Innovation in construction lacks a standard playbook. Each company approaches things differently, based on their specific sector and customer base. This interview with Brian Arnold offers a clear explanation of an innovation group from the viewpoint of a general contractor specializing in commercial and general building construction.
We discuss building a culture of innovation that can retain employees and satisfy clients, the key traits of BNBuilders’ innovation group, the challenges that they’ve identified, and why a focus on ROI may be exaggerated.
To start at the beginning, what’s your industry story? How did you get into construction?
I graduated from the University of Kansas as an architect intern and went out into the world to start my rounds. I got into sports architecture while working on Seattle Seahawks projects from Kansas City, which is what got me out to the West Coast. However, I began getting the sense in that job that I wasn’t receiving the sort of field education that I really wanted.
Design intent is great but designing for the process of construction is even better, and this is a place where I think the design industry wants to be — once you know the construction trades, along with all of the details and processes, you can design in such a way that aligns itself towards that.
And so I didn’t feel like I was getting the right experience in a design office that was removed from the project site. I wasn’t seeing potential design problems that I had created and understanding how to better detail them from that point on.
BIM provided me this opportunity. I got out of school in 2006 and Revit was just starting to grab hold on the design side and had yet to make inroads into the construction world. I saw promise there and had a mentor that saw it even more clearly.
The evolution started happening pretty quickly towards 2012. Contractors in Seattle were doing some really cool stuff with self-perform concrete drawings from the model — tons of 3D coordination for MEP and running 4D/5D with BIM-based cost estimating. At the time, most companies had their BIM engineers sharing time as project engineers, which had benefits and drawbacks in my mind.
Learning those scopes was really valuable in my career. I now know tons of information that I wouldn’t have picked up about waterproofing, doors, frames, hardware, and MEP trades — understanding what their submittals look like is really hard when you don’t have to dive into it as part of your role. But the shared role had me stretched too thin, so I looked for a company with a specialized role in BIM.
Before we get to BNB, I think this is interesting because I work with several companies who have developed these teams independently. Their early BIM teams often initially focus on one aspect of their self-perform work, similar to some of the companies that you’ve worked for in the past.
That’s the way I’ve seen it too. All the contractors that I’ve worked for who do their own concrete all saw it in the same way, which is that if we’re going to send carpenters into the field with something to look at as a buildable set of drawings then it’d better be the best set that we can give them.
It needs to be up-to-date, it needs to be correct, it needs to have everything in one place as opposed to flipping through hundreds of sheets of drawings in a spec binder with a bunch of ASIs and RFIs and revision clouds.
Even if they’re digital drawings — that doesn’t mean they’re the most up-to-date or even organized most efficiently.
Even if they’re digital! Let’s say you have an iPad. You’re still wading through how many files and how many pages within each file to try to find one dimension.
You might go to an architecture plan and it might say refer to a digital structural drawing and the digital structural drawing might refer to an MEP opening in the digital shops.
You’re just trying to get one dimension that tells you how big of an opening to set a square form in the concrete, and that’s it!
I believe that many construction companies adopted this approach due to the profitability of self-perform work. It makes financial sense to invest in technology in these areas because that’s where the general contractor makes their money and there’s significant waste present.
Correct. Also, when you think about concrete, that’s where all the trades come together. You have reinforcement, post-tensioned cables, embeds for various scopes, curtain walls, MEP sleeves — you likely have a dozen scopes all integrated into that one element of a project, which is your slab.
It has to be coordinated in 3D to get a full picture of what’s truly happening in there. I think self-perform concrete contractors definitely gravitated towards BIM workflows early on and the ones that did it well have reaped rewards since day one.
Where does BNB self-perform?
BNB self-performs a lot of concrete and a lot of self-perform drywall and framing. That’s another scope where, with every wall, you need to understand what’s going into the wall to build it correctly. Whether it’s a door frame or a large ductwork opening that needs to be framed and headered, it all needs to be located correctly.
Having the wall framing design reflect all those trades with coordination that goes into Navisworks is really important. For us, modeling stud framing has been important in recent years. I think it’s going to be more and more important for subcontractors and self-perform GCs to model things right before they build it.
As construction companies begin to understand how to best adapt to all of these changes, whether it’s a new technology or a new business model or a process innovation, each construction company seems to have its own approach and ways of doing things. How and where do you define innovation in the work that you do at BNB?
If quality is one of the end results then the question is, “How do we get the best information to the field?” That can happen through a BIM model or it can happen using iPads or AR/ VR or drones or laser scan capture with total station-based layout.
As risk managers, the biggest contributor to success is making sure that we have the right information. Innovation is constantly pushing to evolve all these workflows to make sure that the information is the best it can be.
It changes for every project. We have projects where the source of truth is the model because we’ve evolved to dimensionless workflows and the information sources are evolving. It takes a department like us to stay on top of those changes and find the most effective and time-efficient way to get that information out.
At BNB it’s a dedicated position. There are enough BIM-based workflows and technology-based workflows on project that it necessitates a full-time person onsite.
During preconstruction, early phases of winning work, estimating the work, constructability reviews, on the jobsite for self-perform support — all of that needs a 3D look. That’s a full-time job, and on big projects we might have two or three coordinators.
Do you guys measure ROI or do you have some other type of performance metric that you work towards, such as whether or not the field likes it?
Largely it’s that — we gather use cases for each new technology and it’s much more anecdotal than it is financial. While an ROI can indicate a smart decision, it doesn’t always capture the story behind the investment.
It’s the guys in the field wanting a tool. They’re the experts in their trade and it’s like any other tool in their toolkit. If they need a hammer to do the job better then we’re going to get it for them.
For example, some of our field teams are asking for AR goggles and we’re getting our head around how to make it work. The ROI on something that can be huge. If it saves them a hundred hours then that easily pays for the investment in the device itself. It’s a pretty low bar for a return on investment on something that has a relatively small cost.
For other more high cost items, like laser scanning or enterprise-wide software systems, sometimes those can be harder to quantify — especially with something like BIM because it’s an error reduction tool and so you’re not seeing the mistakes to quantify.
I refer to these as “habituated pain points” that go unnoticed until they’re addressed. In such situations, I often refer to an article I wrote on successful startup pilots from a company’s perspective. The article highlights that focusing too much on ROI can obscure the bigger picture. If a new tool truly has value, it is quickly realized by those working on the frontlines.
A lot of the value is cultural. Any company worth its salt wants their people to be happy. If they’re happier then they’re going to be more productive and they’re going to stick around. And they’re only going to do that if you’re giving them the tools that allow them to be happy.
Otherwise, it all adds up. It shows up on your shoulders over the course of a day. Eventually you’re irritable, you’re not getting along with your associates, and you just have a bad day. If we can defeat that problem by simply giving people better tools in order to not have that tension build up then I think that’s a huge asset. You can’t necessarily quantify something like that easily.
Having an innovative culture is much more important than looking at numbers at every turn. Understanding that philosophy of what we do is more important than any number.
Nate Fuller is Managing Director of Placer Solutions, advising leadership teams to transform their organizations in ways that improve performance and agility at the field level.
He provides construction companies with a Field Assessment that delivers transformative information about their field operations and is proven to accelerate innovation & technology adoption for Top ENR contractors.
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