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By William R. Zollinger III, P.E.
Published in the August 2010 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
Every non-agricultural industry has consistently ticked upward since the mid-1960s. The exception to this rule is construction, where worker productivity not only hasn’t improved, it’s actually getting worse. According to Dr. Paul Teicholz, productivity of construction workers has declined at an annual rate of -0.59% for the past 40 years. [Source: “Labor Productivity Declines in the Construction Industry: Causes and Remedies.”]
Unfortunately, technological advances in the construction industry simply have not resulted in better, smarter, and faster use of people and materials. Is it any wonder then why nearly 40% of construction projects are completed behind schedule and over budget? [Source: Olivia Pulsinelli, “IPM and BIM Go Hand in Hand.”]
Now the construction industry is embracing the latest technological advance promising to decrease costs, decrease risks, increase quality, and increase worker productivity: Building Information Modeling (BIM). BIM is so different and new—and its potential is so vast—that industry experts are even arguing about how best to describe it. Is BIM a new software application? Or is BIM a new way of working?
The answer, in short, is both. Technically, BIM is the result of new software programs. But for the holistic advancement and long-term prosperity of the construction industry, BIM can—and should—shepherd in a new way of working.
Most people are familiar with the concept of computer-aided design (CAD), which allows architects and engineers to model virtual projects in either two or three dimensions (as well as create drawings and specifications). As with CAD, BIM also allows architects and engineers to model virtual projects, but at a much greater level of detail—all the way down to bathroom sink fixtures.
The result is a true digital representation of the structure’s physical and functional characteristics. This baseline functionality has been labeled “BIM” by the industry. If this model includes three-dimensional shape information, it’s called 3D BIM.
As sophisticated software programs, BIM can readily accommodate and integrate additional layers of data. For example, scheduling and time data can be folded into BIM, creating an advanced model for the successful sequencing of activities to keep a project on track or detail the repercussions of change orders. The industry calls the inclusion of scheduling 4D BIM.
BIM can also incorporate information about costs and forecast how important details, such as how changing individual components, might affect the entire job. This is referred to as 5D BIM.
As with all computer applications, however, information produced by BIM software is only as intelligent and useful as the information it receives. In other words, the “garbage in, garbage out” rule still applies, leaving BIM perfectly capable of modeling bad data and bad decisions. Which is exactly why the construction industry’s use of BIM needs to usher in a new process and an entirely new way of working. The industry will fully leverage the potential of BIM’s gee whiz technology only when it fully incorporates communication and collaboration from all involved parties.
This new and improved model for taking a construction project from an idea to a grand opening must put owners back in charge. That’s because the construction industry’s current standard operating procedure of bidding out individual aspects of a project all but ensures miscommunication, delay, risk, and conflict.
Driven by the owner’s vision and oversight, BIM can reduce risk and delay and maximize the efficient use of personnel and materials. For example, BIM identifies and resolves conflicts before they occur at the job site, and encourages the use of prefabricated materials. By using materials and people more efficiently and eliminating on site conflicts and off site litigation, owner driven BIM could shave 20% off the cost of construction projects. [Source: Dennis Neeley, AIA, “Owners: What Should You Do About BIM?”]
Fully involving owners and giving them control of the construction process is a step contractors need to take. And it’s a step that owners—who have consistently delegated responsibilities and their accompanying risks—need to take as well.
Regardless of how BIM unfolds for the construction industry, the foundation for establishing a successful project remains the same:
- The owner’s vision and needs must be clearly understood. Change, whether it occurs on the computer or in the field, always produces additional labor and materials costs. Understanding the owner’s vision and needs from the start are critical to eliminating unnecessary expense.
- Involved parties must embrace BIM. BIM permits for granularity, which involves breaking up a large object—for example, the building’s concrete slabs—into smaller “grains” to allow segmenting by construction sequences. It’s important for contractors to collaborate to determine what aspects of the job require granularity and how best to prevent clashes.
- All aspects of the job should be successfully completed virtually first. This is especially true when prefabricated elements or off site materials procurement are involved in projects. It’s far better to find out on the computer that a building’s mechanical piping will not fit in the overhead space, rather than having several truckloads of improperly sized pipe arrive at the job site.
- Run decisions and data—and then monitor them. BIM is only as good as whatever goes into it. Successful projects must include regular updating for scope and productivity.
Zollinger is president and CEO of Buric, a provider of construction planning and critical path method scheduling; construction claims resolution; building diagnostics and rehabilitation; project management and control; and architectural and engineering design services.