Behind the Build: Interview with Kyle Ostrem, VDC Engineer, J.F. Brennan Company Inc.

When it comes to construction, most people immediately think of high-rises and above-ground projects. And while these structures are a significant focus in AEC, there is another side of construction that's just as crucial: underwater construction.

Marine construction has seen steady growth over the past several years and is expected to grow from $44.61 billion in 2024 to $51.86 billion in 2028. Companies specializing in marine construction are vital to maintaining and developing our water-based infrastructures. They help ensure the safety and functionality of crucial waterways and coastal areas.

One such firm is J.F. Brennan Company Inc., a specialty marine contractor for environmental, dam construction, submarine cabling, harbor management, and commercial dive services. J.F. Bennan tackles a lot of interesting projects to say the least, many of which play a pivotal role in maintaining and improving marine environments.

Here to shed light on all that is Kyle Ostrem, VDC Engineer at J.F. Brennan Company. We caught up with Kyle recently and had a great conversation about the exciting projects he works on and how J.F. Brennan uses technology to enhance efficiency and safety in underwater construction.

Tell me a little bit about J.F. Brennan Company and what you specialize in.

J.F. Brennan is a family-owned marine construction and environmental restoration contractor. We mainly serve inland and coastal waters within the United States, dating back to the company's inception in 1919. So, it's an over a hundred-year-old company, and it's still family-owned, which is pretty cool. It's a great organization. 

Headquartered in La Crosse, Wisconsin, we have 12 offices throughout the US, coast to coast. We mainly work on water-based or marine infrastructure challenges and employ 700 professionals, 100+ of whom are commercial divers. 

I specialize in VDC, BIM, fabrication modeling, and civil data analysis. I could be modeling piers, calculating dredge quantities, creating fabrication prints for cofferdams, or setting up asset tracking within Build. If something has anything to do with an Autodesk product, that would fall in my area of expertise.

Walk me through your career and what led you to becoming VDC Engineer

I took an early interest in modeling. In high school, they had Inventor classes available. Inventor was pretty new back then, and it was something that not many people had seen. I thought it was a fun way to draw. I've seen drawing plans before, but then like, "You can draw it 3D." 

I went to college in 2005 to study Mechanical Design, based on that experience in high school. Then, I had an internship at Trane Company in La Crosse, a well-known HVAC manufacturer. I mostly did larger air handler parts there and this was good exposure for me being in a fairly large corporate environment. 

After graduating, I worked at a local commercial water chiller company for 11 years, designing water and air-cooled HVAC units.

After that, I spent a few years at a silo and food processing pressure vessel manufacturer. During that time, I worked on a few special projects, including a pharmaceutical drug testing glove box and some large-scale pressure vessels, scaling 40 feet tall and holding 80 PSI. It was a pretty impressive pressure vessel.

The diversity of those projects made me want more. I wanted to innovate and go beyond being a super producer of drawings per se. So then, an opportunity came here at J.F. Brennan, and we started a VDC department from scratch. We spent the last three years with a small team, building from the ground up. 

BIM and VDC were the initial focus, but now we also have a fabrication shop to support them. We've got a lot going on, and that's where I am now.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your role? How does technology help you overcome those challenges?

The biggest challenge we faced recently was getting field staff to buy into using Build and the models we create. We'd like teams to use Build to share the model data with the people in the field. It can be challenging to get them to put it in their hands and use the actual app, where they can open the model and get all sorts of information. 

The good news is that the improvements within Build have helped encourage non-technical staff to dig in deeper and embrace the technology. There are new ways to connect models through Inventor, Civil 3D, and Revit which allows us to create more impressive models.

Those impressive models seem to "Ooh and ah" the field staff more. They're used to looking at a plan sheet, so giving them an impressive model that does everything sets them off and helps with buy-in. 

Things are getting better now that everybody is comfortable navigating the new piece of software instead of digging through file folders.

What were you missing (or what was the biggest weakness) in your previous technology stack that encouraged you to use Autodesk Construction Cloud?

Before adopting Autodesk Construction Cloud, there wasn't really anything—just file folders. There was no single source of truth for all the digital data. 

That was the biggest thing; it was simply files spread across all sorts of network drives, personal drives, and who knows where else. And then there's just a rabbit hole of data with no path or structures. It would be one file folder after another, and people would save a date and then build a folder for the next date. There was also the issue of some files not being uploaded back to the network.

What data or information do you need to do your job on a day-to-day basis? How does Autodesk Construction Cloud help you access that information?

In my role, I need to access plan sets, survey data, field conditions, existing conditions, models, etc. Autodesk Construction Cloud makes it efficient to transfer all that data back and forth while keeping a single source of truth. 

It's easy to upload models, highlight data for field use, and upload surface data that they request. With Autodesk Construction Cloud, it's simple enough for a user to find all the data and have it at their fingertips.

How does Autodesk Build help your team complete projects in remote/underwater environments? Can you give me a recent example?

I can talk about a couple of jobs specifically. 

One of the projects we worked on was at the Chicago Harbor Lock chamber, which is next to Navy Pier. Floor slabs were put in there in the early 1900s to hold the lock in place, but they're all displaced from water moving and whatnot. They needed to be replaced, and it was a complex pour. It's an underwater concrete pour, and it took 32 hours just to pour one-sixth of the slab.

To make the pour happen and keep the concrete from displacing, a combination of wood and steel beams were erected to hold the concrete. Numerous fill port holes throughout would then be used to pump the concrete into the forms. 

I modeled the forms and all the different installation procedures, then provided that to the divers. That way, when they go underwater, they will know what they need to find—remember, it's not always clear water. This allowed them to understand what they were working on every day. 

I also set up asset tracking to provide the divers with real-time information on what's been completed. Each of those fill ports had an asset assigned to it. The divers would open a sheet in Build, click on the asset, and update the status.  

So, with the task taking 32 hours and multiple shift changes, teams knew where the concrete had been placed under these forms that you can't see in. They knew by the status of the asset, if more concrete would be needed to top off and if the fill ports were closed.

Everybody was focused. They knew what was done and what needed to be done, and it worked out pretty slick.

Another example would be an emergency dam repair project. A big chunk of concrete broke off a miter gate sill in a lock chamber, flooding the lock chamber below. 

In the repair, we actually had over 750 feet of rebar/dowels. We had to drill into the side of the lock wall before pouring concrete on it. A big issue was the fluctuating water levels. You could go and mark your drill locations one day, and the next day, it would be underwater. 

It was a 24/7 nonstop job involving people on the site constantly, working through nights. There were tons of shift changes. 

So, we did something similar and attached an asset to each piece of rebar. We uploaded a model, and the divers could update which piece of rebar had been drilled. They could indicate if it had been epoxied yet, whether it had been tested, cut off, or stayed in place.  

The system helped them stay organized. They could open up in the safety meetings before their shift and go, "Hey, this is what you need to work on today.” They could spread out, and it could get accomplished a lot faster.

What are the benefits to you or your business of managing workflows in a single platform? 

The biggest benefits are the single source of truth and better workflows for handling information from operations to project closure. You can tie everybody together. If you track your issues correctly, you don't have to dig for information or miss anything. 

Also, when you have all that data in one place, you can run Power BI reports on the backside. The data from Build gives us enough analytical information to understand what's going on throughout all the phases.

Has your team been able to calculate any positive changes since implementing Autodesk Construction Cloud?

Power BI provides information, but it's difficult to quantify how many hours Build has directly saved us.

However, the field staff who used Build have raved about how it has increased their communication and efficiency. 

This is especially true for the ones who have taken advantage of BIM and VDC; they just rave about how clear the image is of what they need to perform. 

How do you think AI will impact construction?

I'm a little skeptical about what it'll do for hands-on work being completed with heavy equipment, but AI could help enhance the usability of heavy machinery. AI-driven machines could assist with scanning bathymetric surveys or in the machine itself of how much material has been removed or how much more needs to be removed. 

Also, we dredge a lot. I could see AI doing a real-time scan at the end of a dredge cutter underwater, and it could alert the operator when it hits the over-dredge mark. AI could create more efficiency in that way from our personal or company standpoint. 

We've also talked about using AI data analytics to improve our safety. J.F. Brennan is proud to be an extremely safe company; we do as many things as possible to promote safety. So, I could see it scanning models to highlight weak points in design or something as simple as having an overview and defining choke points in travel corridors. Or, maybe it's a live job update/scan, and AI can pick up on potential risky operations.

What advice would you give to the next generation of men and women entering the industry?

The best advice is to constantly learn and build your knowledge from experienced field staff and co-workers. Have the mindset that you don't know at all and that the more experience you can gain from others' actual experience, the greater your knowledge will be. 

That said, I also believe in the American philosopher educator, John Dewey, who wrote about learning in the 1800s. His principle was simple—you best learn by doing, which means roll your sleeves up and get after it. If you fail, learn from it and correct your actions moving forward.

Kelsee Campbell

As a Senior Customer Advocacy Program Manager at Autodesk, Kelsee has the privilege of working with Autodesk customers to champion their stories on the Digital Builder Blog. Kelsee strives to create an engaging experience that amplifies customer perspectives, fostering a sense of community and connection.