There's a long-held notion among industry veterans that American home builders are slow to embrace new ideas. They say innovative products, technologies, and construction methods take years or even decades to be accepted by residential builders, who often are hyper-focused on the bottom line.
But some building firms do not shy away from new ideas. Case in point: Denver-based production builder Oakwood Homes, whose latest BUILDER 100 numbers are a testament to the success it has had integrating a game-changing, data-based design and construction process into its business model.
The company leapfrogged 41 spots in the highly vaunted list this year, from No. 89 to No. 48 with 824 closings in 2014, a nearly 90% increase from the year before. The 24-year-old firm builds homes in Colorado, Nebraska, and Utah for a range of buyers in entry level, move-up, luxury, and active adult categories. Last April, Oakwood expanded its reach into new parts of Colorado and Utah—including Salt Lake City—when it purchased Henry Walker Homes for upward of $75 million.
In addition to its recent acquisition, the private company also has grown by embracing cutting-edge ideas that streamline its operations, save time and money, and lead to happier customers. Five years ago, despite a hefty initial investment in time and money, the company switched to a building information modeling (BIM) process for the design and production of its houses, essentially transforming the way it does business. The change was spearheaded by longtime chairman and CEO Patrick Hamill, and implemented by his team of in-house experts in areas of purchasing, vendor relations, construction, and product development.
Widely used in commercial design and construction, the intelligent 3D-model–based process has affected every facet of Oakwood's operations, from back office scheduling, permitting, and purchasing to on-site operations, sales and marketing, and website creation.
The 3D models provide construction documents, marketing materials, and bills of material and many of the company's partners, including structural engineers and HVAC contractors, use the same MiTek software so they can share live files with no duplication. This allows Oakwood to capture multiple architectural models from structural drawings, eliminating revision time and creating accurate construction documents.
The company has invested millions of dollars in the conversion from 2D line drawings, a process that wasn't always smooth, says Donald Carpenter, Oakwood's vice president for product development. Early on, a steep learning curve slowed construction for a while, especially in cycle times from concept to finished models.
"It caused issues with not getting product to market as quickly as we would have liked," Carpenter recalls.
Now that the process is up and running and churning out houses, Oakwood is viewed as a pioneer in the use of BIM, which most building firms—big and small—are still trying to figure out, says building operations expert Clark Ellis, principal with Cary, N.C.–based Continuum Advisory Group. He estimates that less than 5% of U.S. builders will make the switch to BIM in the next five years, despite its many benefits.
"BIM and 3D modeling are a true giant leap forward for builders who are using it because in a fully BIM process with 3D architecture and engineering you literally can build a structure virtually before you build it in the actual world," Ellis says. This includes infrastructure such as plumbing runs, HVAC ducts, and electrical wiring. (See sidebar for more on the benefits of BIM.)
Many builders are only just beginning to see BIM's advantages, which also include design flexibility, the ability to create site-specific plans, and improved productivity due to easy access to information.