Breaking Down Walls: The New Age of Communication

NewsAugust 31, 2020

Travis Althouse, Implementation Service Manager – MEP

It’s time to stop pretending trade knowledge isn’t crucial to everything we build.

All too often, construction projects get completely derailed by a broken, hard, selective system of communication. Experience-lacking designers make costly constructability mistakes that could have been avoided. Shortcuts are taken on-site without regard to the LOD 500 as-builts contractually required. Speaking of LOD-500, with the rapid growth of the BIM industry, how many old school estimators winning jobs even know what that truly entails? These scenarios all could have been avoided with a constant, automatic communication system in place. You don’t know what you don’t know! 

In my time in the MEP industry, I’ve been the engineer who puts out a perfectly engineered (flat) model, with no regard for install or REAL parts (sorry fellow Revit evangelists, step one of this process is admitting that default Revit parts are not REAL), and I’ve also seen the contractors who receive an uncoordinated model and have to make the most of it. What made that design so poor to the contractor? Why are they so mad? 

I have proudly made engineering drawings, so I know the engineer doesn’t feel it’s poor, but yet the contractor had to do a full redesign and lost a ton of hours. I’ve actually designed a building system at one company, and then went to the installing company and had someone shame the system design (I didn’t show them my initials next to “Designed By”). If a LOD 500 is the deliverable, why are we not working together at the very beginning to achieve that deliverable as efficiently as possible? I didn’t know what that guy needed for his company to make money, but once he showed me, I realized how easily I could’ve incorporated that into my design years earlier.  We do ultimately represent the same person paying for all of this and preparing to occupy our little work of art for the foreseeable future, right?

“Why are we not effectively collaborating upfront? The answer is simple. Contract culture.” – Travis Althouse, MEP Industry Thought Leader

Contract culture has drawn lines in the sand that limit risk on both sides. The problem is that the people who drew those lines are long gone from the industry. And as the AEC industry grows, we are seeing Design-Build and IPD profitability skyrocket exponentially. We are seeing contractors hire in-house engineers to achieve a better profit by keeping all moving parts under one roof. So for the other 90% of us that can’t bring it in house, why can’t we communicate at this level externally? 

It’s as if our industry culture has been shaped into thinking the field is “simple” and that engineers aren’t to be trusted. But why? We actually see the opposite when we interact with each other. I have almost made silly mistakes on the contracting side, until the engineer got on the phone to explain the how and the why behind the design. Context is important! On the flip side, I wasn’t given the ability to leverage field knowledge on the engineering side because of the walls emplaced. The contract doesn’t allow time for collaboration that early, and cultural differences increase the difficulty of crossing those lines if you have never worked with a field veteran or engineer.  Thankfully I had the opportunity to communicate with the engineer via phone, 3 years after they did the design, but what about those who don’t ever get presented that opportunity?

This is where we as an industry we need to redefine what communication means. We need to automate and make the context behind decisions easily accessible to all stakeholders in a project’s success. Money is being dumped exponentially into BIM both in general development and manpower and isn’t going away any time soon. So we need to do everything in our power to enable our contractors and engineers to cross those lines in the sand and work together holistically on projects to bring the best deliverable possible to our mutual stakeholders.

It is critical to overall project success to have install knowledge in the design phase, especially as competition goes up and margins go down and we resort more and more to off site prefabrication. It is very rare to have a single person with years of install and constructability knowledge on the design side, and even more rare that they are on the early design/engineering side. However, utilizing some of the paths opened up by BIM, many issues can be easily addressed BEFORE they become costly change orders that we have to fight to recoup a fraction of. I live by a philosophy that you can learn a software in a couple of hours, but learning to build correctly takes decades. So, let’s enable these guys to get involved in the design process and drop their knowledge to the designers, during the whole process. Having spools come out of the shop the way that they installer wants it is always the best situation for the project. We just need to push that line in the sand and allow a budget for this process early on in the contract.

Since I mentioned it, let’s talk about DfMA. Design for Manufacture and Assembly. What a cool concept. So cool in fact, that I am willing to bet it becomes the norm and is a major catalyst for our industry’s impending “industrial revolution”. DfMA greatly reduces risk and install hours. The problem with the aforementioned “contract culture” is that a loss of install hours for a contractor typically means cutting profit. With the way contracts are currently written, it would not make much sense for the foreman to assist in constructability design. When a contractor offers this review, they are taking the gamble that the time invested in the front end will save exponentially more time on the back end, so this communication needs to be swift, accessible, and accurate. 

With DfMA, we can take a holistic approach to design, where we shake out constructability issues before they ever turn into real issues. This takes a team understanding that the knowledge from the field will, in turn, bring reward to the designer in the way of repeated business.

This process proves that a college degree is not a replacement for years of trade knowledge. We need both backgrounds working in harmony, at the right time in a project to be effective. Having a videogame based platform to tie in old (2d) and new (3d) while also being able to track and take action on raised issues seems like an incredibly great start in the right direction for actually making this change in our industry. BIM has come so far and the data produced by the process is only as valuable as we choose to make it, and our contractual obligations need to change for the betterment of our industry and the owners investing in it!

To all of the foremen and engineers out there with the patience to guide those of us that lack your immense knowledge, thank you! You are truly changing the world by breaking down these walls!

About the author

Travis Althouse

Travis is the MEP Implementation Manager for Revizto. His 10-year career in the AEC space has included a full-circle experience from field-design-install. He started his post-college career as a construction field worker and spent several years in a DFMA Project Coordinator role at a respected mid-size prefabrication subcontractor. Later he worked for years as a mechanical design engineer at an engineering firm. Travis’s passion is up-and-coming construction technology and spends time learning how to best leverage it in all sorts to communicate, learn, and produce fabrication designs and models, and how to establish proper communication in all stages of a project lifecycle.

Breaking Down Walls: The New Age of Communication It’s time to stop pretending trade knowledge isn’t crucial to everything we build, especially for MEP. Travis Althouse, Implementation Service Manager 2020-08-31
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