When Wiley Gilliam studied architecture, manual drafting was already becoming a thing of the past. “I learned AutoCAD in school,” says the Dallas-based design/build contractor, who uses the industry-standard drafting program to produce all of his company’s construction drawings. But Gilliam, 36, starts every project the old-fashioned way, with pencil-and-paper sketches.
And in between schematics and working drawings, Gilliam relies on Google’s popular, user-friendly 3D modeling program, SketchUp. Like many design/build contractors, Gilliam approaches technology with an open mind, choosing whatever tool is most appropriate for the task at hand.
“I use hand drawings for schematic design,” Gilliam says, “showing [clients] where the rooms are going to be, the views, where the sun’s going to travel. Once we all agree, I’ll put the design into a 2D drawing in AutoCAD and present them with a to-scale floor plan. Once we get the floor plan to the point where they’re happy with it, I do a 3D model in SketchUp.” Inexpensive and able to run on an everyday computer, the program makes it easy for Gilliam to help clients visualize their project inside and out. “I show them their interior cabinets, their bathrooms, everything in 3D,” he says. “We’ll literally sell the whole remainder of the job in SketchUp.”
After learning of the program from an architect friend, Gilliam downloaded the free version and quickly got up to speed using online tutorials. “About two years ago, we had a really bad snowstorm, and I sat by the fire and learned SketchUp in one 10-hour day,” he says. “I’ve fine-tuned my abilities over the years, but I was modeling a house within the very first day. It's a simple program.”
Simple, but effective, he adds. “SketchUp really was a game changer. Since I learned SketchUp, it’s a lot easier to portray exactly what we’re doing. I’m no longer explaining to clients, ‘Well, this wall is going to be 15 feet high, and this wall is going back 15 feet …’ It was just a different animal from selling off a 2D drawing.”
Autodesk, the company that markets AutoCAD, offers a building information modeling program called Revit that enjoys growing popularity among architects, but Gilliam doesn’t feel the need for all that horsepower. Revit’s photo-realistic renderings are eye-popping, he says, “but we’re not in the business of doing high-quality 3D renderings. I’m able to do just fine with SketchUp. I’ve gotten to the point where I can import textures and things like that, to a point that’s close enough to portray what it’s going to be.”
About the same time Gilliam adopted SketchUp, he stumbled on another low-cost, high-impact technology: Houzz, an online community-cum-archive that hosts millions of architectural photographs for hundreds of thousands of design pros. “A client of mine introduced me to Houzz,” Gilliam says. “I was having some professional photography done for all my past projects, so I would park [the images] on that website, because it was free.” When he wanted to show clients his portfolio, he reasoned, he could direct them to his Houzz pages.
But then an unexpected thing happened. Because Houzz indexes photographs by keywords and location, Gilliam’s projects started to draw hits from potential clients he’d never met. Gilliam had recently split from his longtime partner and relaunched his firm with an explicit focus on modernist design. Because his firm’s name—Modern Craft Construction—references an architectural style, his Houzz pages drew prospects prequalified by a similar interest. Houzz’s search algorithm also ranks photographs by popularity, so the more hits his projects drew, the higher in the search ranking his work appeared.
“Within a month my phone started ringing, and my presence on Houzz began to grow,” Gilliam says. Surprised at his good fortune but recognizing a golden opportunity, he told his photographer to keep shooting until his entire portfolio was documented and posted. “Within six months, I had everything up on Houzz,” he says, “and the rest is history. Between Houzz and SketchUp, my business tripled in the period of a year. It was berserk how quickly it took off, and I can literally point to those two variables [as the reason why],” he says.
Gilliam had always relied on word of mouth for marketing, but Houzz vastly expanded his reach. He says, “I had a guy call me today who said, ‘I’ve been admiring your work for three years. We’re looking to build a house. Where do we start?’ I’m only at around 1,000 followers, but that’s just a huge platform that I didn’t have.”
Gilliam says his firm still has a zero budget for marketing, “but we’ve shifted to the point where 80% of our work is through Houzz and 20% from referrals, because the referrals just don’t move as quickly.” But online exposure has boosted word-of-mouth too, he adds. “I’m two generations in on Houzz referrals now. I’ve done a job for someone, they told a friend, and then they told a friend, but it all started with a Houzz lead.”
SketchUp and Houzz are only the most prominent examples of low-cost or free digital tools that are revolutionizing the way small remodeling companies do business. Tools like the smartphone and cloud-based files sharing are so ubiquitous that they’ve become all but invisible. “We use our phones like they’re going out of style, sending photos back and forth,” Gilliam says. “They’ve drastically sped things up.” Problems and questions that once would have required a site visit can now be handled anywhere.
“On a daily basis I’m getting photos shot to me, and I’m answering questions. I can open up a photo in my PDF editing program”—he uses Bluebeam—“add notes, and send it right back.” But photos themselves may soon come to seem old fashioned. “My guys will call me on Facetime and show me what the problem is,” Gilliam says. “As we’ve grown, that’s been ever more important, because I can no longer see all my jobs in one day.”
Even though Gilliam spends a lot of time out of the office, cloud-based file storage allows him to read, edit, annotate, and transmit documents from anywhere. “Internally, we communicate everything through Dropbox,” he says. “It’s our server in that sense. We can read and scale plans, I can grab my phone and find a budget, I can find engineering drawings, I can find permits. Everything we have goes into folders in Dropbox, and it’s right here in my pocket."
Gilliam’s patchwork suite of digital tools has proven its efficacy on an extensive Dallas-area remodel for clients living in Malaysia. “We’ve met in person three times,” says Gilliam, who shares 2D and 3D drawings, contract documents—and, yes, pencil sketches—as easily as if the clients were around the block. “We’ve done every bit of it through Dropbox,” he says.
“There’s more legwork on my side, because of all the details I have to portray with plan views and through pictures, but it’s been great. It’s been literally Dropbox, email, and text messaging; the whole job’s been communicated that way. We very seldom even talk on the telephone.”