Building information modeling (BIM) is not a new concept in the mechanical contracting and construction industries. In fact, it has become somewhat of a requirement in most mid-size to large construction projects. However, according to a new white paper from the Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), everyone in the construction industry has a different definition of BIM, and many in the sheet metal industry have not adopted it “because they lack a clear, practical understanding of what BIM could mean to them.”

Additionally, BSRIA is concerned that three of four surveyors believe non-adoption of BIM could seriously hinder the U.K. construction sector over the next year, according to research published by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).

“Lots of people think the primary reason to invest in anything is to get a return on their investment,” said Guy Gast, president of The Waldinger Corp.’s Iowa division in Des Moines, Iowa, and current SMACNA president. “And, in general, contractors like to think the first of those tangible returns is going to be saving lots of labor and/or lots of material, and that will pay for the investment. I think that’s a long-term approach with respect to BIM, because the process itself is difficult and harvesting savings is a long-term commitment.

“The primary reason people should do it is because they have to,” he continued. “I don’t think you will get opportunities to be part of a project team if you aren’t able to play in the technology field that BIM represents. You will be shut out of those opportunities. It’s inevitable that BIM will become part of almost every project.”

Matt Cramer, president of Dee Cramer in Holly, Michigan, is a self-proclaimed BIM evangelist and has spoken on the topic at multiple conferences and events.

“BIM is a no-brainer,” Cramer said. “You have to be involved, get your firm involved, and must be knowledgeable in this arena if you plan to do certain types of work. If I’m mainly a residential contractor, or a contractor that does buildings like strip malls, getting into BIM is probably not mandatory. However, if you’re a commercial contractor who does new construction work — if you’re not involved with BIM already, you’re already late to the game. If you aren’t involved, or if you’re not getting your people trained right now, my guess is you’ve probably already been deselected from a possible bidding opportunity because of your lack of experience in this area.”


As mentioned in SMACNA’s white paper, there is not a standard definition of BIM. According to Brett Stacks, segment manager, MEP division, Trimble, “BIM is most commonly understood to be the process of 3-D modeling and the application of intelligence to that model that can be used to drive other processes, such as construction and building management.”

Stacks noted that BIM is supported by level of detail (LOD) and sub-processes, such as virtual design and construction (VDC). “While most BIM presentations seem to focus on architecture and design, BIM deliverables are most impactful when a fully constructible model is delivered, as it provides accurate graphical representation and real intelligence about the components and materials that are being purchased, fabricated, and installed. It is also important to note that while the process is centered on the model; products, such as estimating and shop management [CAM]; field solutions, like robotic total stations [RTS] and scanning; and even mobile apps are now authoring data that increases the level of detail and information referenced by the model itself. With the right technology, contractors can capitalize on the BIM process from nearly every department within their companies. Trimble delivers an integrated BIM platform and solutions that optimize project delivery from conceptual design to constructible models to installation.”

Tim Kelly, product manager, Assemble Systems, agreed that BIM is a broad topic.

“Just like the term preconstruction can cover lots of different things, it’s really the same for BIM,” he said. “We define it as ultimately a virtual representation of a building that contains data about the components within that building. To dig a little bit further, it’s a digital representation of each component in the entire building. At Assemble, we’re very focused on the model data along with providing a visual representation. By leveraging BIM data, project teams can more accurately and rapidly understand the project’s scope and how that scope changes and impacts constructability. So, if I’m looking at ductwork, I can see there are certain connections and fittings that are part of that duct system, and I can select any of those components to see the visual representation.”

Martin Schmid, product manager — MEP, Autodesk Inc., said BIM is an intelligent, model-based process that is able to connect stakeholders throughout the life cycle of the project — from design to installation. “It’s a matter of connecting information through the entire workflow to the technology services and modeling efforts.”


There are many advantages when it comes to contractors using BIM.

“The organization of data forces you into a more disciplined process in planning your construction,” said Gast. “As a result, anytime you adopt a more rigorous planning process, you’re likely to be able to use the information to a better advantage in the production of ductwork in the shop, like in our case. Because you’re able to take advantage of the opportunity to prefabricate, you are most likely better able to plan field installations and manage labor. There are great benefits from planning to reduction of rework, reduction of change orders on projects, and better planning on shop and field labor. The end result should translate into an overall reduction in two things: risk and labor.”

BIM also allows various building tradespeople to eliminate conflict, Gast noted.

“From our standpoint, one of the largest benefits is knowing the coordination of the project is going to go more smoothly,” Cramer said. “It also helps us work more efficiently. For example, I can take a model and do an estimate off that model without having to do a lot of manual takeoff. If we were going to build your building from scratch, I would get a bunch of 2-D drawings, and I’d be manually taking off the ductwork on every single floor. If there’s a model that already has everything drawn, I can literally do a takeoff of that simply by pushing a button. It makes our job easier to both estimate and coordinate the project. And the jobs [with BIM], to be perfectly frank, are just more fun.”

Armundo Darling, senior technical enablement manager, Autodesk Inc., noted that BIM enables contractors to not only understand and articulate design intent, but also leverage that design-intent model in the fabrication.

“When they’re able to take it into fabrication, they’re able to estimate, detail, and fabricate the systems going into the building much quicker,” Darling said. “It also helps reduce waste. BIM allows contractors to take information right to plasma cutters and has the ability to do automatic nesting, which can look at hundreds of scenarios to make sure space is optimized. BIM also helps increase and improve production and allows estimates to be made more quickly and accurately.”

BIM provides contractors with better data management and cross organization utilization, said Kelly. “By using it as a database, contractors can carry information all the way through the closeout of a project and have that information available in an organized fashion when they turn it over to the owner. BIM allows contractors to virtually build and realize a project before it’s physically built. Essentially, they can put things in place to make sure all components will fit and make sure the process is logical and follows the sequence needed. They can go through the process of building the project before ever breaking ground. It’s a time-saving, simplifying process.”


While the benefits of BIM are numerous, there are a few cons as well.

“If there is a con, it’s that we can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to the market,” Gast said.

Another disadvantage to using BIM is not all contractors are at the same level of BIM maturity, Darling noted.

“Challenges arise when a contractor doing only partial BIM transfers a model over to another contractor who is very experienced and able to get the most out of the product. While they thought they were receiving a true BIM model, they only receive a partial model and the rest is still in 2-D or annotation. That maturity level varies between contractors. It can be overcome though, through training, time, and technology.”

Schmid added, “Many contractors have been practicing BIM longer than some designers. Generally, it’s been older generations of technology specific to their discipline. So, there’s been talk of something we call ‘lonely BIM,’ where the particular contractor has a specific process and, while it works for them, it doesn’t necessarily share in the workflow across multiple stakeholders. And that’s where Autodesk is starting to look at platforms as opposed to individual products.”

Additionally, BIM can also have a big learning curve, Kelly noted.

“A large part of the industry is not where it would like to be [when it comes to BIM],” he said. “Using the model data can actually have a negative effect sometimes when it’s used without the knowledge or context of what they’re looking at.”


Contractors should know that BIM is a process, not an object, and should be careful not to fall victim to generalized marketing techniques regarding BIM software, according to Stacks.

“Each contractor has different needs and processes,” he said. “The complexity of those needs and processes drives the demand for the type of products they will need to support their companies. Consider which products are best for each department individually: CAD [computer aided design], CAM [computer aided manufacturing], estimating, or field. Don’t let one department, such as CAD or the ability of your resources, drive the decision for the whole company. Next, check the workflows between your top options for each product. If you cannot share the data between your departments, then you should know that this means you are rebuilding the project information every time you move from one software to another. Each time this happens, you cause a delay, introduce risk, and reduce productivity. For this reason, you could see greater benefit from products that might not be your first choice, yet offer the integration that can support your company’s internal processes and needs.”

Integration and the user experience are key features of good BIM software, Stacks added. “Trimble’s MEP division of products and services include VDC services, estimating software, modeling software, CAM software, scanning hardware and software, construction layout software combined with robotic total stations, mobile apps, and cloud-based project management software. Each of these solutions was built to serve the MEP contractor and engineering market, specifically. The BIM process is not solely supported by the CAD software that contractors use, and the versatility of our portfolio is what differentiates our company from the others in the marketplace. To us, it’s never been about just one product.”

Instead of creating a model and then having to map different parts of the model with different software and a separate solutions driving estimation, Autodesk focuses on maintaining a single database of information shared across the product line, Schmid said.

“If you look at other software solutions, you’ll find they have major breaks in the chain between requiring a solo package for estimating, detailing, and fabrication,” Darling said. “They are experienced in either one discipline or the other. The challenge is bringing them all together. More often than not, the estimators create the model to do the estimate, the detailers do another model to do the shop drawing, then there’s another model just to do fabrication, or they do that manually. Autodesk is able to tie those three together, and may now connect the front and back ends, which creates an end-to-end workflow that is fully connected and integrated rather than having to have spare software solutions for each stage of the process.”


Additionally, hardware and software are not the only costs contractors need to think about when implementing BIM in their businesses.

“I would say the vast majority of HVAC sheet metal contractors in the U.S. and Canada already have fundamental [BIM] software in place,” said Gast. “Most of them already have software because they’re doing CAD drawings. And most already have manufacturing software often linked to that drawing software. So, they have the core software in place. The layered-on software that is required is the ability to use information in a model environment. They simply need to be able to upload drawings into a model. That linking software is what some contractors may not own yet. While the software investment is not overwhelming, the hardware is another issue. Some of the hardware that’s adequate to do a CAD drawing may be too slow to efficiently do draftsman detailer in a BIM world, where there’s just a huge amount of data to manage. But I don’t think it is as complex for the HVAC guys as some people may make it out to be.

“I’m dismissive about the software cost because it’s relatively minor compared to the actual overall cost to implement BIM,” he continued. “Software and hardware are certainly costly. The next tier of cost is personnel. You really need someone who has time to devote to the technical support of the process. That’s a salaried expense. Then there’s another element of cost — the learning curve to be able to run the BIM process or to even use some of the tools and software related to it. That means each person who is working in that environment has to learn those tools, so there is a ramp up cost that is not insubstantial to get someone up to speed. And that cost is going to vary from company to company based on how experienced your people are. It’s a highly variable issue, but it’s certainly a substantial expense. Is it worth the cost? The question you have to answer is, ‘Do I want to continue to have opportunities to do business, and do I want to grow my business?’ Then you have to figure out how to make that return on investment work because this is the future.”

According to Cramer, a contractor could buy all the hardware and software needed to start BIM for $10,000, on the low end.

“That doesn’t mean you can just write the check and get going tomorrow,” he explained. “It’s really about training your people and implementing process changes to understand how to participate in the BIM process. It’s not the upfront cost from my standpoint as much as it is making a commitment to doing things differently.”

Getting the right person into the right position is more important than the cost of the product itself, because the wrong person could cost your company more money to bring it up to speed, Cramer noted. “In my estimation, I think everybody should be doing it [BIM] at a base level,” he said. “Certain contractors may have up to eight people in this process while other contractors may only need one because the amount of work they do. But every specialty contractor should definitely be capable of drawing in 3-D and participating in the BIM process.”

Publication date: 9/19/2016 

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