Sometimes when it’s least expected, the dark horse wins the race.
As Quinton McDaniel recalls, it looked like his small civil-engineering consulting firm was out of the running for a major rehabilitation of a municipal intersection. Then he suggested his team create a presentation based on a 3D model of the proposed redesign, together with an animated flyover to visually convey important features to the selection committee.
“It was a big project, and we decided to present at the last minute,” McDaniel says. “I didn’t think we’d get it unless our presentation really separated us from the competition, and the owner of the firm agreed.”
That put McDaniel on the spot; he had about four days to create a model of existing conditions and proposed changes, and the model couldn’t be merely functional—it also had to tell a visually compelling story. Using Autodesk InfraWorks 360 and existing aerial photography and topographical data, McDaniel created a model of the original intersection and then added his firm’s proposed changes to utilities, roadways, rights-of-way, drainages, and sidewalks.
His firm got creative, too. The team included photos of children walking alongside crumbling embankments juxtaposed with animations of children on wide sidewalks next to grassy swales that put a safe distance between the children and the road.
McDaniel’s presentation idea paid off unexpectedly well. The project’s stakeholders were impressed. They granted McDaniel and his firm the bid—by unanimous vote—over several larger companies. Along with the win for his small firm, he received an unexpected opportunity: to take his knowledge of BIM to a larger audience.
Civil engineers are not typically early adopters of new technologies, and BIM in particular is a big shift for companies traditionally focused on 2D CAD. But some engineers are driven to pave the way. And those who do, such as McDaniel, are hot commodities to innovating infrastructure companies.
“One of the firms we beat out was Greenman-Pedersen Inc. [GPI], and they decided they never again wanted to lose a project to a BIM-based presentation,” says McDaniel, now a project manager and CAD-technology manager at GPI. “So they hired me away!”
Although that meant moving on from his previous firm that won the project, it was a welcome challenge to educate a broader audience of civil engineers on the value of BIM.
In theory, his mandate at GPI was to implement BIM in GPI’s Brooksville, Florida office. But as many technology officers have learned, there’s more to BIM implementation than ordering new software. The challenges McDaniel faced were typical for many firms getting up to speed with brand-new plan, design, and build processes.
Predictably (for anyone who has ever worked at a consulting firm), McDaniel spent the first months at his new job putting out fires with important ongoing projects that were running into difficulties—valuable experience for someone hired to implement major change. In this case, McDaniel quickly realized that a major hurdle had to be cleared before his GPI office could move on to full BIM implementation.
“Here in Central Florida, GPI has grown a lot by acquiring other firms,” he explains. “That’s great, and pretty common in this sector, but integrating different offices always comes with the challenges of accommodating different working styles and CAD standards.”
And he had an even bigger challenge to consider. “GPI has eight offices just in Florida and more than 30 nationwide,” McDaniel says. “And our ultimate goal is for all these offices to work together as one entity, even though they all have different strengths and specialties. For example, some of our offices have excellent structural-engineering departments, but it doesn’t make sense for every office to have a structural engineer on staff. So how do we collaborate well enough to apply our firm’s deep structural-engineering capacity on the projects where it’s needed?”
While there may not need to be an engineer in every office, there must be someone at each location with a good understanding of BIM technology. BIM is already used at GPI on projects such as the $1.2 billion rehabilitation of New York’s George Washington Bridge, so McDaniel’s challenge is not so much to introduce BIM to GPI. It’s to face technology-adoption issues that sci-fi writer William Gibson famously pointed out: “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
So McDaniel is working to distribute that progressive knowledge more evenly around multiple offices. “We’ve made a big investment in Autodesk’s Vault and Buzzsaw, with the primary goal of improving collaboration on existing projects,” McDaniel says. “And it’s working—getting better at 2D collaboration is setting us up to be truly effective at BIM.”
As an example, McDaniel cites a 20-year, multiphase GPI project that involves several offices. “We were copying and printing a lot of drawings, transferring information by various methods, and it was getting hard to manage—clashes and interferences were a problem,” he says. “Now, we’re already sharing design data much more effectively and coordinating the work of geographically separated offices. It’s not BIM yet, but more and more, we have the sense of working from one design and helping each other, not getting in each other’s way.”
One truth that has emerged during this decade’s move to BIM is that the actual 3D model is a necessary, but not sufficient, feature of the design process. It’s just as important to put into practice common standards and communication protocols. As McDaniel and GPI are learning, that is the first hurdle to clear on the path to BIM implementation.