SMALL FIRM, BIG LEAP | Landscape Architecture Magazine


The pros and cons of adopting BIM have oversized impacts on smaller firms.


Small landscape architecture firms face a unique set of challenges when deciding whether to adopt Building Information Modeling, also known as BIM.

In this article, we define small firms as those with fewer than 10 employees, including sole practitioners. Each firm we interviewed falls into this category. For a small firm, the decision about whether to adopt BIM is fraught with questions about cost, loss of productive work time, employee training, and even impacts to the firm’s design culture. Few examples of successful BIM implementation in small firms have been documented, contributing to a fear that some of those firms are being left behind as the technology advances. Yet BIM adoption in small design firms is not as uncommon as it may seem. A 2018 survey by ASLA’s Digital Technology Professional Practice Network surveyed 480 ASLA members on their digital technology usage. Of the 27.3 percent of respondents who identified information modeling or BIM as important to their work, more than half were from firms of 10 or fewer employees. Of the 19.8 percent of survey respondents who identified information modeling or BIM as something they were interested in pursuing, more than half were again from firms of 10 or fewer employees.

The increasing number of resources specifically focused on small-firm BIM adoption further reflects its growing prevalence in small design firms. Vectorworks, the maker of the landscape-centric BIM software Vectorworks Landmark, provides several free guides for adopting BIM that are geared toward small landscape architecture offices. Its e-book, Strategic Planning Guide for Adopting BIM in Landscape Architecture with Vectorworks Landmark, specifically mentions considerations small firms can take into account when adopting BIM. Vectorworks says it has developed pricing models intended to support smaller firms: lower-cost subscription pricing, ASLA member discounts, software and one-on-one training bundles, and free training and webinars. Autodesk, the maker of the BIM software Revit, now offers a “small firms edition” of its e-book, The Definitive Guide to Growing Your Architecture Firm with BIM.

Futurity’s Dave Bier, ASLA, works on the grading around a new terrace overlooking Lake Michigan. Image courtesy Anna Arbetter.

Anna Arbetter is a landscape architect at Futurity, Inc., a small two-person landscape architecture firm based in Chicago. Arbetter and David Bier, ASLA, the firm’s founder who is also a landscape architect, work on projects in landscape architecture, data system development, regulatory compliance, environmental and sustainability planning, and geospatial data analysis and management. The firm uses Vectorworks for its CAD and BIM needs and has successfully integrated BIM workflows into its design work. Using common BIM terms such as fields, records, and smart objects, Arbetter describes how she takes simple two-dimensional lines and builds on them to create built-in information about the landscape: “I might attach a utilities record to a line object and say, ‘Okay, this line is going to be a pipe,’ then I start adding fields to the record format to define the object. If I realize later there is more information that needs to be defined, I can always add more fields, and the level of detail about the smart object builds over time.” This willingness to integrate information into digital models eventually pays off in the form of a digital library of information-filled objects that Arbetter can reuse in her design work.

Although they do not have a specific budget for working with BIM, Bier and Arbetter do include a 10 percent line item in their project budget for handling and resolving technical issues. This is enough to cover the time spent on most technical issues, though occasionally they do go over budget. Usually that happens in cases where they investigate a new way of working in BIM, a trade-off Bier and Arbetter deem acceptable, as it allows them to improve their design process, project delivery, and exploration of emerging landscape architecture issues. They carefully track each project to understand where BIM has saved them time. On one Vectorworks project to inventory existing trees, Arbetter estimates it took her one to two hours to prepare and run a script to place 500 trees and attach data such as each one’s condition rating, Latin name, and common name as recorded by the arborist. In contrast, she estimates it would take approximately 16 hours to individually place each tree object and attach the data, and even longer if each tree and accompanying text label were digitally drawn one by one. Futurity purchases one-on-one training time with Vectorworks at a rate of $125 per hour, using it to conduct postproject analysis, define best practices for working with BIM, and delve deeper into technical issues such as terrain modeling.

Documentation of completed work on existing trees identifies trees that have received care or treatment. Image courtesy David Bier, ASLA.

Having few employees, most small firms cannot dedicate one person’s time entirely to BIM adoption. Instead, BIM often must find its way into the office’s daily design work. While this can take longer than more straightforward drafting processes, it pays off in the end. “While working on any project, I maintain a list of all the new resources that I created, names I changed, or other things I did a new way. At the end of a project, I update our template file or a resource file with these new resources I made, and I describe an updated method in our office manual,” Arbetter says. She believes this actually builds the foundation for working in BIM, noting that “if you start by setting up all the company resources, then the result is that a lot of the underground BIM structure is already in there when you start designing.”

What recommendation does Arbetter have for a small firm looking to get started with BIM? “To me, the way that makes the most sense to get started with BIM is to begin with setting up the things that don’t directly relate to your design work, like the title block. It doesn’t have to be a separate ‘I’m going to sit down to study and miss dinner with my family one evening,’ or ‘skip the outing on Saturday to study BIM.’”

Historic Lake Forest, Illinois, Residence: Existing Trees Site Work and Schedule. Courtesy David Bier, ASLA.

Collaboration can also be the reason for a small firm to adopt BIM. This was the case for Jesse Westad, ASLA, the owner of WERK | urban design, a four-person landscape architecture firm in Tempe, Arizona. The five-year-old firm specializes in dynamic urban design projects with an emphasis on green infrastructure, active transportation, and urban ecology. Since its beginning, the firm’s designers have used Lumion for all their high-end rendering needs, seamlessly exporting their SketchUp 3-D models into Lumion to produce immersive visualizations. This workflow served them well until they began collaborating with an architect who sent them a Revit model that needed to be imported into SketchUp, converted, and exported to Lumion. “Whenever we would get updates to the Revit model, we would have to go through that whole process again,” Westad says. The process began to eat up vast amounts of time. “The first mixed-use project we did where we were converting the model every single time was killing us,” he says. “We asked ourselves, how can we make this step a little bit faster?”

The firm’s four landscape architects began discussing whether it made sense to start using Revit for their own design work. In contrast to the lengthy, often hierarchical decision-making process that can exist at large companies, employees of smaller firms often find that they are included in the process of making big decisions. At WERK, the discussion about switching to Revit included everyone in the firm. “I would say everybody got to weigh in,” Westad says. “When you’re a smaller group, you’re just like, ‘Hey, should we do this? Let’s just make it happen.’” While BIM discussions were happening at WERK, Autodesk introduced its Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) Collection, a set of BIM and CAD tools intended to support projects from early-stage design all the way through construction. While a single-user AutoCAD license costs $1,775 per…

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