Much like the dilemma of the chicken and the egg, it's difficult to pinpoint the origin of the perceived lack of true technological innovations for the construction industry, which has been blamed on both the industry's resistance to adopting new technologies as well as the lack of new tools available to best fit industry practices. Some critics even go so far as to claim that the move from the drafting board to the computer in the 1980s was the last major technological shift in design and construction. But no matter which came first, the perception is that the U.S. construction industry — plagued by faster turnaround times, tighter budgets, and global competition — is in dire need of a breakthrough in technology.

“AEC [architecture, engineering, and construction] may be the biggest industry in the world,” says Jeff Millett, director of information technology at design firm KlingStubbins, Cambridge, Mass. “But some statistics reveal that productivity in this industry has gone down over the last 20 years while technology has drastically improved the rest of the world's economy. So we really need some productivity improvement — and for that I look to opportunities in technology.”

Traditionally, technological innovation in the design and construction industry has focused on discrete systems — CAD and drawing applications for engineers and designers, and estimation software and work order systems for contractors and electricians. “Electrical engineers and contractors have had tools, and all these other people have had tools, but they've been incompatible,” says Millett. “Everybody does their own 2D drafting, and it's all unlinked so the engineers and architects have to overlay the drawings to look for conflicts.”

In this traditional model, the potential for error rises. “You do a set of drawings, you send them to the printer, and you send them out to some contractors,” says Scott Simpson, FAIA, CEO and president of KlingStubbins. “Three contractors get three sets of drawings — and they're all the same drawings — but when they do their window takeoffs they get three different numbers. Why? Because there's human error in that process.”

The traditional approach, says Sunny Ghataurah, electrical engineer and senior associate for Stantec, Edmonton, Alberta, is linear, with the architect and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers working separately and then coming together after the sets of drawings are complete. “But it's difficult to tell if there are any conflicts,” he says. “If it's just a line on a drawing, you can't tell if the ducts are going to be in the way of the panels.”

Therefore, in an ironic twist, technology itself is not the only driving force behind the industry's most recent breakthroughs. In the last five years, spurred by the industry's need to be able to share information — quickly, seamlessly, and without human error — virtual design applications have become more compatible with other applications as well as with the way the industry uses them. The design and construction process has changed — and with it the software that it uses.

Build it twice. Borrowed from the automotive and aerospace industries, Building Information Management (BIM) — the creation and use of coordinated, internally consistent, computable information about a building project in design and construction — is growing in popularity with many electrical engineering and contracting firms . The applications use open-source technologies to create a database of a project's information, such as schedules, payment plans, and material lists, along with a 3D virtual model, and make it accessible to everyone on the team.

“You've got much more accuracy in the database, and everybody's working off the same set of data,” says Simpson, whose firm has completed 4 billion square feet of projects using the BIM process.

The idea of BIM, according to Millett, is to build the building twice: once digitally, as a sort of dry run, and then once for real. “Instead of drawing a building or an electrical system as 2D representations, you build one model,” Millett explains. “That single model can be made up of an electrical model that's linked to an architectural model and a structural model. They're separate files that different parties are responsible for, but they're all compatible models that are linked together.”

Through virtual design applications, engineers and designers are able to “walk through” the digital version of the project. At that time, they're able to make energy calculations and add up material costs. Any conflicts or opportunities for improvement or cost savings will also be evident. “It produces a more rounded package at the end,” says Ghataurah.

This is crucial in an era when clients care about the future energy costs of their buildings. “We build the real building with a much better knowledge of the materials and costs,” says Millett. “I can do lighting calculations so I know exactly what kind of wattage I need.”

Digital design process' advantages may work best for health care and laboratory projects where the location of outlets is critical. “The wall outlets pop up in my model,” says Millett. “So I can walk around with an electrical designer as if in a video game and see where those things are. I can say ‘Oh, there's a quad outlet there, and it's actually in the wrong place because I've got a cabinet sitting there.’”

Virtual design also works for highlighting power quality issues. Millett has seen demonstrations where electrical outlets are popped in place, and then the program is asked for load balancing calculations to indicate how many panels will be needed and which circuits go to which panels. “If I, as an architect, can do that, I don't know why an electrical engineer would not be doing that kind of thing,” he says.

Cost analysis. For many electrical contractors, earlier costing may be the enticement they need to jump on the digital design process bandwagon. “When you have lines on paper, you can't price that,” Millett says. “Contractors taking prints of our paper and counting the number of doors, electrical outlets, and light fixtures, checking them off with pink, yellow, and green highlighters makes no sense in the technological 21st century.”

Millett also says that a two- to four-week turnaround for a cost estimate on a revised design is also unacceptable in this day and age. “Adoption of new technology is a leg up on your competition,” he says. “Anything that can make that outlet spec-able, readable, and cost-able will be able to get us to a point where we can press a button and say, ‘Ok, I've revised the design over the last two days; now what does it cost?’”

Earlier involvement in the design process could also make using pre-fabricated elements easier, saving electrical contractors both time and money. “The process itself is dependent upon the team,” says Ghataurah. How early the subcontractor comes onboard can be left up to the individual subcontractor, but earlier involvement may translate into time and cost savings.

The up-front costs of adopting virtual design applications usually only costs as much as the software, and the applications generally run on standard operating systems. “In terms of equipment, it's not necessary to upgrade,” Simpson says. “If you're going to put together a team of contractors, subcontractors, architects, engineers, and consultants, on the assumption that they already have computer capacity because they already do a lot of their work on basic computer systems, all you're really doing is adding the software.”

For those that spend most of their time on the jobsite, being able to use the laptop they already own should come as good news. And because the database is stored in a Web-based application, team members may also access the information from handheld devices or PDAs.

Scaled down. For most offices that have adopted a digital process, the initiative most likely came from above. Therefore, the decision to go digital usually lies in the hands of the owners and is most often seen in the industrial and manufacturing bases. “You can have an OEM like Boeing, for example, which can push standards across all of their suppliers,” says Jennifer Toton from the Collaboration Group at Autodesk Collaboration Solutions, San Rafael, Calif. “And it's not really different when we look at the AEC. There are building owners that decide this is a requirement for a project. Usually, the owner wants to drive down cost.”

For design and construction management company Stantec, the decision to adopt BIM was owner-driven. “There were several owners who requested the process on their projects,” says Ghataurah. “They put that requirement in the bid package.”

But the firm also understands that early adoption can be a selling point to potential clients. For now, however, the use of BIM is on a project-by-project basis. Of the five projects Ghataurah is managing currently, two have been designed using the BIM process, with a third that may begin in the near future.

There are still many design and contracting firms, however, that won't switch to a digital design process. “They take a very high-touch approach to collaboration, and they want to sit down and meet with the client and that whole process,” says Toton. “Even as it goes out to contractors and subcontractors, I think it continues to be high-touch and less technical.”

Those design and contracting firms must then look at other types of scaled-down software to fill their needs. In lieu of a completely digital design process that contains every project detail and gives the firm the ability to communicate with clients and vendors outside the firm, for the past three years, West Chicago, Ill.-based outdoor lighting maintenance company Fitzgerald Lighting and Maintenance Co., Inc., has been using one of the many types of work order software on the market. In this case, it's from Wilsonville, Ore.-based work order, maintenance management, and service management softwareprovider Corrigo. “Prior to this, we always just used paper,” says Lori Smith, Fitzgerald's salesperson. “We wanted a work order system that would be paperless, but also we wanted a system where we could get work orders to our employees at different points in the day.”

On a typical workday, Fitzgerald's handful of service employees come to the shop only once in the morning. Before acquiring the work order software, when employees received paper work orders, they wouldn't be able to receive any changes or updates unless they spoke by phone. Currently, the employees' schedules are now compiled the night before. If there are any changes, it can be changed throughout the day. “We're all out on different jobs,” says Smith. “All service guys are at different jobs every day, typically between two and three a day, so they're moving from jobsite to jobsite. A lot of times, things change, especially with emergency calls. In the past, if they didn't have those work orders with them — which they didn't always have because we didn't exactly know who we were going to send to the job — they couldn't change the schedule.”

The other advantage, says Smith, is that everything that goes through the system is time stamped. “We know exactly when they log in and when they log off — and that's how we bill, in 15-minute increments,” she says. “We work for a lot of people that aren't necessarily on a site, especially when it comes to property management companies, so now we have proof. We can say ‘Yes, that was how long we were actually onsite because this is when he clocked in and clocked out.’”

With the system, work orders are entered into a computer at the office. Then that information is available immediately to all the employees. “As long as I can go somewhere and hook up my laptop, I can see what work orders came in,” says Smith. “I can enter my notes into that also.”

The service employees pick up their work orders through their phones. Using a foldable foot-wide keyboard in their trucks, they clock in and out and write their notes, such as materials used and what they did, as well as if there should be anything quoted for future work. Immediately after the worker clocks out, that information is updated on the server so Fitzgerald's office manager can bill for the work the same day. “That certainly helps with cash flow,” says Smith. “In the past, the bookkeeper wouldn't get the hours until the next day to do all the billing.”

Brave new world. So far, many engineering firms and contractors have been reluctant to take on the digital design process wholeheartedly. Many firms are too small to benefit from the switch. Only 28% of responding architectural firms having used virtual design/BIM in the design of a construction project, according to a recent survey from The American Institute of Architects (AIA). The survey revealed that larger firms are more likely to have used BIM, with 58% of firms with annual billings of $5 million or more using the process, compared to 26% of firms with billings between $1 million and $5 million and only 20% of firms with billings under $1 million. Only a third of the responding firms said they plan to increase their use of virtual design in 2007.

However, Toton remains optimistic regarding the adoption of BIM. “As a trend, it is starting to move not just within the larger firms but to some of the smaller firms,” she says. “They want to stay competitive. It just takes a little bit longer for the adoption to take place.”

In answer to the AIA survey question of when they believe virtual design will become de rigueur for building design, less than half expect it will happen within the next five years, and only an additional 41% predict it will happen within five to 10 years. When asked to give the greatest obstacle to increased use of virtual design, almost a third cited that clients don't require it — and aren't willing to pay for it. A quarter of firms reported that the industry isn't ready for it yet and that integration is too difficult. Other reasons cited for not adopting BIM are that the architects aren't trained to use it effectively (17%), it's too expensive to implement (13%), and rewards don't match the risk (6%).

There is also an initial learning curve that must be overcome when adopting the new process. “It does take some time to get used to the process,” says Ghataurah. “Some of my team members were asking to stay late to work in the program to familiarize themselves with its capabilities.”

As for construction companies, according to Ghataurah, the BIM process doesn't have to change the way most firms do business. “At the end, they're given a set of detailed plans with a comprehensive schedule,” he says.

However, the process is enhanced if all the team members are involved from earlier stages than in the linear, traditional model of design and construction.

Simpson concedes that a few changes in the construction industry must take place before the process may be fully adopted. In this “brave new world,” there must be an attitude of shared risk management and cooperation instead of contention, with early engagement of subcontractors and suppliers, the elimination of bidding, no more shop drawings or RFIs, no cost escalation or punchlists, and online payment of requisitions.

“It has yet to be embraced fully by the contracting industry,” says Simpson. “But I think in very short order they're going to understand the tremendous benefits that accrue from everybody being on the same system and working on the same software platform. I predict that within a year or two, it's going to become standard operating procedure.”



Sidebar: An End to the Paper Chase

A happy byproduct of Building Information Management (BIM) and other virtual design systems is a reduction in the amount of paper sent to and from your office. Arlington, Texas-based consulting research firm Allen Ray Associates recently surveyed contractors regarding paper use. According to the survey results, 73.9% of responding contractors with annual sales of more than $6 million said they receive between 101 to 500 paper invoices each month from as many as 10 or more suppliers. Contractors receive approximately 18 to 100 paper invoices for every P.O. issued (see EC&M's October 2006 article, “Is Your Business Choking on Paper”).

For some larger offices, reducing paper could be the top priority for turning to digital applications. “It's more of a top-down initiative,” says Jennifer Toton from the Collaboration Group at Autodesk Collaboration Solutions, San Rafael, Calif. But generally, smaller firms — 40 to 50 employees — don't switch to a digital design process in an effort to go “paperless, but it's an obvious side effect,” she says. Smaller firms adopt the process in an attempt to meet faster delivery times, coordinate team members in different locations, and reduce errors by tracking and improving communication. “They're looking to address these problems, so they've implemented a digital design process,” Toton says. “But in their office you can visibly see which employees are using this technology because their office looks clean. They don't have rolls and rolls of paper.”



Sidebar: Drawing the Line

Depending on the application, some firms may prefer to invest in or lease new hardware. That's what Ray Steeb, president of Wexford, Pa.-based Steeb Crawford Construction and creator of Fast-Cat, a tablet-style computer that contains portable construction documents, is hoping. Steeb has parlayed his 27 years of construction experience into making a device specifically geared toward construction superintendents.

According to Steeb, superintendents won't be parted from their construction drawings, so his tablet replicates them in electronic form, allowing drawings to be manipulated for quick and easy access. With software developed at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, it enables navigation from one set of drawings to another — from electrical to plumbing, for instance — and has a stylus to create mark-up drawings on the table's 9-inch screen, which was designed much larger than the average cell phone or PDA screen. A wireless card allows workers to update drawings over e-mail, as well as to receive information and annotations from other members of the project team.

Project information is stored on the tablet, so even when it's not in communication with the Fast-Cat servers the device remains functional. When it is in proximity to the server, then the information is transferred and stored for backup there. “That's in case the unit would get run over by a truck, get stolen, or be dropped,” Steeb says. “You name it, and I'm sure it will happen, especially with what happens on jobsites.”

The system seems fail-proof enough. “As long as the person who works for the firm itself loads the right documents, they always know they have the latest information,” he says. “That's the most valuable thing you can have in the construction industry. One of the biggest issues we have today is that the people doing the building aren't necessarily getting the latest information.”