Firm Profile: KAI Design & Build AECbytes Profile (October 12, 2017)

KAI Design & Build, a design & build firm performing architecture, engineering, and program management/construction management services nationwide in the US, shares its perspective on AEC technology in this Firm Profile.

What is the history and background of the firm?

KAI Design & Build (KAI) was established in 1980 in St. Louis, Missouri by Michael E. Kennedy, RA. What began as a design firm has grown into one of the area's largest design and build firms with a multi‐disciplined staff of professionals providing value‐added building solutions through design and build collaboration.

KAI offers both design services (such as architecture, interior design and engineering) and build services (such as program, project, and construction management) under one roof. Its design and build mentality gives it a first‐hand understanding and appreciation for the design process, bringing clients better team collaboration, an improved project process, and ultimately more value for its clients' dollars.

What is the firm's current focus? What are the key projects it is working on?

KAI is currently focused on light rail, aviation, higher education, healthcare, civic, and K-12 projects (Figure 1). Some of its key projects on the boards currently are:

  • Dallas Independent School District (DISD) South Oak Cliff High School - $40 million addition and renovation

  • DISD David Carter High School -$42 Million renovation and addition

  • New DISD Pinkston High School - MEP services on new $70 million school

  • Saint Louis Community College - $40 Million Allied Health Building

Figure 1. Some of the different types of projects in KAI’s portfolio: Top left: Billy Earl Dade Middle School in Dallas, TX.  Top right:  Lambert East Terminal in St. Louis, MO. Lower left: BJC Northwest Healthcare Medical Office Building Addition, in Florissant, MO. Lower right: City Justice Center in St. Louis, MO.

When did the firm start using AEC technology, and how is it being used today? How important is AEC technology to the firm?

KAI first bought its CAD license in the 1980’s. Technology is incorporated in everything the firm does from conceptual design, production, clash detection, estimating, etc (Figures 2 and 3).  It is also working entirely in the cloud, which is imperative to the design and build collaboration and critical to KAI’s ability to offer value-added building solutions.  It saves time, money, and is far more efficient and accurate. There is no way to have a business in this industry without it anymore.

Figure 2. Revit model and rendering of the new Allied Health Center for St. Louis Community College, one of KAI’s latest projects.

Figure 3. MEP coordination model for the DISD Pinkston High School for which KAI is providing MEP services.

Does the firm have a specific approach and/or philosophy to AEC technology? If so, what is it?

When evaluating new technology, KAI looks to the value the technology brings to the design / construction and/or operations of a facility. Whether the technology provides efficacy to KAI’s internal design processes, offers an opportunity to improve the construction process, or brings downstream benefits to its clients in the operations and maintenance of the facility—each new technology adopted changes KAI’s approach and must provide additional or improved benefits to the built environment.

What are some of the main challenges the firm faces in its implementation of AEC technology?

The main challenges faced in the daily implementation of new technologies typically fall into one of three categories:  People, Process or Support:

  • People challenges include breaking old habits and mindsets of how people have “always done things." People are creatures of habit and trying to change those habits, especially when the change does not directly benefit the person being asked to change, is sometimes hard to rationalize.  Other people challenges include the change in mindset of the usual tripartite relationships typically established in the design and construction process.  Breaking down the adversarial walls of these relationships and trying to develop the spirit of collaboration amongst a project team can be difficult, even when the team has the same goal in mind: a client happy with the design and construction process.

  • Process challenges include the development and training of staff on the new process or technology.  New technologies are not always easy to implement, as they are typically far more complicated than the traditional design and documentation processes that have been used for years.  A documented, developed process and training for that process become a critical component to the success of a new technology implementation.  Process challenges sometimes go hand in hand with the people challenges noted above. The diversity of the workforce and comfort level with the basics of computer and software use may also have a large impact on the success of the new technology

  • Support challenges include the “buy-in” of management and staff on the value of the new technology or process.  When new technology is implemented without the proper process or training in place, it can have detrimental effects on the profitability of a project.  This brings the value of the process into question and leaves management and staff asking the question, “Why are we doing this?” With any new technology adoption, there are always growing pains and learning curves which can look like a failed implementation from a management perspective.  The value that the new technology brings to the process must be evaluated by management and a commitment to develop the process and train staff must be a priority for a successful implementation.  Management must also realize that this takes a financial commitment as it may take a few projects for a process or technology to show the rewards of the commitment, either in financial gains, process improvement and/or better results for the client.  Only then can the ROI for this supported effort start to be measured.

How does the firm see AEC technology evolving in the future?

As with any technology development, AEC technologies go through the five phases of the Hype Cycle (Figure 4)  as defined by Gartner (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype_cycle).

Figure 4. The Hype Cycle. (Image courtesy: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27546041)

Most BIM technology like Revit and Navisworks are in the "Plateau of Productivity" stage of development/adoption. This means that best practices are developing and that many firms have either adopted or are in process of adopting this technology. 

Some of the newer AEC technologies like laser scanning, virtual and augmented reality, drone technology and real-time facilities management from BIM are still evolving and are in the earlier stages of the Hype Curve (Peak of Inflated Expectation or Trough of Disillusionment) and will not become mainstream technologies for a few more years. 

As computer hardware continues to improve, so will the software technologies which will bring new opportunities to the design and construction process.  These new technologies will continue to change the way a building is designed, constructed and operated and provide opportunities for all stakeholders to use the data involved in this process for continued building lifecycle management.  Data that was once very fragmented and often lost in the design and construction process will now become embedded with the technology allowing it to be utilized over the lifecycle of the facility for a wide variety of uses including public safety, asset management, and facility operation and control to name a few.  In addition, technology advances will also change the way a facility is constructed in the future.  Automated construction using drones, 3D printing, and construction layout from a model are examples of construction technology that are currently in the early phases of development/adoption.

If the firm had a wish list for AEC technology, what would it be?

KAI, as a design-build firm, would love to see a technology that can provide instant feedback to the cost and schedule of a project based on a design change. This type of instant feedback would be invaluable as it works with its clients to find the right balance between the design features incorporated relative to the cost and schedule of the project. 

Another technology wish would be a modeling software that automatically identifies and warns a user when they are placing an element that conflicts with an element from another discipline. This would provide instant notification of a coordination item and allow the user to adjust the placement of the element minimizing how much coordination and clash detection/resolution must be accomplished after the design is developed.  

In addition, national or international standards for BIM development need to be defined so that all disciplines and trades can utilize and access the data contained within each other’s models. This unified definition for what information is contained in the models and how it is defined is the key to making the BIM process and the data contained in these models more universal for utilization by all stakeholders in the project. 

Any additional information/observations/insights on AEC technology implementation that the firm would like to share?

The AEC industry is currently in a transition state. This is not the same type of transition we saw when the industry moved to CAD technology to improve the efficiency of our design documentation process. This transition involves a change in mindset and is based on virtually designing and constructing a building prior to ever putting a shovel in the ground, allowing a project team to solve problems and eliminate cost items that were often only discovered during construction. Facility owners will start to expect and demand these technologies be implemented on their projects as they are the direct beneficiaries to the cost savings that can be achieved with this approach.  As these new technologies and processes become the new standard of care for the design and construction industry, firms will have to find new ways to set themselves apart from the rest of the firms utilizing this technology. This will lead to additional developments and advancement in the use of technology in our industry. It is exciting for KAI to be involved in this transition and the firm looks forward to seeing where embracing this technology leads the AEC industry in the next 20 years.

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