With the continued evolution of construction technology, smart construction data management has become an increasingly strategic value for firms. It is opening the door for construction firms to gain valuable insights to help manage costs, while simultaneously delivering on the increased demand for quality and transparency.
Every project has millions of data points, from design to construction. How the lifecycle of this data is managed, tracked, and analyzed, can enable project teams to leverage data to make informed decisions earlier in the project and deliver better results. Assemble is a software that has powerful data organization and visualization abilities. It assists with workflows and data management by combining model data from different authoring tools, allowing construction professionals to aggregate and organize total project inventories for an improved takeoff process.
With Assemble and the Power BI integration, teams can filter this data, which translates millions of possible data points into prioritized parameters and metrics. Thus, unlocking model data and developing dashboards that provide valuable and actionable insights across teams and users.
At IMC Construction, a designated internal team devoted to innovation and improvement, has used Assemble, Power BI, and other software solutions to improve project delivery and increase project insight. In doing so, they have yielded significant time savings from preconstruction through to construction, while greatly improving collaboration both internally and with designers, owners, and subcontractors.
The Case for Innovation
David Maser, Director of Construction Innovation at IMC Construction, says Assemble’s Power BI integration is providing a new lense for managing data within and across projects at the firm.
IMC Construction (IMC) is one of the largest full-service general contracting firms based in the Philadelphia suburbs. Its projects span a diverse set of industries across the Mid-Atlantic, and the firm takes pride in providing the best value approach to customers through innovative and collaborative project delivery.
Prior to Assemble, the project team at IMC was constantly exporting data from Revit to Excel or constantly overlaying different sets of drawings to compare different iterations of the design to determine what had changed, and by how much it had changed by, in order to determine the cost and schedule implications. Maser sums up the challenge the team faced “It was a painstaking and time-consuming process. It was really a challenge to stay on top of the current data set and understand the cost drivers of the project.” Peter Gehring, Director of VDC adds “Designs change all the time. Even once the CDs come out, the design is going to change. Assemble makes it easier to tackle the design changes. When we get a new model or update our models, we can instantly put it in Assemble and visualize what’s changed.”
“Assemble helped us reduce our quantity takeoff time by as much as 40%,” adds Maser.
The estimators found tremendous value in Assemble for their preconstruction workflows. Senior Estimator, Andy Chain notes, “The less time you spend doing your takeoff, the more time you can spend finding more cost-effective solutions for the client. Utilizing Assemble makes things faster, more efficient, and more reliable.”
As the next natural step in their innovation journey, IMC began implementing Assemble’s Power BI integration in 2018, with the aim to continue delivering on the promise of improved project insight.
Two major challenges IMC wanted to tackle using Power BI reporting was:
- Reducing the amount of time and effort to produce trending and variance reports.
- Improving communication with owners and other project stakeholders. The firm desired to be able to clearly communicate design scope changes, and track project quantities and schedules without a heavy administrative burden.
Before this could be achieved, Maser and the team first had to tackle data quality and normalization.
“We have six full-time estimators in-house creating models. For one project, we may receive five different sketches of – for example, a typical bay of structure – which we need to establish different budgets for the facade and structure. We use Assemble to create our own detailed models with detailed quantities. But in that process, we are always asking ourselves: how can we improve our process, how do we deal with different data sets, how do we standardize our data to analyze cost drivers over the course of time?”
IMC also wanted its teams beyond preconstruction to be able to leverage model data without the requirement of being an Autodesk Revit expert.
“Assemble is easy,” says Maser, “You don’t need software or fancy equipment to access model views remotely.”
The end goal at IMC was to have multiple users collaborating on the same data set, normalized to be the standard across multiple projects and models.
Smart Data Management Starts with Pencil, Paper, and People
Maser and the team did not shy away from the major task of data normalization. Rather, they got started by gathering stakeholders across teams for discussions about data prioritization.
“The first thing we did was sit down as a team and look at what we model for most projects and discuss what else do we want for ALL projects. We began to define standards in data so that we weren’t relying on architects to name model elements the same way and so that they could create a consistent internal template.”
Secondly, the IMC team took the time to draw dashboard sketches with color pencils and paper. Every dashboard was first visualized in this way, from cost driver tracking to field installation and productivity reporting.
It sounds complex, but Maser says the team took care to reduce complexity upfront. “We wanted to start simple with the things we know we are going to get on every job.”
In the end, it was a relatively quick, collaborative, and cheap process that kept the firm’s first steps of implementing Power BI simple. It also ensured estimators, project teams, and VDC understood what the end goal was of conditioning data sets for different users.
“This effort has allowed us to leverage our data in Assemble in the way our company needs to see it, and it has helped open our eyes into different standards and possibilities with our clients,” says Maser.
Powerful Data Insights for Construction Workflows
IMC’s efforts to normalize data from their models and turn it into insightful reporting in Power BI yielded numerous workflow improvements and time savings. From facade to concrete to structural steel, the company uses dashboard reporting to track and present scope changes, quantities, schedules, and installation productivity.
IMC has identified the cost drivers to be tracked project to project. Specific to their tracking of the façade, Maser says, “we are literally going in the model and assigning doors, windows, curtain wall systems, and other data elements, classifying critical components as a percentage of the facade. Power BI’s coding allows us to combine multiple models to elevate this data for any single project in the facade dashboard.” This allows IMC to track the percentage of façade materials like glazing and masonry across design iterations.
IMC can also track all of this data across multiple projects, comparing costs across projects to determine and manage key cost drivers.
The same applies to the firm’s capacity for structural steel and concrete reporting. “These dashboards represent what our estimators, project managers, and schedulers wanted to have to use in scope reviews, budget reviews, and schedule updates,” says Maser.
Maser says that consistency is key. IMC’s efforts to normalize the data based on an understanding of how their teams best consume it has enabled them to easily track, report, and compare key data points across models.
Their efforts have reached critical path scheduling as well.
The innovation team sat down with IMC’s operations stakeholders, including a couple of superintendents, and drafted out a dashboard specific to MEP installation.
“I thought they were crazy at first,” admits Maser. “It’s not easy to select every piece of ductwork and pipe, but we wanted to try a new workflow, because it had been a challenge for the field in the past and we needed a better system.”
The team achieved this task. They used the Navisworks publisher to filter what was coming into Assemble, filtering to select only key MEP components to keep their database clean. Then, they created the reporting views in Assemble so it was easier for the field to use. Per the field’s request, they created filters to view each system on each floor, making progress easy to update from an iPad by a superintendent.
“Now we are tracking our progress, quantity installed by date, percentage installed, average production per day, and days remaining based on current production,” lists out Maser. “As superintendents are populating this data, we can report it however we want. By percentage complete in line with project schedule, or by subcontractor, or status of install of each system. Whatever is helpful for project management and scheduling.”
This level of reporting capability has become critical for project collaboration, speeding up communication, and ensuring transparency. Maser describes how IMC might do an entire floor overview, sitting down with schedulers, owners, and the design team to collaborate and review payment and schedule.
The same reporting structure allows superintendents to view even a large 400 unit, multi-building apartment complex by building and by elevation, getting insight into what is deliverable against every five days – instead of what had previously been tracked for every 40 days.
The field tracks quantities and productivity by contractor, viewing how long the contractor duration was by elevation and planning details by scaffolding shifts and contractor moves based on the insight provided.
The capacity to measure and report against the plan at a view that is user friendly across project phases has become critically important to how IMC delivers its buildings on time and at a high level of quality and safety.
“Dashboards are free in Power BI, and once you understand how to use it, you can group and create a view based on any criteria a different user would need” says Maser.
Ensuring Quality Data
Despite IMC’s original method of simplifying the data points it is using in Power BI, the company has steadily made additions that improve the detail of reporting and efforts in collaboration.
The benefits have been profound, but as Maser points out, “it only works if you trust the data you are looking at.”
Core to data management workflows at IMC are two critical quality check processes, both enabled by Assemble’s templated quality tests.
IMC’s team uses this functionality to group data based on their predefined naming standards for how they are communicating scope and quantity. They can then visually check the quality of the data, looking for wide-scale count and quantity changes as model versions are uploaded and noting any oddities.
Secondly, the team uses Assemble’s quality templates to report on all parameters they have defined within Power BI’s dashboards. They review the percentage of model elements that have been assigned a CSI code, an estimated item name, units – again visually ensuring all the data is appropriately populated and assigned.
The Return on Innovation in Construction Data Management at IMC
The work to normalize key data points and use Assemble as well as Power BI’s dashboard reporting has had a significant payoff for IMC. The company has effectively:
- Reduced take-off time by 40%
- Reduced time to produce a variance report by 70%
- Reduced time to produce trending report by 40%
Qualitatively it has yielded:
- More informed decision making
- Greater collaboration
- Faster, more reliable schedule updates
- Faster, more reliable payment application review process
Maser notes seven best practices that IMC has embraced over its two years of implementing and continuously improving reporting capabilities in order to yield these results:
- Standard workflow and naming go a long way to structure the data and make it user worthy.
- Template views to group the data the way Autodesk Revit does and the way you want to see it.
- Understand what data you want to see, not just now, but in the long-term.
- Understand data quality and what limitations you will have. Be prepared to make those decisions about how to use data that may be imperfect but still insightfully indicative.
- Understand that most users will not create custom views or groupings in Power BI.
- Review data quality before publishing reports.
- Understand your big-picture goal before you start designing data warehousing and reporting.
The adoption of these best practices were well worth the time invested in this endeavor by those employees at IMC.
As Maser puts it, “Being able to go back and analyze any two points in time is very powerful when you are sitting in a meeting with an owner. If you must go back a couple of days to analyze PDF drawings or sketches, then you’ve lost that critical moment of communication with the owner.”