By Andy Blackmore and Chris Johnson
The design and construction industry has long relied on printed drawings as the conduit for architects and engineers to communicate detailed building designs to a builder. The builder transforms those plans into a constructed building. As technologies that support the communication of building designs have advanced, the architecture, engineering, and construction industries have seen a continuous evolution from hand-drawn plans, to reproducible “blueprints,” to computer-generated drafting and, more recently, 3D modeling capable of representing all aspects of a building in a digital environment. In partnership with the design and construction community the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) designs, develops, builds, and maintains diplomatic facilities worldwide, utilizing various drawing and digital modeling tools. Each project represents an incredible investment of time, expertise, and resources consolidated into a product that can be reviewed, approved, and ultimately built. To better facilitate the design review and construction processes and leverage technological advancements seen across the industry, OBO has developed a Digital Design Review program to reduce waste, improve overall collaboration, and align with overarching priorities around effective project delivery.
Initially the OBO Digital Design Review program grew out of an effort to reduce the amount of paper drawings and documentation associated with design and construction projects. In some cases, these drawing packages comprised thousands of poster-sized drawings, product specifications, and engineering calculations, creating many operational challenges for OBO with managing the information contained in the drawing sets and the physical space required for large drawings at an OBO reviewer’s workspace. A typical capital construction project requires a minimum of five progressively detailed drawing packages before reaching a final product ready for the construction phase. Paper copies are provided for each reviewer on teams of up to 50 subject matter experts. This paper-based process represented a logistical challenge of reproduction, distribution, and control of sensitive information between contractors, printing services, and the OBO reviewers. Once a project review process was completed, logistical issues associated with the collection and destruction of excess copies also had to be overcome. Significant project resources were devoted to managing this paper-based review process. In some example cases, it was shown that OBO was spending more than $1 million on paper reproduction costs over the life cycle of their largest capital construction projects.
Understanding that modern technologies could improve this process, then-OBO Director Ambassador William Moser charged an interdisciplinary group of architects, planners, and information technology (IT) professionals with charting a new digital process. Led by OBO Design Managers Andy Blackmore and Chris Johnson, the team conducted extensive research into industry best practices, software tools, and IT hardware improvements to implement an efficient digital process.
The team’s priority quickly became balancing the potential benefits of new technologies with required security measures. Following a market research phase to identify commercially available software tools, the team identified an industry-leading, PDF-based design review and collaboration software as the preferred tool to enable the transition to a digital design review process. With active support from Bureau of Information Resource Management (IRM) Project Managers John McNerney and Lafayette Cutts and OBO Information System Security Officer Taron Tatem, new software was approved, procured, and distributed to OBO technical reviewers. To complement this new tool, functionality upgrades for seamless communication between the design review software and OBO’s secure project data exchange platform were completed and large-format computer monitors were provided to OBO technical reviewers. This new suite of tools allowed OBO to reduce the amount of paper required, and improved the design review process’s overall efficiency by increasing collaboration, streamlining communication, and reducing administrative burden.
A series of ongoing OBO design and construction projects were identified to test the new digital design review process. In fall 2018, OBO technical reviewers began to receive new software, hardware, training, and support resources to facilitate the transition from a traditional paper-based review process to a digitally based process. The Nassau new embassy project, led by OBO Design Manager Ken Sizemore and Project Manager Ed Williamson, was the first to implement the digital review process. The review was successfully completed on time following multiple digital collaboration workshops between OBO and the New York-based project design team at Ennead Architects. The project managed a 90 percent reduction in the amount of paper design materials delivered to OBO, resulting in a several hundred-thousand-dollar credit to the U.S. government for unused reproduction costs that were budgeted before the implementation of the digital review process. Implementation of the digital design review process on subsequent test cases realized similar success and savings, prompting an approval of widespread implementation of the digital design review initiative. Today, OBO has achieved a completely digital process for all Unclassified and SBU design packages and is continuing to refine the process and expand implementation to the Classified design reviews.
While OBO’s digital design review program is rooted in resource waste reduction and effective digital collaboration, they have also realized the program’s consequential benefits that extend beyond the initial application. None of the benefits was more apparent than during the recent abrupt transition to full-time telework that most Department employees experienced due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. OBO reviewers quickly found themselves adjusting to a new “normal,” where dining room tables and spare bedrooms took the place of workstations and conference rooms for conducting the important bureau mission to provide safe, secure, functional, and resilient facilities. With another quick action from Design Manager Chris Johnson and the OBO IRM team, a work-from-home solution using the digital design review process was established. This solution provided remote access and functionality for OBO technical reviewers to conduct effective digital reviews while teleworking. While the global and personal disruption for many from the pandemic cannot be understated, the speed of transition and readiness to continue forward with OBO’s mission is a testament to the digital process put in place before the onset of the pandemic.
Further advancements will take this idea a step further by aligning information collected during a digital design review with other OBO digital tools and databases, ensuring that lessons learned during these processes are captured and used to improve future projects and decision making. This streamlining of process and communication will make projects more efficient by allowing designers and reviewers to effectively communicate through a familiar graphic interface while maintaining OBO project data security. A great deal of time and expertise is invested by OBO and their partners in other Department offices during the design and construction of OBO facilities worldwide. The ability to learn from completed projects, track how Department buildings perform, and analyze how the Department community uses the overseas facilities over the lifetime of a facility are all important pieces of information that these new digital processes will enable. Using the information gained as a result of OBO’s continued advancement of digital resources will inform projects that can continue to improve the Department’s global diplomatic facilities’ performance, safety and resiliency.
The implementation of a robust digital review process has allowed OBO to continue delivering high-quality projects with OBO reviewers’ increased efficiency and readiness, while reducing resource waste and administrative costs. The digital review process aligns OBO with architectural, engineering, and construction industry best practices, fostering better collaboration with their design and construction partners and setting the foundation for OBO to adapt to ever-changing advancements in digital technology effectively.
Andy Blackmore is a design manager in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations; Chris Johnson is a design manager in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations.