A Small Firm Switches to BIM

14 Nov, 2007 By: Heather Livingston

The real deal: Badger and Associates jumps head-first into the 3D world and survives to tell the tale.

Most of the largest AEC firms are transitioning to 3D modeling in some form. They have the financial and human resources to break that new ground. Smaller firms fall in behind, responding to this trend as the need and demand grow. To better understand how the ongoing transition to 3D and BIM (building information modeling) impacts small shops, their clients, and key collaborators, I spoke with William C. Badger, AIA, principal of Badger and Associates in Manchester, Vermont. Badger, whose office is down the road from where I live and work, made the switch to 3D nearly two years ago. In the following Q&A, he shares some interesting insights about the process and illuminates the reality for many small firms when it comes to BIM's interoperability and cost-saving potential.

Bill Badger

Which BIM program are you using?
We started with AutoCAD LT and then ended up with [Nemetschek's] VectorWorks for a variety of reasons. We were working with a former employee who was doing some drafting for us from Florida. That was the program he was using and he recommended it. We switched over mostly because hand drafting was getting to be a lost art and trying to hire somebody that could know which end of a pencil to sharpen was getting tough. I figured at least it would give a level of quality to the drawings.

I'm still convinced that design is a paper thing. Maybe the next generation of kids [will be] used to thinking through a computer, but I can come up with an idea and the basic scheme in a fraction of the time. I can do it a whole lot faster than they can, trying to come up with a design because you have to know too much [to design with a program]. The computer wants to know exactly how big that window is. I don't care. I just draw a window. So while somebody else is trying to figure out exactly what size this is or what size that is, I've got it drawn, and then [later I'll] figure out exact sizes.

How did you make the switch to VectorWorks?
My son Theodore was here over Christmas. He's a techie guy, headed for med school but taking time off and doing some work for me, and he was the one who figured it out. He said, "You know, a lot of our problems seem to be we're not using the program as it was designed to be used." It used to be that the gold standard was hand-drawn drawings, and that's what the computer was trying to create, but the hand-drawn elevations look so much better. We did a pretty good job of doing 2D elevations that really looked like something. We had some guys at one point who could draw stuff on the computer, but it was still trying to copy hand drawings. [We stepped back and realized] that the program has taken us far beyond that. There is potential that you could never reach with a hand drawing, and we should try to use the program like it was designed. Theodore got in and figured out what it was doing and came back to the rest of the office and said, "Here's how it works."

How have your clients reacted to the new technology?
It's really interesting. Clients sometimes will say things like, "Can't you just push a button on the computer and get this out?" No, you can't. Not even close. It will generate things like sections, but they're really crude. Basically you build the model, [and] from that you can extract sections, elevations, all the stuff you need, but it's not just all there for the getting. It gives a section and what comes out of it is really ugly. It has the information in there, but sometimes you'll look at something and ask, "What's that?" Then you have to go back and figure out where you cut the section and why, and what it's showing you, which is some odd piece of wall or something that's floating. Often it's something you did, [like] the wall was put in as only 8 ft and we changed it to 9 ft, so there's a strange gap on stuff like that, which you couldn't figure out on a floor plan, but you draw the section and you go, "Hey, look at that. Something's wrong there."

But [VectorWorks] has helped us a lot because we can send the owners interior pictures. We have some construction now where there's a spectacular view of Mount Equinox, and we wanted to make sure the windows were high enough that when you were standing in the living room, they wouldn't cut the top of the mountain off. So, we took pictures of the site and the mountain, and stitched them together to [form] a backdrop, and then did the inside with various window configurations. With some of them, we immediately saw a problem. Others were better so we were able to develop the windows from the inside, rather than what it looked like from the outside, which is typically what we used to do. Things like that have been very helpful.

Some clients love the 3D images. What I find that's really interesting is that builders like [them too] because if there's something like a funky roof, then we can send them a little 3D image [showing] what it looks like. I first found this when I went to a job site and saw that these guys had the little images we had done for the client stapled up above the construction work desk and they were using those as a reference. Once they understood the concept, they could figure out how to build it without trying to interpret the 2D plans.

Has VectorWorks allowed you and your collaborators to work interoperably?
Most builders around here don't have computers. They're lucky to have a cell phone. Some don’t. They're on paper. We're working with a bigger firm now that we can send PDF images to, and they can plot them out there. PDF has really been the leveling force in all of this because it doesn't matter what program you have, you can print it out as a PDF. Before, our engineer had two offices that were on different programs and [they] couldn't send programs between the two and know that the line weights were coming out the same. It was frustrating, so PDF has been the saving grace on that.

How has 3D modeling affected the client relationship?
[VectorWorks has] really helped people envision what it's like inside, but the drawback is trying to explain to someone the interaction of all the pieces we're giving them. We send them a 3D image, and often as not, they think that's a stand-alone pretty picture. The builder says, "I really need plans to build from." I say, "Right, and we're developing in 3D and the plans will come from it." But, there's often that feeling that, "We've got the idea. Why are you fussing with a toy when we really need plans?" That hasn't come out, but I see it, at least in my eye.

Do owners think that the 3D image makes your participation complete?
Sometimes the owners may think that, but that's always been the case with architectural plans. They'll see the design drawings and say, "Go ahead and build it." And the builder's saying, "I can't build it from that. I need dimensions and some structure. What am I building?" It's not just a pretty picture, but that's always been an issue. One of the things with CAD is, because it tends to be hard-lined, people think the drawings are more complete than they are. Often we send them stuff in sketch mode so it doesn't look that finished. It does look like a sketch and they don't get the impression it's more complete than it is.

It's been an interesting experience with the new technology. There's more time spent up front. We find we're spending less overall money on a project but more up front. ... When we were hand drawing, we kept sending drawings and it was a steady thing. With this, you have to load stuff in the beginning before you can produce a lot, so [up front] they're seeing more substantial bills with less to show for it. One of the things we've taken to doing is sending them the 3D drawing with no hidden lines, which looks like a 3D spaghetti. It's this mass of colors and lines, and we say, "This is what we've been doing. We've been drawing your building in 3D." It's funny. They say, "Isn't that cool?" But it backs them off a little bit from saying, "All I've seen is a couple of floor plans."

Is it saving you money?
It's saving the client money. We find our fees for a total package are less, which is a problem, and I think they're getting a better deal. But, how do you get that across to the client? That's the thing: It's new technology. I'm trying to figure out how you sell it.

Are the interns coming in from college with an awareness of how to use BIM?
I'm seeing [a high level of] computer skills. These guys are far beyond me. That's why I'm still on paper. I can do e-mail and basic things, but they're not intimidated by the computer. I had one guy who was working during college in the summers. He was a pre-architecture major and he made the transition with us to 3D. He actually had been playing on his own at home with some 3D program, so he jumped right into it. Not a problem. [But] I typically get people with no training at all.

Do you think you're using VectorWorks to its full potential?
I suspect that there's a lot with the program. I think in terms of what my son is doing, we're at the limits of some of the drawing because he's finding new glitches and posting stuff [to user forums], and he's the first one to post it. But I think there are other things that we're not using.

Like what?
People keep saying we'll do things like material take-offs and window take-offs and stuff like that. We're not doing that. I'm going to get Theodore home for Christmas and we'll get everybody in the room and talk about some of it. [For example,] I'll see a foundation drawing and a basement drawing and they've changed the basement drawing, but the foundation drawing didn't change. The idea [with BIM] is that when you change something, it changes everything. It doesn't. So, I think we're not doing something right.

Nemetschek doesn't offer you support when you switch to VectorWorks?
They may. Theodore has usually been the one in contact with them, but we've not found anything of particular help.

Editor's note: We checked with Nemetschek about this. According to marketing manager Terri Nyman, the company offers support and training services to all VectorWorks users, beginning with 12 months of free technical support. In addition, it provides an online video library, a Core Concepts DVD with each new purchase, the Tech Forum online discussion group, NNA KnowledgeBase that's accessible through the company's Web site, as well as one-to-one training, classroom training, and a library of workbooks and training CDs for cost.  Nyman says the bottom line is, "There's something for everyone, no matter what the size, location, budget, or VectorWorks skill level of their business. We pride ourselves on providing support for our users and, frankly, never turn anyone away if they need help. Satisfied users are our bread and butter, so support is key to our business."

What do you wish BIM could do that it doesn't?
There was a time when you drew everything by hand. Generally, you had to think about the line you were putting on the paper. I did a house many years ago in Virginia, so it was at a distance and I wasn't there to talk to people. And at one point, the owner was looking at the plans and said, "What's that line mean?" The builder's comment was, "I don't know, but we've learned from these drawings that every line on there has some significance so let me take a look at it. We can figure out what it is." He said that they had really come to believe in the drawings and that everything made sense. There was a logic for everything.

Now, I'll look at a door and the door will just have odd proportions. It's 3.0 by 6.8 or something, but the lock rail is not right. The bottom rail is ill proportioned. [I'll say,] "What's that?" [And the reply is,] "That's the way VectorWorks draws the door." ... [As another example, in cottage style homes] the two sashes are not the same size in a double-hung window. One is bigger than the other. Now, often around here, it was the upper one that was bigger than the lower one, but in other places it seems to be the lower one is bigger and the upper one is smaller. If you're drawing, you just draw what it is, but if you're asking the program to do that, in some cases it won't do that. It doesn't understand. If we're not careful, our [building designs can become] dictated by what the program can do.

Also, it's a different way of drawing. If you drew a door before, you had to draw every door. Now, you draw it once or you go fetch it from a library and insert it, so what I often find is that the door swings are odd because somebody isn't paying attention. They've moved it from somewhere and put it in, then have to flip it to get the door swing, but maybe that didn't happen, so there's part of the thought process that's different in how you create. [Or maybe you add] stand-in items for something. If you're doing a fireplace, you pick a fireplace from a drawing and plop it in there. If you're not careful, that stays in the drawing and it may not be the appropriate fireplace at all for that building, but it's there and it looks so finished because it was finished for another job. So what's a stand-in and what's the real thing? There are pitfalls that didn't used to be pitfalls.

On the whole, are you happy that you've made the transition?
Yeah. I don't think you can go back. I see it with surveyors who do topo work for us sometimes. The guys give us a computer file [and] we can put the building in the landscape. We can do stuff with it. If they give us a hand-drawn file, we have to convert everything to a computer file in order to have the building sit on the landscape. Those guys are limited and the computer stuff is a whole lot handier and is a better interface between everything. We can send drawings as PDFs to our structural engineer. They plot them out. They've got it, and we can talk about it instantly, whereas it used to be [we'd have to] fold it up, put it in the mail, or try to fax it in little bitty pieces. The 3D capability is phenomenal. But like any new thing, it has bumps in the road and [we're still] trying to figure out what its capabilities are and how we can best use them.

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