Though the building industry has always pursued greater efficiency, incorporation of technological advancements oftentimes has not been swift. But TVA Architects is taking action that could kick-start a movement.

By Josh Kulla

Though the building industry has always pursued greater efficiency, incorporation of technological advancements oftentimes has not been swift. But TVA Architects is taking action that could kick-start a movement.

“The pressure in the industry is to be more lean and more effective, and we want to maintain the quality of our work product and keep that at a forefront,” said Mandy Butler, a principal with the firm. “No project is too small; it’s about how good can you make every opportunity. To that end, we realized we had to leverage technology to make us more efficient so that we could reinvest the time saved into thinking, designing, detailing and coordinating with the goal to continuously improve the quality of our documentation and the built product.”

Ehsan Iran-Nejad, TVA Architects’ building information modeling manager and a former Tesla employee, is looking to contribute to that effort. He is crafting an open-source project to spur creation of new third-party plug-ins for Autodesk Revit design software.

“This is not something that is common to the industry,” Iran-Nejad said of the project model. “But for us, especially in a time of growth, when the industry is changing and new technology is growing, we really believe sharing helps everyone move forward together. And hopefully we will share back with the tools other people create to meet these challenges.”

Open-source collaboration has taken place in some industries for decades. However, construction, rife with proprietary technologies and secrets, has not been one of them.

“This is something the tech world has been doing a long time – since the computer clubs in Silicon Valley,” Iran-Nejad said. “I personally believe in the power of sharing, and I think our industry is in the phase where the computer clubs were in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s possible for any firm to be the best at it, but it’s not something you can really stay on top of; it’s changing very rapidly around the world.”

Iran-Nejad’s project, at its heart, is simple. He created a webpage through GitHub to host a blog. There, he uploads prototypes of new plug-ins written in the Python programming language for others to examine, use and improve.

So far, Iran-Nejad has created more than 100 new plug-ins and shared them via the blog. Some have been more successful than others, he admitted. But at least one of them has saved the company an estimated 1,500 working hours since its introduction last year.

“We selectively share the solutions we create at TVA with the goal of finding amazing solutions that we can share to save people time,” Iran-Nejad said. “It challenges the whole industry as well, and the side effect of it is that because of our skills, it also challenges the software industry. They know that we know, and they will have to provide higher quality software to us to meet our goals.”

All of this work also has an important end point: better communication between architects and builders to produce greater efficiency.

“We’re working with contractors to build better models and also to allow more sharing and less waste,” Butler said. “What happens now is the firm draws in Revit in three dimensions and generates 2-D documents. And typically the contractor will remodel the entire project a second time, and then the subs will remodel portions to make shop drawings. And we recheck for compliance so you can see the inefficiencies.”

If TVA Architects can instead model in a way that makes it easy for a contractor to use its own software, Butler added, feedback can be gained more quickly and construction costs can be reduced accordingly via greater accuracy of drawings across the board.

“So if Ehsan can write a small program, it saves us time,” she said. “And by doing it for free, it’s something that benefits the entire industry. That’s a huge service.”

TVA Architects also is working on a separate but related concept, an Idea Lab, for working directly with contractors to improve their 3-D building modeling. It’s part of the firm’s effort to drag the industry forward.

“All the smart firms in the industry are recognizing the need for change,” Iran-Nejad said. “We know we have to get to a place to work with these new technologies and benefit from them. So what we are sharing is basically TVA’s goals and vision of how we want to adopt new technology and changes at TVA.”