Behind the Build: Interview with Steve Whitmer, BIM Manager, ACCO Engineered Systems

Steve Whitmer, BIM Manager, ACCO Engineered Systems  

Building information modeling, or BIM, is not just confined to a certain step in the construction process. Today, it is largely essential to a firm's all-around operations. Take it from Steve Whitmer, BIM Manager at ACCO Engineered Systemsa top specialty mechanical contractor and the largest independent company of its kind in the Western USA. What was once used for just engineering purposes is now all-encompassing. BIM is being used at ACCO to assist with purchasing, tracking material, fieldwork and more. 

"It is a visual tool that bridges gaps and allows everyone to come to the table," Steve says. Overseeing the BIM Group is not only an exciting part of Steve’s job; his team’s work gives ACCO a competitive edge and helps drive the firm’s overall success in the market. 

In the latest edition of our Behind the Build series, we caught up with Steve to talk about the role BIM plays in ACCO's operations. Below, he touches on how advances in the industry are delivering more complex projects, the benefits of connected construction software,  and the future of BIM technology. Here is a closer look at what Steve had to say:

Tell us what makes working at ACCO Engineered Systems so unique.

ACCO is a design-build mechanical firm that performs engineering, construction installation, startup and commissioning, and service throughout the lifecycle of a building. What really makes ACCO special is the focus we have on quality. Our standards for quality are very high,  which earns us a lot of repeat business.

One unique aspect of ACCO is that we start from the bottom up.

This means we are invested in our employees’ growth. For instance, we bring in engineers and develop them into project managers. We take a "cradle to grave" approach where our workers bid the work and then manage the work. There is no handoff from an estimating department to a precon department to a construction department. Instead, one project manager manages the project all the way through. By having one person manage the job from earlier in the process, we are able to avoid inefficiencies over the course of the project.

How did you first get into the construction industry?

I attended college at Sacramento State, and I wanted to go into engineering. When I spoke to counselors about my aspirations, they told me that there were two avenues I could take: mechanical engineering or mechanical engineering technology. While I do enjoy doing calculations from time to time, I knew I wanted to pursue a major that gave me more real, “hands-on” experience. I found that majoring in mechanical engineering technology provided the hands-on experience I was looking for. It was something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life. 

How did you become passionate about BIM?

After college, I started working at ACCO and BIM immediately hit home for me. I realized pretty quickly that there was a tangible bridge between engineering and construction. There were models I could create, and I could go out to the shop and see things being built in their physical form. I could see the pipes, the duct - the exact project that I was working on and drawing in 3D.

I was two months into my career at ACCO when my manager asked me to do some 3D modeling. First, I  thought it was something to do while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life.

But now,  I am at a place where I could do this for the rest of my career. It is really exciting to me.

I love being the liaison between construction and engineering. I can talk to workers in the field and get a sense of their needs, but with the mind of an engineer. That is really where we see the value of BIM - it is a visual tool that bridges gaps and allows everyone to come to the table.

As the leader of ACCO's BIM group, tell us what you're focused on now.

The value that the BIM group provides ACCO is the elimination of rework. I am very focused on workflows and coordination. Some of our projects have up to four trades. If we are modeling all of them, there is the assumption that all of these trades are looking at the models as they are being designed. That is where coordination comes into play. When we are hired, we can coordinate multiple trades rather than rely on four different companies to perform each of their own deliverables. Good coordination is the number one aspect of a quality BIM workflow.

How does technology help deliver more complex projects?

I have been talking about this for 15 years. Since I started in 2005, we have continued to see less ceiling space. However, because due to the accuracy and precision of BIM, designers seem to be stuffing more and more utilities into smaller and smaller ceiling spaces. BIM provides the ability to coordinate down to the nuts and bolts to accommodate the multiple system designs co-existing in the ceiling spaces. And while BIM provides the ability to coordinate to minute clearances, it also has to be used with reality in mind. Adequate clearance needs to take into consideration actual construction tolerances which exist on the physical jobsite. If the team assumes the physical construction will be as perfect as the BIM (which is never the case due to construction tolerances) there is a good chance there will be field conflicts even though objects are clash free in BIM. 

Technology has definitely helped make these buildings more complex, but I think it is a natural effect of BIM being a visualization tool and allowing you to go to that level of precision. Today, we rely on Autodesk’s connected design and construction tools, like Revit, BIM 360, Navisworks, and PlanGrid. Revit is great for modeling and document management and so we can see all of our documents and diagrams associated with floor plans. BIM 360 is critical for collaboration, now more than ever as most of our teams are working from home. PlanGrid is used throughout ACCO, as a quick and fast way to access and navigate documents. Along with Navisworks, these technologies are part of a connected construction suite.

What excites you about the future of BIM?

I love that BIM is becoming central to how we operate at ACCO, as it is starting to manage all of our data. I am no longer only working with engineering. I am also working with purchasing; the shop to track material; workers in the field; and providing meta-data to Facilities Services, so they do not have to search through submittals for the information they need. It started for us in construction and engineering, but there is not any reason why BIM cannot be spun out to the other specialties. That is what really excites me about the future of BIM. In this digital era, there is no reason why we cannot take more value out of this data that is sitting in models and expediting workloads.

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.