BIM Fuels Collaborative Innovation

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Type: Article, Report or Whitepaper

Topics: Building Information Modeling (BIM); Smart Building Technology (SBT)

Date: August 2012

By David Nour

This is the third in the InfoComm Innovation Executive Briefings series by David Nour, author of Relationship Economics and Return on Impact. Nour will also be sharing his expertise in a series of InfoComm Webinars. For this article, he spoke with Mark Valenti, President and CEO of The Sextant Group, about an innovative design practice — namely building information modeling.

Mark Valenti is President and CEO of The Sextant Group, a 17-year veteran design consulting firm in the audiovisual and IT technology industry. Mark and his team work with owners and architects to design buildings, typically spending two to four years on a project. In response to customer-driven pressure to reduce time to market, Mark has begun to reinvent his business. The Sextant Group has moved away from drafting plans in AutoCAD and embraced building information modeling (BIM) using Revit, a 3D modeling platform that allows designers from multiple construction trades and physical locations to collaborate with a model simultaneously.

“Forty percent of our projects now are model-based and 60 percent are the old AutoCAD-based,” Valenti says. “That’s happened in two years. In the next two years we expect that will be 80 percent [Revit], and in the next three years it will be the way we do business. We won’t use AutoCAD anymore, we will only use Revit.”

Around 2005, as commodities and construction prices were skyrocketing, clients began clamoring for designs to be done more quickly. BIM would become the displacing and disruptive technology in the marketplace because it reduced both time to market and cost to owners.

While smaller, intermediary architectural firms went out of business because they couldn’t afford the investment required by the new technology, Mark realized his company would also soon sink if he didn’t make a commitment to swim. Recalling his younger days as a kayaker, Mark says, “We are in the white water, where a kayaker has to paddle faster than the water to keep the boat in control. If you slow down to sightsee, the water takes control and you are probably going to be capsized. That’s a fundamental tenet of learning how to be a white-water canoeist; you have to go faster than the water.”

The Sextant Group invested in the Revit platform, in new skill sets, in learning a new language, in a new IT framework to support delivery of the new technology, and in creating a new database of 3D models (or families) because they didn’t exist out in the market. The company also redesigned and rewrote all of its proposal language.

“All of the skill sets that our staff had accumulated, we’ve had to throw away, and we’ve had to learn new skill sets from scratch,” Mark explains. “You can be an expert AutoCAD draftsman but it means nothing in Revit. You literally have to rethink everything that you know. The financial investment has also been significant, in terms of software, enhanced hardware to drive the model, bandwidth and design of corporate IT architecture.” But Mark is confident the investment will pay itself back in three to five years, when staff can take advantage of economies of scale.

Quick Decisions

An immediate benefit of the BIM design process relates to decision-making. Before, designers used to explore concepts until the owner committed to one, at which point design development could begin and detailed drawings could be produced for the builder. In today’s modeling environment, six to 12 months can be shaved off the execution cycle because design-data detail is submitted during — not after — concept development.

“In decision-making curves, the earlier you make a decision, the more impact it has, and the later in the process you make that decision, it has less impact and more cost associated with it,” Mark says. “BIM pulls decision-making earlier into the process so that decisions you make early in concept development have way more impact than they used to. You used to be able to put off stuff to solve later, but not anymore. You have to solve it now.”

Mark cites a feature in BIM called “clash detection” as pivotal to driving down costs and design time. “If you are an AV designer,” he says, “you have to think and visualize in three dimensions. 3D modeling is all about sight lines, room geometries, image size and acoustics. One of the things that a three-dimensional model lets you see is the impact of your solution way earlier through clash detection, which you can’t possibly do with a series of flat drawings. The model will actually tell you that there is a pipe running right through the middle of the light path, so if you hang your projector here and your screen there, you see you’ve got a problem. You literally solve those problems early in the design phase and not in the construction phase. That’s been a huge boon to everybody, both the builders and designers, and certainly to the owners who bear the brunt of the cost.”

Furthermore, BIM is not just a design tool; it is also a management tool used long after a building is completed. “In the old days, you would create a set of drawings for the builder, who would mark what he changed. The owner would get a set of marked-up drawings for the record, and that’s all he had. With a model, he now has a fully-functioning, three-dimensional database of information, which doesn’t just have the lines on it; it has components and all the attributes of those components. Nor does it get shoved in a project file, it gets handed off to the maintenance guys, who replace a valve and mark it up in the model.”

And it doesn’t end there. With BIM, a smartphone app, for example, using GPS and access to the model, allows an owner to look into walls to see where conduits, power lines and studs are. Or at ground level to see where gas, water lines and IT duct banks are.

One challenge of BIM so far has been that many design firms don’t know yet how to manage it. “We now ask if this is their first Revit project to gauge their expertise,” Mark says. “Because that experience can be key to the level of effort the project will require of us. If they haven’t run a Revit project before, they literally are not prepared for the sheer size of the data set that the model presents — we are talking terabytes in a single building, not megabytes or gigabytes.”

Daunting Change

While all this change might be daunting to some, Mark and his team have thrived on the challenges that market chaos and BIM have forced upon them. “We are inherently futurists,” he explains. “We are predicting, with the highest amount of accuracy we can bring to bear, what our customer’s future looks like because that building won’t be complete for another three years.

“We always have to be looking over the horizon. It is part of our DNA. We’ve taken to it like a duck to water,” Mark continues. “I mean, it’s been disruptive, challenging, painful and occasionally expensive, but at the end of the day we love it. It is a far superior environment, and our clients see a far superior product.” His team continually pushes him to give them more training, and Mark has never had to deal with overt or covert pushback. The company hasn’t been able to afford training everyone all at once, but the Sextant Group has well over 75 percent of the relevant people trained in BIM, and in five years the transition should be complete.

Mark believes that all of the systems integration companies in the AV industry are ripe for this level of innovation, but most have not yet felt the impact. “To be able to interpret the drawings that we create, integrators are going to have to have the skill set in-house. Their future is going to depend on it. It’s not there yet, but within the next 12 to 24 months, many will be looking at a bid package and not even know how to open the file. They won’t even know what it is.”

Manufacturers are also going to be impacted, he says. “In AutoCAD we would create something called a block — a simple, two-dimensional representation of a routing switcher or an amplifier or a loudspeaker. We have 100,000 blocks in our library. In Revit, it’s called a family, and it’s not 2D; it’s a full 3D representation with all relevant data — power load, interconnection points, physical dimensions, etc. The manufacturers have to produce the families that accompany their products or I have to do it. If that manufacturer has created a legitimate set of families associated with their products I’m more inclined to pick them than I am one that is going to cost me some overhead. That’s the influence that BIM is going to have on manufacturers, and it is just now starting.”

Mark points out that the large construction firms of the world have already adopted BIM wholesale, and that his is just a tiny satellite in an industry spinning around that solar system of players. “BIM is already the norm, it just hasn’t funneled down to the AV business completely,” he says. “The suppliers that can deliver that quality in a shorter timeframe are going to win.”

Mark sees no downsides to adopting the new technology. “Once you get the hang of it, if you compare the old way against the new way, the new way is faster and cheaper,” he says. “If you let it become terrifying, you will be frozen and unable to make decisions; it will draw you but you will only be able to react. You’ve got to paddle faster than the current to keep your business in control, and the way you do that is to get out ahead so that you have an opportunity to make adjustments. If you are out in front, you have an opportunity to rethink your decisions, change what you do, and do it differently.”

David Nour is a social-networking strategist and one of the world’s foremost thought leaders on the quantifiable value of business relationships. He is an active member the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG), American Management Association (AMA), Institute of Management Consultants (IMC), and the Society of International Business Fellows (SIBF). For more information, visit