The architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry is the perfect embodiment of what it means to be big: towering skyscrapers, massive bridges, expansive tunnels, and innovative and inventive designs. Yet small can also be powerful, especially when it’s rooted in passion and purpose. These are the foundations on which Axoscape was built.
Based in Houston, Texas, Axoscape helps architects, contractors, and subcontractors understand BIM (Building Information Modeling) technology to stay relevant in the industry. Despite having only a nine-person team, the expert BIM-services firm is making a significant impact by taking on projects with a purpose, whether it’s laser-scan-like photogrammetry of damage from Hurricane Harvey or partnering with Habitat for Humanity, Houston Food Bank, and other organizations supporting their communities.
“We get a chance to do what we feel is right,” says the firm’s founder and president, Dat Lien. “And because we’re passionate about the things that we do, it inadvertently attracts people’s attention.”
Initially, designing an orphanage headquarters in Grand Bangnin, Haiti, gave Lien the confidence to establish his own firm. With his architectural background, he assembled a team of engineers, local architects, and community members to find out what would work best. The team’s scanned imagery also helped solar-power firm Freedom Solar efficiently install panels for sustainable power. For Lien, it’s all about “trying to figure out where we can use our experience to help out.”
Small Team, Meaningful Impact
Putting theory into practice, one of Axoscape’s first challenges was assisting with rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas in August 2017. The storm’s staggering 27 trillion gallons of rain caused flooding across the state and an estimated $75 billion in losses, and displaced thousands of people from their homes.
The project started when a friend and colleague asked Lien to scan what was left of his house, post-hurricane. Using photogrammetry and laser scanning, Lien and his team created a 3D model of the house. “We were able to give him a starting point, a footprint of what his house would look like,” Lien says.
Lien is currently exploring crowdsourced mapping, in which communities would perform the reality capture themselves. They would take 360-degree photos of their homes’ interiors, use drone footage for the exteriors, then all these images could be stitched together using photogrammetry to create highly detailed 3D models. This process could help people better prepare for the future, as the scans can be used for rebuilding or assessing future damages.
“You never know when disaster’s going to strike, and it’s always good to just have a record of what you’ve got,” Lien says. “It’s all about collecting data on where we are today. And if a big disaster were to happen, how can we use that data to help inform decisions?”
Here, Lien offers some advice for AEC companies who want to keep their numbers small but make a big impact in the industry—and the world at large.
1. Hire the Right Mix of People to Fuel Innovation
Lien found that to support innovation, he needs two types of people: those who consistently come in early and get things done, and those who stay late to research and experiment. “I feel like you need a combination of both because if everyone was the same and did the same thing, we wouldn’t be able to innovate the way we do,” he says.
Diverse skill sets are essential for solving complex issues. Different problems need different solutions, and you need a variety of ideas and viewpoints to come up with the best result. The drawback, though, is finding a balance among contrasting personalities. “It’s not easy,” Lien says. “But everyone understands where everyone’s coming from and what their contributions are, and it tends to work out.”
2. Shape Your Firm’s Culture—and Stick to It
While Lien hires diverse personalities, they’re united through company culture. For example, Axoscape holds lunch-and-learn Fridays to keep things interesting and develop team skills. Lien and his team also enjoy gaming, so when he’s hiring, he looks for other people who will fit the culture and add to the positive energy. “There’s a lot of energy around having fun at work,” he says. “We have this media room where we get together every Friday and play Rocket League.
3. Seek and Win Work With Purpose
Lien chooses work that is ultimately fulfilling and purposeful, from bringing subcontractors up to technological speed to helping companies such as Hudson Building Systems become more nimble and efficient through BIM and lean construction. He helped Hudson Building Systems plan further ahead to reduce rework, as well as obtain more accurate data and minimize construction risks. When deciding which projects to take on, Lien says that it comes down to providing value.
“It’s those projects that make you feel like you’re doing good, you’re helping out, and you’re using technology for good,” Lien says. “If we’re able to help someone get better with technology, improve their workflow, improve their business to some degree, I think that’s great.”
4. Nurture Team Career Growth for the Larger Good
There’s a growing skills gap in the AEC industry, particularly in construction, which is suffering a skilled-labor and engineering shortage.
Axoscape hopes to help fill those gaps in technical expertise. “To put it in perspective, at Axoscape, we are integrators bringing design and construction together using proven technology,” says Axoscape Photogrammetry Specialist Xavier Loayza. “For those subcontractors that need support, we can either teach them how to use the tools or help them create workflows and processes that free them up to do their best work.”
And, by training and reskilling people, as well as teaching them tools such as Autodesk BIM 360 and Revit, Axoscape helps fill the roles needed to meet the demands of the building industry, as well as ensuring people aren’t left behind as technology accelerates.
For instance, the firm hired a Forever 21 employee who had left the retail industry and learned a new trade through Axoscape. “He wanted to do something more with his life, so we’re giving that opportunity,” Lien says.
“The premise behind Axoscape is to give inexperienced grads a chance, an opportunity, a little bit of experience,” he continues. “They can’t get hired because they don’t have experience. On the other hand, we have so much experience in the field and we want to be able to help other architecture companies who don’t have the time and resources to adopt technology. So we get people trained and let them help out the AEC community.”
By combining this expertise with technology, passion, and purpose, Axoscape demonstrates that small can indeed be powerful.