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The State of Virtual Building Design

Building information modeling (BIM)—the software-based 3-D real-time modeling process for construction—is the summit of design to some and a summit to climb for others. Either way, it seems BIM has entered the vernacular as an important process when designing and constructing a building with goals of timely delivery, budget savings and sustainable performance.

So where does BIM adoption stand? The most recent published statistics for BIM usage in the United States come from two 2009 reports. In McGraw-Hill Construction’s SmartMarket Report, “The Business Value of BIM: Getting Building Information Modeling to the Bottom Line,” nearly half of respondents (49 percent) revealed they were using BIM tools, a 75 percent increase over the 28 percent BIM adoption rate in 2007. The report was produced in conjunction with software provider Autodesk and 26 other industry organizations.

The National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) commissioned another report, “Current Status of Building Information Modeling (BIM) Adoptability in the U.S. Electrical Construction Industry.” Authors Salman Azhar and Seth Cochran of Auburn University found 20 percent of the electrical contractors in the study were using BIM technology in their projects. The report states, “Most of these companies are medium to large size in terms of annual revenues. These companies are mostly using BIM technology for clash detections, visualization of electrical design, space utilization, and partial trade coordination in commercial and healthcare projects.”

Accubid Systems, a division of Trimble, develops BIM-friendly estimation and project management software, as well as graphic design rendering programs for mechanical/electrical/plumbing (MEP) contractors. Founder Giovanni Marcelli is a former electrical contractor. He’s a fan of BIM, but also recognizes it is a work-in-progress for MEP contractors, electrical in particular.

“In today’s world, you need to turn to several software programs to work in BIM,” Marcelli said. “People sometimes mistake BIM as simply software. More accurately, BIM is a process that starts with creating a building virtually using data-rich software as a tool. There is a lot of design and research that goes into creating that virtual model.”

Marcelli suggested the misperception of BIM as out-of-the-box software is sometimes due to its marketing.

“Showing a BIM 3-D rendering as an aesthetically persuasive sales tool has, in some ways, fed a misrepresentation that BIM as nothing more than a sophisticated 3-D tool. This misconception of BIM as something less than a process has perpetuated from owners throughout the construction community. Some have used only parts of BIM to supply architectural information but not MEP information. We aren’t quite there where the model is shared equally with all players in the construction of a building,” he said.

Accubid is part of the “BIM to Field” alliance of companies working to develop methods and tools for contractors and others that can achieve on-site construction verification and interaction with a building’s BIM digital model.

What still needs work
In a previous article on the subject, “BIM: The Future Today?” (Electrical Contractor, January 2009), there was a shared concern among the electrical contractors who were interveiwed that, although BIM was enormously useful, it was not exactly user-friendly to the electrical contracting audience.

“There is no one yet producing a true out-of-the-box program for ECs to create constructible models,” said Jim Bratton, engineering manager of virtual design and construction for Dynalectric Los Angeles, an EMCOR company. “Today’s packages provide the shell to customize, but requiring expertise and resources to do so.”

In response to whether he has seen change in 2011, Bratton said, “There have been some minor improvements, but no one is truly addressing the needs of [the] electrical contractor who is intending to use their BIM for the purposes of fabrication/prefabrication, which is a critical aspect and benefit of BIM. Most of the major enhancements have been purposed for the needs of the design community.

“In the implementation of BIM, we’re among the top 1 percent of companies leveraging BIM to its fullest extent. This translates to our currently having over 5,000 parts for AutoCAD,” he said, adding that by 2008, his department had built 4,000 custom-made AutoCAD MultiViewParts visuals for its electrical contracting work. “As the demand for [the Autodesk BIM software] Revit increases, we will have to duplicate that effort in another file format as well. There is currently no acceptable way to migrate our library. Usable vendor-supplied content is still very limited.”

In the last five years, EMCOR has provided BIM services to more than 500 MEP construction projects valued at more than $100 billion.

Marcelli added that he would like to see more manufacturers provide data such as electrical component model numbers and specs that can be used in BIM.

“In building the electrical virtual model, equipment must be well-defined and detailed,” he said. “Physical dimensions and all other attributes are necessary for proper clash detection and to provide cost data, what I call BIM’s ‘fifth dimension.’ In due time, we will see more and richer data available as well as the ability to download information from the model to create a pricing estimate. I think the speed of continued BIM adoption will be dictated, in part, by the economy.”

George Hague, president of Manchester, N.H.-based ConEst Software Systems, said he sees BIM working best when the electrical contractor enters the project design from the beginning, something he sees as rare.

“For instance, here is the perfect opportunity for the electrical engineers and the electrical contractor to work together for better design, resolving Code conflicts and better estimating material cost,” Hague said, “Design/build projects certainly encourage this. BIM projects can be expensive for contractors. If ECs are brought in later, they face a nearly complete model that may not leave much room for their work. Design conflicts are then developing later in the process, meaning additional rework and time for every partner involved.”

For Hague, BIM’s potential to help contractors prefabricate and fabricate materials can be a real cost-saver.

“If you can create, to spec, boxes and other materials using BIM, that a real advantage. Also, the BIM model you helped create is a living model and can position you for return retrofit work down the road.”
Dynalectric’s Bratton still feels like he did in 2008.

“[BIM] 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. If ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ a BIM model is worth a million,” Bratton said.

BIM adoptability in a big way
Hague said government work is a definite growth area for BIM. One example is the state of Wisconsin. There, all new state--constructed buildings budgeted at $2.5 million or greater to employ BIM. Further, BIM is required on all “addition/alteration” construction projects meeting the same dollar thresholds.

In the state’s Division of State Facilities (DSF) June 2009 report, “Building Information Modeling: A Report on the Current State of BIM Technologies and Recommendations for Implementation,” it states, “BIM technology and practice are evolving on many fronts throughout the country. In Wisconsin concurrent development is occurring in DSF, A/E (architect/engineers), and construction industries. DSF is leading by example by acquiring knowledge and sustaining commitment towards technologies that interface with evolving BIM applications. Areas of work include facility documentation and assessment, capital facility planning, project communications and collaboration, geographical information systems, facility management, and long-term data (asset) management.”

Seventeen state building projects are now underway using BIM. Kevin J. Connolly, AIA, principal of Connolly Architects Inc., Milwaukee, was the lead adviser for this policy.

“In 2006, I was heading a seminar on BIM and integrated project delivery,” Connolly said. “DSF managers in attendance were blown away by the energy savings and sustainability aspects of BIM. The process could conceivably better code by an estimated 30 percent. They saw how BIM could connect to all kinds of information at all levels of a building’s life cycle.”

DSF deals with all buildings in any number of departments including the Department of Corrections, Veteran Affairs, Military Affairs, the University of Wisconsin system, and the Department of Natural Resources.

Connolly said his firm has been using BIM for 12 years.

“The concept of a BIM server where everyone can work and collaborate is getting better,” he said. “For architects, we’re in the late majority of BIM usage and acceptance, engineers just behind us. General contractors are starting to adopt.”

Getting in the game
A BIM model cannot succeed by engineering alone. It requires the input of all tradesmen.

“MEP engineers do not have the skills to build a virtual model on their own,” Marcelli said. “They are more dependent than ever on electrical contractors’ expertise to get exact information and fully define the various systems within a building. Any EC should rest assured that their expertise is very valuable and much needed in a BIM project. In a true BIM working environment, there is no hierarchy. Everyone has to make their contribution to maximize best practice adoption.”

Marcelli said traditional CAD remains alive and well.

“In fact, most of the electrical designs are still done in 2-D CAD,” he said. “I have seen contractors intimidated by BIM and saying they are not ready. Know that BIM suppliers will likely offer overview training. The rest is on-the-job training. Keep an open mind, read and learn. Maybe hire an experienced consultant to help you in this process until you have developed in-house expertise.”

Todd McCormick, president and founder of McCormick Systems Inc., Chandler, Ariz., gets his firm’s existing and potential software clients up to speed on BIM for a reason.

“There will be a basis for a contractor to embrace BIM and use it, even when it’s not specified by the project owner,” he said. “I know contractors right now that are doing this. They are spending the time and money up front to get a better return on the job.

“Many project drawings today still come to our electrical contractor customers on paper, not in CAD, but sometimes as PDFs or GIFs,” McCormick said. “If the project is important enough for them, [ECs] will scan the drawings in so they can make use of CAD on the project. They do this not just for estimating purposes, but to speed up the electrical design work such as branch circuits. I think BIM is making gradual, important progress and playing an increasing role in the EC’s world.”

Connolly reiterated that electrical contractors need to understand what BIM is and what the service provides.

“BIM isn’t CAD. It’s a total different way of thinking. Pieces of information are attached to those digital objects,” he said. “Think of BIM as a big, giant database, allowing you to get to information in any manner of ways. While it’s a precision design tool, it also allows for more accurate pricing of materials and tracking the flow of materials from manufacture to job site installation.”

Connolly believes building owners will increasingly ask for digital models from the general contractor and their subs.

“BIM isn’t quite a household word, but as a contractor, you may not be asked to the table anymore if you haven’t familiarized yourself with it,” he said. “When the market returns, my gut feel is that BIM use will come back with a vengeance. I advise ECs to get up to speed on BIM now and invest in it if it makes sense. Why waste a perfectly good recession? Retool.”

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

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Gavin, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction, and urban planning industries. He can be reached at gavo7@comcast.net.

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