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Recently, I had the pleasure of driving many one-way, gravel roads through the countryside to go to Keim Lumber in Charm, Ohio. Charm is very distinct, with more daily traffic from horses and bicycles than from automobiles.
As I drove in, I was definitely charmed by the rolling green hills, the new sites, along with the fact that no one could reach me because I was out of range of cell service.
However, in irony of ironies, I was visiting Keim Lumber to see one of the most progressive technologies ever introduced in a lumber store. When I say lumber store, please do not limit your imagination. This store is not only massive, but elegant, with hand-crafted winding wood staircases and 125,000-square-feet of retail and service space.
The location serves five surrounding states and sells about $200 million on an annual basis. Most of the sales are to the builders and contractors in that geography, and keeping their business was the impetus for bringing in technology. This lumber store is just one of many that is thinking about how to create loyalty with pro customers, customers who could easily pop into a big box retail store nearby, or even order product online.
And, that is why I was visiting. The technology Keim was introducing to attract and maintain a healthy amount of pro business was a 360 Design Experience. As Abe Troyer, the executive director of sales at Keim Lumber describes it, the studio is an enclosed 23-foot diameter and 11-foot tall space for virtual reality presentations that allows multiple people to participate.
Builders and their home buyers can gather in the space to get a virtual tour of the home that hasn’t been built yet, or the space that is being remodeled. The immersive technology will allow them to “experience” the exterior elevations and the internal space, along with the design details, as opposed to one person putting on a pair of virtual reality goggles.
As the name 360 implies, the physical space is a circular wall that wraps around the viewers, that more or less puts you in the middle of what will be the physical space. The technology that was developed by the firm Tekton Engineering runs from a single computer through five projectors that synchronize to create the render visualizations.
“It can be used as a meeting space for the walk through of a project with blueprints, or to do mark ups during walk through with the stakeholders, so the client and the builder can all experience it at one time,” said Eric Kaufman, the visualization developer at Tekton. “The projectors are flat, but the software helps wrap it around you to create the experience by using computer game software Unreal Engine.”
The software and program are still in development, so it needs a trained pro to run it, but the plan is to make it accessible for Keim’s sales team after they have a certain level of training.
Kenny Miller, a visualization manager at Tekton says that the technology will be used by general contractors, home builders, commercial companies, engineers, architects, interior designers, and even the home buyer directly. The pricing program for this software as a service is still being worked out, but is envisioned at three different tiers that would allow for more design flexibility and more frequent interactions at the highest tier.
The Experience and the Efficiencies
This technology will offer a multitude of benefits to Keim as the dealer, to their customer, the builder, and to the end user, or the home buyer.
“We are pioneering and investing in this technology because we feel like it’s critically important to give our customers the best experience possible now and in the future,” Troyer said. “We feel it can take the focus away from price and get home buyers to commit to the build. Basically, the closure rates should go up a lot.”
During my tour, the Tekton team even said having all the stakeholders collaborating in one room at one time has the potential to take an eight-hour process down to a one-hour process.
“This technology streamlines conception to construction,” said Ben Beachy, the executive director of information technology at Keim. “When building computer software, I’ve found it helpful to provide my customers prototypes of the finished product as early as possible. Reviewing those prototypes helps the customer clarify what they expect; and helps the builder understand those expectations. The 360 Design Experience allows the same rapid prototype-refine cycle to happen in the building trades.”
Miller agrees that the program has the ability to align the builder and the end user, where typically there has been a gap. With a more lifelike experience of the design, everyone ends up with a better understanding that leads to clear expectations.
“I come from a construction background, and there are a lot of unforeseen things that we run into, but if we can address them, that means a lot less change orders,” Miller said. “Now, husbands and wives can be talking about the same things with the builder. Plus, it’s next to nothing in cost to give two or three different options on a house plan. Then, being able to make changes before construction is almost no cost.”
Getting all the parties on the same page is one thing, but that glazes over the value of having the visualization to begin with.
“I don’t come from a construction background, and I cannot imagine doing a project without having this to actually see it before building it,” said Kaufman. “It will help tie the gap between design and build.”
Using this technology does extend the timeline of the design process. The Tekton team has to get involved in more details that require more exploration up front that typically hasn’t happened in the construction industry.
“There are going to be more changes when a customer sees the model,” Kaufman said. “So, we go back to the schematic a couple more times than before, but it’s better than contractors having to make changes work while the project is under construction.”
The Future and Other Implications
The future for the 360 Design Experience is nearly limitless, with impact to the buying process, efficiencies in the design process, the use of materials, and even to training people in the trades.
For instance, this technology requires and rewards a drive toward 3D design. That, in turn, creates the possibility of layering other technologies on that design. Augmented reality could take 3D models into the construction site. Components modeled in 3D could be quickly made through CNC or 3D printing processes. Tools to 3D print entire houses out of cement are in early use. All these depend on detailed 3D designs of what the customer intends.
Tools like this will also help home building and construction be a more attractive industry for new talent.
“The 360 Design Experience is a tangible application of the technologies most often used in entertainment—movies and video games,” said Beachy. “I enjoy playing video games and watching movies, but I won’t pretend my participation in those activities meaningfully improve others’ lives. The 360 Design Experience, though, applies those tools to improve the experience of customers and contractors. It’s a high-tech, high-touch way to help customers achieve their dreams and goals—to quote from our mission statement. For folks with technical skills and a desire to make a tangible impact, this is a great opportunity.”
Miller agrees that this would be an incredible tool for teaching the trades because it simplifies the process.
“Construction in the past had to be taught in the field, which can be a physical constraint,” he said. “Making it a more visual instead of physical learning process can make it more appealing. We have had to prioritize in the past on having to teach in the field, but this makes it possible to learn in the office. Also, with 3D models it is good at spacing, which makes you more knowledgeable about the space and the structures that work in specific spaces.”
Kaufman only came to the construction industry because he could interact with technology like what is offered in the gaming industry.
“With more real-time walk throughs and companies like Epic that makes Unreal, it will attract more and various skill sets with computer backgrounds to get into this industry who wouldn’t have been involved in the past,” he said. “Plus, it will make design easier and more accessible to quickly or efficiently come up with design capabilities without a professional involved.”