4 Tips From Steel Fabricators to Bridge the Design-Construction Gap

by Joshua Glazer
- Mar 21 2018 - 5 min read
steel fabricators
Steel fabricators have ideas for improving communications throughout complex construction projects.

With its barrel-shaped metal roof paying homage to the waves of the nearby Pacific Ocean, the Imperial Beach Library is a modern landmark for a small community a stone’s throw from the Mexico-California border.

The 14,830-square-foot structure opened in 2017 and has won multiple architecture awards, including the ENR California Small Project Award of Merit and the San Diego Architectural Foundation Orchids Awards. While designers and architects collect the trophies, builders know that any lauded project is a team effort that includes engineers, suppliers, and contractors helping realize the design studio’s vision.

In this project, two behind-the-scenes heroes are Lance Richardson—whose company, Richardson Steel, provided the structural members that support the rolling rooftop—and Steel Detailing Online’s Bart Rohal, the steel detailer who worked with Richardson on the job.

steel fabricators library roof in Advance Steel
The Imperial Beach Library’s complex metal roof design was built without any issues, thanks to clear communication throughout the project. Courtesy Steel Detailers Online.

“There was a complexity that could’ve led to a lot of problems,” Richardson says. “[The shape] shifted from one radius to a second radius, and then to a third radius. It’s hard stuff to locate without modeling it. Fortunately, that job was run quite well and there was good communication so that everyone’s stuff worked in conjunction with everyone else’s stuff. Because of the communication and the shared use of technology, we averted those problems, and everything went in really well for all the trades involved.”

The software used on the job included Revit, Navisworks, BIM 360, and Advance Steel; but while Building Information Modeling (BIM) technologies make jobs such as the Imperial Beach Library more streamlined, inconsistent adaptation has created information gaps that occur as a project proceeds from the architecture and engineering phases to construction itself.

In most cases, a breakdown can consume hours of additional time to correct. At worst, it can mean a more serious waste of time and materials. To minimize the former and avoid the latter, these two steel experts share four tips on how they would improve the processes they see every day in the architecture, engineering, and construction industries.

1. Embrace universal technology.

The solution to many challenges in steel fabrication is the universal adoption of software technologies. Richardson and Rohal agree that BIM adaptation is accelerating and hope this trend will lead to a future in which everyone is on the same page (or, rather, on the same 3D team).

Richardson and Rohal take on many custom steel projects that require extra attention to detail, and they recall another collaboration in which software made fabricating highly detailed metalworks a breeze.

“Lance had another detailer, who detailed everything in appropriate 2D fashion,” Rohal says. “These aluminum trusses are very pricey and very architecturally driven. He gave me the drawings and I did them in 3D, which only took me a day or two to create the specific cut tubes, delivered in IGS files, saving him hundreds of hours.”

steel fabricators tech print
When stakeholders adopt universal software technologies, errors are minimized, saving time and money. Courtesy Steel Detailers Online.

“Our tubing supplier and our machine shop were both able to import the 3D IGS files from Advance Steel into their five-axis lasers and CNC mills and cut the braces for a perfect fit with very little labor,” adds Richardson, “whereas the manual layout and cutting of the parts would have come at a cost of several hundred hours.”

2. Start collaborating sooner.

Richardson and Rohal believe that if steel professionals were brought into the architecture and engineering process earlier, the result would be significant savings and education for all involved.

“There are a few architects and a number of engineers who solicit my input in the early stages of project design—often when I am not contracted to provide the steel and have no assurances that I will be,” Richardson says. “I cannot overstate how beneficial this has been to these projects once construction begins. I would urge every engineer and architect to develop relationships with members of the construction trades and to use them as a collective resource.”

Rohal takes this idea further, inventing a new position he would like to see at the architecture and engineering level. “I believe it would be prudent for the project owner in the architecture and engineering industry to subcontract what I will coin as a ‘qualified QCSD,’ or Quality Control Steel Detailer, to review a steel project between the DD [design development] and CD [construction documents] stage. This does not require the QCSD to be the contracted steel detailer, but rather more of a steel consultant before it goes out to bid. This can save the owner on a steel project substantial overall steel costs and delivery time. In addition, the architecture and engineering team will pick up valuable steel tips that can be applied on future projects.”

3. Model to AISC standards.

The American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) dictates that steel-construction drawings be detailed within tolerances of 1/16 inch and four-decimal-degree angles. The challenge for detailers like Rohal is that not all design plans or models follow the specification, requiring him to create a request for information (RFI) for the basic steel layout.

“2D designs and 3D BIM models need to be set to AISC standards at the beginning of a project,” he says. “If not modeled to AISC specs, steel detailers would rather start from scratch than recheck or verify the entire Revit model first.”

steel fabricators detailing in 3D
Detailing in 3D can save hundreds of hours compared to manual layout and cutting. Courtesy Steel Detailers Online.

The cost for not following AISC is immediately apparent, Rohal says. “We, as steel detailers, will bid detailing as if we detailed steel once. If noted on designs ‘to be VIF [verify in field] before fabrication,’ we will incorporate steel detailing at a higher cost, as it will be done once for the review-submittal process and once again for construction. This also can delay steel delivery, especially if steel is galvanized.”

4. Incorporate a post-project review.

With the construction industry booming, most professionals move on to the next project immediately after the previous one is finished. However, Rohal suggests that reviewing RFIs after a project can be an invaluable learning experience.

“Architecture and engineering firms should incorporate an [in-house] post-project review on specific projects with steel-savvy RFIs,” he says. “This will incorporate ideas on future projects and adjust their standards to suit the most economical and structural sound process.”

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