Engineering firms add value with BIM


December 18, 2014 By Michael Gustafson

The Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry has seen rapid progress over the past decade with the emergence of design technology, seamless workflow processes and the sharing of industry experience amongst AEC communities worldwide. Nonetheless, like any other sector, challenges will always be present. It is not always a hindrance as it helps the industry progress to the next level. 

Amongst the challenges faced by those in AEC sector is that projects are becoming more complex with the growing need to design for a population, not a particular demographic.

Infrastructure projects carried out now not only needs to appeal and benefit the current demographics in that area but the population to come and its potential massive growth. 

Aside from this, new regulations and compliance requirements have presented AEC professionals with additional pressure – requiring highly evolved solutions.

Adding on to this, the solutions for providing access to project data can create infrastructure and management complexity with mixed results or productivity loss. Taking this into consideration, many engineers and developers have realised the need to implement and adopt Building Information Modelling (BIM). 

Many have realised they are able to overcome the abovementioned challenges by visualising what is to be built in simulated environment whilst identifying potential design, construction or operational problems.

The accurate geometrical representation of the parts of a building in an integrated data environment also allows engineers to look at numerous planning and design options virtually before they spend a huge sum of money trying to implement them in the real world. 

BIM-driven workflows can include structural detailing. Use of Building Information Modeling is accelerating dramatically, driven by major private and government owners who want to institutionalise its benefits of faster, more certain project delivery, and more reliable quality and cost.

According to the 2013 McGraw Hill Construction SmartMarket report, “The Business Value of BIM for Construction in Major Global Markets,” adoption of BIM has reached more than 70% among firms in North America. Leading engineering firms are finding that BIM provides opportunities for companies to reshape projects at an ecosystem level, changing workflows in ways that deliver results.

A major driver of this evolution is that engineering firms are looking for better return on investment from BIM (see Figure 1). Even with a high adoption rate of BIM and owners seeing better coordinated designs with fewer requests for information, engineers are not being fully recognised financially.

Other external factors at play include fewer construction projects, tighter project schedules, and lower design fees. Some firms have tried to reduce costs through mergers and acquisitions or offshoring of certain services. Others are exploring technologies such as mobile and cloud that better streamline processes such as multidiscipline collaboration and structural analysis and design. 

Facing the challenges

Structural engineering professionals can face these challenges by adding value on projects that result in greater fees. One clear opportunity is the need to better connect BIM-based design and construction. Structural engineers are qualified to take a role in connecting the structural design with construction workflows. Being on the front end of design, they have an opportunity to address not only the form and functional requirements (building code safety and serviceability) but also constructability factors impacting fabrication and construction. 

To act on this strategy, structural firms increasingly are offering construction services not traditionally performed by the structural engineer of record. These services include:

·         providing a BIM model to the contractor or fabricator for quantity takeoffs (a measurement of material and labour needed for a project); 

·         pre-detailing major details and connections to help convey detailed design intent that can be offered to the fabricator or contractor; and

·         offering detailed structural 3D models and/or shop drawing deliverables (models, drawings, CNC files) to the fabricator.

The key is not to offer structural detailing for the sake of detailing; it is to streamline the design-to-fabrication workflows to capture greater project benefits, such as minimising waste through better coordinated designs and creating more reliable data transfers across stakeholders. 

Who owns the master builder role?

While it makes sense to integrate design and detailing activities, pulling this off can be difficult. Each domain of expertise is large in scope and the knowledge lies within different professions. 

One way to overcome this challenge is by having an integrated structural team, also known as a master builder unit. It is not one person who knows everything, but a team of experts with their respective knowledge — from structural analysis to fabrication practices. Some teams expand this list to include expertise in, say, steel connection design and rebar detailing. This approach ensures that teams have a holistic view of the design, while maintaining their specialties.

Strategy in practice today

As engineers explore offering additional services, they should look to see what their peers are doing. During the last decade, structural engineering firms have provided detailing and other construction-focused services across many structural trades, including structural steel, cast-in-place concrete, precast concrete, and cold-formed steel.

For example, at the Children’s Hospital Colorado project in Denver, S.A. Miro Structural Engineers offered to move the concrete detailing process upstream, bypassing the traditional shop drawing and submittal process. Instead of drawings, detailing was done from the in-process structural BIM. Conflicts were detected and resolved in advance and construction challenges (such as concrete pouring sequences) were addressed.

Such gains are just as evident in the structural steel industry. While steel fabricators and detailers have been using 3D modeling to drive internal fabrication (The process associated with the set-up, alteration and repair of structural steel assemblies within an infrastructure – be it for piping systems, building structures, stairways) and erection benefits since the early 1990s, BIM coordination teams have grown accustomed to receiving data-rich 3D models from the steel subcontractors to coordinate with other disciplines. In addition, engineers are sharing their BIM models with the steel fabricators to help generate early mill orders and jump-start the detailing process.

Is the industry ready?

The time is right to start exploring these new delivery models. First, there are new workflow innovations on the horizon for the structural steel industry. The integration of structural detailing earlier in the design phase will optimise the steel supply chain even further.

Furthermore, the American Institute of Steel Construction is spearheading an initiative to streamline the steel shop drawing review process by enabling model-based review workflows. This will essentially remove the need of shop drawings other than for field erection purposes because shop floor trades are moving to CNC-driven workflows, including robotic welding. 

A second trend is the enablement of cloud-based collaboration tools. The cloud is enabling anywhere/any time collaboration. Implementing cloud-based workflows in analysis, code checking, documentation creation, and general review and coordination each has their unique benefits. This type of collaboration is happening now between architects and designers, as well as with general contractors and their subcontractors doing clash prevention coordination. These same technologies can be leveraged today in design to detailing to fabrication workflows. 

How to get started 

Leading firms have delivered design and detailing services together for several years now and some best practices are emerging for delivery of structural detailing services. Articles about integrated structural design and detailing workflows point out possible business models and best practices. Firms can start a discussion internally about how to structure their organisation to bring in structural detailing expertise earlier and how to deliver it to clients. In addition, early involvement of the fabricator can have big benefits to the project. It shifts craft expertise farther upstream for critical factors that impact cost such as material availability, shop optimisation, and delivery and site logistics.

Because purchasing and training on software and hiring qualified structural detailers can be a challenge, it’s important to evaluate what workflows will have the greatest benefit to maximise profitability. Current users of certain BIM software can identify which downstream tools best fit their needs. Also, look for structural detailing investments that help recapture software and training costs more quickly. Factors such as software usability and size of its community base can impact how easy it will be to find, hire, and maintain new team members.


Structural engineering firms are taking on industry challenges by using a number of strategies. Many will take a strategy that redefines the role of the structural engineer by integrating key aspects of structural design — what is to be built and how it is to be built. This is the view of the master builder practiced by one of the greatest engineers, Leonardo da Vinci, in addition to many great modern designers from other industries, such as Vignelli Associates. It makes sense to apply this same approach to the ever-dynamic building and construction industry, where structural engineers can offer unique value in leading integrated teams that better connect BIM-based design and construction through fabrication.

Michael Gustafson, is the professional engineer industry strategy manager for structural engineering at Autodesk

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