A Day in the Life of a Virtual Construction Specialist: Brian Athey

Posted on Mar 12, 2018 by Virtual Construction

Athey, BrianQ: How long have you been a virtual construction specialist?

A: I’ve been a virtual construction specialist for the past four and a half years. I’ve served in this capacity ever since joining the Miron team. Before taking the position with Miron, I did a lot of the same duties at Eppstein Uhen Architects (EUA) in Milwaukee.

Q: What did your training/education entail?

A: I was a residential home contractor for 14 years. When the economy tanked in 2007, I went back to school to finish a degree in Architecture that I had started earlier on. I entered Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, where I earned my two-year Associate’s Degree in Architectural Technologies. I was then hired by EUA, where I spent two years as an architectural intern.

Since starting at Miron, I’ve also taken the State of Wisconsin licensure to become a registered architect. This process entailed possessing seven years of experience, working 6,000 hours under the supervision of a registered architect, and studying for and passing seven exams, each of which took approximately four to five hours to complete.

During my time at Miron, I’ve also attended Autodesk University, BIM Forum, and the AIA Conference on Architecture on an annual basis for continuing education purposes. In addition, I have taught an Integrated Construction Technologies course at Fox Valley Technical College for the past three years.

Q: What time does a normal workday start for you? What time does a normal workday end?

A: Since we have the ability, and expectation, to work on a mobile basis, our schedules tend to be somewhat fluid. While there are certain times of the day that I do shut work off (for instance, I make a point to get a workout in every morning), the workday doesn’t have a definitive start or stop time. We always have our computers with us because at any moment, a project superintendent could call with an emergency, and it’s our job to be there to support them. A typical workweek is obviously Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but I do tend to travel once or twice a week and that might include leaving early one morning to get to Eau Claire and returning late or flying to Iowa every other Tuesday. On opposite weeks, I usually travel overnight for the University of Iowa College of Pharmacy project. I would say that it’s typical for a virtual construction specialist to spend approximately 25% of the workweek traveling. I usually have overnight stays about four times per month for work.

Q: What are the constants of your workday (what are things that always happen)?

A: The only constant in my workday is that it’s never, ever going to go as planned. There are always new fires popping up that need to be put out. Issues are always going to arise; that’s the only true guarantee.

Q: What are the variables of your workday (what are things that change from day-to-day or project-to-project)?

A: In my position, two days are never the same. Every day presents a different challenge; every day there is a new problem that needs to be solved. In the end, that’s really what we are—problem-solvers. The teams I work with change from day-to-day; one moment I could be strategizing with an owner or superintendent, and the next moment I could be working with a CAD designer or laborer. The Virtual Construction Department’s mission is: “As an industry leader, we empower people by implementing construction innovation through technology and collaboration.” In the end, that’s our true focus and purpose.

Q: How would you describe your job to a five-year-old? What are your responsibilities?

A: To put it very simply, I build buildings in the virtual world before they are built in the physical world. I take the architect’s designs, replace them with more detailed models from our subcontractors, and then verify that they are constructable.

Q: What kind of equipment and materials do you use every day?

A: It is very rare for me to work with a pen and paper. My work world exists on a phone, iPad, and computer (which travels with me in a rolling briefcase, due to its sheer weight). The three main pieces of software that members of our department use are Autodesk Navisworks, Revit, and AutoCAD. That said, we deal with at least 30 different file types over the course of a year. In our business, things are always changing and evolving. A big part of what we do is helping software systems connect with one another.

Q: What kind of equipment or materials do you wish you had that haven’t been invented yet?

A: I would love a piece of technology that would allow me to see into the future. We make a lot of decisions that affect our entire company. Our recommendations directly affect a lot of different people. It would be great to have the ability to see into the future to ensure we’re always making the best possible decisions.

Q: What was the most challenging thing you learned for your job?

A: The second week after I started at Miron I had to travel to Iowa to conduct a BIM (Building Information Modeling) kick-off meeting for the University of Iowa Visual Arts Building. At that point, I wasn’t even sure what a BIM coordinator did or how to fully utilize our clash detection software—Navisworks. Dan Bayer, Miron’s director of virtual construction, helped me get started, but it was up to me to gain the confidence and respect of the team in a hurry. The other main challenge I’ve undertaken was simply going through the process of becoming a registered architect. The time commitment would certainly have been easier when I was younger.

Q: What is the best part of your job?

A: There are numerous really great parts to my job. Not only do I get to work with the newest and greatest technologies in the industry, but I get to implement them into the workdays of others, making their lives easier and safer. Virtual Construction at Miron is viewed by many as the leader in the industry and I love the challenge of helping us maintain that reputation. Miron never hesitates to provide us with the tools we need to do our jobs and I enjoy being a valuable member of multiple teams working on impactful projects. Finally, I work with a great team. We truly are a family and I am reminded every day how extraordinary our group really is. They are some of the most talented, caring, forward-thinking individuals that I have ever worked with.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?

A: There are three challenges I have to deal with on a regular basis:

  1. Change doesn’t happen overnight. It often takes a lot of convincing, pursuing multiple avenues, and dealing with a lot of politics. Perseverance is the key to being successful in this position.
  2. There is also a great deal of multi-tasking associated with our jobs. It’s not uncommon to be working on four different jobs at a time and having 10 different things open on my computer at any given moment.
  3. It’s not always easy to step away. I’m definitely getting better at this, but we’re all problem-solvers and it’s not always easy to extract yourself from those situations.

Q: What do you wish you’d known before you started in the construction industry?

A: I started at a four-year college right out of high school and dropped out after two years. In all actuality, I’m currently in my second career. I went out and swung a hammer 20 years ago instead of embarking on the career I have now. While I do feel that having that onsite experience has been beneficial, it was a bit of a setback. I always knew that I wanted to do what I’m doing now, but instead of starting on that career path at 24, I did it at 44.

Q: What is something about your job that would surprise someone outside of your industry?

A: It’s so cool to sit in a movie theater watching an animated film with my kids and know that I get the opportunity to actually bring buildings to life just like those characters are brought to life. In fact, we use a lot of the same technologies and software applications that they do on the big screen.

It might surprise some people to know that I spend as much time working with architects and engineers as I do with subcontractors and our own team members. I really enjoy being part of making that connection between organizations and disciplines.

Q: How has your field changed over the years?

A: Things in my field literally change weekly, simply due to the advancement rate of technology. The programs are becoming more abundant and more complicated, and the computers are becoming more powerful. Information is moving faster and things change on the fly at a quicker rate. Ultimately I’m seeing more and more things go the way of the cloud, which is becoming much more integral to the way we work.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add or any advice you’d like to give to someone who is considering going into your field?

A: Miron has changed my life. As a Miron employee, you become part of the culture and it becomes part of you. In terms of advice, I would say that if you want to succeed in this role, you need to get a strong education in Revit and Navisworks. You need to enjoy working in a team atmosphere, and you also have to love, and be driven to, learn and understand new things on an ongoing basis.

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