Roundtable: Tools of Today Are Opportunities for Tomorrow

May 11, 2009 · by DesignIntelligence

DesignIntelligence invited several of the profession’s leaders to participate in a virtual roundtable to share their thoughts on issues of technology.

DesignIntelligence invited several of the profession’s leaders to participate in a virtual roundtable to share their thoughts on issues of technology.
 
The participants included:
•    Peter Beck, Managing Director, Beck
•    Paul Doherty, (roundtable moderator), Managing Director, The Digit Group Inc.
•    Bradley C. Horst, Chief Information Officer, Principal, Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering
•    Ken Young, Senior Vice President, Chief Information Officer, HOK

Tech Dollars

Doherty: 2009 is bringing unprecedented economic challenges to firms worldwide. Firms are looking to cut costs where they can, but they are also aware that they must spend money to make money. Where are you seeing your firm spend its IT dollars in this economy?

Beck:
We are continuing to spend selectively, particularly on integration tools. We continue to develop a “macro BIM” tool called DProfiler, which allows rapid modeling of a project to provide complete estimates followed by rapid changes to analyze changes in costs. We license these tools primarily to other contractors, though a number of architects have also acquired licenses. As for “micro BIM” tools, our design group is using Revit on all projects, which we plan to continue investing in, particularly in developing mapping protocols and assemblies to integrate information between disciplines on projects that we both design and build.

Doherty: A challenge for BIM tools is the integration of technology and process. There have been a number of initiatives over the years that have addressed this with varying degrees of success. It seems there are costs associated with implementing any of these standards that would increase an IT budget. Has your organization used any of the standards being developed for information integration between disciplines?

Beck: We have not used any of these standards except to make sure that our software is sufficiently compatible. We don’t think that the industry is ready yet to adopt sufficient standards to leverage BIM tools today; although it will happen someday. We think that contractors and others are far more motivated to incorporate adjacent disciplines and then create their own standards in their organization. We are already seeing it happen, as firms find this a much easier path than coaxing the industry to adopt standards around details, mapping protocols, file structures, etc.

Horst: We will continue to focus on leveraging our expertise and building greater value through BIM and integrated project delivery. This comes not just in the form of hardware and software but also in ongoing staff training and outwardly focused collaborative efforts. We’ll be taking a closer look at extending BIM data through early design tools, 4-D and 5-D tools, and tools to support better building performance analysis. I expect that 64-bit computing will play a big role this year as building models become increasingly information rich and memory intensive.

We will also be looking at opportunities for better integrating day-to-day workflows, how we can leverage content between internal disciplines, and ways to collaborate more seamlessly with both internal and external project team members. Considerations may include enhancing our ERP environment, looking at internal office configurations to support team collaboration, or simply making improvements to our existing audio, Web and video conferencing infrastructure. Finally, we’ll also be looking at project information management and digital asset management systems that integrate well and offer more transparency into the firm’s digital content.

Doherty: Does your firm use any Web 2.0 tools like Instant Messenger, blogs, or community platforms such as MySpace or Facebook?

Horst: Currently, we are not using any Web 2.0 tools. In the short term, however, we are looking at expanding our Intranet site to accommodate community type functionality. At the moment, the thinking is that this would probably have a front end that leverages some of the more common open source technologies (for better graphic control) and then a back end that is driven likely by SharePoint. If it turns out that we can get satisfactory results with SharePoint, then we would probably standardize on that, longer term.

Young:
We continue to invest in the tools that employees need to deliver their services. We’re watching inventory very closely, but we haven’t cut back in terms of technology specification or refresh cycle.

The major investment right now is in communication and collaboration tools. We have just built out the initial pilot sites of our advanced collaboration room. This is a mash-up of Cisco’s TelePresence (high-definition video conferencing) and PolyVision’s Thunder (real-time collaboration). We’re looking at building some version of these rooms into all of our offices as well as project sites and probably even some client sites. The goals are to enhance collaboration and decision making as well as offset travel (personal productivity, costs, and green footprint).

Otherwise, we are trying to manage conservatively and to find ways to do more with less.

Horst: Further to some of Ken’s comments around improving our communication and collaboration tools, virtually every project that we have involves staff from more than one of our locations — in some cases, all five main offices may have staff on a project. In fact, it seems rare for us that a project would be handled exclusively by one office location these days.

Also, while we have only five main offices, when you count job trailers and alternative working scenarios (for example, those who work from home), we actually have more like nine or 10 office locations that vary in size from one person to 100-plus people. These varying connectivity scenarios also become considerations when looking at future technology investments. I suspect that our work force will only become more distributed and diverse over time.

Doherty: Ken, the telepresence offerings by Cisco, HP, PolyVision, and others are very impressive — and very expensive to the average firm. With the expense of these innovations, it seems that you have a matrix for a return on investment: personal productivity, green footprint, etc. What was the tipping point for you to implement this program?

Young:
I was able to sell the advanced collaboration room with just a simple back-of-the-envelope ROI equation that said a 10 percent reduction in travel plus some increase in productivity and effectiveness resulted in a payback of under two years. That was enough to get the executives excited about the potential. Plus, they are also heavy travelers, and I think they’re counting on their own personal reduction of travel, which isn’t all that enjoyable anymore.

The other point is, like Brad’s firm, there are so many projects delivered from multiple offices that we have to invest in enhancing our communication and collaboration capability.

Vendor Health

Doherty: Major unexpected changes are expected to take place during these turbulent times that will directly affect your firm’s IT and your IT vendors. How does your firm assess the health of its partners and vendors, and what processes should firms have in place to mitigate exposure and risk?

Beck: I hear that vendors are really struggling, including some that are making major layoffs. It reflects the fact that practitioners are likely cutting back on their investments. License sales of our products were relatively strong until January, though February improved somewhat. We are expecting pretty close to a breakeven year with few layoffs, but then we have only 12 people, including sales. Interestingly, our services business through which we model projects for others has remained strong.

Doherty: Very interesting that modeling is strong, which proves that the market is strong for good offerings and services. As you mentioned, unfortunately, there are many software, hardware, and IT service providers that support our industry that are hurting. Projections in China are for a falling market through August 2009, with modest growth into the first quarter of 2010. With many of the large IT vendors counting on stronger markets like China to weather the storm, this cannot come as good news.

Young: There will be some effects of the global economic mess that will surprise us. We’ve tried to prepare for that with two strategies. First, we typically select technologies that are fairly mainstream and globally ubiquitous. That maximizes our ability to collaborate with anyone around the world. And it puts us in a position where there are many possible suppliers. Second, while we will normally have a preferred provider, we always try to have a secondary source as a backup. It will be interesting to watch things unfold and see if this is enough.

Horst: This is a tough one because I think we’ve all learned over the past few years that even the largest companies can fail or become targets of mergers and acquisitions. We do our best to partner with companies that we think have sustainable business models, that openly support integration with other applications, and that offer tools that will help us drive design innovation throughout our practice. Companies with applications and services that offer an open, open standards, or industry standards approach when it comes to how they store, integrate, and share information may have a slight advantage. For example, when dealing with search engines, I would much prefer a vendor that offers an overlay tagging system to a vendor that requires us to import our information into their proprietary file or database format.

Acknowledging the difficulty of determining who will still be around next year, possibly the next best thing is to try to get the most out of your IT investment while you can. So companies that offer a clear centralized management and services model to their technology offering can directly impact how we can best leverage our technology investment across our organization. Consider floating network licensing or Web-based administration and Web-based access to information. All are tools and methods that allow us as an organization to better manage services from a central location while also delivering maximum benefit of the service or application firm-wide.

Knowing that you can manipulate the service or application with ease (deploy or retract the technology) without adverse affects to your underlying information infrastructure is one way to mitigate exposure and risk.

Doherty: Brad, your strategy of a flexible, centralized IT system is not only sound but smart. In this regard, it sounds like you are putting a priority on data over application as a disaster recovery/business continuity strategy. Is that right?

Horst: Yes. I tend to place more value on preserving content generated by in-house experts than on our actual software applications. It’s much easier to replace or rebuild the latter. But we are actively taking steps to improve how we manage client systems, their configurations, and applications from a central location, as well. Then again, this has much to do with capturing and sharing out IT expertise with regard to configurations for these systems.

Outsourcing

Doherty: As more firms seek to limit their costs, outsourcing services and personnel has been a strategy that some firms are beginning to explore. Has your firm outsourced any of its internal services (IT, back office, etc.) or its people? If yes, what are your experiences (best practices/lessons learned)? If no, what was your decision-making process not to proceed?

Beck: The only thing that we have outsourced occasionally is the development of assemblies for Revit. Otherwise, we have chosen to do it all in-house because the way we put our file details together is somewhat customized for our practice.

Doherty: What did seem to be a growing market for outsourced services to our industry has dried up in a remarkably short amount of time. CAD and BIM service providers, for example, were counting on an upswing in work as more firms started laying off people while still needing to get the work done.

Your point is well taken, Peter. Many firms have their own ways of working that do not necessarily translate into an outsourcing model. It will be interesting as the poor economic conditions continue to see how these outsourced service providers meet this challenge.

Horst: While we’re not practicing widespread outsourcing in our firm, there are occasions where it still makes sense to have an outside party perform paper-to-electronic (CAD or BIM) conversions for us. For example, on a historic preservation project, an outside consultant may be better equipped to model a heavily detailed space from second paper drawings more efficiently than we can do the work internally. Outsourcing this type of work may still make sense for us on occasion as it would allow our internal staff to focus on higher-level aspects of the project.

From a pure IT standpoint, we’re not looking at outsourcing at this time, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. However, we are trying to make much better use of our internal IT resources firm-wide: You might consider it as outsourcing to ourselves. For example, we’re just finishing a large network storage consolidation project where two of our larger offices now act as primary storage facilities for the firm — with real-time redundancy happening between them. Our other offices can then have smaller filer-type local network storage systems, which also can offer the benefit of real-time redundancy back to one of the other two primary storage facilities. By consolidating in this way, we have a clear model for further expansion, we get the added benefit from live replication across sites, and we can free up certain IT staff to focus on other pressing assignments. This year we’ll look at centralizing CD/DVD/tape backup for the organization in a similar fashion. Maybe this is not so much an outsourcing model as it is the doing-more-with-less model and using technology to get us there.

Young: I like to think about outsourcing like consulting — bringing in someone to add specific expertise or service to leverage our internal efforts. One of the benefits of a large firm is the ability to have a lot of specialization. However, there are still many areas where the outside support is appropriate.
We haven’t found much of value in outsourcing CAD drafting except for some unique exceptions. In the BIM environment, it is useful for the project team to construct the model as part of their integrated process.

However, I think there are a lot of opportunities for outsourcing technology services. We have outsourced e-mail (via Exchange) since 2002. That’s been a terrific solution. Initially, it was a project to consolidate about 17 Exchange servers, upgrade them to a newer version, create a storage control system, and implement Web access. My original idea was to leverage the outsource service to do the heavy lifting and to get our e-mail into one managed whole. I would then have the option of moving it back in-house. Since then we have been very happy with the performance, reliability, and ease of management and it looks like this will continue to be our preferred solution.

A note on cost. I don’t think that outsourcing is necessarily a cost-saving solution. Maybe it is more like getting a higher quality solution for the same investment.

It’s still very premature, but I’m also exploring outsourcing options for serving SharePoint, Instant Messenger, some aspects of security, and maybe even storage. There are a number of technology services that have become mission critical. And we’re still faced with the dilemma of running a world-class technology group within a design firm. So you can count me as pro-outsourcing.

Doherty: Brad, it’s interesting that you call it “outsourcing to ourselves” and a “doing-more-with-less model.” It is a smart strategy that we are seeing not just in our profession but across all industries and geographies. Do you find the redundancy between geographically dispersed servers assists in sharing BIM models and files, which are notorious for clogging FTP servers or worse?

Horst: Actually, one correction from my previous statement, Ken’s comments made me recall a few places where we are outsourcing IT today, specifically, some network and e-mail security. They’re both so transparent that I forgot all about them.

With regard to your question about geographically dispersed servers, I think it does help; although, you may be thinking about it in a slightly different way. For us, whatever office has the most staff working on a particular project ends up hosting the project on its local network storage. In other words, the highest concentration of people realizes the greatest benefit. The rest of the project team from our other offices work over the WAN on that particular project, not from a local replica.

In Orlando, we have a five-person office that includes some of our structural engineering team. They really don’t use local network storage but rather work on projects hosted by the other four offices across the WAN. Needless to say, they just have to be very careful, very efficient with regard to model size.

Building Information Modeling

Doherty: BIM has received a lot of attention the past few years. CAD had a similar path of oversaturation in the media until it just became part of how work gets done in firms today. How has your firm adapted to the promise and processes of BIM? How long before BIM becomes transparent to your processes?

Beck: As I mentioned, we use BIM on all of our projects, including those we don’t build. We also remodel most of the projects that we build and don’t design so as to coordinate with all of the subcontractors using Navisworks. It will take another year at least for BIM to become transparent in our design practice since the project cycle is long, and training is the key to transparency.

Doherty: I like the phrase “training is the key to transparency.” In what formats does your IT training occur (one-on-one, classroom, on-the-job, online)?

Beck:
We use all the training formats you mention. The best is probably rigorous classroom work, provided that participants are immediately placed into a demanding setting to deliver an actual project. A few find reasons not to stick to the BIM tools all of the way through, but we insist that they do regardless of the initial cost and loss of productivity. Most are converts after having completed the process to the end on a project. Then we need to listen carefully to their ideas on how better to leverage the tools (particularly investing in non-project specific protocols) and just get out of their way.

Horst: For our architects and structural engineers, BIM is already the de facto standard. We’ve also made great progress with our MEP engineers; although on occasion they still require the added productivity of CAD. I suspect that by the end of 2009, MEP will also view BIM as their standard.

The one thing that I’ve noticed this past year is that our internal conversations have evolved with regard to BIM. No longer is the conversation about how to create the model. Now the conversation is more about how to build value into the model and further, how to leverage the newfound content in fresh and interesting ways

With regard to training, we’ve had only a couple of formal external training sessions. Most training was and is done either one-on-one or through an internal lunch-and-learn format.

Doherty: It’s interesting that the MEP folks were the laggards as most software manufacturers promote the MEP coordination process as a primary area of BIM value. Are there other areas of BIM that you have found that software manufacturers promote as value yet the reality is different?

Beck: I still do see that a lot of firms have their signature project performed on BIM but are struggling to gain wide acceptance across the firm, particularly in large firms. I worry that this downturn might distract some, which would really be a mistake for their future.

Young: Peter, you’ve got that right. In a large firm, especially with the long-term mega projects, there are lots of opportunities to get distracted. We are approaching BIM as a strategy for the future with both a top-down and bottom-up focus.

The bottom-up approach is through the CAD support organization. The CAD managers are well trained and can help project teams from initial strategic planning through specific best practices and problem resolution. This has been very successful. There are lots of anecdotes about people who refuse to go back to ACAD/ADT after learning Revit. It’s great to be able to recombine the expertise of CAD technology and building technology.

The top-down approach is critical. While the design staff seems to be adopting a BIM methodology, resistance is still visible in middle management. The project managers are under enormous pressure to deliver projects with tight budgets and schedules. They seem to default to what they already know. So it takes some top-down executive focus to be sure that the office and project management teams understand the long-term strategy and that they are expected to work that way.

A note on training. Initially, we invested heavily in training. We brought in outside trainers to work with each project team as it started a new BIM project. They would mix training in the morning with project work in the afternoon. It was a great way to get off to a running start. Now we are reaching a tipping point where the majority of the staff is trained and comfortable with BIM. And more of the entry-level employees have BIM experience. We are evolving our training focus from the project startup model to one that is focused on best practices and more sophisticated uses, getting us beyond just the 3-D modeling and into analysis and integration with other parties.

Beck: Ken, you are clearly further along than most. In addition to the barriers that you have identified, I also see principals with only five or so years left in their careers who are reluctant to see the firm change to something that is unfamiliar to them and that will require an investment from which they may see precious little return.

Horst: To your follow-up MEP question above, the timing of our MEP engineer adoption simply matches the timing of when the software was released. With our software vendor, architecture was released first, and then came structure, and even more recently MEP. So I don’t think it has much to do with them being laggards as it has to do with the timing, maturing, and necessary sophistication of the MEP application. It’s now to a point where our MEP engineers are finding value in the software offerings, and they are moving forward accordingly. For MEP content, I think our MEP engineers often begin with manufacturer-provided content but then add or change it on a pretty routine basis.

As to your question about the value of BIM as it is promoted by software manufacturers: More recently, I’ve really come to expand my notion about what constitutes a BIM “authoring tool.” Over the past several years, specific BIM authoring tools were often being promoted as more of a soup-to-nuts solution, being able to accommodate early design through to fabrication and into construction. In reality, I think this life cycle workflow requires a broad range of tools, techniques, and expertise in order to weave together the full story. And honestly, I think the software manufacturers recognize this and see it as an opportunity to sell even more software titles and develop more software offerings. These ideas tie back to my initial comments regarding IT vendor health about interest in technologies that offer an open, open standards or industry standards approach to their solutions. The goal here is that content (and the value of that content) ultimately should provide the continuum effect, not the actual authoring applications. There will likely be many, many different authoring tools involved throughout the building lifecycle — tools offered by a host of different vendors.

Finally, Peter, I just wanted to throw in a comment about signature projects. For us, specific objectives around BIM and IPD are actually built into the firm’s strategic plan. So as a result, the expectations around BIM and IPD end up applying to all projects firm-wide regardless of their signature potential. I have to say, having these initiatives built into the firm’s strategic plan makes a huge difference.

The Promise of BIM

Doherty: BIM is a disruptive technology for firms. The promise of BIM is that it would change values, processes, and workflows that would strengthen those firms that could harness the power of the tool. How far away is your firm from fulfilling the promise of BIM?

Beck: We don’t really know yet how it will evolve in our firm. However, I believe that these tools will give contractors (for the first time) an opportunity to resolve many issues around coordination and completeness of information, which is so disruptive and risky on job sites. I believe they may be motivated to assume responsibility for the design and learn to become the architect of record as architects flee upward simply to design the project, where the margins are best and the risk is the least. This would essentially disrupt the traditional role of the architect enabled by these tools, which light tables could never do, nor could AutoCAD.

Doherty: Architects as subcontractors of design services ... interesting.

Beck: I wouldn’t suggest a sub relationship, although much design-build is done that way, often seeming as if the contractor was the designer. My proposal is that the designer contract with the owner but position the contractor as the architect of record also contracted to the owner. There are many cases today of separating the designer from the production architect. I’m just saying that a combined contractor-production architect would be motivated to really invest in leveraging BIM tools as well as adopt far more efficient processes that would benefit the project instead of the participants. Besides, many owners would like to have an independent designer for many reasons, including looking over the builder during construction.

Horst: I think this is something that we will grow into over time. It’s difficult to put a timeline on it. Who knows exactly where it will take us in the end; although, that’s entirely up to us as practitioners as to where we take it. We’re already starting to see some of the more obvious benefits of BIM. Our designers, architects, and engineers have a more complete understanding of the project as a result of coordinated, consistent, 3-D information. Having more complete information earlier on in the design process is offering new opportunities for more parties to provide input and expertise during early design. We have an ability to create better coordinated construction documents. We see new opportunities to leverage rich information about the building in early design through engineering and into construction. And we’re just scratching the surface in terms of understanding how to leverage the added value to create new business opportunities for the firm.

Continue to Part 2

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