Solving Miscommunications with a Picture


Advances in Structural Frame Software Simplify Construction

By Ross Theilen

How many times during construction have you discovered too late that a roughed-in wall needed to be relocated, a drop-beam covered over, or other framing problem fixed because the architectural plans didn’t address all building conflicts? With so many parties involved in designing and building a home – from the architect to the dealer to the subs – builders often face added costs, delays and hassles resulting from misunderstandings throughout the process.

It’s reminiscent of what the warden told Paul Newman’s character in Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

Despite an explosion of available communication devices, such as cell phones, personal digital assistants and the like, there still remain miscommunications throughout the life of a project. A detailed, three-dimensional computer image displaying the placement of every framing member may be the best way to work out problems before a single board is cut or a nail driven.

Today, dealers and builders have access to a bevy of framing software that helps improve coordination among builders, dealers, design professionals and code officials. These tools include whole-house framing design programs, specialized software for meeting specific needs like tall wall design, and fabrication software for supporting ready-to-install framing.

The benefits include faster construction, enhanced home quality, more confidence and visibility to design results, fewer repairs, and support of green building goals by reducing construction waste.

Whole-House Structural Frame Design

Using whole-house structural frame design software, dealers and builders can work together to quickly and easily solve building conflicts that are often not otherwise discovered until construction is under way. The dealer converts an architect’s or builder’s plans into a detailed, accurate framing layout, and all parties can review the entire structural frame from every vantage point inside and out, before ever starting to build.

Designers can use advanced 3D-modeling capabilities in whole-house design software to make changes to any part of a structure and immediately show builders a redesigned layout and material list. The result is improved accuracy and efficiency at every step.

Some tools, like Javelin software, accessed through iLevel by Weyerhaeuser dealers, will also account for plumbing runs, stub-ups and ductwork.

“If you’re working on a complex building, it’s hard to relay problems to a customer. If you can mock up a drawing in Javelin software and show them in 3D, that helps a lot,” said Matthew Wright of Milford Lumber on the benefits of improved communication using whole-house design software.

An added benefit of these types of tools is that the dealer can create framing layouts tailored to suit local construction practices and builder preferences. Some programs even allow them to save the specs for use in the builder’s future projects, further streamlining the design and building process.

Detailed framing plans developed through modern design software also can help builders earn points under green building rating programs. The U.S. Green Building Council estimates that conventional framing techniques use approximately 15 percent to 20 percent more materials than required for a sound structure. Their LEED for Homes rating system, as well as the NAHB National Green Building Standard, give builders points for efficient framing strategies included in detailed framing plans.

In essence, whole-house design software allows the designer, dealer and builder to confirm the material list down to the last hanger and plan precisely how the structural frame will be assembled. The result is labor and material cost savings and a dramatic reduction in waste on and off the jobsite.

Designing Tall Walls

Beyond whole-house design, framing software also can help with code-compliant solutions in specific parts of the frame. One such area is tall wall design. Prescriptive building code guidelines are available for walls less than 10 feet tall. But for tall walls in foyers, rooms with lofts or vaulted ceilings and other similar areas, the builder must develop solutions outside standard code guidelines.

This can involve complex calculations and the risk of red tag delays. If not adequately designed, tall walls may deflect under wind loads, potentially creating sheetrock cracks, water penetration and popped seals on windows.

Software such as iLevel’s Tall Wall Calculator addresses these challenges by making it easy to specify walls that are stiff, strong and predictable while meeting code guidelines. Designers use these tools to optimize wall designs, size materials to meet load-carrying requirements, and identify connection details for each wall framing member.

They enable builders to present framing member details and calculations to building inspectors to demonstrate code compliance.

Improving Jobsite Efficiencies

The benefits of software to builders extend from the design phase to the construction phase. Dealers using framing fabrication software, for instance, can help builders reduce or eliminate the labor needed to cut materials on site, speed construction, improve accuracy and quality and reduce construction waste.

Programs such as iLevel Stellar convert data generated by design software into electronic instructions that guide computer-controlled saws in producing pre-cut and labeled kits of materials or panelized units. For material kits, dealers precision end-trim joists and other framing members to within 1/16 of an inch of specifications.

By comparison, traditional framing materials typically arrive in standard lengths and are cut on site, resulting in one or two feet of scrap per cut. A step-up from pre-cut materials, pre-fabricated panels come in large-size, ready to install sections. In either case, such materials processed by the dealer can help reduce the dumpsters full of framing waste now common on most job sites.

With today’s software, some of a builder’s best tools may be on a laptop computer instead of in the back of a truck. Contact your dealer or framing material manufacturer to learn more about what types of structural frame design and fabrication software they offer and the services or support they provide to help streamline and optimize the framing process.

Ross Theilen, P.E., is the general manager of structural frame software for iLevel by Weyerhaeuser. He can be reached at