In the last 15 years or so, Building Information Modeling (BIM) has evolved from a theory to a widely adopted practice in the construction industry—so much so that mechanical contractors who aren’t conversant in it are increasingly at a disadvantage. Fortunately, it’s never too late to learn. Read on for a quick look at the current state of BIM, a plan for building BIM into your business, and several predictions of things to come.
The basic concept behind BIM—the creation and use of a digital 3D model of a structure—has been around in some form since the 1970s, although the term didn’t become recognized and widely used until the early 2000s. Since that time, BIM has evolved, as more construction industry stakeholders recognize its value: compressing the construction schedule, reducing construction costs and reducing or eliminating litigation.
The model created during the BIM process can be used for a variety of tasks throughout the phases of construction. These tasks or procedures are sometimes referred to as the ‘Ds’ in BIM. The number of Ds has evolved over the years, with the following being the most widely recognized today:
• 3D: The actual coordinated 3D model, animations and walk-throughs.
• 4D: Project phasing, scheduling and simulations. Using the model, contractors can determine the proper sequence of installation, as well as which trades will clash during installation.
• 5D: Estimating. When the model uses intelligent content objects, contractors can use the model for real-time cost planning, value engineering and trade verification.
• 6D: Sustainability and LEED. Energy analyses can be conducted to optimize efficiency.
• 7D: Facility management. Owners can use the model to operate and maintain the building.
Build BIM into your Business
Haven’t a clue what the elements above mean or how to put them into action? Not to worry. Within the mechanical contracting industry, there’s a wide range of abilities and comfort levels when it comes to BIM. Contractors that were hesitant several years ago are now willing to make changes to build BIM into their business strategies, and as a result, adoption levels are increasing. That doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges; adopting BIM takes time and resources. There are several steps mechanical contractors looking to embrace BIM should undertake.
The first and most important thing to do is become familiar with the BIM process. While many think of BIM as software, in reality BIM is more about workflows and social practices. Read as much as you can, attend training programs and webinars, and consider getting certified. The AGC’s BIM certification training provides an overview of how the general contractor and owner deal with BIM, terminology and legal issues, among other areas.
Next, decide on how you’ll handle 3D modeling and coordination work: in-house, outsourced or a combination. If you’re planning to handle the work in-house, evaluate your processes, software and hardware and provide your BIM coordinators with the training necessary to adapt to BIM workflows. Monitor your team’s training needs on an ongoing basis. If you don’t have BIM coordinators on staff or find you need more depth, you’ll need to hire individuals with BIM expertise, preferably those who have experience in the trade. Therein lies a challenge, however: BIM professionals are in demand, so it can be difficult to find qualified project managers or coordinators.
The shortage of skilled BIM coordinators has led many contractors to look outside their organizations for help when overloaded with work, while some contractors have made the decision to outsource all BIM coordination.
Outsourcing to third-party drafting companies or manufacturers with drawing and coordination services gives contractors the ability to take on projects with BIM requirements or handle more projects than they did previously, allowing for growth.
Another important step in embracing BIM is reviewing and adapting your current processes to align with BIM workflows. In comparison to traditional coordination, BIM projects result in shorter construction schedules. Keeping up with the other trades may require implementation of faster construction methods and techniques such as prefabrication and modularization. Within your company, name a BIM champion. Put this person in charge of BIM processes and task him or her with identifying and evaluating ideas that could improve the team’s operations.
Finally, review the software you have and update or purchase new software, if necessary. There are a variety of programs available, but the industry is starting to lean toward Autodesk® Revit®. Most specifications will allow contractors to use the programs they have, but that may change in the future. Whatever program you select, get training so you understand how to use it efficiently. Customize the program so it acts the way you need it to. If you don’t have the time or resources to customize, look for add-ins that improve efficiency and model accuracy.
As you’re implementing these changes to build BIM into your business, it’s important to track, measure and evaluate for improvement. After all, you can’t improve what you don’t measure. This is particularly important for BIM coordination time. Estimating BIM jobs has been a pain point for many years, as there’s a fine line between quoting a project to make a profit and losing money. Track where you’re spending your time—modeling, detailing, coordination meetings, QC review, administrative tasks, training, etc. The metrics you keep track of can assist you in validating the quotes you create for the BIM/3D coordination portion of your projects. This will improve the accuracy of future estimates, allow you to track projects as they are happening and evaluate why hours exceeded the quoted hours in a post-mortem project meeting.
The Future of BIM
Contractors that begin making these changes now will be well positioned to handle BIM projects in the years to come, which is good news as the number of projects with BIM requirements is only expected to rise. Most large, complex projects such as universities, hospitals, government buildings and high rises have BIM requirements. Even new residential buildings and retrofit projects are getting into the game. Predictions vary, but it’s possible that BIM could be required on every project within 5 years.
Another way in which the industry will evolve is in the level of development (LOD) required in 3D models, where LOD 100 is conceptual, 200 is the design intent stage, 300 is accurately modeled with detailed information, 400 is construction-level detail for fabrication, and 500 is the as-built model. Level 400 is currently specified about 90-95 percent of the time, but as technology and the social coordination parts of the process advance, models will increasingly be developed closer to LOD 400.
In the future, BIM execution plans and project specifications may require all contractors on a project to use the same software, likely Revit, as it’s what architects and engineers frequently use. The goal is to start with a model in a single program and end with a model in that same program. Keep in mind, though, that technology and software are among the fastest evolving aspects of BIM, so what’s popular today may be obsolete in 10 years.
The final and most welcome change we’ll see is the increasing availability of qualified BIM coordinators. Lack of personnel is a global trend, but this will change as more universities offer BIM within their degree courses. The draftsman is becoming a higher-level opportunity and more appealing to students, so it should become easier to find people with BIM expertise.
There’s a number of steps mechanical contractors should follow to bring themselves up to speed on BIM, and now’s a great time to take action. As more owners embrace it, BIM will increasingly become a need-to-have. For contractors, this means BIM will become a need-to-know.