BIM Tool Based on “Doom” Proves to Be Surprisingly Effective

A richly interactive software program shifts modular construction away from its one-size-fits-all straitjacket.

DIRTT’s ICE software allows designers to sit down with salespeople and instantly make adjustments to their scheme. The client is immediately provided with renderings, a video flythrough, and the exact costs. Illustration by Golnaz Esmaili

Until recently, the expectation of modular construction was often undermined by the reality. What seemed straightforward and simple on the page could quickly unravel on-site. Even systems that had some variation could be “customized” only in a limited range of options. All that changed ten years ago when DIRTT Environmental Solutions—the Calgary, Canada–based modular systems company—married cutting-edge technology with lean manufacturing, to produce architectural interiors that combined the ease and efficiency of modular construction with the style and precision of custom-built work.

The breakthrough for DIRTT—an acronym for “doing it right this time”—was the development of a proprietary software program called ICE, which creates interactive environments that allow clients to assess, in real time, virtually every aspect of an architectural interior project. “With ICE, clients can sit down with the sales rep and make adjustments to the space, color, configuration, finishes, and size of the modular, and instantly receive back the information they need,” says Mark Greffen, a member of the ICE executive team. “What’s the price going to be? What are the materials involved? Are there long lead-time items? Are there some things that may be incompatible or may need some on-site solutions to deal with them?”

After adjustments are made, clients are then given either a shared model downloaded through the cloud or via ICEvision, which provides a video flythrough of the space—complete with annotations and music—that they then take back and share with their stakeholders.

In ten short years, DIRTT has gone from a scrappy Canadian start-up concentrating on smaller projects to a newly minted publicly traded company with four manufacturing facilities, annual revenues of $140 million, and an impressive project list that includes work for Google, Quicken Loans, Suncor, and John Deere.

In under a decade DIRTT has gone from Canadian start-up to modular-design servicer to Google, Quicken Loans, Suncor, John Deere and more. Pictured here: the OBMI-designed Ogier offices in the British Virgin Islands. Courtesy Dougal Thorton Creative

The initial goal for the company, however, was driven by a more prosaic idea: Mogens Smed, a longtime veteran of the modular furniture industry, believed there was a market opportunity for customizable walls. It’s a goal that seems self-evident now, but a decade ago was still a stretch. Barrie Loberg—a colleague of Smed’s at Evans Consoles, where the two worked before forming DIRTT with another former colleague, product developer Geoff Gosling—had a potential solution: a new software based on technology cribbed from the video game industry. “It took him six months to convince me it would work,” Smed says. “But I realized that this would completely reinvent the construction industry. It was something that had never been done before.”

The idea of using video game technology had been percolating with Loberg for quite a while. Several years before, he had spent three days linking 50 computers to create a 30 second marketing video. After he finally finished the project, Loberg walked by some colleagues playing the video game Doom. It was then that he realized the absurdity of the time he was wasting with the technology he was using, when there was much more advanced technology available and continuing to evolve.

Loberg spent nearly two years developing the ICE software. When DIRTT began acquiring clients in late 2005, the company’s first task was to win over doubters in the architecture and design community. “The first time we heard about it, we were skeptical because of what we knew about modular,” says Jason Gamache, an Anchorage, Alaska–based architect at McCool Carlson Green, who began working with DIRTT in 2007 and recently completed a major project with it at a college in Kodiak, Alaska. “This standard idea of modular being off the shelf, one size fits all, and cookie cutter brought us some anxiety. But DIRTT gave us the ability to be more creative. Today, if a client were to ask me to come up with a solution that is similar to what DIRTT can do—and I were to go about it in the traditional construction methods—my fee would be astronomical.”

Eventually, architects and designers—who were in the midst of a technological revolution of their own—began embracing the DIRTT approach. “We were looking for a glass-wall system that could do a lot of unconventional things and have a very slim profile,” says Eric Schuman of NBBJ about his first project with the company for the Russell Investment Company of Seattle. “DIRTT was the sleekest, most modern-looking company. That’s what caught our eye. But DIRTT really is modular construction. It’s a whole different way of looking at space. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from furniture companies, ‘We can do this,’ and we get down the road to the shop drawings and they’re like, ‘Oh, well, we really can’t do that. It has to be six inches rather than three inches.’ At that point you can’t go back on it. That’s where the ICE software is so great. It’s potentially a shop drawing, but in the early phases of design.”

Designers can use ICE to deploy partitions to create mobile conference rooms and study bubbles, like those seen here at the Gilliam Collegiate Academy by SHW Group. Courtesy Luis Ayala

Traditional construction is, of course, fraught with inefficiencies. It’s estimated that an extra 15 to 20 percent of materials are ordered and shipped. And while ICE hasn’t completely eliminated construction waste, according to designers—and even some contractors—it has significantly reduced it, buttressing the company’s environmental claims. The DIRTT system also offers flexibility, so if a company relocates, the modular walls can be removed and reinstalled in a new space, with the client making necessary adjustments using the ICE software.

The other skeptical group of end users DIRTT has to convert are contractors, many of whom are hidebound and threatened by change. Will emerging technology cut them out of the process and devalue their contributions? “We need the general contractor more than ever,” says Gamache. “There is a very technical component to these interior systems that has to be interconnected with the rest of the building. We can’t remove the contractor out of the process. If we do, then there’s going to be a major disconnect, and it won’t be quite so successful.”

Ryan Caffyn-Parsons, a project executive for the construction management company Structure Tone in Boston, is a one-time skeptic who now believes the product can actually help the trades. “DIRTT promotes lean construction and maximizes the integrated project delivery,” says Caffyn-Parsons. “The other big benefit is that we’ve seen savings of five to 12 percent from other trades. General contractors who are skeptical haven’t really done a study on where the savings are coming from, but we’ve gone through this and there’s definitely a huge benefit to the client, the end users, and the general contractor.”

On the heels of its successful IPO in late November, DIRTT is looking for new opportunities for growth. The company is currently developing residential design based on the idea of a home being a permanent, rather than transitional, place to live. “Here in North America, our homes are disposable,” Smed says. “We move in and then move out five years later into another one. It’s usually a bigger one. Our residential initiative is going to be a home that your grandchildren can live in. If you’re a young couple and then you have a kid, you can add a room. If you have two kids, you can add two rooms. Empty nesters can move the walls out when the kids leave. What we’re doing is so darn simple—and so logical—that I think you’re going to see this is the way of the future.”

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