We loved this conversation with Kimon, so here it is again in case you missed it!
This week we sit down with Kimon Onuma. Kimon is an Architect, Building Information Modeling (BIM) specialist, creator of the Onuma Planning System and BIM Storm. Eddie was lucky enough to hear Kimon speak at the CURT conference in 2018, where he immediately was drawn to Kimon's ideas on platforms, like Amazon. We dive into what platforms are and how they can be used in building design and construction.
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Tyler: Welcome to the Construction Brothers Podcast. I'm your host, Tyler Campbell, and with me because he can't get away from me: my brother, Eddie Campbell.
Eddie: Never, never have truer words been spoken.
Tyler: Well, we've got an awesome show for you today. We are going to be talking to Kimon Onuma, who is the President of Onuma, Inc. Kimon is an architect and Building Information Modeling specialist. He's the creator of the Onuma Planning System and BIM Storm. That was an awesome conversation, we can't wait for you to hear it. We're going to get to that in just a second, but first things first: Eddie, I want to bring something to your attention.
Eddie: As you do.
Tyler: Alright, Kimon, thanks for joining us today. Can you just tell us a little bit about what you do?
Kimon Onuma: Sure. I'm an architect, I have my own firm called Onuma, Inc. and we've been into technology for a long time, actually even since the ‘80s. We got into 3D and databases quite a long time ago. And then 26 years ago we got into BIM, so it's been a long journey for us. We got into the web in the early ‘90s, ‘94 actually, and we've been developing our own tools as architects actually. We noticed when we started using BIM that there's certain things that don't work or you want to add certain things. So we decided to start building our own applications and tools within the BIM applications back then, which then evolved into, we have our own application called the Onuma System and the BIM genie, which is an online cloud-based collaboration platform and facility management application. We started something called BIM Storm in 2008, which is a workshop, online workshop collaboration for training, getting people excited about new ways of working. I’m the past Chair of the American Institute of Architects Technology in Architectural Practice; Thought Leadership at buildingSMART alliance; I've been involved with development standards; I've done a lot of presentations; we've been working with a lot of owners now, actually for quite a while now, guiding them on strategies and the roadmap and helping them build up their contracts and how they work with BIM and then even developing applications for them—groups like the Coast Guard, California community colleges, GSA, homeland security, healthcare owners, and state department now. And that's kind of in a nutshell, but there's a lot more obviously, but any questions on that?
Eddie: Yeah, no, that's quite a breadth of things that you've done. That's pretty cool. I was lucky enough to be at one of those presentations—2018 CURT Conference, I was there, and got to sit in the audience and got to hear you present about how we silo information. I got to kind of hear your thoughts on how maybe Amazon helped break that way of thinking. For our listeners, can you help us out and explain and expound on that a little bit for us and your thoughts there?
Kimon Onuma: Sure. I used Amazon as an example, but there's obviously a lot of other technologies out there that we all use today on our mobile devices that helps us get to information very easily, right? We don't even think about it in many ways. Like we call Lyft or call Uber or find Airbnb. It's coming from a lot of different sources of information. So when you start thinking of information as being accessible—and Amazon has done a great job, because they needed to use it internally to even communicate between their departments. This has happened over more than a decade ago, where they basically declared that their internal data and information that needed to be shared between departments had to be made accessible through a platform to make them advance, and we know where they've gone since then. They’ve basically pretty much taken over a lot of different parts of the world out there as far as sales of books and now their own platforms, now there are other solutions being built on top of their technology. So the silos—as far as the building industry goes, we know that we've had challenges over the years. Even long before BIM technologies came around, we had to share information obviously, and we had to share it in a way that made it clear to who worked on the project, but also to our clients and to other parts of the industry. So we created documents and layered them in certain ways with different pen weights and graphics to be able to communicate the design intent. But if you look at it, there was also limitations on the silos as far as what type of tools you use, how do you communicate. So if you had to know how to use CAD, for example, or even BIM, to be able to get to the information, all of a sudden that's siloed as well, too. And my view has been for a long time now that the value, the decisions that we make in the design and construction and operations of facilities, there's a lot of really valuable information that is trapped in the wrong format. It makes it very difficult to share with others for many different reasons. One is, sometimes it's a technology issue. A lot of times it's a contractual issue—I can't, as an architect, I don't want to share my drawings with the construction, into construction because there's a liability for example. Right? We hear that a lot, too. We don't want to share because of that. And I think that's detrimental in a lot of ways. I can understand why that thinking happens, but that's one type of silo, more of a fear and a contractual silo. At the same time, the complexity of the industry and the challenges that we're facing and the problems that we're trying to solve, not only just in design and construction, but going all the way into the life cycle: How do we create buildings that don't use a lot of energy and to last for a long time and will fill the needs of an owner? I think it's impossible to fulfill those challenges if we don't break these silos. We really like to look outside of the building industry and see how else others are doing that and see what can be applied into the building industry and what can we learn from that.
Eddie: Man you really hit on something that resonates every single day with us, and that's the siloing and inability to get information. And so this is near and dear to our heart as we've tried for years to just kind of break the chain, you know, and try to get people to collaborate more fully on projects. You alluded to— You kind of alluded to some platform based things like Uber. And so I want to maybe get you to go back there and talk about that a little more. Another thing that, you know, I heard you talk about at the conference that I was just really intrigued by.
Kimon Onuma: Sure. So if you think about Uber, you pick up your phone and you see a map, it knows where you are, you push a button and you get a ride, right? The platform in the background, there's actually a lot of things happening. First of all, it knows where you are, right? So knowing where you are is building up off of the Department of Defense satellite systems for global positioning, which started for defense purposes, right? But the government decided to open up that silo that used to be only for defense purposes to be used by everybody else. That pretty much changed the entire world. Our expectation of being able to find things on my map has gone away pretty much because of these technologies. Uber did not have to fly their own satellites to be able to pinpoint us on a map—they're building on top of the platform that is funded by the Department of Defense and taxpayers to find us on a map. In many cases you don't even, you don't even have to build your own map. You can basically take a plugin and use it. There's a lot of different mapping platforms out there like Google Maps and other open source maps as well, too. So Uber is building up off of existing technologies, which allow them to get to market faster because they didn't have to build it from scratch. They still are competitive. In other words, they're using open tools in a lot of cases, open source tools to build a platform on top of that. And then they even have ways of extending that platform to doing other things. So that's kind of a use case there that they found and they decided to build on top of a technology that already existed. And this is pretty much a blueprint for a lot of the other solutions on the web, like Airbnb is another example. So that's what I think is important. We tend to— Where we came from in the past, as far as the technologies that we used in the past, and even in BIM, it kind of still is there in many ways. We're kind of, we tattoo the name of the software tool that we use on our foreheads and we use it and we kind of become a tribe and says “this is a tool that we use,” but the modern way of thinking about this is the tools and the technology should be disposable. And then you build your use case and solutions around that and you want to be able to make that the central value that you're bringing versus, “Well, I know how to use tool A, B, and C.” So that's Uber, and it's pretty much throughout the the Internet and the mobile solutions that are out there, that they're all built on that kind of modular approach to plugging things together like LEGOs and being able to create, rapidly create solutions and even throw things away that don't work and try the next thing.
Eddie: What is it that you have developed with DOD, maybe the VA—How do these things allow design to kind of automate? Kind of describe what you're doing there.
Kimon Onuma: Sure. So at the core, I'm still an architect. My team—I have a mixed team of architects and programmers, but we are, in many ways, architects and designers. As an architect, and in the building industry, whether you're an architect, engineer, or builder, we deal with a lot of complex information. And I noticed that from the very beginning when we try and solve something complex, you kind of have to break it down into smaller pieces and you go, even if you're doing this on paper, you're kind of sketching things out. And that thinking of, how do you break down complexity and create a design solution or a better construction method or whatever it might be is incredibly valuable. But a lot of parts of that can be automated. So there's a lot of number crunching you have to do, a lot of looking for information that is not really value added if you have to do it manually. So I've noticed along the way that if we can automate as much of that as possible, just automate the parts of the design that don't make sense to crunch through manually. Right? So that, at Onuma, as we were working through our design projects—and it goes back into the ‘80s like I mentioned—we were constantly looking for what can we automate, and create a code for it, for example, to be able to repeat it and check and advance it over time. So we started to develop our own applications because of that for our own internal use, for our own design projects. And our clients started seeing that and saying, “Hey, can we use this for some other use beyond the design, the traditional design deliverable that we have.” So we noticed that by doing that, there was services that we could provide that go beyond just the design and construction of a building, but even support the client's strategies of how they work with other architects and builders for example, which is where we are right now. We have not left behind our ability to design and be architects, or our need to build applications or even sell applications. But we are not just honed in on just one part of it. We’re not saying, “Oh, we're only a software company, or we're only architects, we're only consultants.” It's kind of all mixed together. And depending on the challenge that comes along, we take the pieces that we are capable of doing and applying it to the project. Going back to the silo discussion, what we've also noticed by using that approach, creating kind of a modular approach then allows us to actually collaborate with other people, other technologies, and plug them into the project as needed. And that's been our approach at Onuma: How to, how can we have kind of a core value that we bring, but also be fearless enough to collaborate regardless of what platform or what tool or what organization we have to work with to make it happen for that particular challenge.
Eddie: You did kind of a project with the VA, right? Databasing a lot of their common equipment, how the rooms go together, and then automating like how you're going to bring together project requirements based on building usages and things of this nature. And you know, basically just, “Here you go, I need this many exam rooms, I need this many offices, I need a conference room, I need an entry vestibule, I need this and that.” And then having that programmatically come in via a database. So you guys were pretty integral in that, right?
Kimon Onuma: Yes, we were. And actually, even before the VA, there was a series of projects with others like the U.S. Coast Guard that had a very similar challenge. So every owner that we've worked with has different levels of—what’s the word?—of maturity of the type of information and data that they have and the systems they have in place. But they're all trying to solve very similar problems. There's a very fundamental similar DNA across all these organizations. So they have kind of a business driver of why do we build, what do we build, how do we communicate what we build to our architects and engineers and contractors? Do we communicate it verbally from people's heads that say this is how a building should be put together, or do we have a stack of PDFs or a stack of documents? So in VA's case they had seen what we’d been doing with, what we were doing over the years with the U.S. Coast Guard as well, too, and we have a website called Program to BIM that does this—but VA had a system called SEPS: Space and Equipment Planning System, which was a database about how they put hospitals together, that said for this many patients and this part of the world with this many procedures, we need this many exam rooms and this many pieces of equipment and this many operating rooms and MRI machines, whatever, all the content that goes inside a building. And they actually had a pretty sophisticated tool in-house that did that for quite a few years. It started from a laptop, basically. It passed the laptop around, entered data into it, kind of like an expert system, and it would spit out this program requirement. They brought us in when they wanted to move this to the web and they said, “What else can we do with this besides just web-enabling this?” And what we told them is, you have very valuable data in this system. It's only used by a few people, and then you hand the architects a stack of PDFs that they then have to scrape the data from the PDFs to get it into their BIMs. What if we take your database and open it up, and let the architects and their consultants plug directly into that data and generate, automatically generate BIMs from that? The beginning, the programmatic BIM, here's a half a million square foot hospital. Rather than spending weeks or months converting static information into BIM, if you already have the data, you can do that in minutes, and we can show you how to do it. So we built a prototype, but we actually built a whole strategy for them first, a roadmap and a strategy, and we said this is how it worked. We prototyped it and then we implemented it and repeated it and it's VA and the Defense Health Agency, so the DOD together. Now you can actually go to sepstobim.org, enter some information in there, and it spits out a program and spits out a BIM in multiple different formats and including our tools in there as well, too. But it can output, for example, Revit and SketchUp, and the designer then focuses on the creative part. They don't have to crunch numbers, they basically focus on creating the solution, which takes the value added part of the project and creates more value for the owner in the end by giving them a better design.
Tyler: I can hear kind of an objection crop up in this whole thing, and it goes back to working in the government sector: They have piles of this information laying around that architects would need to go and plug in in order to use. What would you do with the argument that this doesn't, or this would work in a government entity, but it wouldn't work in the private sector? How would you approach convincing somebody that this is the way to go?
Kimon Onuma: So from a— Yes, from a government perspective, they have this data, but a private owner would have similar data in different formats as well, too. So if you think of a— Okay, so the government, it’s a government hospital, right? But a private sector hospital would have very similar, in fact they do. I know because we worked several of them. They have information about how they put clinics together or hospitals together. Are you referring from a point of view that the government is, their information should be public versus the private sector should be— Because they're competitive, they would not share it? Or what's the question there?
Eddie: Yeah, I'll clarify a little bit. Where's the above the line, below the line point where the owner entity becomes too small to be able to database their stuff? Because it would be ideal if the construction approach were the same for larger owners and smaller owners. So is there a kind of a tipping point where you're not going to have that programmatic information handed to you?
Kimon Onuma: Right, right. I think that probably was more of an issue before a lot of these newer tools and technologies came around. But even then, as far as the database goes, it could even be a clean Excel file. It doesn't necessarily have to be a full blown database. But for example, you can take a Excel file and load it into some of these online applications, and essentially it's a database. You can search and sort and do all kinds of stuff for it. And actually that's an interesting question, because even before we got into BIM, and even before we got into databases for that matter, using Excel and tabular data, and you look way back even before CAD and you look at the hand-drawn door schedule or room schedule, that's a database. A door schedule with, so this is Door Type A and it occurs in 30 places on my documents, and if you have a Door Type A in your schedule and appears nowhere on your documents, that's an issue. Or the other way around, if you have a door missing in the schedule, but it's all over the floor plan. So that's what's interesting about a database and a lot of these systems. From an architectural perspective, we've been working on databases way before computers even came around. It's just that we're transferring it now into a format that's much easier to sort. And as far as a small or large firm, I don't think that's really, um, it should not be an issue. A lot of people use that as a crutch in many ways. But we were using— And we're not a large firm, by the way. Being small, you can be nimble, you can adjust the technologies and work really quickly. So I don't think it's really a reason to say that “we're small, therefore we have messy data.” There's no excuse for not having clarity about what you want to build. So even a small owner, for example, you can even go into a stack of PDFs and say, “We see these are your standards. Now if we kind of clean these up and line things up, you can get the consistent naming and numbering of, what do you call these spaces?” That's where we really start a lot of times is, forgetting everything else, but you typically go in and say, “What do you call your space types that you want to put into this clinic, or into a McDonald's or whatever it might be?” It's really, what type of spaces do you put into your project and do you have a consistent naming and numbering of those things in an Excel file? And the next step would be, okay, you have a lot of Excel files floating around. It might be a good time to think about putting them into a database. Twenty years ago would have been very expensive to do that, but today it's, you can almost do it for free online.
Eddie: That laziness that we exhibit sometimes, it really is a crutch. We make excuse after excuse and it inhibits innovation. It keeps us from moving forward. And what people don't, I think, understand is that that actually costs them money. That that is actually money out of their wallet that they're losing. And if they're a repeat owner, they're losing again and again. And so it is worthwhile to go ahead and innovate. And I love— The small and potent thing is kind of what we love and strive to be. I love the ability to be nimble and ability to continue to grow together with a small and potent team. And so, yeah, I think it would absolutely be a difference maker, whether you're large or small.
Kimon Onuma: Exactly, yeah. And going back to the platform discussion, to think about all these small firms that build some kind of a platform or some kind of a digital approach to connecting to them. All of a sudden you connect 10 small firms of the best people in the world. You have a better team than any large firm out there. Being small and being able to plug in the right people at the right time, and really create a value that you can't— We don't want to just pile bodies on, ‘cause that was the old method, right? You got a contract and you say how many hours it’s going to be or how many sheets of documents are going to be, okay now let's start counting bodies of how many people it's going to take to draft this thing up. There’s no value to that today. I mean there was, there's a value obviously in producing documentation for communicating what a building's gonna be. But if you extend this out, there's really no value to piling bodies onto a project just to pile bodies onto it. And we've seen this over and over again with a lot of these owners that we work with. Especially with these government agencies. That's what's really interesting about government agencies: This is our tax money, right? So there's a personal interest in how do we make this more efficient for— There's so many, so much low hanging fruit and so much waste, because it's been kind of baked into how we did that 30 years ago and we're just kind of converting it into, okay, let's just take that method and then just slap BIM on top of it.
Eddie: I love what you're saying about tools, too. I mean, strive to be a craftsman, and not just somebody that knows how to use a tool. I mean, if I'm from a carpenter, I'm not a Skilsaw operator, and I don't only operate a DeWalt, you know? I mean, I use the thing that enables me to get the job done well.
Kimon Onuma: Right.
Eddie: And I'm not afraid of a new thing that will enable me to get it done in a more effective manner. I actually really relish the opportunity to get a thing that keeps me from having to do something I do a million times a day. I no longer have to do that. That would be amazing. That's what we're doing in automation.
Kimon Onuma: Exactly.
Tyler: It seems like there's fatigue around that, though. Like there are so many different saws to choose from for so many different things. Like, I'm looking the other day for a notetaking app. And if I look on the app store, I can find a thousand of them, each with reasonable ratings and reviews. It's dizzying. I have to make the decision. I’m looking at the specifications going, “I don't know if this one's the best one.”
Kimon Onuma: The difference is that you can buy it for $3 or $10 or whatever, even free and test it out, and if it doesn't work, you just throw it away and keep moving on. Whereas, years ago, it used to be thousands of dollars for some of these applications. That's what's exciting actually right now: There's a lot of really great tools. And BIM kind of has that problem as well. It's not necessarily a problem, but BIM, obviously a lot of the apps, they're really powerful. We use them a lot. I mean we're not, I'm not saying anything bad about any of them, but they are kind of—you have to kind of invest into that application and use it, which you definitely need it, but there's a lot of other smaller apps that are coming out. And the other thing with platforms is, it's becoming easier to build your own app, right? We would never have imagined this 10 years ago, that you can plug these things together and all of a sudden you have a mobile app that does, you know, something that would've cost thousands of dollars years ago. So thinking in terms of— And even in our group, the most challenging thing is actually not to write the code. It's not easy to write code, but it's actually very difficult to create a use case and understand how to make that useful for the industry, and that's unique to us as architects, builders, and engineers to understand what the industry needs. And now with these owners—and that's why we're working with a lot of owners—it's really interesting and exciting to work with owners because owners drive these projects. If we can get owners to understand how to ask the right questions of industry rather than just tossing it out there and say, “Give us some BIM,” then all of a sudden there's incredible value if you combine the owners that are advanced with the consultants and industry partners that are also advanced to do something that does not just pile bodies onto a project. All of a sudden you have some real value there for both sides.
Eddie: It takes a savvy owner though. I mean, it really—
Kimon Onuma: It does, yes.
Eddie: It takes somebody that's willing to go about it a different way and somebody that has the confidence to know what they're doing.
Kimon Onuma: Exactly. Yes.
Eddie: If they don't know what they're doing, there's probably some more “stranger danger” out there, ‘cause you feel like you're being sold something, like, “Oh no, what if I go wrong? My whole building's going to fall down or something. I'm going to pay way too much for it.” And there are plenty of people that want to, like, throw their arm around your shoulder and say, “Hey, just come with me. I know that I know the right way.” And you know, I mean, we're oversold anyway, so you can't blame somebody for being a little bit apprehensive about it. But yeah, I mean, if we get all of the highly talented people in one room, I love the thought of our industry finally getting some traction. And I've referred to it as maybe, I don't know, a renaissance or what, but I think people are starting to understand we are going to go about this differently or we're going to be left in the dust.
Kimon Onuma: Exactly. It's going to happen. You just have to make— Decide, do you want to be part of it? And you can obviously stay out of it. If you're saying, “Okay, I've had enough with the industry, I'm getting ready to retire, I'm changing course,” whatever. But I think we already see that it's already changing. And I thought this was going to happen 20 years ago—well, 25 years ago or 24 years ago when I first got into BIM—I thought, wow, this is going to, two years, everything's going to change. I was kind of naive and younger back then, but now I think there's something different in the air. There's more momentum. There's still huge opportunities, I think, because of the complexity of industry, because of the challenges that we have. We have a lot of the answers, but if we can start looking for those opportunities and solving them a piece at a time—those that are ready to move into that, I mean, it's all there.
Tyler: Alright, so, this is our last question for you: If we gave you a megaphone that the whole construction world could hear, what would you say?
Kimon Onuma: Oh wow. I think we have to be fearless. We obviously all have to make a living, right? So there's that part of, we need to be competitive and that we need to keep things from each other. Secrets, right? Or whatever it might be. But I think it's better to err on the side of, how much can we share? Because if you're a black box and you're closed down and you're not sharing anything, then you become less and less relevant in this world. And I think this goes for the construction industry as well. That fear factor is not working well in a lot of cases. You know, we can't share—I'm talking from it as an architect now—for example, “Oh, we can't share our drawings because somebody's going to copy them.” And that's not that hard to go into a building and copy that building if you really think that that's how you solve complex design solutions. But from a technology perspective, I think if we can err on the side of “how much can we share” and “how much can we share so we can connect to the next solution or challenge that's out there in the next consultant or next owner that's ready to work like this.” If we don't set ourselves up for that, it's going to be too late. Somebody else is going to come along and take that opportunity away. There's actually a great quote that Andreas Phelps had from years ago when he was at Balfour Beatty. He said, “The shelf life of a good idea is six months. If you don't share it, somebody else will figure it out.”
Tyler: Well said.
Eddie: Kimon Onuma, thanks so much for being with us today.
Kimon Onuma: Thank you. It was a lot of fun, thanks.
Tyler: Hey guys, Tyler here. Thank you so much for listening to our episode with Kimon. When you get a second, go check out the show notes. We have given you links to all of his social medias and his website. Give him a shout, start the conversation with him. He's a really, really cool dude and we’re so excited that he was here. So Kimon, thank you so much for coming on. Lastly, please leave us a rating and a review wherever you're listening, that really helps us out a lot. And then also, go and check out our Instagram, our LinkedIn, and our Facebook pages. You can find us at Construction Brothers. We really appreciate you guys listening and we hope that you have a great week. See ya.