the construction process. That really has not been a successful strategy. The needle needs to swing more toward accepting responsibility for the entire process and making sure that the bad events—cost overruns, failures, and the like—don’t occur.About the needle metaphor. While a meter is strictly 2D-like CAD, a 3D metaphor would be closer to the pendulum-like BIM.

Between designers/practical artists/architects on one side and contractors on the other.

In a recent blog post by the inestimable Jonathan Fields, he wrote about online marketer Wendy Piersall who said something that resonated deeply with Fields:

“She was talking about how she swings from being massively public and conversational to relative introversion. ‘Over the years,’ she said, ‘I realized I don’t have to be one or the other. I’ve learned to trust the pendulum.’”

It’s the idea that the pendulum is within you – and you have to learn to trust it – as you would yourself.

Trust that you will be able to move back and forth, as we’re discussing here, from design to construction and back.

Fields adds:

“Most of us turn away from the our internal pendulums, giving in, instead, to the pull to follow whatever action, response or expected behavioral convention is laid out by the communities we seek to thrive within.”

Turn toward your inner pendulum and we will all succeed.

**We live in tumultuous times. The needle metaphor used in this post comes from an article printed in a popular online industry journal that no longer exists. Click here for a press release about now defunct Building Design & Construction, also known as BD+C, and how it became that way. Adopting BIM and Integrated Design assures that architects will never need to issue a similar press release.

Pendulum trivia courtesy of Wikipedia.



Filed under BIM, collaboration, Integrated Design, Integrated Project Delivery, IPD, modeling, Uncategorized

6 responses to “The Needle and the Damage Done

  1. Kevin Green

    This whole argument is predicated on the idea that architects actually believe that design and construction are two independent elements that can be separated …if only conceptually.

    Never could.
    Never will be.

    BIM is just another tool to aid architects do what they always have done.

  2. Hi Kevin
    Concerning design and construction’s inseparability, I couldn’t agree with you more. That is why I wrote: “In reality (we’re getting quantum here) – the two poles don’t exist – they are one and the same. When you work in one, you’re working in the other.”
    That said, with the advent of BIM, we have seen some architects seek comfort and shelter in design, unwilling or unable to make the leap to design (by not sharing their models, by not having a conversation with the contractor about the expected level of detail, etc.) Would you agree?

  3. randydeutsch

    In the previous comment, I meant to write “unwilling or unable to make the leap to construction.”

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