Behind the Build: Interview with Brian Athey, Director of Construction Innovation, Miron Construction

brian athey director of construction innovation miron

Construction is a constantly changing industry, in which those who succeed are those who evolve. Case and point: a survey of the top 500 construction companies from 1965 revealed that 450 of these companies were no longer in business. The reason? Ninety percent of these companies faltered because they refused to embrace change and innovation to take on increasing project demands. Clearly, projects only move forward through innovation, something that Brian Athey of Miron Construction – established in 1918 – has built his career on.

As Miron’s Director of Construction Innovation, Brian prioritizes new ideas in his daily work. We sat down with Brian to learn more about how he embraces innovation, automation, and putting the field first as his keys to success in the construction industry. Read his story below.

What does Miron specialize in?

Miron works as a General Contractor or construction manager in many markets including Healthcare, K-12, Higher Education, Food and Beverage, and Industrial. The only thing that we don't touch are roads and bridges. We offer preconstruction services, virtual construction, experience-based design, sustainability, risk management and safety services, and more. We are based mainly in Wisconsin and Iowa but our clients put us into 23 states last year. Miron self-performs Cast in Place Concrete, Masonry, steel erection, precast erection, Millwright, and General Trades. 

Could you share a bit about your journey to becoming the Director of Construction Innovation at Miron?

I grew up in construction. My father was a builder and I spent a lot of time working with him growing up. Right out of high school, I started in architecture at UW, Milwaukee. After my first summer, I got a taste for self-employment and became a self-employed residential contractor for 18 years, which led me to 2008, when everything crashed. At that point I went back to school.

I returned to Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and got a two-year degree in Architectural Technologies. I graduated in 2011, which was still not a good time to be looking for a job in the industry. I got lucky and ended up getting a position at Eppstein Uhen Architects in Milwaukee. That position catapulted me back to Miron in 2013.

I started as a Virtual Construction Specialist at Miron. My passion has always been Revit. I have always enjoyed building, watching things get built, and, at the end of the day, having something to look at. So as I was getting older, I realized that I didn't want to be doing that physically for the rest of my life. Revit was that opportunity to get out, to do the same things, but in the comfort of an office.

I've been at Miron now for seven years, and I've been Director of Construction Innovation since 2018. I have always enjoyed and loved construction. While I love design, it made more sense for me to be on the construction side. I ran my own company for so many years, and love to teach and lead. This led me to the Director position. I think it just happened naturally.

Also back in 2018, I passed the last of my ARE exams and became a registered architect in the state of Wisconsin. That is something that helps my position, but isn’t a requirement. It's just something that I've always wanted to do. It would have been a lot easier to do when I was younger, but I got through it.  I had to give a lot of weekends. It took about a year.

If I go back, I built some pretty nice homes in Door County, Wisconsin. If I really go back and think about that, at that period in my life, that was definitely a major accomplishment. I am also pretty proud of passing my AREs. On top of that, the annual accomplishments and strides in innovation from Miron’s VC department makes me proud. All of these accomplishments tend to build on one another.

I'm always fascinated by new ways of doing things quicker, easier, and more efficient. There's always a better way.

My team gets annoyed with me sometimes, because I challenge them constantly. But you're always striving to be more efficient, to be safer, to be at less risk, and make more profit. There's always something you can do better. That's how I ended up here.

What would you say makes construction in the Midwest unique?

I've heard many, many times that the Midwest has a really good work ethic. We've been in over 23 states in the last year. We’ve been all over and we tend to bring our own crews for a reason.

I think it’s because you have generations of people growing up on farms, where you got up and worked until you went to bed and you were happy with the meal, your family, and just to get through the day. This mentality seems to have been passed on from generation to generation. There is definitely a mentality, or a sense of satisfaction, when Friday comes and you can sit back and reflect on a good week's work before you go onto your weekend.

Where have you seen innovation and resilience on your team in the last couple of years?

In our industry, things are changing so fast. We've always got something on our hotplate. I would say, over the last year and a half, big data has been a big deal.

There’s been a lot of focus on managing data. What I see coming and what's starting now is the automation piece; automating the movement of files, automating the reports, automating the data flow from one enterprise system to the next. What I’m seeing is a shift from a focus on, how do you report on data? How do you collect it? And now the focus is turning to, how do you connect it, and how do you automate that connection?

We've been using Autodesk BIM 360 for three years now. It's completely changed how our department, Virtual Construction, works. We now store all of our BIM projects in BIM 360 in the cloud, where we used to save things locally. It's changed the direction we go with any other third-party, or subsidiary types of software, whether that'd be a Holobuilder for reality capture or Power BI for data analytics. Everything we look at, we ask, first, is it better than anything we have? Is it easy for the end-user to manage or is it intuitive? Second, does it connect to BIM 360? How do we keep our Superintendent or our Project Manager from having to make two or three clicks to get there?

We're always thinking about the end user.

We've been pushing BIM 360 from the construction side for two or three years now, and I would say in the last year I've been approached by six to eight large design firms wanting to learn more and to work collaboratively. They’re asking, "How do we do this? How do we write up the specifications? How do we write up the BIM execution plan? How do we exchange files?” It's forcing us into a collaborative environment, where we communicate back and forth in one system. It makes the whole design to construction to handover process much more transparent and accountable.

Also there’s Assemble—we've had that now for two years. It took 5D out of the hands of Virtual Construction and empowered our Estimators. They're now able to use the model to do their estimates, to break it up, to view it, and to do whatever they want without having to call up a VC specialist for a screenshot or a material schedule.

Now that we're sharing so easily with BIM 360 in the cloud, people are starting to realize that all that data and all that information that's getting exchanged can be utilized. They’re now trying to figure out, how do you utilize it? How do you manage it? How do you store it? How do you report on it? Software companies out there are all trying to do the same thing and it's a race to market.

What are some of the challenges you face working on Manufacturing or Food & Beverage projects? 

One thing that has been traditionally challenging in building manufacturing and food & beverage is asset tracking. So that’s tracking a piece of equipment from procurement all the way through commissioning and startup. Now that the Assets module just came out in BIM 360 it’s going to be a major game changer. Our involvement in a project has just gone to a new level.

What advice do you want to pass on to folks at the beginning of their technology implementation journey?

Always keep the end user in mind. It's about making it easier for the people in the field. You have to be willing and want to put the time in to constantly keep learning and make what you have today better for tomorrow. Nothing is free, you have to work for it.

Alyssa Jaber

As Manager of Customer Marketing at Autodesk, Alyssa Jaber has been partnering with Autodesk customers in the construction space for 5+ years to build their brands and powerfully tell their stories. Alyssa is a human-first leader who supports a team of talented individuals who always put the customer experience first.