3-D Electrical Design Comes of Age

By Jeff Gavin | Jan 15, 2008




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Pen, paper and the drafting board may not disappear, but they are quickly becoming unnecessary. Today, more electrical contractors (ECs) are laying out entire electrical systems, using computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided engineering (CAE). With the growth in design/build and design/assist project work, design software continues to evolve. The latest, building information modeling (BIM), is giving electrical engineers and designers the ability to design and verify together with their construction counterparts in a virtual environment.

Search for “electrical design software” on the Internet, and the results will be many. For those who design on computers, that’s heartening. For those who don’t, it may be eye opening. For either party, successful software selection will require knowing what you want to accomplish and which software will give you what you need. If you take a free trial of a program, you might realize you need training.

Some of the big players in computer-assisted design (e.g., Autodesk, Bentley and Vico Software (, a company spun off from Graphisoft) offer CAD programs for electrical engineers. They also offer their version of products using BIM. Whether one strictly uses CAD or BIM software will depend on needs, awareness and value to the business. If a project is being designed electronically and the partners request that you follow suit, you have a decision to make. If you already design electronically and realize your partners in a design/build project prefer a particular software platform, you need to weigh the value in changing or upgrading what you use.

Standing out in a crowd

Josephine Valente is a rare breed in the world of electrical construction. She holds the title of director of CAD services for Rosendin Electric Inc. in San Jose, Calif. While large and small contracting firms use CAD, having an entire division, much less a director for CAD isn’t typical.

“I oversee electrical design, and I can tell you there aren’t a lot of skilled CAD operators in our industry yet, especially when it comes to three-dimensional rendering,” Valente said. “That said, computer-aided technology is my tool. I would never go back to pen and paper.”

Kyle Bernhardt, Revit mechanical-electrical-plumbing (MEP) product manager for Autodesk Inc. (, definitely sees 3-D as the future in computer-aided design for MEP engineers.

“It’s more readily used by plumbing and mechanical but is catching on with electrical contractors,” he said. “Designers seem drawn to the three-dimensional representation. It’s very helpful to them. You really have an unlimited capacity to render and model anything you want. It helps when the software presents construction documentation that looks similar to what they are used to with our AutoCAD. It’s a user comfort issue.”

While CAD is an automated system for the design, drafting and display of graphically oriented information, AutoDesk’s AutoCAD is a suite of CAD software products, supporting any number of automation and customization interfaces. BIM offers state-of-the-art solid object modeling.

Rosendin Electric is an early adopter of AutoDesk’s Revit MEP, and Valente serves as a beta tester for this BIM systems engineering tool. She said she loves what the software does for her. She said other electrical contractors need to come on board, so it becomes even richer in information and capability.

“Mechanical guys are 10 years ahead of us when it comes to computer-aided design,” Valente said, “Electrical designers tend to be left behind in this arena, but its changing with MEP software. Because so little representing the electrical world exists in current design programs, we tend to create our own icons symbolizing electrical equipment for the CAD drawings. It’s in its infancy, and we need to train people to do this type of work.”

Bernhardt added that the Revit MEP software is just a year- and-a-half old but has already gone through three releases, each a faster, incremental content evolution based on user feedback.

Valente finds her company turns to BIM for larger projects that are more complex. “Its use is dictated by owner or architect,” Valente said. “The bigger, more sophisticated the project, the more the client is hoping we can computer design as other partners in the project may be doing.”

In turn, Rosendin is starting to promote its latest design capability. “Our business-development folks come back to tell me after a presentation that the client is really impressed by our ability to accommodate certain projects,” Valente said.

Goodbye 2-D?

“Not everything needs to be 3-D, but that seems to be the future,” Valente said. “However, we still do plenty of two-dimensional work as we design and get a project to the permit stage.”

Mike Lambert is product manager for electrical systems for Bentley Systems Inc. (, based in Exton, Pa. Bentley is another major developer and supplier of design software for the construction industry. Its Building Electrical Systems software offers BIM with the visualization capabilities of a CAD platform.

“It’s a growing market,” Lambert said. “So much of electrical CAD had been 2-D, which has its place, but now 3-D is taking hold. A lot of electrical engineers and designers aren’t aware of what can be done. It’s been a little more difficult to model electrical information in a BIM environment, but the software is developing. The electrical engineer will help the industry better its product.”

Advances such as BIM seem like they might preclude electrical contractors who don’t find like-minded partners. This isn’t so for Mark Maikowski, system designer for Venture Electrical Contractors Inc. in Waukesha, Wis. His company used earlier Autodesk products and recently updated to Revit MEP.

“We’re involved in a hospital project right now where everyone is using Autodesk’s Building Systems 2007,” Maikowski said. “The engineers have done the original drawings in 2-D. In fact, most of the mechanical engineers we deal with are still using 2-D. With our Revit MEP software, we converted 2-D light fixtures in 3-D for better representation. Because it’s all AutoCAD-based projects, the software interchanges to a degree. I can save AutoCAD drawings for clients if they aren’t using MEP, but you do lose some of Revit’s functionality. Right now, we use it as stand-alone software to render. We’re anxious to use it to its full capabilities with on-board architects and mechanical engineers.”

Regardless of program, Maikowski would never go back to designing without a computer.

“Every advance in MEP software makes electrical design easier for us, from wiring a building’s security system to fully engineered jobs,” Maikowski said. “There are huge advances in productivity, giving me more time to do actual design. The speed to verify and analyze are great features. I no longer need to stand around a table scrutinizing an array of papers, then looking at every feeder and fixture in an effort to discover possible conflicts with another engineer’s work. Software does it with more accuracy. Rendering floor plans in 3-D has been very helpful.”

“We draw in our back tray, conduit runs, electrical rooms, branch circuits in 3-D,” Valente said. “We then coordinate using NavisWorks, so drawings are compatible with what others have done on the project, be they mechanical engineers, the architect and so on. A flash detection cross references to alert us if something we did conflicts with something someone else did in the building design. Project teams can navigate through the design, discuss it and show each other their changes.”

The project hierarchy remains the same, even in a virtual world, Valante said. “The architect’s work is done first,” she said. “The mechanical designers then add theirs, and the electrical engineers then add their designs. It helps us as the model is largely set, and we know where our work needs to go, what opportunities exist and the limitations.”

Building opportunities using computer smarts

“Electrical professionals are starting to think about CAD tools and BIM,” Lambert said. “There is a need to build awareness, especially in the design/build or design/assist project world. I can tell you architects and mechanical engineers hope the electrical engineers get on board with BIM software. We’re starting to see government and commercial construction projects that require the use of BIM.”

Mastering CAD, AutoCAD and/or BIM is one more capability electrical contractors can use to expand their business capabilities. Such software programs address many electrical design projects, including fire protection, security or lighting design.

“Once BIM’s capabilities are recognized in the construction world, I see one construction trade nudging the other to adopt this design approach,” Bernhardt said. “There’s also another force that may drive its adoption—building owners. They may ask for a BIM, so they can use the information to run the building once it’s constructed.”  EC

GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction and the landscaping industries. He writes trend, design and other business articles.



About The Author

GAVIN, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction and urban planning industries. He can be reached at [email protected].





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