How to Develop an Efficient Digital Operating Model in Construction

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SARA is a small construction project management company based in Finland. We recognized wasteful practices in the workflows of the real estate lifecycle and decided to tackle that waste by developing an efficient digital operating model around Autodesk Construction Cloud software and its integrations. It was essential to discard many old practices as obsolete and unsuitable for the new digital workflow. Our approach differs from the giants of our industry. We optimize with smaller projects, then move on to bigger ones. The strength of the model is its scalability. As a company that does construction project management, we affect the industry as a whole—owners, designers, contractors.

This article explores the traditional methods we wanted to discard and the key factors we wanted to master. We explore the background, present, and future of real estate lifecycle’s efficient digital operating model that SARA has chosen to create using Autodesk Construction Cloud (ACC), or BIM 360 at the time of project launch. The creation of this operating model plays a critical role on our path towards our envisioned future: “real estate lifecycle’s non-location-based management specialist.” 

What other reasons besides our vision did we have for embarking on this journey? What have we achieved in this small amount of time and where are we headed? Waste, efficiency (LEAN), software ecosystems, and development challenges are keywords here. Discover how we expanded scope, from efficiency factors to utilizing lean principles and dialectic models. We share everything we have learned so far and examine what comes next.

SARA (Suomen Aluerakennuttaja Ltd.)

To understand the basis of our development work you need to know a little more about us, SARA. On a global scale, we are a small construction project management company with a main focus in assisted living/nursing home projects. We have 13 employees and approximately 1,3 M€ (2020) in revenue (that’s right, revenue, not profit). Size and location are not everything though; even David amidst Goliaths can affect the AEC industry in this digital era.

Our BIM journey started with a visit to Singapore in 2018 (yes, quite late) as part of Diili, a project with Tampere University of Technology. There we saw top-of-the-line digital solutions and realized this is a train we really need to hop on. In 2019, we attended both AU London and then AU Las Vegas. Both were extremely good eye-openers and confirmations that choosing the Autodesk product platform is the right solution.

During 2019 we were also part of a project coalition applying funding from Business Finland (BF) for a social extended reality (SXR) plus BIM project. The coalition’s application was rejected, but Business Finland saw our part with a non-location-based operating model and international goals worthy of development and thus we refined the concept and application until a positive funding decision came in April 2020: a two-year, 600,000€ project with 50/50 cost split between us and BF. If you compare that to our revenue, it is obvious we are investing heavily in this project. The goal of this project is to create an actual and efficient digital operating model.

Development Work the SARA Way

Our way of working is to let employees grow and find their place amidst all the possibilities the AEC industry has to offer. For me and our development work, that means the possibility to constantly explore, question our own as well as industry operating models, and eagerly try something new. If or when there is a better way to operate, we will find it. Questions we ask include, “Why is the process suboptimal?” “Could this be done in an unusual and better way?” “Would this help us and the customer?” “How can we implement it?” “What needs to be changed?” 

In our exploration of new workflows, we utilize Autodesk knowledge bases, networks, and resources the customer success program provides us. In addition, there are partners like our software provider Arksystems who give us insight, various university projects, and doing our own research with university students.

Differing from the giants of our industry, we test and optimize processes with smaller projects and then move onto bigger ones. The power of the operating model is its agility and scalability. This way the controllable entity is smaller, response cycles are quick, and we get feedback from actual stakeholders. If we make changes, we also do not immediately assume the effects were a result of the change we made, since there are other factors involved as well. One might recognize lean from all of this.

Related: Starting Your Digital Transformation Journey with Marin Pastar and Raja Kadiyala

Our goal is to ensure high quality and value for both our clients and ourselves, as well as develop SARA and the whole AEC industry. Here are some concrete examples of our development work: First, the SARA app, a reporting application used in construction site supervising that we developed with a software development company over six years ago (Figure 1). The app is simple, easy to use, and ensures immediate reporting to all stakeholders. Perhaps the next step is integrating it with ACC.

Figure 1. The SARA app.

Second, we have our own in-house architectural team, which in a project management/engineering company of this size is quite extraordinary. This team is an integral part of project development, building and renovation projects, and they also have more project management experience than traditional architects in the Finnish construction scheme.

What we have noticed is that roughly 50% of the described development work is exploration and testing of technology and 50% is adaption as well as leading the change. When innovative technology or a new workflow comes along, we first learn how to utilize it in “a textbook manner,” and then find a practical way to implement it within our projects so that our employees as well as other stakeholders get the most value out of it. Occasionally this part proves to be surprisingly demanding and seems more like 75%.

This development work applies to every phase of real estate’s lifecycle (Figure 2). We want to be efficient in managing each one. A key idea behind all of this is that technology is a tool, never an absolute value.

Figure 2. Phases of the real estate lifecycle. 

Waste and Traditional Methods

Over our 10 years of existence, we at SARA have identified many wasteful practices in real estate lifecycle’s workflow. We have always aimed at improving processes, but our new digital path has made progress an order of magnitude faster. Usually projects involve initial excitement that somehow leads to obscurity and confusion before we come to our senses. After this, those responsible for the whole mess must be identified, and once they are found, the innocent will be punished, and those that did not even take part in the whole project get rewarded. Even though this description is satirical, obscurity and confusion have an awful lot of connection to traditional practices and problems in projects.

A few traditional methods that we are trying to tackle are mile-long threads of email messaging, jam-packed monthly meetings, huge matrices of software options, vault-like data silos, and worst of all, ”BIM because... BIM” (Figure 3). Email chains can be long, designs and comments travel as attachments, and in the worst-case scenario, a person who hasn’t even been a part of the chain gets it sent to him with a note, “please take care of this asap.” Monthly design meetings often lead to mounting questions and defective communication, especially if email is the only communication method.

Figure 3. Wasteful traditional project methods. 

There are many software options to choose from, but they might not integrate with each other, which leads to manual file transferring, data silos, loss of information in back-and-forth file conversions, and lapses in revision control. "BIM because... BIM" does not just refer to BIM, but all development work where something new and seemingly amazing comes along and you feel compelled use it (absolute value) even if you might not (yet) have the necessary capabilities or understanding, or it simply does not suit your operating model.

These methods lead to loss and fragmentation of data when, for example, the phase of project or person doing the job changes and we try to find out what has been done. Incidentally, we talk about doubling the work and/or individual interpretations which are always risks (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Loss of data during a project. 

This waste tackling, just like our development work methods, relates to lean principles. By streamlining and creating better, more natural flows for the project, we aim to create value for every stakeholder involved and induce a pulling effect to the finish line. Imagine the black arrow in the figure guiding you over potholes full of waste.

Efficiency/Project Model

The five general steps we have chosen to lead our way to the sixth step (reducing wasteful practices) are: collaborate, communicate, manage, share, and reduce rework (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Efficiency steps.

Nowadays pursuing client or end-user involvement is one of the top priorities in projects, which is good, but if you genuinely want to achieve great collaboration, you have to find a way to involve every party in the best way possible. This includes motivating stakeholders by giving them a chance to contribute not only to their own part, but also to the project as a whole. For example, an experienced design engineer has so much more to give to the project than just his design work.

Communication needs to be as synchronous (=real-time) as possible, open, and dialectic. In reality this means moving away from the fuzzy world of email to an organized communication platform and weekly design meetings. The success of an open and dialectic model is dependent on the project members and their personalities, but it is a model we encourage in order to create a good spirit and trust amongst stakeholders.

For manage, we mean both the process and the tools that allow us and everyone else to stay on top of situation. “A single source of truth,” a phrase that we have been hearing a lot, incidentally works here perfectly and is also connected to the sharing step. Storing files locally or in multiple places is clearly not the way to go, because then the latest revision might not be available to everyone, or we need to constantly seek confirmation from its uploader that it is up to date.

One challenge this file-sharing and openness leads to, however, is getting people to share their unfinished work. People are insecure when it comes to these kinds of situations and are afraid that they will get scolded for not doing something or that other designers will start their own work based on unfinished portions. This step relies heavily on the step of effective communication.

And lastly: how do we make sure we notice errors/options so that we do not run into situations where we realize something should/could have been changed sooner, with less loss, or, better yet, cost savings? How do we reduce rework? Visual representation of design choices is one solution, especially if the person making the final decision is not a construction professional, but we also have to look at our workflows and see if there is something that even with experienced eyes usually gets unnoticed.

Software Portfolio

OK, you know that our software portfolio is built mainly upon Autodesk Construction Cloud/BIM 360 and their integrations, but the fundamental question is, why did we choose this solution? To answer the question plainly: no similar integrated software ecosystems that would enable our efficiency steps was or is available. Sure, there might be a better software outside the ecosystem for each/any of the tasks, but our goal is a unified, seamless integration. It’s like building a team: you want the best team players.

Software inside the portfolio can at the moment be divided into three categories: Microsoft Teams, Smartsheet, and Docs form the core. Designers have their own set of AEC as well as visualization tools, as do contractors if they choose to utilize them.

Every project has a Teams team that works as a coffee room of sorts for all the chit-chat as well as a place to hold meetings, and Smartsheet is the collaborative solution for scheduling and project task management (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Software portfolio in Autodesk Construction Cloud projects.

Autodesk Docs, or “Document Management on steroids” as described at the SARA office, has storing project files as an obvious base point and raison d'être, but Autodesk Docs does much more than that. Even simple things like a built-in 3D viewer and issues/markups tools effect project workflows immensely. From the client point of view, perhaps the most important feature is that Docs is browser-based, so there is no need to install any software. We consistently get dazzled gazes from new clients when we explain that all this runs on your browser. If you are familiar with the features in Docs, you also know that issues and markups are the counterpart for commenting on PDFs and exchanging them via email, and they were the first significant step forward for us as project managers. Recent feedback from a client was that if only he could use this feature in his other projects as well, because it is such a drag to revert back to the “ye olde” email world.

Technologically the core software does almost everything we have managed to think of (with few deficiencies of course) and the main problem has been getting people to use these tools the way they are intended to be used. For example, designers are constantly tempted to take a screenshot from Revit and post it to Teams instead of using issues and markups. Remember: this process is 50% about leading the change.

For designers, the portfolio enables cloud-model sharing and linking. By demanding the use of these from designers we are trying to get rid of the hassle with IFC conversion and local files. We have deliberately chosen to disregard offices that do not use them. This has led to mixed feedback, but we saw this as the only option if we were to properly develop project workflows and ensure high quality project delivery at competitive prices. On the structural design side, this brings a few problems since Revit does not yet work well with prefabricated reinforced concrete element modeling, but we are hoping this will change soon. For clash detection there’s Navisworks, and Enscape handles visualizations for both us and the architects.

Takeoff and Build are modules for estimators and contractors alike, but to be fair, they have not seen use in our projects yet. Designers were early adopters of ACC, because Collaborate Pro (BIM 360 Design) was a simple and extremely useful add-on for Revit, but for contractors to change their usual platform into something else it's a whole new ball game. Same goes for Construction Connected which on an idea level is awesome, but in practicality, how do you convince an industry which still works around “I know a guy”-principle of its benefits so people start using it.

The “bonus” category is reserved for Tandem or its Finnish counterpart and when we are ready to utilize it this will form the fourth category of our operating model software portfolio.

In terms of integration software (BIM 360/ACC) which does not show up in the figure, our idea has been to choose/test software that best supports our operating model. The flow of data must be automatic, issues must flow both ways, and when a project file gets updated in Docs, it also must update in the integrated software. Some of the software we have been testing, but have not seen constant use of yet, are Resolve (VR), HoloBuilder (360°) and VisualLive (AR/MR). Our principle is don’t go overboard with your software portfolio – keep it simple.

Peripheral Technology

We are constantly bombarded by virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR)--collectively referred to as extended reality (XR)--drones, 360° imaging, other “cool” and evolving technologies as well as plenty of software options for them. These easily evoke the “I-got-to-use-these!” feeling, and not just amongst the most eager “tech-heads,” but which of them actually create value for you or, most importantly, your client? Which should you choose to utilize, and in what way, and what should you consider when making the decisions?

From a hardware point of view, high-end VR/XR has Varjo and standalone VR Oculus Quest’s iterations; HoloLens leads MR; AR glasses are out there, but from the utility point of view, at least for now mobile devices (tablets or mobile phones) have high ground. The drone and 360° camera markets have few options, such as DJI and Insta360. For us, getting up to date and knowledge about these in the beginning of this project meant reading a couple of articles and reviews as well as watching videos, and based on that information and hands-on experience gained since, you should not be worried as long as you are not too cheap. Most hardware options produce perfectly utilizable material (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Peripheral technology hardware. 

We have taken the route where every peripheral technology software must either have a direct connection to Docs or transforming the raw material can be done with as few steps as possible with a streamlined process, preferably with Autodesk products. This means opening a VR model directly from Docs (Reflect), assigning issues to 360° photos (HoloBuilder) or “inside” the VR-model, preplanning drone flight missions, producing 360° photos without stitching, and importing point clouds to Revit as topography through ReCap Pro and Civil 3D.

If you want to be efficient, especially as a small company, no additional modeling or transformation work should be needed when creating value and adding to stakeholder experiences. Drone and 360° material must transform to utilizable form with as few steps as possible. Leave programming to bigger companies who want to spend more time and money for creating custom solutions.

When you are trying to come up with new use cases for new technology, give the hardware to your tech-savvy employees. They will find ways to utilize it. That’s what we do, and it works like a charm. For example, drones have common use cases (videos, topography, etc.), but on one construction site our “drone guy” scanned a point cloud out of the site before excavation work and another one when the excavation was completed. With a few easy steps we were able compare the volume between those two scans and got a number with which we could confirm the number the contractor had given to the client. Site verification such as this improves the transparency of processes, and eliminates the chance of inaccurate billing. New possibilities to use technology will come up especially when technology develops and digitalization proceeds. The key is that the development and implementation of methods and procedures involving new tech cannot proceed without the input from the field. Most of the “procedural wisdom” lies there.

Visual Drafting

Development of real-time rendering software has allowed us to move from seeing to experiencing designs. When you present a design to a client who is not necessarily a construction professional, 3D presentations generally are a small step forward, but if you also add a lifelike appearance to them, even end-users that usually have the least amount of construction experience can understand the design and give proper feedback. This is a giant leap in avoiding or at least greatly reducing the possibility of situations where the client or end-user realizes modification needs in late stages of the design process. Which would you prefer to see when making decisions: 2D, visual 3D, or both? (Figure 8)

Figure 8. 2D versus visual 3D (Enscape).

Real-time visual design allows us to move our design efforts to earlier phases (Figure 9) of the design process since producing this kind of material does not add noticeable extra strain on us, and the client can make decisions early on based on it. A few changes can still happen along the way, but the goal is that the end result would not be far off from the original draft (Figure 10). In one project as we were presenting visual draft designs to city officials, they halted us saying “...woah guys! Don’t go any further with your designs until we’ve approved them,” thinking we had invested hundreds of hours of work, when in actuality we had not even spent a week’s worth of time working on them.

Figure 9. The MacLeamy Curve.
Figure 10. Enscape draft (left) and end result (right).

Our design tool of choice is Revit and from the point of view of the operating model, quite frankly, the visual plug-in could be anything as long as it works on top of Revit, is easy to use, and produces visually and functionally good material. Enscape is not the only software that ticks these boxes but for now we have been quite pleased with our choice and the development direction and pace Enscape has taken.

Historically, visualizations were done in the latter stages of the project and could take weeks to prepare. They were merely a representation of the design work already done. Now we can arrange workshops where Revit is displayed on one screen and an Enscape rendering of the model on another. Changes are made in Revit according to live feedback, and it updates immediately to Enscape for others to see. Additionally we utilize 360° photos, web standalones, and VR to deliver the design to the stakeholders.

In all honesty, we still have a few small problems/development factors. One: when we do these kinds of designs in the development phase, usually the actual architect that gets selected for the project has to model our accomplishment again with their company’s template and modeling procedures. Two: when we utilize VR people are in awe of the technology and not the actual design. Three, which is connected to the first two, with this kind of visual material, the end-user and/or client tends to focus on tiny details like where their desk is or what is the color of the wall when we should only be going through functionalities. Once again: we're leading the change, creating an experience where there is a smaller chance for this to happen.

Generative Design

The newest addition to our software portfolio is Spacemaker, a cloud-based AI software that Autodesk acquired in 2020. Spacemaker generates design options according to boundaries you give to it and then analyzes as well as compares them. Spacemaker is at its best in bigger-area projects even though it also does apartment distribution.

The general workflow with Spacemaker would be something like:

1. Create a project

2. Plug in to open GIS sources

3. Model simple “boxes” in Spacemaker or import IFC

4. Give boundaries: permitted building volume, maximum number of floors, number of apartments

5. Generate design options and let Spacemaker analyze them

6. Compare and filter options

7. Develop design

Spacemaker analyzes daylight (Figure 11), wind, noise, and land use efficiency. Initial data for analysis is retrieved from GIS databases, in case of Finland straight from Maanmittauslaitos (Land Surveying Institute). For comparisons you can choose to emphasize certain aspects of the design, maximum amount of daylight, or apartment size. Some of what Spacemaker does has already been possible with, for example, Dynamo, but then again, with Spacemaker a company of our size does not need to do the programming, and frankly, it would not make any sense.

Figure 11. Spacemaker UI.

In terms of operating model, the Revit – Spacemaker connection now works through IFC and that is not an ideal workflow – one file transformation is too many. We do however think (even though nothing has been announced) that the Revit – Spacemaker interaction will at some point work either natively or so that Spacemaker is a plug-in on top of Revit and then we can be even more efficient.

One might ask, “Does Spacemaker take away the architect’s job?” The answer is no. Spacemaker gives options, but it is still architect’s responsibility to analyze and sort them out accordingly for the client. You cannot give a client 500 options and expect them to know what is best for them. Spacemaker does however take away raw tedious labor, and generates more time for creative thinking.

For us, Spacemaker is a tool to justify design choices to the client. Now we have an extra option besides Enscape-produced material, traditional 2D, and plain old text. With this we hope to minimize the risks the client perceives, get quicker decisions, and save money for both us and the client. So far we have, in just a few weeks, recognized with the help of Spacemaker cases in which the project goal set by the client is suboptimal to a fatal extent, and as importantly, with Spacemaker we have tangible “evidence” to support our findings.

Challenges / Future

Project Manager

A digital operating model brings along its own challenges and the first two are related to roles: client and project manager. When we produce more data and try to be open with it, the client sees information and processes that traditionally have been “behind the curtains” but may now give birth to insecurities and are perceived as risks. To alleviate this, we cannot simply hide or filter information because that would make us two-faced since we are demanding other stakeholders to be open and transparent. We must practice what we preach. We have to create a mutual feeling of trust and security and this is where the collaborative project manager plays a key role.

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Mauno Lounakoski is the VDC manager and all-round digital facilitator at Suomen Aluerakennuttaja. He is an extended reality (XR) enthusiast and recently graduated with a master's degree from Tampere University of Technology.