How did a family-owned architecture and design firm based in Birmingham, Alabama grow to be a nationwide leader in building hospitals and other similar buildings? By combining lean manufacturing principles and construction data and software, their process resulted in:
- 2x the quality
- 2x the speed
- 2x the value of traditionally constructed spaces
Just ask CEO of BLOX and GA Studio, Chris Giattina. His team is radically revolutionizing AEC for complex spaces. It has taken a dedicated, open mindset, but the GA Studio teams are investing in the research and development to innovate and change the construction landscape to solve for:
- Ever-increasing demand for addressing complexity, while also reducing cost and waste
- Skilled construction labor shortages in highly competitive markets
This innovation has led to the development of BLOX, GA Studio’s sister company housing design, manufacturing, and construction within one location and process.
External Pressures Seed the Future
In 2000, GA Studio was hired by Honda to design and construct a new training facility in a short time period. Nine months from the initial meeting date to be exact. Six weeks later, the company was breaking ground. They delivered the project as desired with Honda providing all the resources needed.
The project was an epiphany for Chris and his team. Unlike the car manufacturing industry, they realized the American construction industry had not invested the R&D needed to provide faster, higher-quality builds. “All we had was brute force. We finished but it was painful and unsustainable.”
Fast forward to 2008, GA Studio, originally founded by Chris’s father, had just finished their best year yet. Then the housing bubble hit and all the fallout within the construction industry followed.
“Innovation is often a result of necessity,” says Chris Giattina, CEO, BLOX.
Innovation, Construction Data, and the Development of BLOX
Applying lean manufacturing principles to traditional AEC models, the BLOX team applies innovative design science and data analytics to wrangle the complexities of construction for spaces like healthcare facilities. In doing so, they have mastered a new ability to generate standardized, manufacturable parts and programs for complex spaces.
They call this approach: Design Manufacture Construct. To achieve this within their own predetermined 2x2x2 constraints the team is continually optimizing the design and construction process to simplify and streamline. To do this, they have taken multiple innovative but deliberate actions to redefine AEC.
First, they implemented best-in-class AI technology and data analytics, allowing them to take architects out of their silos and allow for collaboration from design to manufacture.
“[In effect] we teach a legion of designers to leverage manufacturing productivity so that construction is simple,” says Giattina.
Powered by Autodesk BIM 360, GA Studio’s ‘WEVR’ platform uses advanced data mining techniques to identify the potentially hundreds of design possibilities when you marry state-level regulatory requirements with feedback from owners and staff of complex spaces, like a new hospital. The algorithm created reduced the number of design possibilities down to a standard few.
This essentially created “intelligent, manufacturable standards”. As in the case of a new healthcare facility, now an SKU is assignable to a patient bathroom, a headwall for surgery, an overhead ceiling rack, a surgical rack.
Second, the team replaced brute force by designing repeatable processes and systems to build these various parts, minimizing the need to find skilled labor, which is becoming more difficult. They even invested in a former railroad factory in Bessemer, Alabama to house their design and prefabrication teams side by side.
Third, the team removed multiple steps and handoffs within the construction lifecycle to move directly from design into fabrication, increasing speed to market, thus available cash-flow for optimization.
In effect, as Chris states, “We teach a legion of designers to leverage manufacturing productivity so that construction is simple.”
Achieving Repeatable Quality and Inherent Value
The actual effect of this framework has meant the removal of at least 25% of the man, method, and material waste that exists in the typical construction site.
Site complexity is moved upstream into BLOX’s manufacturing site – their Million square foot old Pullman Standard rail-car plant in Bessemer. Here the design and architecture team sits next to 13 build trades, all organized into a production-like process.
BLOX has made its largest stamp so far in healthcare construction. They first started by prefabricating the most common rooms in hospitals – like bathrooms and headwalls and footwalls – and over time have grown to fit these pieces together into larger manufactured units with greater complexity.
Now, individual parts are assembled into ‘Uber Modules’, BLOX’s name for their red iron structural steel units. Existing in the largest possible DOT transport size possible, Ubers can be stacked 10 stories high and are being installed in projects to construct free-standing healthcare facilities from Florida to Nevada.
The effect has greatly improved the speed of delivery on such projects, with marked successes that have literally cut the typical timeline for construction in half, for certain projects.
Innovation in Progress
The Uber construction became a reality when GA Studio partnered with clients facing the challenge of providing quality healthcare in areas where the right skilled labor for constructing new state-of-the-art facilities isn’t always easy to find.
Constructing an entire free-standing acute care center was a big challenge to the innovative firm. The complexity involved went beyond headwalls, footwalls, and bathrooms to prefabricated construction for entire departments for trauma, CT, lab, med gas unit, etc. for the 12,000-foot complete facility.
The team dove into the opportunity to further refine Design, Manufacture, Construct, and prove its capacity to change the construction landscape.
The core of this framework is continuous measurement and optimization. Chris relates his operation to a spaceship in flight, continually optimizing its ship and its course as it flies.
To see if it was possible to deliver 2x2x2 for these free-standing units, BLOX was specifically contracted to complete five standalone centers. The expectation at the outset was to measure and optimize outcomes from one build to the next through applied learnings.
As BLOX steadily measured the results of each build, each time the team made modifications to the process to yield improved results. Their greatest learning yielding the biggest gain and most significant process change was inspired again from the manufacturing world. In particular, from Boeing’s approach for manufacturing its 747 airplanes.
In the first build, the manufacturing phase of the Ubers for this free-standing ER took 100 days. As Chris says, “it was painful to watch.”
Back at the drawing board, the team adopted Boeing’s approach to ‘chunking’. This approach narrows down the number of manufacturers to absolute best in class and requires delivery of not individual pieces, but assembled ‘chunks’ of the whole Uber.
The chunks are then assembled inside BLOX’s manufacturing site in Bessemer, then shipped to the final construction site.
At the site, a stem wall foundation has been installed by the time the Ubers arrive. At first, fifty percent of the builds were completed with the installation of the Ubers – in later optimizations up to 80% of projects have been completed with Uber installations. Within six weeks of groundbreaking, the exterior framing is going up and MEP overhead being installed.
The optimization implemented over the course of those five builds showed powerful returns. The design phase reduced from a jaw-clenching 365 days on the first build to a repeatable standard of 45 days. The manufacturing phase reduced from 100 days to an incredible and repeatable 40 days.
The speed by which these health care facilities are now being delivered in areas where it once was questionable as to whether the facilities could even be constructed – and without sacrificing the quality of care – is a big win for health care providers facing increasing demand and cost pressure. It also has big implications for BLOX.
A Game-Changing Future
Demand for BLOX Ubers has grown 200% since it was founded. It is still growing at a pace that makes the next greatest challenge for the company the solicitation of talented staff. From talented programmers, modelers, to people that are interested in digital fabrication, BLOX aims to build “a best-in-class army of smart people interested in changing the industry from analog to digital.”
So far, they are doing just that and its customers are realizing the benefits of innovation. By creating reproducible quality at scale, Chris notes, “we can lower embedded cost, we can be good for the environment, we can do a number of positive things. But in order to do this, we have to rethink the last 100 years of design. We have to find the smartest way to process raw materials into the building – it is not always a linear process. Our process of Design, Manufacture starts with the notion that it could be linear, and then it finds the optimal path to connect raw materials into buildings.”