Small Firm, Big Leap

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

By Aidan Ackerman, ASLA

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 year, the AEC Collection costs $3,115 per year and includes AutoCAD, Revit, Civil 3D, InfraWorks, and Navisworks Manage—a combined value of $10,975 per year if each software was purchased separately. Westad says this new cost-effective software bundle made the decision to switch to BIM more appealing. “If they didn’t have that option, would we have switched?” he asks. “We probably would have, but the price point made it even easier.” The price increase from a single-user seat of AutoCAD to the entire AEC Collection was $1,340. Additionally, moving to Revit enabled WERK to rely less on SketchUp, allowing the company to drop one of its two SketchUp licenses. Dropping the SketchUp license saved $299, bringing the total BIM software cost increase down from $1,340 to $1,041.

WERK also hired an architect, Amanda Ochs, to work on a separate project, though she quickly became involved in the firm’s BIM transition. Her knowledge was critical to the firm’s successful first steps into Revit. Ochs taught the firm’s landscape architects to use Revit, demonstrating the pivotal role a single individual can have at a small firm. “She was invaluable,” Westad says. The firm already had projects lined up where it could use Revit, helping to offset some of the upfront software training expenses. In total, initial software training alone cost the firm more than $10,000, though WERK has already recouped this investment by taking on new BIM projects.

Amanda Ochs advises Kevin Scholfield, Student ASLA, while he models an outdoor amenity deck in Revit. (Pictured left to right: Scholfield; Nolan Bade, Associate ASLA; Ochs; and Jesse Westad, ASLA.) Photo by Daniel Welch.

According to the American Institute of Architects’ biennial report The Business of Architecture 2020, 58 percent of architects now use BIM, making them a valuable resource for landscape architects such as Elizabeth Kennedy, ASLA. Kennedy is the founder of Elizabeth Kennedy Landscape Architect, PLLC (EKLA), located in Brooklyn, New York. The firm, which specializes in landscapes for cultural preservation and green infrastructure, is best known for projects that quietly challenge mainstream assumptions about the aspirations and needs of underrepresented people. EKLA often serves as a subconsultant for landscape architecture on large project teams, and Kennedy has witnessed firsthand the shift from AutoCAD to Revit construction documentation.

“As I began to understand how Revit essentially redefined project communication,” she says, “it became very clear to me that we needed to be ‘in the model,’ to at least better understand how Revit was influencing the design development process. At that point, I knew we also had to bring this capability into the firm.” With the help of an architect, the firm’s landscape architects began diving into Revit. “We made a lot of mistakes in the very beginning,” Kennedy says, though over time the firm’s junior landscape designers began to find success with BIM. “We went from doing very crudely informed Revit models to ones at much better refinement.” Kennedy doesn’t hesitate to call in outside resources when needed to supplement in-house capabilities. “If I see that a project requires extensive technical and highly detailed coordination, I’ll pick up the phone and call a more experienced BIM designer—usually an architect—and just say, ‘I need you to come in and help us resolve this.’”

Kennedy has observed both the difficulties and the advantages of adopting BIM. “My staff started out by watching a lot of YouTube videos, which I don’t recommend,” Kennedy says. This trial-and-error training approach was absorbed by the firm as lost utilization. “Once I could afford to, I retained a wonderful BIM management team to train them. The upside was, the team quickly became quite proficient, and we seriously upped our game.” The formal BIM training cost the firm approximately $6,000. However, Kennedy is now able to estimate the extra costs of using BIM and build it into a project’s budget, billing a higher rate for BIM work than other billable work on the project. Training the firm’s landscape architects on Revit is a significant investment. “The downside is, in training young people you have to accept they are young, they’re restless, and they will want to move on, and we won’t necessarily recoup this investment the way we’d hoped,” Kennedy notes.

She also understands firsthand the often-unrecognized financial impact that small firms absorb when they have to quickly adopt new technology. “We haven’t talked here about the constraints that disadvantaged minority- and woman-owned firms working in the public sector face,” she says. “M&WBEs [Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprises] are usually subs; you need a date to the dance, so to speak. We certainly don’t have the option of turning down work beyond our immediate capability, and of not being flexible.” Kennedy recognizes that being highly adaptable goes with the decision to specialize in public work: “M&WBE procurement requires you to step up to the plate. You can’t say, ‘Well, I can’t do that kind of work or take on that risk,’ and expect a prime consultant you’ve turned down to call you back in the future. So, we’re always having to quickly grow into something new, to perform—we’re always dancing backward and in high heels.” Kennedy ponders whether BIM adoption has been worth it. “It has not, in any way, shape, or form, been easy, but having this particular ability means that we compete at a higher level for work. From a minority woman-owned business standpoint, that’s made a lot of difference.”

Image courtesy

A landscape architecture firm that adopts BIM must first weigh pros and cons and consider costs and available resources. Nicholas Valentino, ASLA, the founding principal at NAV Design, describes his thought process when considering adopting BIM: “My first considerations are time, energy, and resources. That’s what it comes down to when we’re trying to make determinations—what’s our best return on investment?” NAV Design is a landscape architecture firm based in Aspen, Colorado, providing services for projects ranging in scale from detailed site design to large master plans for both public and private clients. As the firm’s leader, Valentino has to think through the investments he might need to make if the firm adopted BIM: software licensing, training, creating new libraries and documentation standards, and upgrading hardware, storage, and Internet connections. This is extra challenging when the weight of large decisions falls on a small number of people. “With adopting new software or new policies, we are more reliant upon personnel and their individual skill sets rather than a system,” Valentino says. “The roles are larger in a small business, and we have to be a little bit more cautious.”

Valentino began considering adopting BIM software around six years ago and is still weighing his options. He says it is important to consider whether his firm’s design work can benefit enough from using BIM tools to justify the investment. “As designers we already tend to overanalyze, revise, or come up with more designs than necessary,” he says, asking whether landscape architects should add yet another digital tool to their array of software. “What do we actually need for deliverables at the end of the day for the project to be successful, and can we simplify [BIM] enough in our practice to make it useful for us and beneficial for our projects and clients?” Valentino says landscape architects need design software that is flexible yet does not overcomplicate the design process. “What I don’t want is to get too detailed on projects with BIM that don’t need it,” he says. As he continues to contemplate adopting BIM tools in his design practice, Valentino, like most small-business owners, understands that timing is important. “I don’t want to be left behind, but at the same time I don’t want to leap into something prematurely, invest a bunch of time, and then determine it doesn’t work. I want to be confident when we do make this move.”

Aidan Ackerman, ASLA, is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York.

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