The Path to Better, Connected Workflows in Construction Projects

In case you haven’t heard, the construction industry can use some help. From constant cost overruns to reducing project margins, there’s a lack of communication and connected workflows all along the project lifecycle. As someone who’s been in the AEC industry for more than 15 years, I’ve found that many just don’t know that there are technologies and processes that can improve efficiency and benefits for the entire project as well as the people involved.

A couple of years ago, I hosted a construction webinar series with U.S. CAD to introduce some of the tools that can help make this change. Now, I’m back with the next level of construction webinar series; it’s called the Construction Now series. Back then, the first series was all about what people were starting to do. Now, two years later, we’re going to talk about what people are doing.

  • What are the trends?
  • What’s popular?
  • What are the gains we’re seeing?

My goal with the Construction Now series is that it will be valuable and beneficial to you, so please feel free to leave me a comment or reach out to me with your feedback!

What I’m discussing today is from Part 1 of the 3-part Construction Now webinar series. Part 1 was about How Designers Coordinate with Builders. So, the focus is on the beginning of a construction project’s life cycle: from conceptual design to pre-construction. Then, we’re just going to keep building on that in Part 2 and Part 3 of the webinar series, and show you how there’s really a truly connected workflow from the very early concept through operations and maintenance.

The History Lesson: The Disconnect Between Designers and Builders

Before we begin, I just wanted to take a step back and look at our history. We’re going to talk about how designers and builders are connected. Well, how have they been connecting? Historically, there used to exist this concept of the “master builder”. So, what happened to the “master builder”? Here’s the lesson, courtesy of my time in architecture school.

What happened was that everything became more complicated: all the building systems, the teams, our processes, etc. As a result, people became more specialized and focused, which is great because it’s helped the building sciences. However, it started to create these disconnects. Then, during the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a very conscious decision to break architects away from the builders. As a result, for better or for worse, now we’re in this place where people and projects are somewhat detached and we’re just trying to bring them back together.

Challenges with the Multi-Version, Multi-Tiered Approach

In today’s world, there are several different contracting arrangements to take for a construction project. I’m just going to take design-bid-build as an example to show you where our traditions have led us to. So, if you’re in a design-bid-build project, your project might look similar to the below image.

So, in this scenario, you start the project and it goes to the chosen architect, who creates their initial designs. At some point, the owner says “Okay, that’s the direction that we like. Let’s go ahead and get started.” Then, the architects begin working with consultants to generate the designs, deliver on milestones, estimate costs, conduct owner reviews, and basically perform all the tasks that you’re probably familiar with in this cyclical, iterative process.

Again, the project gets to another point where the owner says “Okay, this is a complete design. Let’s go ahead and progress this out further.” So, at this point, something really interesting happens: you’re going for permits, you have neighborhood board reviews, you’re going to out bids and receiving RFIs, etc. All of these activities are generating changes and addenda, and essentially what happens is that there are now three, four, or even five projects going on in parallel. No, I don’t mean literally five different contracts, but I mean five projects.

For example, you’ll have one “project” with its own series of changes that are different from the other two (which also have their own series of changes!). The worst part? All three of them are “lying”—that is, not a single one of them is the single common truth. For your team, it’s really hard to gather and manage all of this (even when you’ve got a very good project manager on your team). Still, it’s a very complicated thing to run these three projects in parallel and always ask: Which is the actual truth? Which is the one that’s going to be built?

Eventually, you’ll compile all of these revisions and changes, and you will produce a PCD document or something similar. This is then provided to the awarded contractor and given to their construction manager.

The contractor now is looking for RFIs and fielding questions from the trades. The contractor processes the questions, and usually sends it on to the owner or architect. The architect then has to determine, “Hmm, this looks like a question for engineering. I’ll send it to the engineer.” You can start to see the fragmentation in communication as questions, files, and data gets cycled between the architect, GC, and construction manager. And this is even before we take into consideration change orders!

Long story short, it’s complex and difficult for the construction manager to compile and gather all of this information, especially when it’s in stacks of papers, filing cabinets, emails, and DropBoxes. The only people who know the “truth” about the project are probably the trade installers: they know what they installed. However, even the reporting with trade installers is not consistent.

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Why Change is Necessary

So, why is change necessary? Part of it is to ensure your survivability.

You want to be relevant and you want to be competitive in your industry. This past year, I’ve heard from many people about how they’re losing work or not getting projects because they don’t use Autodesk Revit or some other technology. They’re also having trouble attracting new hires; job seekers are saying “No, you don’t have the new technologies, so I don’t want to work for you.” Yes, that’s actually happening and it’s something that you can prevent by simply investing in technology.

The second part is really about improving our world.

One of my favorite quotes regarding change and disruption comes from Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” That’s how we think as humans: we get into our box, in our mode, and ask how can I be a little bit better at my job? We stick ourselves in the envelope of what we do and how we can do it better. So, I don’t know how many of you came to work on a horse today, but had Henry Ford not come up with this out-of-the-box concept or really changing how we transport ourselves, we all would be living in a much different time.

Now that we know why change is necessary, let’s move on to discussing the single source of truth and the common data environment, which are the big concepts that will help us overcome the challenges in our current workflows.

One of my favorite quotes regarding change and disruption comes from Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Defining the Single Source of Truth and the Common Data Environment

If you look at our traditional workloads, especially as illustrated in that design-bid-build worst case scenario, you can see that there is data everywhere and everyone has their own copies of it. They’ve got data in a DropBox that they share with their grandma. They’ve emailed it a thousand times to a bunch of different people. It’s sitting on a USB drive somewhere. There are printed drawings all over the place with hand sketches on it. The data is everywhere, and it’s impossible to manage.

So what the single source of truth does is force you to say, “No, we’re going to take all of that data and we’re going to put it in the same spot. Anyone who needs to engage with or can affect this project can get the information they need. Everyone who accesses the information will see the same story.” There is now a single source of truth. Not a truth that’s laying on the job captain’s desk with red marks on it. Not the truth that was emailed to the contractor 13 times. Not something that’s sitting in my DropBox that I haven’t synced yet. We’re talking one location where everyone accesses the same information regardless of their role.

In conjunction with this is the idea of a common data environment. The B1M, a group out of the UK, states that “the key to well-structured data is a Common Data Environment or CDE; an online place for collecting, managing, and sharing information amongst a team working on a project.” Basically, you take your single source of truth and you make it a place where it’s not just an FTP site, but it’s a place where people can work, share ideas, manage processes, and do all their work.

The common data environment really boosts productivity because you’re not spending hours waiting for files to transfer. As a result, we create this complex, unproductive work system where we try to work around time zone differences, manage all of the changes (how often have you sent off a file only to realize you forgot to change one thing?), and just spend time waiting for “our turn” with the files. All of these things just go away when you have a common data environment.

I’ll now discuss some of the workflows and tools that I’ve seen used to give teams a competitive edge.

Tools of the Trade

Workflow 1: Whole Team Collaboration

So one of the first tools is whole team collaboration, which is all about Collaboration for Revit. Imagine, instead of spending hours a week uploading and downloading project files or talking to your engineer who claims they never got your email, your team is working on files that live right next to each other. Everyone works in real-time and the beauty of it is that it’s regardless of physical location.

We use Collaboration for Revit internally here at U.S. CAD, and we recommend it to all of our clients.  For example, I’m based out of our Hawaii office, and I do a lot of work with clients all over the country. As long as I’ve got a computer and an Internet connection, I can jump on a project anytime.

In addition, there are also the online collaborative tools, so you don’t even need to be a Revit expert to open up the Revit model and provide comments or markups. There’s even a live sharing session where you can get in, spin the model around together. Again, regardless of where you’re physically located, everybody can look at where you’re pointing in the model. Then, others can share their comments, share their markups, and have a really great communication chain there. All based on this living shared common data environment.

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Collaboration for Revit is device-agnostic, too. So, if you just carry around a Surface Pro and a smartphone, that’s totally okay. You can still work on your project. You can still open up the project. You can respond to comments. You can review a certain aspect of it. You can do a section of the building to get in there and look at it. You don’t even have to have Revit. You’re not carrying Revit around. You’re just doing your job on whatever device you use.

Collaboration for Revit works in conjunction with BIM 360 Team, which is a repository where your Collaboration for Revit files are stored and working with one another. So, these two solutions create the common data environment, and the Revit model becomes the single source of truth.

BIM 360 Team is a very advanced and fluid solution. It has built-in version control, where you can see what’s going on with the 3D model and how it’s changed over time.

Here’s some more technical information about the two solutions: Collaboration for Revit and BIM 360 Team. Again, I’ve been extremely satisfied with these technologies, and I think you would be, too. Autodesk gives you 500 GB per user of pooled storage, and the Collaboration for Revit files don’t count against the limit. You can have 1,000 TB of live Revit models and still allocate space for the storage and sharing of your other files.

Autodesk Collaboration for Revit
Autodesk BIM 360 Team
Cloud service that works with Revit to enable multi-user co-authoring of BIM models Cloud-based platform for design collaboration that provides centralized team access to project data
Multi-user cloud worksharing Revit 500 GB cloud storage per user
Communicate in real-time in the model View, comment, and markup features
No IT hardware required Keep track of version history
Sync to BIM 360 Team Web and Mobile access to BIM models

Workflow 2: Cloud-based Model Coordination

The next workflow I will discuss is cloud-based model coordination using BIM 360 Glue. With this solution, our team has been able to get our design coordination meetings and pre-construction coordination meetings down to one very productive hour.

Here’s how BIM 360 Glue has been able to help us make that transformation: first, it’s one-click access to BIM. Within Glue, you can coordinate everyone’s models right there in the cloud, which therefore allows you to do more collaborative project reviews. You can do markups, you can notify someone about any clashes you find, and assign it to them. Furthermore, when you assign a clash to someone, they can open it up in their original Revit model!

Workflow 3: Document Management

Lastly, let’s talk about document management. Some of the biggest challenges with single project repositories have to do with version control, publishing ability, and access levels. With BIM 360 Docs, you eliminate these issues. Everyone on the project has access and version control is built right into the solution. BIM 360 Docs gives you RFI management, issue management, and different publishing settings that can really boost your document management to a whole new level.

You can spend less time fighting with files. You don’t have to worry about naming your files “version-1”, “version-4”, or “version-FINAL-please-don’t-make-anymore-changes”. You just give the file a sheet name, send it to the document management system and forget about it. It will deal with the versions for you. And the thing is, everybody with access to the project knows what the latest file is. They can’t dodge it. They can’t hide from it. They can’t deny it. If it’s there and it’s got the latest version, that’s the single source of truth that everybody should be pulling from and that everybody will see.

You can set up roles to determine who has access to what. Simply create a design team document area, a pre-construction document area, and even an owner document area if you want to. Everyone can get in there and they can comment and mark up together instead of having a job captain that is always on the phone with a stack of red marks ready to pass out to the team. Everything’s here sitting on the cloud, ready to go, and other people can contribute to it as well.

Construction Now

Construction Now: that’s what we’re talking about. Not that complicated, multi-version, multi-tiered approach. Construction Now is about experiencing a truly integrated conversation of a project where people that need information know where to get it, and that they’re getting the same information everyone else is getting. That information is always up to date because people are collaborating in real-time. I’ve seen this benefit many projects and clients because it’s just a simpler, better way to work—and you, the projects, and the stakeholders stand to benefit.

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