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Construction Technology: Long-Term Benefits with Short-Term Investment

BY DEBRA WOOD

One of the nation’s largest privately held construction firms, Brasfield & Gorrie, based in Birmingham, Alabama, provides a number of contracting services. To ensure it provides clients the best possible service, the company investigates and embraces new technologies that increase productivity.

Brasfield & Gorrie team members review building data in the field, on a tablet. PHOTO COURTESY OF AUTODESK

“There are a lot of benefits to adopting the technology that is out there today,” says Chad Waters, chief preconstruction manager at Brasfield & Gorrie, a member of multiple AGC chapters, citing improved quality and safety as examples.

Recognizing that communication is key in all relationships, Brasfield & Gorrie Senior Virtual Design and Construction Coordinator Contessa Hayter adds, “Using technology also can generate a centralized location for communication for the team.”

WHY ARE CONTRACTORS AVOIDING TECHNOLOGIES?

“One main thing that holds companies back from adopting technologies is being risk averse,” Waters says. “It requires somebody willing to try new things and invest time and dollars to learn new ways to do something they already know how to do for future benefits.”

Additionally, some new technologies fail to take off. Contractors often fear adopting a technology only to have to replace it a few years later if it is not supported. For cautious folks, selecting well-established products, such as Autodesk Revit for Building Information Modeling (BIM) or PlanGrid for document management, can minimize the risk.

“Technology and BIM are not going away for those in general construction,” says Waters, adding, “However, some contractors fail to see the long-term benefit in a short-term investment.”

Hayter agrees that people often do not trust new methods of doing things. However, as owners embrace technology, contractors may follow suit and do the same because of the many benefits, such as BIM, which includes facility maintenance models provided at the end of the job.

“Eventually, people will see a drop in their revenue if they are not willing to adopt new things,” Hayter says. “It’s scary and hard if you fall behind.”

MAKING MODELS ACTIONABLE

Convincing everyone on a team to buy into using technology helps make models actionable, says Hayter, who recommends keeping a positive attitude and working collaboratively through any challenges.

“Being positive helps with buy-in and working as a team,” Hayter says.

BIM models contain a library of information. The company begins by scrubbing the model to develop a product that is accurate and then filters it so it is easier for everyone to use. “Once we have a model accurately representing what will be built, we create new views for the team so it is more digestible,” Hayter says.

During preconstruction, the model can aid in identifying challenges and facilitating discussions for solutions. One way Brasfield & Gorrie does this is by adding the filtered views to Assemble, a web-based tool that allows the company to share 3D content with the entire team and subcontractors. Assemble offers quantitative information for the project’s modeled pieces and allows the team to observe filtered views for constructability review.

“Using BIM as a platform to identify challenges in advance elevates the conversation and helps make models actionable,” she adds.

However, as with most things, BIM is only as useful as the effort the team puts into it, both Waters and Hayter agree. Therefore, to get the most out of modeling, those involved need to learn the software and contribute.

Crews work on a tower crane at the Piedmont Atlanta Tower. PHOTO COURTESY OF BRASFIELD & GORRIE

Brasfield & Gorrie has established relationships with many different subcontractors. Some work with the company in performing design-assist in the models. For those slower to adopt, the general contractor will invite them to the office and assist them in trying the technology.

“Our business is relationship-driven,” Waters says. “Where you get the most benefit is showing them how it will help them and bringing them alongside you as you push the limits of technology.”

For instance, at the 16-story Piedmont Atlanta Tower project, which will open in the fall of 2020, the skilled masons Brasfield & Gorrie selected for the job had not operated inside of a model. Brasfield & Gorrie created model views of internal concrete masonry unit partitions to share with the masons. It helped them understand the scope.

“We were able to filter the model, highlight the locations and quantify the square footage, and then share that information with those masons,” Waters says. “The learning curve was rather short.”

ADOPTING ESSENTIAL TECHNOLOGIES

Some technologies have become essential for most contractors. Hayter considers Autodesk BIM 360 and design collaboration among those. The Piedmont Atlanta Tower project was one of the first using BIM 360 for design collaboration.

“Using Revit and Navisworks with that centralized platform [BIM 360] was huge,” Hayter says. “The communication that came out of that created such a good segue between the contractor, architect and subcontractors.”

On some projects, Brasfield & Gorrie uses a BIM 360 function, “issues,” to tag an item and ask members of the design teams for clarification.

“It notifies the architects that we have a question,” Waters says. “They can click on the question, and it takes them to the object in the model. They can respond to the question or owner request. It’s another way technology can help streamline communication. This process has increased clarity in our communication and decreased response times.”

Using BIM 360 contributes to great accuracy at an early stage, Hayter adds.

Since working on the 870,305-sq-ft Piedmont Atlanta Tower, Brasfield & Gorrie superintendents on that job have stated they don’t want to self-perform work without a model.

“It’s great to have field personnel say they want to use a model and see the benefits,” Hayter said.

Additional technologies helpful on the Piedmont project are drone and laser scans that capture images of the existing building, which the company renovated, and site conditions, which was helpful in the congested area. The scans flowed into the model and company officials could look for safety concerns and ways to improve workflow. Knowing the site had rock, Brasfield & Gorrie modeled the rock topography and overlaid it with the structure, which helped the company come up with a workable inground construction solution in preconstruction.

“We make sure to use the models to identify creative solutions to problems we are facing,” Hayter says.

Modeling helps Brasfield & Gorrie produce accurate estimates early and quickly. The model for Piedmont assisted the company in controlling the budget and schedule with confidence in its accuracy.

“We can have a more well-informed estimate at a much earlier phase of design,” Waters says. “There is more information in the model than in the [print] drawings.”

BIM not only facilitates communication and potential conflicts, it also enables contractors to prefabricate portions of a project. For instance, on the Piedmont project, Brasfield & Gorrie was able to prefabricate much of the Central Energy Plant and large overhead mechanical, electrical and plumbing. The company brought in early award trade partners to facilitate the prefab process. On other jobs, the company has prefabricated bathrooms and overhead racks.

“As we continue to struggle with shortages of skilled labor, the ability to prefabricate pieces of the job becomes more and more crucial to mitigate risk,” Waters says.

Document management software, like PlanGrid or BIM 360, has become essential. It provides people working in the field with the most up-to-date documents.

“The more complex jobs get, the more drawings and revisions there are. Keeping up with that is best facilitated with document management software,” Waters adds. “That is a technology you have to get on board with now.”

Hayter says Brasfield & Gorrie uses virtual reality for visualizing finishes and completing site walks without ever leaving the room, and she is excited to see how the technology continues to develop.

In the future, Waters hopes the industry will reference the model as a contract document.

“Having 3D content for every aspect of every job, rather than living in a 2D-drawing world, is ideal,” says Hayter.