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Cliff Cole PENTA Building Group

Behind the Build: Interview with Cliff Cole, VDC Manager, The PENTA Building Group

Across countries, cities and communities, no one construction market is like another. Whether it’s the varying weather, economic climate or even culture, all of these elements make the built environment unique–and sometimes hectic. For Cliff Cole, VDC Manager for The PENTA Building Group, working in construction in Las Vegas after building for government projects in Virginia was a significant change that took some getting used to. “Being based in Las Vegas, our core market is hospitality, gaming, nightlife, entertainment and restaurants,” says Cliff. “Coming from government jobs where everything is hard-bid contracts and documentation-heavy, to now where we had to start construction with schematic plans and had to dive in with short schedules, was quite an adjustment.”

Despite the change of scenery, Cliff has excelled in the construction industry in Las Vegas and has paved the way for PENTA’s utilization of building information modeling (BIM). In this edition of our Behind the Build interview series, we sit down to speak with Cliff on his journey from the east coast to the Gambling Capital of the World, as well as his thoughts on the future of BIM. Read on to learn more.

How did you first get into the construction industry?

When I was growing up, I loved sports. I wanted to be a basketball or football player–but I never had a thought of construction. No one in my family worked in construction. However, I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and I loved the Orioles and the Ravens.

Over my childhood, I saw Camden Yards, where the Orioles play, being built. Later on, when I was in high school, they built M&T Bank Stadium, which is where the Ravens play. Those sites are right next to one another in Baltimore. Before they were built, they were basically a parking lot and in a rough neighborhood. However, once the projects were complete, it became a thriving area where people came to and hang out and grab a drink before the game among other activities.

So as a young kid to see the area go from a parking lot to these two massive facilities that anchored our downtown area was intriguing. I thought, “how do you even start to create these types of projects?” That’s what helped draw me towards architectural engineering.

What excited me today about construction is the ability to be creative. Being able to actually live it and understand what it takes to transform a parking lot to a massive facility is amazing. I also always liked a challenge. In construction, no days are exactly the same and you never know what to expect.

Tell us more about your career journey so far.

My degree is in architectural engineering with an emphasis on mechanical design. But halfway through my education, I realized there was no way I wanted to sit behind a desk all day. So I started to look into construction as a possible career. After I graduated, I ended up working for a structural engineering firm as a drafter. Shortly thereafter, I worked for a construction company as an engineer in Virginia. Nevertheless, eventually, I was laid off from that job and thought “what am I going to do now?”

I decided to look at other areas of the country I could work. I had never really thought about the west coast–I was always just an east coast kid. But when PENTA called, I interviewed and was hired and ended up driving across the country in my truck. I started as a project engineer and started to get a feel for Las Vegas and all its craziness. Coming from government jobs where everything is hard-bid contracts and documentation-heavy, to now where we had to start construction with schematic plans and had to dive in with short schedules, was quite an adjustment.

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After working in the field as an engineer for a while, PENTA started looking into BIM. One of the IT managers at the time knew I had experience as a CAD drafter straight out of school. He asked me if I could look at the program they were evaluating. At the time, we were building a 26-story tower in downtown Las Vegas, the addition and renovation of the Golden Nugget Casino.

It was a fascinating project and I spent nights and weekend learning how to use the BIM software to build better.

After seeing what I did with that project, my company asked if I could implement BIM for other projects. I’ve been a part of the VDC department ever since.

What kind of work are you involved in at PENTA?

Being based in Las Vegas, our core market is hospitality, gaming, nightlife, entertainment and restaurants. We truly bathe in the chaos and thrive in an industry where the specific plan isn’t always clear. At first, we can get anything from a napkin sketch to a plan that’s always going to change while we’re in construction. Our clients expect us to be able to react, adapt and deliver swiftly, all with the least amount of impact on their businesses and daily operations.

Our clients want us to produce this magnificent product, space and facility for them, but they don’t want our presence known when customers are around. This sometimes means coming in at midnight and working until five.

How do you manage your client’s high expectations?

We always open a facility when we tell our client we will. We make what seems like an impossible deadline, possible. Now, we often have to get creative on certain things, but we always meet our deadlines. Often, we approach the project in phases, asking our clients about their biggest priorities. For instance, does the pool and day spa need to open for spring break and March Madness season? If it’s an event or restaurant center, is there a special performance from a celebrity we need to accommodate for? Whatever the case may be, we first try to understand what our clients expect.

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Most importantly, we’re looking to build relationships with our clients. We don’t just want to build a facility and go away. Therefore, it’s essential that we understand their business better and what drives them.

What excites you about the future of BIM?

I’m a simple guy. I have these big gold aspirations of what I think the world could be, and how BIM could be a part of that. On the other hand, I’m a realist. In my mind, the industry still hasn’t figured this BIM thing out in terms of processes.

My ultimate short-term goal is to have more people live in a virtual world before we build the physical world. Across the country right now, everybody’s busy–there’s so much work going on and it’s fast-paced. But we still have an efficiency problem in this industry. What we can do to improve it is to plan better and figure out why, what and how we’re building something.

Contractors have seen the most significant success with BIM for clash detection. In reality, the biggest game changer will be opening up a model and saying to the client “Is this what you want? Is this what you want to build?” I think VR and AR will definitely play a role in that in the future.

As far as the AEC portion, utilizing 3D concept across the entire lifecycle is critical. Having that information available and transferring it through operations will ultimately benefit the facility side.

What project has given you the most pride to date?

The Golden Nugget Rush Tower project–it helped launch everything with how PENTA functions in the BIM, VDC and technology world. One of the things that made this project interesting was the history behind the Golden Nugget casino. The world-famous Golden Nugget has been featured in several movies and TV shows. We just finished phase 2 project on the Golden Nugget casino, which added convention space, additional gaming and a nightclub facing Fremont Street. The new hotel tower was phase 3 of the master plan project. It was a $100+ million new hotel tower and restaurant space that involved tying into the existing property on two sides of the building on a very tight site.  The original Golden Nugget was built in the late 1940s and had been updated several times but phase 2 and 3 were the first major renovation in over 20 years. Although we were basically on the front door of the property, we had to create minimal disruptions. In the end, it was a challenging project where we learned to utilize new technology in an exciting way.

How are you using PlanGrid on projects?

Right now, we are focusing on global implementation to maximize all of the functions of PlanGrid across the entire project. On one of our largest projects, all our drawings will be shared through PlanGrid rather than through an FTP site. This is a big deal especially when you consider how far we’ve come when we used to give out CDs and thumb drives with plans and specs on them.

The most beneficial technology has to be able to provide collaboration. No one project is built by one person or one company.

We have to be able to share information with the whole team as easily as possible. Now, we’re able to collaborate on a whole new level just by increasing the efficiency of uploading and accessing these drawings with PlanGrid. If something is changed or new, everyone in the project gets a notification.

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What’s your favorite PlanGrid feature?

For me, my favorite is the overlay feature in PlanGrid. Change management is something we do on every single project. With overlays, I can easily understand what needs to be changed in a matter of seconds.

How would you describe PlanGrid to a friend?

I’m a bachelor, so I have this thing called the Instapot. It’s basically one solution that accomplishes many different things when you’re cooking. You could technically live without it, but to replace it, you would need about 7 different kitchen equipment. What PlanGrid does well is it’s one solution that accomplishes many functions in construction. To replace it, you’d need multiple solutions and you wouldn’t achieve the same level of efficiency.

If you had to impart wisdom to the next generation of BIM managers, what’s your advice to them?

Based on my experience, what helped me grow in the field was understanding that technology alone does not design or build facilities. People, building knowledge and technology combined design and build facilities.

Technology is a tool or resource to help you achieve a bigger goal.

The bigger goal is providing a facility that is built on schedule, on budget and with quality, for our clients. You need to understand the construction side first, and the best way to do that is to get practical field experience. Also, you need to understand how to communicate and work collaboratively with different stakeholders. Text and email is not always the best way to communicate with people.

Secondly, it’s important to understand the entire business side of the industry. This includes understanding how we work with designers and trade contractors, as well as, how we manage projects. Most importantly, you need to understand what the client ultimately wants to do at the end of the day. Understanding the whole lifecycle will help to facilitate your growth expertise. It’s the advice I give my team now, and it’s the advice I would give anybody coming into this industry.

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