When building information modeling (BIM) began gaining popularity a decade ago, it was expected to dramatically change the construction industry. In addition to replacing 2-D drawings with 3-D, 4-D and 5-D models, BIM users can determine exactly how each building component works together in the planning stage to create a more cost- and time-efficient final product. Now that the industry is familiar with the technology, the ways in which BIM is used has exceeded what was initially forecast.
The types of firms buying into BIM and the ways in which they use it continue to evolve. Though there are still kinks to be worked out, one thing is certain: Contractors that have not embraced BIM to some degree are at a competitive disadvantage.
In the following Q&A, a few construction industry experts offer their thoughts on the development, and future, of BIM:
How has the popularity and usefulness of BIM morphed in the past few years?
- Gary Roden, executive vice president of Aguirre Roden, Dallas;
- Chris Canter, planning manager of Shapiro & Duncan Mechanical Contractors, Rockville, Md.;
- Mark Halavin, senior designer of BRPH, Melbourne, Fla.; and
- Huw Roberts, vice president of core marketing for Bentley Systems, Inc., Exton, Pa.
“The design community embraced BIM more from the beginning than contractors did. They were excited about doing projects in BIM,” Roden says. “What we found in the electrical field, and to some degree in the mechanical field, is the libraries of objects and related things weren’t quite there in the beginning. It was difficult to use, so the enthusiasm waned a little bit. But in the last four years or so, the design community finally has most of the tools needed to say BIM is easier than 2-D CAD.
“Because of the inherent value to the project from their perspective, the contracting community has really embraced BIM,” Roden continues. “It’s often the contractors that drive BIM on a project and push the owners to use it in project meetings. So I’ve seen a change in who is forcing the issue; now it seems to be contractors and owners more so than the design community.”
The design and construction communities use BIM in different ways, Roberts adds. Designers tend to think of it as a tool to improve and simplify personal tasks, such as producing drawings more quickly, while contractors tend to view BIM more broadly.
“Basically, culture, learning and acceptance of new methodologies in construction firms have increased. All of those come together to make information modeling better than it has been and improving at an increasing rate,” Roberts says How many of your projects use BIM?
“In the design side of our business, we use BIM every chance we get, unless for some reason the owner doesn’t want us to,” Roden says. “From a construction perspective, it has to be a job that is $20 million or more for us to justify a lot of BIM activity. That is primarily because the folks working on those smaller projects are not qualified or capable of doing it.”
However, fabrication is one area in which BIM is consistently valuable. Shapiro & Duncan uses BIM on any project costing $1 million or more.
“If we can get up there and draw this stuff, even if it’s down to half-inch copper lines, then we’re fabricating it in-house. That’s why we push to use BIM on every project, no matter what size,” Canter says.
With the right software and expertise, BIM can be used to any degree on any project.
“BIM is not a yes or no tool. You can use BIM on just one system or one part of a project, or just to look at an area you know is particularly complex,” Roberts says. “Maybe you decide to just do the steel, the lobby or the sitework on a smaller project where you know you can get the most value for your effort.”
How does BIM make your jobs more efficient?
“BIM forces collaboration to a degree we haven’t seen in the industry in the past. A lot of positives come out of that,” Roden says.
“BIM makes issues and clashes come to the forefront early in the process so we can correct them,” he adds. “Contractors have become so used to and good at BIM that it causes them to think their methodologies in building projects through much more in advance, creating less chance of problems down the road.”
This big-picture mentality impacts how both subcontractors and general contractors do business.
“It makes us think about how we’re affecting the other disciplines from an electrical and mechanical standpoint, such as whether our light fixture is in the same area as a piece of duct work,” Halavin says.
In addition to helping subcontractors work more cohesively, BIM can help bridge the age-old gap between designers and contractors.
“With the projects that have a design team on board, you can meet with them and show them the downfalls of design in the model. The designers are more willing to work with us and we are able to work with them,” Canter says. “It makes for a very successful project.”
But BIM collaboration also has its downfalls, such as time-consuming training for inexperienced contractors.
“The world is not uniformly up to speed with BIM. We regularly have sub-consultants and subcontractors that we need to assist greatly. That causes our workload to go beyond what we anticipated on a job,” Roden says. “Large-scale, complex and sophisticated owners tend to have subcontractors that are up to speed, but other folks who want to dip their toes into the BIM waters may not even know how to spell BIM.” What are the main challenges related to interoperability?
Even among those eager to use BIM, working in compatible technologies is a persistent problem with no uniform solution to date.
“Any given project has a host of different technologies being used. There’s never an expectation that all disciplines from site design to fabrication will use one piece of software. So you have to get information out of one system and into another,” Roberts says. “Our mission of doing that is information mobility. How do you make what you know move to the person who needs to know it?
“The answer could be using industry standards for information exchange, such as Information Foundation Classes or other format standards. It could be using information management systems to connect the team and manage versions and permissions. Or it could be allowing people to access information from devices such as radio-frequency identification tags and lasers through tablet computers,” Roberts says. “The real problem is how you make information get to the right people, and interoperability is a proposed answer to the problem. The challenges are overcome by planning an approach in advance. Don’t tackle each independent exchange of information as a problem in itself. Plan on how you’re going to manage your information from the outset.”
However, uniformity may not be too far off, as the National Institute of Building Sciences
and the buildingSMARTalliance
recently released The National BIM Standard-United States (NBIMS-US) Version 2 (www.nationalbimstandard.org
). The consensus-based standard addresses the full life cycle of buildings—from planning and design to operations and sustainability. It was developed via ballot submittals on reference standards, information exchange standards and best practice guidelines to help users implement BIM. Until NBIMS-US becomes more widely accepted, Roberts says the only way to remedy interoperability problems is through teamwork.
“A project team, from designer to contractor to owner, should set up a structure for how it will deal with issues together, rather than each silo using its own technology and format and then saying ‘now it’s time to exchange it, but how do we convert it?’” he says. “You need to work that out in advance. It’s going to take time, but there are a lot of people who already do this quite well, and others who haven’t started thinking about it.”
Contractors such as BRPH are all too familiar with this challenge, especially when handing the final BIM model over to the owner.
“A lot of times the owner wants a digital copy of what we produced for them, but they might not have the same software we used to do the work. Our biggest challenge is converting our work to the software they’re using while at the same time maintaining the information originally given,” Halavin says.
To satisfy all parties, Canter says the team must define processes from the beginning and let the owner know what to expect when the time comes to transfer the model. Contractors also need to continuously learn emerging technologies to help improve the project handover process and stay ahead of the competition.
“A lot more can be done on the contractor’s end to provide the owner with a sustainable model that’s more intelligent,” Canter says. “If we want to stay in the market, we’re going to have to move in that direction. We have to find that edge and provide the owner with more than just the basic model.”
How do you determine who is responsible for the model and BIM-related project decisions?
“The downfall of some of the BIM projects we’ve been involved in has been identifying who is the keeper of the documents and model and who can authorize changes,” Roden says.
A few years ago, Roden was part of a group that wrote the BIM addendum for ConsensusDocs, which focused heavily on model responsibility. This concept is a “huge part of making BIM work properly,” he says.
“What we’re seeing a lot of is identifying a project information manager or someone who’s the master information technology person that spans all of the companies participating,” Roberts adds. “It might be the person who holds the contract, one of the subcontractors or the design team. They identify where the home base is for the model.” Is BIM a tool to attract young people to the industry?
“It is attracting young people,” Halavin says. “The younger people coming out of design and construction schools see smart models that show what’s going on in the building as where the industry may be heading.”
Roberts, on the other hand, doesn’t think BIM necessarily draws young people to the industry, but rather serves as an attractive niche for young people already involved with the design and construction industries. “Young people are much more interested in a model approach to things rather than a drawing approach,” he says. “They are interested in understanding how information connects to all parts of the process.”
Roden sees firsthand the excitement his son—a junior in a construction program at the University of Oklahoma—has for technologies such as BIM. But he is concerned that the interest in—and emphasis on—technology may lead to a decline in workers that excel in the hands-on aspects of construction.
“We may be training a group of young folks who will be great computer jockeys, but don’t know how a building comes together or can’t look at a concrete pour and know if the slope is right,” he says. “We’ve had the same problem for years in the design side of our business with folks who are great at CAD but really don’t understand how a building works.”
Whether the focus on technology is a benefit or disadvantage to the industry, tech-savvy young professionals are a commodity for many companies. Often, young employees become the experts in digital solutions and are responsible for teaching their colleagues how to use software and other technologies.
“Other people learning the process go to the younger people with questions. They become teachers to people not as familiar with the software,” Halavin says.
Industry veterans usually are the most unfamiliar with, and sometimes the most adverse to, new technologies.
“One of the biggest issues we have in our industry right now associated with BIM is that it is forcing our field people to become more tech savvy, and a lot of our more tenured staff are resisting.” Roden says. “That’s limiting projects we can put them on, so they are unfortunately being put onto smaller projects than they are used to dealing with.”
Adds Canter: “We have to help employees that aren’t used to technology understand that they can pull the information they need out of a finished model. They’re used to paper drawings and the way everything’s been done for years.” What do you see for the future of BIM?
“One of the things I didn’t anticipate with BIM, but that seems like a natural evolution, is change regarding who does what. A lot more design-build is occurring on the part of subcontractors, particularly with mechanical and electrical companies, and that is driven to a great extent by BIM,” Roden says.
“We did a job recently where we developed a model as the mechanical/electrical designer and gave it to the subcontractors. They completed it to a very detailed level and re-submitted that model as their complete shop drawing with our stamp of approval. It eliminated the piecemeal type of shop drawings and submittals we usually get,” Roden says. “To me, that’s using BIM to its fullest extent, and it really changes who does what in the industry.”
According to Roberts, a model’s ability to show minute details also will drive BIM adoption by construction firms. “BIM will continue to morph into a collection of activities and a collection of specialized tools for all the disciplines, phases and stakeholders so everybody sees that the notion of having one master model or tool is a dead notion,” he says. “What everyone cares about is very different, so there will be different BIM tools for all those activities.”