Contractors have been using rudimentary building-information modeling (BIM) tools since the 1970s to design installations before construction. Today’s BIM software tools aim beyond new builds to help users track operational efficiency.


According to its 2010 SmartMarket Report, McGraw-Hill Construction found that BIM tool users have achieved greater sustainability. However, only 17 percent of firms practicing green BIM reported that they take advantage of most of BIM’s capabilities for green projects. That leaves considerable room for ECs to boost that usage, if the opportunity arises. 


The opportunities are out there. Companies and agencies with large amounts of real estate are pushing to renovate their buildings to be more efficient, and it takes the right BIM tools for contractors to make it work for them.


This is especially true for the Department of Defense, which is striving to improve the efficiency of building performance in its facilities nationwide. The agency has millions of square feet of building space, of which most will be renovated in coming years to reduce energy consumption.


One effort is the Defense Department’s Energy Efficiency Buildings (EEB) Hub, where researchers are working on energy-efficiency strategies, including integrated retrofit design and delivery methods.


“A lot is based around power generation,” said Jason Reece, Balfour Beatty senior manager of technology and process development at the research and development arm of the company’s Capabilities Group. After all, passive heat from lighting, which increases the need for more air conditioning, is just one example of how electrical systems can affect the building’s energy efficiency in a variety of ways.


No matter the necessary renovations, electrical contractors will be involved.


As part of this effort, companies such as Balfour Beatty are figuring out how to approach a building construction or renovation holistically, which will require the participation of the electrical contractor working with the general contractor, engineers and architects in the design phase using BIM tools.


Autodesk Green Building Studio is one such solution. This web-based energy-analysis software helps architects perform whole-building analysis. The company’s Ecotect Analysis is an environmental analysis tool that allows designers to simulate building performance during the earliest stages of design. The software combines an array of analysis functions with an interactive display that provides results, based on the analysis, within the context of the building model.


As BIM-based data addresses building operations, architects and engineers hope tools such as Green Building Studio help answer such questions as “How will a building perform based on the design?” and “How will the system be used?”


Green Building Studio enables users to factor in how much power a building would generate based on a specific design. This becomes more significant as building owners and government agencies press toward the goal of zero-net energy (ZNE) buildings. If not yet achievable, building owners are aiming to get as close to it as feasible.


Reece said customers will turn to electrical contractors who are developing the right solutions for these kinds of projects. Most midsized to large electrical contractors use BIM to provide design details that enable them to collaborate with the general contractor and the rest of the construction team. Anyone who is not already using BIM as a first step must get there soon. Finally, Reece said smaller contractors may still contract out the design work to others, but that approach doesn’t work well for Balfour Beatty. 


“That means a lot less coordination in the design,” Reece said, adding that this makes it harder for the general contractor to work with them. “Larger electrical contractors are nearly universally modeling, and those who don’t will become dinosaurs.”


As useful as you make it


Many contractors strive to use BIM tools to be proactive—to track monitoring and validation that energy consumption will be as low as possible once the building is in use.


One way to do that is to provide meters for individual circuits to help the owner track the behavior of the building’s occupants. Meters can identify bad tenant behavior (e.g., leaving lights on 24 hours a day); graph the highest and lowest consumption; and more easily identify when there is a problem with equipment based on the normal highs and lows. In this way, Reece said, contractors can help clients and themselves get information to better monitor performance.


When the metering data is extracted, it can then be fed through BIM databases to manage the information and identify deviances. Reece said the tools ultimately create one large loop, first designing the building, completing construction, operating and collecting operation data, and then programming accordingly for the next building.


The electrical contractor owns the data and can apply it to each following project. This kind of practice, Reece said, “will change the industry significantly.”


In the meantime, the modeling tools also can help the building owner with operation and maintenance.


BIM benefits for all


BIM offers a strategy for managing today’s complicated buildings.


“The whole BIM model is taking off. It’s rare anymore when you have a new construction project that hasn’t been designed with BIM tools,” said James F. Dagley, Johnson Controls vice president of channel marketing and strategy.


Several years ago, Johnson Controls got heavily involved in the BIM market. The company makes thousands of components in a building, and its challenge was developing BIM tools to help users manage all those components with a 3-D model.


Because a full 3-D model of everything that is installed in the building would be too bloated to use, Johnson Controls offers an Autodesk solution for the basics, then a series of more sophisticated projects specific to configured components. Increasingly Johnson Controls’ tools are being used for a more integrated design and in the operational phase.


In addition, if a customer is pursuing LEED certification, they can use the BIM tools to ensure they have met those requirements during the design phase. Modeling enables contractors to eliminate waste and have an integrated approach to the effort with other contractors during the design phase. For electrical contractors, it can be a matter of identifying where they can eliminate wire before construction, but it also lets them to map out wireless access points, temperature sensors and other details and work with other subcontractors to get it done. That could eliminate the typical “race for space above the ceiling,” Dagley said.


Companies can turn an eye to maintenance and how BIM tools can assist with building operation and even the identification of equipment installed in the ceiling. Imagine a scenario in which a switch above a surgical room malfunctions. Staff would have to close the room, climb a ladder to access that switch, use a multimeter, take a picture of the part and figure out where to get a replacement. With BIM models, the user could see a representation of everything on his iPad and put in a replacement order without disrupting activity in the surgical room.


Whether design, construction or operations and maintenance, the result using BIM is much better for the customer. The change orders disappear, the risk goes down, the lower overall cost of the building drops and the energy efficiency increases.


However, there is still room for growth when it comes to managing BIM-based data. Nearly all the experts interviewed in the McGraw-Hill survey expressed the need for better software integration. The two types of software most frequently mentioned in this context were energy-performance modeling software used by engineering firms and facility management software used during building operations and management. In both cases, the software currently cannot use the depth of data available in the BIM model. In fact, building models are frequently rebuilt by engineers in their own energy-performance modeling programs rather than drawning them from existing BIM models.


Eric Hughes, who has been employed in the electrical industry for several decades and has helped build BIM solutions for electrical contractors, sees a lot of work yet to be done.


“It’s one thing for an owner [to use BIM] to meet a certain LEED level, but to own and operate the building and make good use of that intelligent green design is something else,” he said. 


A building can be designed to be energy efficient, but its operations still determine how much energy it consumes.


For this reason, Hughes is a proponent of building information management rather than building information modeling. In the former, the tools can be used to help manage its operations as well as design a building. The greatest problem that Hughes sees is the volume of data coming from disparate BIM tools.


“We’re creating all this data and providing it to the owner. In some cases, they just don’t know what to do with it,” he said.


An owner and contractor need a coherent strategy to collect and analyze BIM-based data. 


“Many owners have only a vague idea of what they want. What they end up with is oodles of data they don’t know what to do with,” he said, adding that contractors should try to better educate owners about just what data they may need and how to use it. 


“It’s not the tools that make something green. It’s the way they’re used,” he said.