An Interview with Thomas Strong, Managing Director VDC EllisDon, President CanBIM

April 28, 2017

We had the fantastic opportunity to interview CanBIM President, Thomas Strong to learn about the latest technological developments in the construction industry, as well as his plans for CanBIM in the near future. Read on!

KS: Give us a brief introduction into your background

TS: I started my career in plastic injection molding, which is basically making steel molds to fabricate plastic parts for cars in the automotive sector. That was in the late 90s. In the automotive sector, engineers work in 3D when they procure car parts and other complex form elements. They communicate with 3D models and use rapid prototyping. That was all normal practice in late 90s, pretty much the same for aerospace and most manufactured goods. They have evolved to fully define what they are going to fabricate in advance.

When I transitioned into the construction industry in 2002, I was surprised how things were being done. The client wanted the design right away which then went to tender with documents that described the end result rather than defining it. The General Contractor (GC) would breakdown the work into packages, transferring the coordination risk to the trades, which would be managed over the course of the job. In other words, things don’t really get defined until they are built. That process does not allow for thinking or working proactively to resolve issues before you encounter them in the field. It also does not enable the supply chain to prefabricate or look for efficiencies outside of managing labour on the job site.

When I joined EllisDon, I worked in our R&D/Engineering group. We tested FormZ, Rhino3D and other 3D software to plan our work and rationalize buildings proactively. While we were developing this capability, we also got involved with a couple of Frank Gehry projects. Gehry Partners were using CATIA to define the scope of work and the geometry of these complex form elements. As a result, we taught ourselves CATIA and made sure we understood their process. We included a requirement for the trades to work in 3D and we would manage integration, making sure all systems conformed to the contract 3D models that were provided by the Architect.

KS: Tell us about what EllisDon is up to with respect to BIM and other virtual technologies; what are some major trends in this space

TS: After we completed Gehry’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) Project, we implemented the use of 3D models for design, qualities, and logistics to produce schedules. Ultimately now when we tender work, we use the models to define the geometry, the scope of work and we managed the integration of models so that we could proactively coordinate. Our VDC group at EllisDon was established in 2008. We have now 67 people in the group deployed across the company. We provide consulting services around 3D scanning and producing as-built models for Asset Management. Our strategy is to have regional VDC managers in each operating area with experts embedded in the field with the project team. They work between the consultant and the trades to setup and manage the process of integrating the 3D files together on a regular process proactively in advance of construction.

Our company has evolved our approach to coordination. We are driving early involvement in design, taking on more design risk, and bringing the trades in earlier under design assist contracts to help them define the scope and help to coordinate the work proactively. We are enabling prefabrication early by defining the scope in advance. We are utilizing the 3D model for quantity take offs as more and more developers are coming to us with just 3D files, without drawings, to develop an estimate. Our schedulers and estimators are able to work with BIM. The skills to extract information from a BIM is now a basic skill expected from a fresh grad coming out of school.

The use of Laser Scanning is another major trend. We did our first 3D scans in 2003 when we worked on the AGO project. We used Lidar for coordination & QA/QC of the of structural steel systems and the Dundas façade; 3D scans were integrated in CATIA to check tolerances and measure deviations. Scanning technology has evolved very rapidly and the technology is getting cheaper. Software like Revit, Navisworks, Bentley have evolved to provide better usability of that Lidar data which tends to be very dense and heavy to work with.

We now scan regularly for deviation analysis, progress tracking and to capture existing conditions related to our core business construction work and as a standalone service. We developed this leading edge capability where we can convert the Lidar scans to 3D BIM geometry very quickly and accurately. We do a lot of reverse engineering in existing buildings when we get involved with renovation or heritage projects.

Another trend we are seeing in emerging technologies is VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) for design review. This has the potential to allow someone in the field to “see” or visualize where they should install systems. Just getting the model in the hands of the people on the job site in real time, and having that be current information, is critically important to make sure we are building and installing systems correctly.

Our projects are also going paperless, with the model as the centre of communication. Mobile BIM is allowing users to track installation or tag issues in the field. This kind of real time problem management is a big trend, and GCs across North America are trying to get very good at it. It ties to statistical analysis; If you have a model that represents what you intend to build, you can then track what is being installed, you can track issues related to it, and analyse that performance information on a grass root level across the entire enterprise.

The use of UAVs in construction is another interesting application and trend. Drones or UAVs have become a surveying instrument and the accuracy/resolution of the images or 3D geometry taken from a high altitude is very precise. Though there are still a lot of hurdles to use UAVs safely and legally. Job sites tend to be in urban environments and closer to airports and there are many regulations that currently exist which could end up making UAV use costly. There are also opportunities to mount cameras on cranes giving a similar result as a drone would give you. The next stage of this is to take that information and integrate it with BIM.

Finally, I think another big trend is that everything is going cloud based. Major software vendors are transitioning their software to “software-as-a-service” rather than perpetual licenses. New software coming out is purely internet/cloud based. You can upload information to their cloud based system and it is housed there, allowing you to interact with it through any device, which is interesting. You will see less and less need of powerful computers. The cloud will store the data for you, which will remove the hurdles involved with installing hardware and software. EllisDon has developed our own Project Management System called Gate Three. As we build, we log all our information into the platform to manage construction, including all 3D models. At the end of the project, we have all the information in that cloud based system for the client’s use.

KS: Tell us about some of the achievements you are proud of at CanBIM

TS: We established CanBIM in 2007-2008. The organization has grown steadily over the past decade. Currently we have more than 260 members, which includes major firms across Canada. So we have really good participation on all levels in the industry, whether it is residential, commercial, civil, construction. We also have great Owner interest and involvement.

There is momentum around our events. We do 4 major events in a year and we are aiming to do 4 satellite events, which are smaller events in association with educational institutions. Last year we held a satellite session at Algonquin College in Ottawa. We had students present what they are doing. It is a great recruiting opportunity for businesses, but also an opportunity to highlight the innovative work educational institutions are doing around construction technology.

CanBIM is going into our 3rd cycle of Awards. They have evolved over the past 3 years and we have a really good format now. We have a specific award for Designers, Builders, and Innovative technologies, among others. Our goal is to highlight the development of innovative tools and technology related projects and products that are developed in Canada. Canada is doing some great things in the tech space, as a example, we have lot of innovative work that is being done in Toronto related to Artificial Intelligence and a number of successful homegrown software products relevant to the building industry.

We had our first CanBIM annual publication this year. It ended up being a pretty substantial document. There was a lot of demand from our members to get into that document. It turned out very well, highlighting award winners, interesting articles from member companies and showcased a lot of the innovative things being done here in Canada. We were very pleased with that and we are working really hard to collect articles for the next publication.

The organization is really starting to drive integration across Canada. We are a cross-disciplinary organization representing members from engineering, GCs, facility management and there are many associations that are focused on those various disciplines. BIM tends to touch all of these disciplines together and the information is cross-pollinated. We really want to work with existing associations, pull them into what we are doing, participate in what they are doing and drive consistency around methodology and best practices from an industry perspective. We have set up a regular communication with the Institute for BIM in Canada (IBC) and the buildingSMART Canada to ensure that our groups are all working closely together. We hope that over the next few years, these groups will be tied together, in whatever form that takes.

KS: What are some of your goals for CanBIM over the next few years

TS: We are a non-for-profit organization. There are a lot of responsibilities that relate to operating the entity and making sure we are prioritizing and listening to what the membership wants and servicing their needs. We are doing this through a number of initiatives such as the awards, events and publications. We want to make the organization work as smoothly as possible, streamline operations to enable us to take on more initiatives, which is an ongoing daily effort.

We are making sure we have good cross-pollination across Canada, making sure there is cohesion, no redundancy and bringing different organizations and members closer. Our membership wants more statistical information collected to benchmark the adoption of technology across Canada. So that is something we have on the to-do list for the upcoming 24-month period. It involves setting up more systematic and organised data collection around technology use. It is more complicated than it sounds. You have to setup a baseline and measure that carefully. We have been doing surveys for some time and there is room for improvement.

Another major task is to get more government involvement. There should be common specifications, common BIM scope requirements for publicly procured work and we are seeing trends around the world in different countries where government procures infrastructure using specific BIM standards. Typically these standards require the consultants and the GCs to basically work within a known framework for collaboration, in some cases it specifies the use of particular software products. We are trying to drive a conversation with different associations in Canada with respect to this. And we are working to pull together some of the procurement bodies that are responsible for public infrastructure from the Provinces. We’d like to have a summit and discuss what those documents would look like. From an EllisDon perspective, standards are generally good, but if the standards become too bureaucratic and burdensome, it could lead to inflated costs, so this has to be done very thoughtfully. On the other hand, there are a lot of suppliers and GCs who would benefit from a standard just for guidance on how things should be done to help improve the overall industry. Moving this discussion forward is on our priority list.

Finally, I am really amazed with how our Certification process has taken off. We have new applicants on a daily basis and we awarding these certifications regularly. It's become a very well structured process and there is some discussion on expanding it to actual projects so we can look at the deliverables for project and certify them. We are also certifying institutional educational programs and even private company’s internal programs with the intent to drive industry consistency. As an initiative, it has been very successful and from an outcome perspective, having a lot of people talking about the same things, the same way, really drives the consistent use of the technology, which is CanBIM’s overarching goal.

KS: Thomas, it was a pleasure talking to you!

About Thomas Strong

Thomas is the Managing Director of the VDC group at EllisDon, a Founding Member and current President of CanBIM.

Responsible for the strategic direction of EllisDon's BIM Initiative and adoption of new innovative solutions to ensure EllisDon continues to meet the evolving needs of its clients. As an outspoken advocate of leveraging 3D technologies in construction, Mr. Strong has presented to numerous industry groups. Since 2002, Mr. Strong has been working in the construction industry developing expertise in R&D/Engineering as well as Project management.