A common language

Alan McClean on making remote working work

Working in Australia, Europe and the Middle East I have come to realise the process of making architecture almost transcends local language. Our choice of materials and the way we describe them in documents is essentially the same in all countries. Affordable software and standardised building techniques make it possible to work on architectural projects almost anywhere, regardless of language or culture. 

In Australia recently, I came across a few large architectural firms outsourcing bulk documentation to Asia for international projects. This was not so successful as project leaders were unable to have regular face to face meetings, so inaccurate information passed from team to team. They relied on traditional transfer of documents via email and FTP sites which slowed co-ordination and stunted creativity.

There are many positive examples where small firms have successfully outsourced documentation locally. I’ve worked in offices that have used this method to take on work that would normally exceed their capacity or technical capability. With regular in-office team meetings to ensure timely feedback and co-ordination, outsourcing is well suited to local projects but is testing for international teams.

Sometimes international expertise is needed to broaden the skill and reputation of a project team. We’ve all seen the commercial and political cachet that brilliant design offices can bring to difficult projects. Hundreds of iconic projects are born of international collaboration rather than international outsourcing.

While working for a progressive firm in London, I was involved with an international team working on a complex project in the Middle East. To overcome co-ordination challenges, we created a new working method that combined the immediacy of a local team with using our collective global expertise.

We created our own cloud based BIM server which allowed the entire team to work on one model in one file simultaneously from our different geographical locations. The cloud based server connected each team member to a single standalone box with project files, BIM server software, VPN access and IP linking. It was as if the whole team was working in one room. We regularly used Skype’s ‘Share Screen’ to clarify and amend details on the fly. The consolidated information was there in real time and completely accurate. Rather than solving tedious co-ordination issues we could concentrate on resolving tricky design issues.

This way of working led us to create new ‘office’ standards specific to the project, with a set of filters and tags in two languages that conformed with national regulations. All new elements created within the file contained a consultant reference, to assign responsibility to them. We established this way of working primarily to overcome global collaboration; but there are tremendous co-ordination and design benefits to using a cloud based BIM server when working in any BIM driven consultant team – and that includes local ones.•

Alan McLean works at Bates Smart Architects in Melbourne Australia