The use of Building Information Modeling (BIM) in medium-to-large construction projects is becoming more common. Yet, much of the design software still favors contractors other than electrical. Though BIM is tailored to bring all partners to the table, the electrical contractor (EC) doesn’t always get the invite. Don’t let yourself be taken out of the game. Turn a deficit into a gain.
No one can do what an EC does or apply that work within a BIM model. If the art representing electrical parts and equipment isn’t there in the software, only an EC can best create it. If the MEP design needs refining, the EC is an obvious tradesman to offer solutions. Smart electrical design is essential to creating a high performing building.
BIM is an EC leadership opportunity just waiting to happen. No one knows that better than these three contractors. Rosendin Electric, Inc., based in San Jose, California, is one of the larger electrical contracting firms in the U.S. with close to 2500 employees and branch offices in a number of states. BIM adoption is especially strong on the West Coast (Zuppa 2009). Chicago-based Continental Electrical Construction Co. is another large firm that uses its expertise in BIM as a key selling point to its customers. The company serves the greater Chicago area and the Midwest. Though exposed to BIM projects less often, a mid-sized like ERMCO, Inc. in Indianapolis is also committed to BIM. The company employs elements of BIM in non-BIM projects to improve all of its work and better serve its clients.
Discovering ways to lead
All three firms have found themselves taking leadership roles in projects that needed their expertise to create an effective digital building model. These ECs know that their BIM skill has gotten them a “seat at the table”.
Though Rosendin has had to create its own data base of electrical art for BIM programs that were lacking, that hasn’t stopped the company from using BIM to one degree or another in all of its projects. It has applied “virtual building” in projects involving hospitals, data centers, bio-pharmaceuticals, stadiums, high-rise residential, hospitality and transportation such as airports. The larger the project for them, the more likely it involves a full BIM digital model.
“If a project using BIM is going to be highly complex, we find ourselves brought into the process from the beginning,” said Bill Mazzetti, senior vice president and chief engineer at Rosendin. “We work to leverage the true value of BIM within our work, embedding intelligence in our models specific to the electrical design which also helps drive coordination with the other trades.”
David Witz, president of Continental Electrical Construction Co., says the same is true for his firm. He is seeing more and more projects requiring full use of BIM especially with the bigger projects of $2M or more.
“When its design-build or design-assist, we’re at the table,” said Witz. “When electric design is front and center we can take the lead such as a data center with its needs for lots of conduit to power switchboards, power distribution units, uninterruptable power supplies, cooling systems and other complex design elements. We’re currently involved in a design-build data center project and have taken ownership of the digital model. The GCs are finally getting on board with BIM and bringing the MEPs on board up front.”
“BIM use in complex projects is great tool,” added Mike Hanek, director of engineering for Continental. “Vertical and horizontal elements, sweeps and terminations, exiting rooms and so on, are wonderful to render and design in BIM. In some ways it’s more art than just building science. We do work to create switches, lighting, conduit, conduit bends and other objects within the BIM program so it adequately represents the electrical design and gives us the art we need.”
All three ECs are using Autodesk’s REVIT MEP for BIM design. Autodesk is one of many competitors in the BIM software industry that include other leaders such as Bentley, Vico Software and Graphisoft. To Autodesk’s credit, their 2011 REVIT release focused on the needs of the electrical contractor adding more pertinent content.
“I think BIM use is being driven in part because the owners want to save time and money in a down economy,” said Josephine “Jo” Valente, Rosendin’s Director of Virtual Building Technologies. “BIM has allowed them (owners) to do that and stay on budget. Though they push for a tight schedule, it’s certainly been less onerous with BIM involved and when used correctly. To that end, we’ve taken the initiative to bring a ‘BIM box’ to the project construction sites. The box is a flat-screen TV where all the building partners can gather and view the digital model. We can review, troubleshoot, validate and reference all together.”
ERMCO’s use of BIM isn’t often in the service of a full digital model, though they have taken on projects rendered in full BIM including several hospitals and a stadium.
“We mainly do a lot of 3-D modeling,” said Adam Rude, director of construction services for ERMCO. “To date, only a couple of our jobs had a BIM requirement. BIM does allow us to claim our space early for electrical work so it’s seen by the other contractors as they map out their work. Just using elements of BIM also allows us to do our job better and provide value to non-BIM projects. We use AUTOCAD MEP and REVIT MEP and Navisworks.”
Rude went on to explain that his firm’s use of BIM includes parts fabrication, drawing, and installation modeling. There are many jobs where he and the building partners use 3-D coordination and clash detection. “Even in our ‘pick and choose’ approach to elements in BIM, it forces us to have a plan. We just don’t go out and install.”
Using BIM benefits to provide value
“If accorded the right amount to time for fabrication, BIM helps us smooth out manpower hours,” said Witz. “We prefabricate what we can so there are no tooling or delivery issues at the project sites. There’s savings as BIM fosters lean manufacturing. Take conduit racks for instance. We create only what we need. We’ve been lucky to be part of job kickoffs that include the foreman and purchasing staff to figure out everything from wall assemblies and boxes in the ceiling to conduit BIM and bends.”
Hanek added that when using BIM, he and other contractors sometimes agree to split a project into parallel tracks. “For instance, if a project is going to require a lot of underground conduit, we’ll take the lead in the model and start on the design of the building’s sub-floor. On another floor, it might make sense for the mechanical modeler to take the lead working simultaneously on that space. This has allowed us to get BIM done cheaper and on time.”
Mazzetti pointed to the value of ancillary software programs.
“Project management software that tracks manpower needs, parts, needed quantities and much more, help us and the project team,” Mazzetti said.”It allows us to keep our work on schedule and our costs in line, something much appreciated by the GC.”
Mazzetti shared how his firm uses construction and field management software that can feed into BIM. Conceivably every role and need in a building project is retrievable in one place to work in concert.
“BIM-friendly management software programs help us narrow the times to build off BIM,” he said. “It certainly helps us come prepared to the job site and validate the model.”
Rosendin uses a suite of field management software from Vela Systems recently acquired by Autodesk and now called BIM 360 Field. “We can pull parts cost and quantity directly from the model to our estimating program, and then acquire total cost,” Valente added. “The estimate is then a reference so the project is on target and on budget. The GC appreciates that we can provide such precision and offer checks and balances.”
Because 360 is cloud-based software, Rosendin staffers can use an Apple iPad to access building model electronic drawings, project quality control check lists and other log work in the field. They can perform an energy analysis of the building or evaluate conceptual designs. There is also a GPS function allowing field personnel to physically walk through the building with a tablet in hand and have their location virtually reflected within the digital model.
“We can also mark-up modifications in the design discovered at the work site and send them back to the modeling team to fix in the model,” Valente added. “Conciseness is an added value. Such software has certainly increased our efficiency in BIM and is lowering our cost.”
The firm has also integrated ElumTool software into BIM to see renderings of light levels. Engineers can then discover which areas of the building may be lit too darkly or brightly.
Getting on board
“We are seeing it [BIM] be more commonly used; in fact a year to year jump,” Mazetti said. “I urge ECs to embrace BIM, not just 3-D modeling.”
Rude thinks we’re at the tipping point where everyone may be exposed to BIM. “BIM has definitely helped the construction industry,” he said. “I welcome it and hope to work on more projects that use it.”“Electrical used to be the last consideration in a building project,” Witz said. “Not so today with the coordination process that BIM helps foster. We certainly are no longer low man on the totem pole. We have as much such authority as anyone else.”