Engineering better solutions

A small firm’s experience in applying 3D modeling
Hugh Linn, P.E., LEED AP

Communication, teamwork, and experience are essential in delivering outstanding projects. As a small, local civil engineering firm, we take pride in forming and participating in teams that work well together. So, when our local software reseller representatives informed us that our conventional team-centric approach would be replaced by building information modeling (BIM), we were highly skeptical. Our initial skepticism, however, did not deter us from exploring 3D modeling and the potential of BIM.

On its pilot project, a Montessori school in St. Helena, Calif., Riechers Spence & Associates concluded that, because of the scale and type of project, the benefits of 3D modeling were not “game changers.”

Riechers Spence & Associates (RSA), based in Napa, Calif., serves government agencies, architects, winery owners, developers, contractors, and private landowners. Before 2008, because of a heavy workload and tight deadlines, we did not integrate 3D modeling into our design services. Based on prior experiences, we had concerns that premature adoption of 3D modeling would interrupt our workflow without providing any real benefit. That perception began to change in 2008. I was part of an American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) committee that was negotiating with Autodesk to obtain a preferred pricing program for ACEC members. These negotiations allowed me to meet with the company’s representatives and grasp a better understanding of AutoCAD Civil 3D and its relationship to BIM.

During the negotiations, it became clear that, to understand BIM, we would need to learn a new language. Terms such as “work flow,” “clash detection,” “integrated project delivery,” and “object-based modeling” were bounced around by the Autodesk representatives. They also conveyed to us that, in several years, civil engineers would need to be ready to deliver projects in an entirely new way or they would be passed up by their competitors. I was still skeptical but open minded, so I directed one of our design teams to become capable with civil engineering 3D modeling software and to apply it to a design project.

Special Video: Visualizing 3D Models
RSA has blended a suite of tools to create RSA Au-CIM — Automated Civil Infrastructure Modeling — to communicate, optimize, and deliver its design services efficiently.

3D pilot project
Our first 3D-modeled project was a school in St. Helena, Calif. It was a greenfield project and did not offer any special design difficulties. My leading question to the project team was, Is Civil 3D a nail gun or a fancy hammer with some bells and whistles? The question was based on my construction experience from the 1980s when all nailing work was done with a conventional hammer. After the pneumatic nail gun was introduced, we increased our nailing production by a factor of five. Anyone working in construction at that time recognized that the pneumatic hammer was a game-changer.

When the pilot project design was complete, project managers’ and designers’ reviews were mixed. The team believed the product and process had potential, but on this scale and type of project, the benefits resulting from the additional investment were suspect. On this particular project, the use of a 3D model design and our efforts to incorporate BIM were clearly not game changers.

An unexpected opportunity
Then came a call from Suulutaaq, Inc., a design-build contractor that was working on the Wine Train railroad project in Napa. Suulutaaq was looking for a consultant to build a 3D model of the improvements on First Street based on the bid documents issued by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. The contractor’s goal was to find a way to accelerate the construction schedule and minimize impacts to local businesses. To accomplish this, Suulutaaq challenged the subcontracting team to visualize the work and propose sequencing modifications that would reduce the construction schedule. RSA prepared this model using Civil 3D. We not only modeled the conventional civil utilities such as water, sewer, and storm drain, but also included existing grading, proposed grading, and both existing and proposed structures, which included buildings and retaining walls.

The First Street 3D model was presented to the construction team during a series of several meetings. What was immediately noticeable was how easily the team could see the work and the opportunities for collaboration that would lead to the optimum work-sequencing plan. In addition, at the first meeting, the team immediately noted several problems with the existing design that were not necessarily evident in reviewing the traditional 2D design documents. These problems included the following:

  • design specifications for footing over-builds on retaining walls that would encroach into adjacent structures;
  • footing and retaining wall penetrations that would require coordination between multiple subcontractors that could potentially lead to construction delays;
  • utility alignments that conflicted with underground utility structures; and
  • water line sequencing that required construction of a bypass to maintain service to city customers.

Integration of BIM into civil design has enormous potential. I have no doubt that, when applied appropriately, it improves communication, fosters teamwork, and allows consultant teams to demonstrate their expertise and experience. The key is to know when this tool makes sense from a cost-benefit perspective. When making this decision on future projects, we will evaluate the following factors:

  • Is the project of a size, scale, and type that warrants this approach?
  • Do the other design professionals and contractors working on the project have the ability and willingness to integrate a BIM approach?
  • Is the owner willing to invest in the effort up front to develop an accurate existing-conditions model?
  • How much time can we save applying the work flows that result in generating integrated engineering calculations?
3D modeling allowed the construction team for the First Street project to see immediately several conflicts with the existing design that were not evident in the 2D design documents.

Applying 3D modeling and exploring BIM opened our eyes to new ways to provide better service to our clients. With that charge in mind, RSA has blended a suite of tools to create RSA Au-CIM — Automated Civil Infrastructure Modeling. We have explored, acquired, and applied a number of software applications to communicate, optimize, and deliver our design services efficiently. We have not limited our approach to a single software provider, but have investigated and applied products and services from many vendors, including Autodesk, Google, Blueridge Analytics, and Trimble.

We are now exploring the option of upgrading our systems to run in 64-bit mode, using Windows 7 with upgraded graphic cards. We are also meeting with design-build contractors and other potential partners to demonstrate the versatility and benefits of designing the site work in a 3D graphic environment. We are optimistic about the future of this technology and are looking forward to using it to engineer better solutions for our clients.

Advancements in digital signature technology
Digital signatures — public key infrastructure (PKI) driven electronic signatures — provide the ideal way to break the cycle of an otherwise electronic workflow that should also include e-approvals and e-submissions. A digital signature solution can be used to provide the engineers’ professional seal(s) on CAD, PDF, or any other commonly used file type, and provide legally binding proof on the file’s integrity and authenticity. This process turns the drawing into a sealed digital record with an electronic “fingerprint” and signer’s identity that travels with the file for the entirety of its lifecycle. In addition, new-generation digital signature solutions can function seamlessly with many major file formats, eliminating the need for proprietary or third-party verification software, thereby enabling recipients to verify signatures for signer identity and intent, and file integrity from within any commonly used application. In this way, a globally portable, sustainable, easily archived e-record that is protected from forgery is created.

In previous-generation solutions, PKI-based digital signatures meant distribution of keys or smart cards, and a complex and overly burdensome learning curve and overhead for users and systems administrators. These systems were cumbersome and prohibitively expensive, with costs often outweighing the benefits. Fortunately, recent advances in the approach to digital signature solution deployments have replaced many of the expensive elements of these antiquated systems through a single, secure server loaded with software for central control and management of keys, certificates, engineering stamps, and graphical signatures.

Some modern digital signature solutions can also embed graphical signatures onto the document and enable multiple signers across geographies and organizations to sign the same document(s), or specific parts of documents, from any location at any time. Further, a digital signature solution that is centrally managed provides control over signer credentials (such as keys and certificates), ensuring that users have the right and authorization to sign. This type of control provides a level of assurance unobtainable from any “leap-of-faith” solution that enables an individual to self-certify his or her signature credentials. Such advances have made these solutions affordable and accessible to engineering firms of all sizes, while providing a measurable return on investment of three to six months on average.

With modern digital signature solutions, engineers can route and submit 3D models or 2D reports in minutes instead of days, cutting costs and gaining a competitive advantage from shorter project turnaround times and enhanced agility. As many state boards of licensing now approve the use of electronic and/or digital signatures and more traditional engineering firm clients are accepting or requiring e-submissions, a tipping point has been reached for digital signature adoption by civil engineering firms. For example, the Florida Department of Transportation requires e-submissions, and others, such as the Louisiana Department of Transportation and the Virginia Department of Transportation, strongly encourage e-submissions and will require them in the future. To learn about which methods of signing and sealing final documents are approved by state boards, check out the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying’s Licensing Board Survey results at (choose category: Board of Licensure Questions 24 and 25). Civil engineering firms are putting digital signatures to use and enjoying improvements in speed and efficiency today.
Contributed by ARX (

Hugh Linn, P.E., LEED AP, is president of Riechers Spence & Associates (, and president, engineering & development, for Kantharos Process Water Systems, LLC (www

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