Change Leader Full Interview: Use Technology to Find Better Ways
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Michael DeLacey, president and CEO of Microdesk, has more than 25 years of experience in integrating technology into the planning, design, construction, and operations and maintenance process.
V1 Media: Please provide a brief background of your education and work experience before Microdesk.
DeLacey: My background is in computer science and civil engineering. I was born and raised in Concord, New Hampshire, and I went to work for a small civil engineering and surveying firm in Gilford, New Hampshire, right out of school. I moved to Boston quickly after that and went to work for a big engineering firm, and then started Microdesk.
V1 Media: Briefly describe Microdesk, its history, how it got started, what the company does, and what you do for the company?
DeLacey: I was working for a small engineering firm largely based around AutoCAD. My partner—my boss at the time—Robin Adams and I, realized that the software was becoming much more design-oriented versus drafting-oriented. We saw a need in the marketplace for assistance with getting computer-aided design installed and implemented and using it in the right way, so we started Microdesk in 1994. The heavy focus when we first started the company was on consulting, because, again, the software was becoming more sophisticated.
We decided to start a company that was geared around not just selling software but in actually implementing and using software. We saw that things like sustainability were becoming more and more important. Using software to design more efficiently, design better infrastructure and better assets, was becoming really important. I spent a lot of time going out there, and working and educating customers on what was capable, what was possible with the use of the software.
V1 Media: What was the industry like then, and what was it missing that you were trying to provide?
DeLacey: Robin and I started working together in 1990 for a different company before we started Microdesk, and I would say the industry was moving from board drafting to computer-aided design, computer-aided drafting. By the time 1994 rolls around, you’re in the middle of this transformation from board drafting to computer-aided drafting and computer-aided design. And then the software started to really go into design. So rather than just taking your pen and Mylar and converting it to a computer-based system, now we’re starting to see software that would allow us to do real design calculations.
The industry didn’t understand that, so we brought this recognition that we’re going to stop doing our engineering calculations on paper and then drawing them afterward. Now we’re going to start drawing and letting the computer do the calculations for us.
V1 Media: What are some of the things you’re creating and selling?
DeLacey: The products we were selling then were Autodesk, AutoCAD. At the time, there was a small company out of Henniker, New Hampshire, called Softdesk, which was developing third-party applications for AutoCAD. Softdesk ultimately ended up getting acquired by Autodesk and kind of built the foundation for a lot of current Autodesk products. The third company we were working with was ESRI for geographic information systems software.
It was pretty early on in the whole PC market and using PCs as real business tools. These were definitely the best in class, best in breed out there as far as computer-aided design or engineering goes. Today, I’d say one of the biggest things that has happened out there is Building Information Modeling. Probably a lot longer than I want to admit, but maybe 17 years ago Autodesk acquired Revit and really started to change the world. Rather than doing computer-aided design, we’re doing Building Information Modeling.
V1 Media: How would you say AECO industry practices have contributed to increasing greenhouse gas levels, and what’s wrong with the current design-bid-build process?
DeLacey: When you look at the statistics, 39 percent of the carbon that goes into the atmosphere comes from buildings; that’s compared to 33 percent coming from transportation. Buildings use a lot of energy and output a lot of carbon, and it doesn’t have to be that way. When you look at LEED, you look at a lot of the efforts that are going on out there, we have “net-zero” buildings now. You’re seeing a lot with solar panels. There are stories about individual houses actually getting paid by putting energy back into the grid, because they’re not only net zero, they’re generating positive renewable energy.
It’s about getting to a point where we have the public will to say, “We’re going to transform the way we go about designing and constructing, and the way we think about energy.” We’re getting close.
As far as design-bid-build, the challenge there is that the entire process is designed around “winners and losers” as opposed to things like integrated private delivery (IPD), where the goal is to have a successful project. If it goes well, everybody wins. If it doesn’t go well, everybody loses.
So I think IDP is probably a really, really good solution to our challenges, because now we have an owner, design team and contractor that are all invested together in making sure we have a successful project. I think we’ll go from design-bid-build to design-build, because the technologies, specifically Building Information Modeling, can get huge benefits from bringing the entire building team together at one time.
Go back to your days of “master builder.” You had one person who was responsible for the design and construction of the entire project; I think that’s where we’re going back to today. I think we’ll probably go quickly; we’ve already seen the statistics that design-build is becoming increasingly more popular. The last time I saw, design-build had been growing at 20 percent the last couple of years. Design-bid-build is shrinking by 14 percent year over year. It’s IPD and other contracting mechanisms that are filling in the gap, but design-build allows teams to get together. We’re going to design buildings that perform really well from how people use them to how they use energy. We’re going to get greener; get leaner. We’re going to build faster, which is increasingly important based on urbanization. And we’re going to use technology and software to facilitate all of this.
V1 Media: Can you describe IPD?
DeLacey: IPD is a contracting mechanism by which the owner, design team and contractor, in its perfect form, create a separate company, an LLC, where they have an agreed-upon price, and if they build it for that price, everybody gets paid what they agree to. If they build it less than that price, everybody shares the excess. And if it costs more than that price, everybody shares the cost.
V1 Media: Is that moving away from the winners and losers process you mentioned earlier? Why was there a need for having winners and losers? How does that work, and why was that bad?
DeLacey: It’s an owner saying, “I want to build a building,” and somebody comes in and says, “OK, that building’s going to cost $100,000,000.” And then they go out to bid. They go out and negotiate, and they say, “I’m going to try and get this $100,000,000 building built for $90,000,000.” So they use capitalism and competitive pressures to get the lowest possible cost. That causes in the design phase, “Don’t design me a building that costs $100,000,000. I only want to pay $90,000,000.” So the design team has to continuously chip away and find ways to get this building to look the way they want and be what they want. But it’s $100,000,000, and they only have $90,000,000 to spend on the design.
Then, when you go out to construction, they’re going to competitively bid everybody out saying, “Everybody knows it should cost $100,000,000, but we’re going to try and get it done for $90,000,000.” So every contractor and subcontractor is looking for ways to chip away to get money out of the process. And then in typical construction with design-bid-build, the subcontractors do the buyouts. So they’re going out, and they’re competitively bidding every piece of equipment in the building to find the lowest-cost piece of equipment that meets the specifications. It’s just a constant battle.
Everybody’s competing against everybody else, and we can change that. We could have just said, “Look, we have $90,000,000 to spend. Let’s all do this together and find a way to build the best building possible for $90,000,000.”
V1 Media: Does that require everyone to be under one roof at this point? Are there still ways to not have just monolithic, large businesses being in charge of these types of projects?
DeLacey: A lot of things are changing in the world today. With the cloud, the iPad, smartphones, we no longer need to be under one roof. Everything can be done virtually. In some of the really big projects we work on, location is still a common thing where they will actually rent space and put the entire team—owners rep, design team, contractors, subcontractors—under one roof. But the reality is today it’s not necessary. Between video conferencing and cloud-based collaboration and conference lines, we can definitely do it in a disparate way.
When you think about design-build, it’s the contracting mechanism, not necessarily the corporate makeup. So even when you’re in an IPD or design-build environment, the companies are the same. We still have design teams. We have contractors. We have subcontractors. It’s just the way they’re motivated to work together that changes.
V1 Media: Large companies are being hired for some of these big projects, because owners want them to be able to do everything for all those reasons you mentioned. But it sounds like there’s a process where small firms can still be involved as long as they’re organized together. Is that correct?
DeLacey: Absolutely. I think these large companies being hired to do this work, they still use a lot of subcontractors, a lot of consulting design firms.
Even when the “biggest of the big” take on a project, there are still dozens of companies working with them. There are very few cases where you’ll have one company take on the architectural design, the MAP design, the structural design, the construction management, the general contractor. That rarely happens … I don’t know if it ever happens, to be honest with you, certainly not in North America.
V1 Media: What are some of these newer technologies that can create a more-sustainable construction process with less environmental impact?
DeLacey: BIM is a very broad term, right? So when you think about Building Information Modeling, it’s more of a process, more of an approach to design and construction—lots of different software that goes into it. Because we’re using the BIM process, because we’re actually creating a building information model, it facilitates everything else that happens through that process. If we were talking 10 years ago, before BIM became really prevalent, before Revit became really prevalent, if we wanted to do a LEED analysis on a project, if we wanted to do a carbon footprint or energy analysis, we’d have to create a separate model of the design to analyze it.
In some cases, if we wanted to do different types of analyses, we’d have to create multiple models, which was very expensive. If we wanted to do LEED analysis on a 2D design, chances are we hire a LEED specialty consultant and have them spend an enormous amount of time figuring out where we made credits and where we didn’t. And now that BIM is the basis of the design, we have a single model for doing all of our different analyses, and we can do it iteratively.
So I can take a building information model, just part of my natural design process, and send it up to the cloud and start doing carbon footprint analysis, do loading analysis, do light analysis—everything I want to do happens off that same model. It happens in seconds, because I’m using the power of cloud computing. And I can do it iteratively through my design process to ensure I’m getting the best, most-efficient design I can without spending a lot of money.
V1 Media: So all these things can be done in an earlier part of the process so it’s not just evaluating later, correct?
DeLacey: That’s exactly correct. It can be done earlier, and it can be done continuously through the design process.
V1 Media: What are you and Microdesk doing to help make some of these concepts a reality? And what are some things engineers can do to make these types of differences? What do they need to do to adopt these best practices so they can make more efficient and better designs?
DeLacey: We have a team of people who are industry specialists. We have architects and engineers and computer scientists on staff who are passionate about transforming the industry, about making things better. We have an affinity for technology; we pay attention to technology and trends. So how does that make us different? I think when you look at the design industry, if you are an undergrad in architecture, and you go to work for an architectural firm, you want to be an architect. You don’t necessarily want to be a technologist, right? You’re focusing on design.
We have that same passion for design, but we focus on technology. So we’re looking at the trends. We’re looking at what the software does. We love the software, and when we go out there, and we work with design firms or construction companies or owners, we do it with a slight bend toward the technology itself and how we can use that technology to make us more efficient.
From the second half of the question: what can an engineering firm or what can a designer or contractor do? The biggest thing, honestly, is to recognize that there are other ways to go about designing and building.
We don’t have to keep doing it the way we’ve always done it. It’s just a recognition that technology will make a difference and to seek it out. I work with a lot of companies that are a little overwhelmed by the fact that things are changing really fast; just be open to that. Yes, things are changing very, very fast, and there are companies like Microdesk out there that can help you through the transition.
V1 Media: So if some of these individual engineers are intimidated, what’s a first step to point them in the right direction of keeping an open mind about new processes?
DeLacey: It’s a tough question, because this industry is as busy as it has ever been. In 2007, we thought it was as busy as it was ever going to get. And then in 2008, we went into the recession. Now here we are in 2018, and it’s an order of magnitude more busy than it was in 2007. It’s almost impossible to hire people. We’re at less than 4 percent unemployment, and construction’s even worse than that as far as being able to find people. So you’re working 65, 70, 80 hours a week, and at the same time, you need to change. We need to find better ways of going about this process. So all these things are coming together.
I think there’s a lot of information online. It’s pretty easy to sit with your smartphone on a train or during your commute. It’s just being open minded about things. It’s about recognizing that things are changing. Things need to change. We talk a lot about urbanization. We talk a lot about the pace at which cities are growing. You can barely go online and not read an article about Seattle and Amazon and the working homeless. All these challenges that the design and construction industry faces.
If I’m a young engineer or working in an engineering company or a design company or a construction company, recognize that we have to find ways to be more efficient. We need to build faster. We need to build more sustainably. There’s a metric out there that we’re going to double the number of buildings on Earth between now and the year 2050. That means we’re going to build a thousand buildings a day every day for the next 23 years to keep pace. Can we just open our eyes and think, “all right, you have to build a thousand buildings a day every day for the next 23 years, maybe we need to find a better way to do it and go look for it.”