For early adopters of building information modeling (BIM), it is the standard way to conduct business. Some see it as a future for building design and construction. Electrical contractors (ECs) may be the last to embrace BIM, but it is not for lack of interest.

BIM, in all its complexity, is a process that renders in 3-D an animated digital building model that accurately predicts building performance before ground is even broken. Dynalectric Co. and its parent company, EMCOR Group Inc., are early adopters.

Jim Bratton is engineering manager of virtual design and construction for Dynalectric, Los Angeles. The electrical contracting firm bills itself as a go-to source for complex, technology intensive projects, Bratton said. He embraces BIM but notes its lack of electrical design content is a roadblock to greater adoption in the electrical contracting world. He finds the advantages, though, outweigh shortcomings.

“If you consider the old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ a BIM model is worth a million,” Bratton said. “It communicates our design intent, so people immediately lock into it. Architects and engineers see our problems, and the general contractor sees where the design needs work.”

Benefits and promise

EMCOR is a global provider of mechanical and electrical construction services headquartered in Norwalk, Conn. For David Morris, director of virtual construction services, 2008 was a tipping point for BIM acceptance.

“EMCOR companies began the BIM pilgrimage over 6 years ago,” Morris said. “We’re committed to the use of 3-D modeling and BIM in our project work because the metrics have shown reduced rework, higher safety, better ability to control costs, and reduced chance of litigation. We see more designers, contractors and owners using BIM than not.”

Morris expects the technology to evolve and mature for at least another 10 years. Bratton said there already are enough reasons to use it.

“There’s real cost savings in materials prefabrication. You see what you need, render it and specify its manufacture digitally, be it racks, support systems, trays, brackets, supports, rods, and conduit. When we draw it, we know it is constructible.”

He also favors BIM for its capability to check one installation move against another for conflicts; check electrical distribution for loads and breaker services, energy usage and lighting; create layouts for early parts procurement; and coordinate mechanical and equipment work remotely using a laptop.

EMCOR has successfully completed more than 300 BIM projects in five years. More than 100 involved electrical designs. Dynalectric has worked on 30 of them, namely large projects of more than $2 million.

KAI Design & Build, headquartered in St. Louis, is another early adopter of the technology, having used BIM since 2003. The firm applies it to both architectural and mechanical--electrical-plumbing (MEP) design. Adam Lega, BIM coordinator for KAI, likes to define BIM as building information management.

“In BIM, everything is done automatically,” Lega said. “If you do circuiting or a panel schedule, you don’t have to rebalance manually if circuits change. Coordination across the document set is streamlined, so if one thing is updated, it changes throughout the project. It is a very powerful control tool.”

Dynalectric has been proactive in holding BIM primers for general contractors to gauge interest and sell them on the process.

“We found that [general contractors] get overwhelmed with the technology and mechanics,” Bratton said. “They can be reluctant. That said, in the last year, we have seen that turn around with 100 percent adoption.”

What’s missing?

A fundamental hurdle recognized by manufacturers and users alike is the challenge for ECs to render an intelligent electrical design model in BIM.

“There is no one yet producing a true out-of-the-box program for ECs to create constructible models,” Bratton said. “Today’s packages provide the shell to customize, assuming you have the time and inclination to fill in the blanks.”

Bratton said his department has built 4,000 custom-made visuals (AutoCAD Multi-View Parts) to use BIM in its electrical contracting work.

“What hasn’t taken place is the definition of standards and specs project teams adopt from the owner or contractor—what content needs to be in the model to make it useful,” said Tim Douglas, senior marketing manager for construction for Autodesk Inc., based in San Rafael, Calif. “Definition and design is not what it needs to be for MEP contractors. This is changing with input from contractors.”

Chuck Eastman, professor for the Colleges of Architecture and Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, and an expert on BIM technology, said ECs should be more aggressive.

“Companies can’t guess what ECs need,” he said. “When information modeling was being adopted by the aerospace industry, committees gathered with programmers to discuss the functionality and needs of such modeling as they applied to their engineers. There is no reason this cannot happen in the electrical contracting world. Why not form an industry group that states what it needs from software developers?”

Ideally, BIM should bring everybody together at the start of a project, from owner and architect to general and subcontractor. So far, that scenario is more promise than practice.

Jeff Burmeister, Tampa-based product manager for Autodesk Subcontractor, attended the 2008 NECA convention and trade show in Chicago in October. Recurring stories emerged as he spoke with ECs familiar with BIM.

“Often, ECs were brought into a project in progress, many times with the initial building design completed. They were frequently unaware it was a BIM project until a ‘by the way’ from the general contractor. The design often left little room for the EC’s work. This needs to change.”

Kai’s Lega agreed.

“BIM requires a shift in thinking. Subcontractors should be involved early on in the project. Other partners in a project don’t always place enough import in what the EC needs,” he said.

Training

Bratton’s staff is composed of what he calls “detailers.”

“We typically receive traditional 2-D electrical engineering plans,” he said. “We then generate a 3-D equivalent and coordinate it into the construction model.”

Bratton hires and trains from within the company.

“There are 12 in my department. I expect that to expand to 20 by the end of 2009,” he said.

“Real skill, talent and discipline are required to create and operate in a BIM environment,” Eastman said. “It’s more than someone working in a CAD station.”

Bratton said you need to master BIM to be successful with it. He said some hang out a BIM “shingle,” but lack the necessary training and knowledge, which can jeopardize a BIM project.

“Sometimes generals and owners do not vet their subs thoroughly,” Bratton said. “There are people who boast BIM expertise but have not mastered it. There also are engineering firms that say they can create constructible models and cannot. The owner then brings us in and does not understand when we find information missing in the model that we need to do our job. It drags the process down and defeats the purpose of BIM.”

Software developers add that education remains the biggest component of any BIM sales effort.

“I often get asked, ‘How do we become a certified BIM contractor?” Douglas said. “There is no such thing, but contractors can get up to speed on how BIM works. We emphasize BIM is an integrated process—create, predict and deliver—namely modeling and 3-D design tools, simulation and analysis tools (NAVISWORKS, etc.), and the delivery mechanism. The better you know what BIM is, the better your decisions in how and when to use it.”

Trying it out

Kaiser Electric Inc., Fenton, Mo., employs about 150 electricians. Mike Compton, executive vice president, plans to try BIM. But if it doesn’t work for his company, he said he’ll get out of it.

“BIM is sort of a leap of faith for us,” he said. “We started talking to architects and mechanical contractors who were using it and have decided to join them. We had to fight through CAD to master it and know BIM will be challenging until we get comfortable with it.”

Compton takes a true team approach in his business. Some 30 percent of its work comes through a consortium formed by Kaiser Electric and area architects, plumbing and mechanical contractors. Together, they solicit work. Kaiser Electric believes BIM will be a perfect tool in team projects.

“We are starting a building project that needs for all sorts of cabling and computer equipment,” Compton said.

The project will feature soundproof classrooms, connecting corridors, computer rooms that support flight simulators and other training.

“This will be a challenging project as space for voice and computer cabling, and HVAC duct work will be limited to the corridors, which have tight ceilings,” Compton said. “With BIM, we can investigate what would happen if we raised the building or lowered the ceiling. We hope BIM can help us design this space efficiently and effectively.”

GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction, landscaping and related design industries. He can be reached at gavo7@comcast.net.