Embracing the Future of on the Job Communication
Advances in human communication technology have completely changed the way we live our lives. Gone are the days of archaic communication such as smoke signals, telegraphs, and messenger pigeons. Today we have, literally, the world of information at our fingertips. Society has embraced these changes, and we have witnessed a complete overhaul in how we communicate with each other.
The same technological embrace also applies to business. Many of us can work with just a cell phone that allows us to drive the many aspects of business forward. We have incorporated new technology in how we communicate through the project management side of the business including design drawings, spec books, estimates, the scope of work, schedule of values, billings, etc.
How Design and Construction Drawings Have Changed over Time
In years past, before computer-aided drafting (CAD), construction drawings were fewer pages and with a lot fewer details. Before the age of computers, someone had to build the project in their mind, then draw every detail out by hand or cut it out of another set of blueprints and tape it into the new drawings. These were still very well-designed projects but without all the excess information. Typically, if a question came up that was not clear on the drawings, we could work with the GC superintendent. They knew how to build things. The RFI process at that time was to go ask your GC superintendent, and he will get you the answer.
Different Schools of Thought
As CAD drawings became the norm, the number of pages in each set of drawings grew and grew. Architectural and structural plans that use to be 60 pages became 150-200 pages because all kinds of details were added by the CAD team. There could be four or five additional details in each wall. Multiply that times 50 walls and you can see why the plans continued to grow in size. Furthermore, the quality of the drawings started to decrease as the number of pages increased. You had new AutoCAD draftsmen designing buildings who didn’t know how to actually construct these buildings. The design firms had an ever-growing catalog of details to pull from and began adding these details to drawings in ways that couldn’t be built in reality. This put an additional burden on the general contractor and subcontractors to figure out where the problems were and how to modify the design to make it work.
So, what is BIM?
Building Information Modeling or BIM is described by Autodesk, a BIM software company, as “an intelligent 3D model-based process that gives architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) professionals the insight and tools to more efficiently plan, design, construct, and manage buildings and infrastructure.” This new program’s utilization had grown tremendously in the design community and with construction companies who had embraced technology as part of streamlining their business.
Just as drafting tables and mechanical pencils have been replaced by computers and big monitors, so it was with 2-D CAD being replaced by 3-D/BIM. I first became aware of 3-D CAD in manufacturing in the mid-’90s as it was growing in popularity. I was really intrigued to see a 3-D model rotated around and with the ability to zoom in and see the details; it was very impressive. At the time, there were some design firms starting to use it in construction, but the computing power did not meet the needs of these big computer files and this new type of software.
Looking for a Better Way
How and why did a mason contractor from California get into computer-aided drafting (CAD)? My masonry company was expanding, and we needed to get more work done faster, from estimating, project management, construction all the way to final billing and collection. We were growing our estimating staff and also being contractually required to generate rebar shop drawings for some of the projects we built. These rebar shop drawings that were drawn by someone outside the masonry industry fulfilled our obligation to provide drawings.
But they did little to help us in the field to accurately place all the rebar in the right walls at the right height. So, I thought if we can create our own drawings in-house and use them as a tool to order the rebar, it would ensure delivery of the right rebar onsite in front of the wall it was to be installed in. We could then use the wall profile drawing to stock it for the masons and install it in the wall exactly as we planned. What a concept! But it worked really well. We could put one tender in charge of the rebar for the entire project. This took a big load off our foremen who could now concentrate on other quality and production aspects of the projects.
I hired our first CAD draftsman in 2002, a guy by the name of Joe Hudson, to work as a project engineer and create 2-D CAD drawings. I believed this was a new way to speed up our preplanning processes to not only to get shop drawings done and, if we took the next step, solve many of the problems we typically would face on jobs BEFORE we got to the jobsite. It would help to clarify the drawing details and to identify Requests for Information or RFIs, get our rebar takeoffs done, our block takeoffs done, and have dimensions figured out before we set foot on the job and tried to build it. As 3-D and BIM were becoming more mainstream, we knew that this new technology was going to change the way we worked and compelled the development of a completely new preplanning process for my company. This also created some new problems, however.
Struggles to Implement Our New Preplanning Process with Shop Drawings
I knew that in-house CAD shop drawings were the way to go and these problems could eventually be resolved. We were drawing in 2-D and we knew we wanted to move into 3-D. My guys did not buy into this, however. They were getting used to the 2-D and didn’t understand why we would change, again. I have to say that in the beginning, 3-D/BIM didn’t really save or help us with our projects. We hired another AutoCAD draftsman to come in and create these 3-D drawings. We quickly realized he needed real-world feedback from someone who actually built the structures. Our CAD guy drew up the plans, and then we had our superintendent come in to review them. Our superintendent would redline the heck out of the plans, sometimes up to 50 or more corrections per sheet, and send them back. It was extremely frustrating for both parties. We had the superintendent complaining about why we would waste his time with these corrections when they could just figure it out on the jobsite and, at the same time, the CAD guy was annoyed because he thought these guys were too picky.
The bottom line is the drawings have to be right, 100% right because this is what we are actually going to build. Our in-house CAD guys didn’t understand how detailed the drawings needed to be and how many decisions have to be made based on these drawings. We needed to know every dimension, height, width, and length of every wall, what hardware went into it, what rebar was needed, what cell it went into, where the roof structure tied in, the location and configuration of every door, windows, etc. I could go on and on. Our in-house CAD guys didn’t factor these things in because they have never built a building.
There was a lack of appreciation and understanding on both sides of our team that began to develop. It was not easy to get the field guys to work with the inside preplanning team. Neither side knew how to do what the other did. To help bridge the gap, we decided to send our inside team out and made them work on a jobsite for a week as a tender, learning about how the block was used and stocked, and seeing the decisions that needed to be made and the factors that go into those decisions. This helped to develop a new level of appreciation for how accurate and detailed the drawings needed to be in order for this 3-D thing to work. Eventually, the drawings got better and better. We became more efficient and streamlined, and everyone was on the same page.
If drawn correctly, 3-D/BIM drawings help everyone see the picture of the finished product because you’ve drawn a 3-D model of it, breaking down all the different building components into bite-sized pieces: the walls, the roof, the floor, etc. By extracting all the information from all the construction documents and including it all in our 3-D model, we could condense the number of plan pages from 300 down to 40-50. We would layer our information, so we could view and print them for different uses, i.e. block finishes, rebar layout, embed or roof line layout. We included all the information we needed to build our entire scope of work. Then, by printing these out on 11×17 paper, we could share the information and the responsibility with many more members of our team. The more people who see the big picture and the details, the better it is for the team.
Not Everyone Visualizes in 3-D
I remember about 15 years ago, I was showing 3-D CAD drawings to the President of a third-generation general contractor in Los Angeles, and he thought that the 3D drawings that I presented to him were such an incredible thing because he could not visualize projects in 3-D. That was one of the first times I realized that not everyone in construction sees projects and plans in that way. It’s a skill that can be learned but is not inherent in most people. The way we were able to communicate the vision through 3-D drawings allowed us to make decisions and changes more quickly, and significantly reduce errors and issues on our projects. It completely changed the way we worked, and the payoff was bigger than I could have imagined.
The bottom line was that we had to change our mindset, develop an appreciation for what each team does to design and build each structure, and recognize that as technology and processes change, we need to embrace and adapt to those changes to keep moving forward.
Resistance to Change
So why is BIM still not at the forefront of masonry design? As I previously mentioned, many people simply think it’s a waste of time. They say, “We already know what to do, have the paper drawings, know how to solve problems as they arise, and we don’t have the time to waste to learn a whole new way of working.” Another reason is pride. When a masonry foreman walks out onto a jobsite with the plans over his shoulder, he is THE guy. Everyone has to come to him for the answers. The crew didn’t know where to stock the block, where the walls are, what the dimensions are, what kind of block was needed. The man with the plans controls all the information.
There is a lot of pride in that, well-deserved pride! There is also a great responsibility. When the drawings get bigger and bigger, that person is working to remember every detail; knowing when to order all the materials, block, rebar, colors of mortar, hardware, anchor bolts, imbeds, and countless other things. These tasks can become extremely overwhelming. I know that we masons have come from a world of tradition. We have been very comfortable with paper communication; paper you can touch, hold, draw on, and present to others to fully communicate the breadth, width, and scope of a project.
Image of foreman with plans
Using BIM software can help you figure all those things out in advance. 95% to 99% of the questions and problems can be identified and/or solved before you ever start the project. Efficiency goes through the roof. As a foreman, if I don’t have to spend my entire day trying to solve every problem on the go, I can look ahead and focus on making sure the job gets done properly, meeting our production and time schedules, meeting our quality standards, and ensure we are making money.
Time to Incorporate Modern Communication Tools
Do we still need printed paper plans? Absolutely. In the past when I was estimating, I liked to have printed 2-D plans to do a takeoff. I would build a 3-D model in my mind as I was doing a masonry block takeoff, envisioning the actual structure based on the drawings I had in front of me. I would transfer all my notes and wall heights to the foundation plan or the floor plan, and then to a 12-column paper spreadsheet to complete the takeoff. I learned this method from my Dad. This has all changed with the advent of 3-D estimating software such as Tradesman. As all these changes came about, I had to ask myself, “Can we use a combination of all the available technology to communicate the required information?” I think so.
BIM programs themselves are not expensive. The time it takes to change your processes and train your people can be the biggest challenge, along with getting buy-in from your crews and inside teams. BIM will change your business for the better. Yes, it takes time. It takes determination and ultimately you just need to make your team push through it. The payoff is worth the time and resources.
If you think back to the olden days of masonry, we didn’t have forklifts. We mixed mortar in a tub with a hoe. We only used framed scaffolding. Now we have hydraulic mixers, crank-up scaffolding, and motorized scaffolding. Reach machines and cranes are pretty much standard on jobsites now. If we can embrace and accept these kinds of changes to make our work easier, then we need to push for that same type of change with technology.
Buckminster Fuller, a noted inventor, and visionary, once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” BIM has done that for many trades and the masonry industry needs technology like BIM to advance in 21st-century construction. Work smarter, not harder, and masonry can continue to stay at the forefront of construction innovation.
I would like to hear from some of you facing the same challenges, and those who have embraced the change with these new communication tools. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to start the conversation.
Words: Joel Guth and Stephanie Civello
About Joel: Joel Guth is an Inventor and Business/Safety consultant. The founder of and past president of iQ Power Tools. A third-generation mason by trade and contractor for 30+ years, Since 1995, Joel has been a student of job site safety, always looking to find ways to improve efficiency and safety together with a focus on silica awareness.