Many companies have grown accustomed to relying upon big, sometimes unwieldy software to accomplish major tasks in their businesses.

Although such software provided a lot of value at the time, it also constrained them to working within a system that didn’t foster collaboration. The software was likely expensive and slow to advance to fit needs. It took up a large amount of space on computers, and required extensive training.

What is emerging now is a shift in thinking about how to design and build projects that goes beyond individual authoring tools like Revit MEP, and looks to get the job done faster — and more efficiently. This new approach is a result of building information modeling, which recognizes the advantages of working collaboratively with a focus on the data and the building process, not the tools.

HVAC contractors can now be more selective about what tools they need, more readily control how they want to work with data, and improve their job-turnaround time. It is a huge step forward, and companies that are innovating are prospering, while those that are complacent are being left behind. Let’s take a look at the old and the new in more detail.

On the record

The type of software tools used in past decades by individual departments can be described as “systems of record” tools. The term represents the singularity of the data reported, and the value the individual application provides workers to do their jobs better. A systems-of-record application does a good job of providing tools that let you produce data in one particular format. A few examples: Estimating tools that generate a material-and-labor report used to secure the next building project; purchasing, accounts receivable and payroll software applications that manage the collection and disbursement of funds; and 3-D CAD virtual software used by sheet metal detailers to create construction documents for coordinating, manufacturing and installing sheet metal.

Each tool provides HVAC contractors a single point of authoritative data for critical tasks.

These systems accomplished two important things: First, they centralized, standardized and automated important business tasks, enabling more efficient work flow and processes. Second, they gave senior management a global view of the state of their businesses, providing an opportunity to make decisions based on real data points. Systems-of-record tools will continue to be useful, and will actually be more accessible to small and midsized contractors over the next few years. What companies are finding, however, is that such software may fail to assist within critical areas of the BIM process — providing collaboration abilities to speed a job from its conceptual design to sign-off, or providing the data in an appropriate format at any time in the design and construction process.

The next generation

Fortunately, there is a new and evolutionary set of technologies spawned by the advent of building information modeling. These software tools — the next generation of systems of record — are called “systems of engagement.” They represent a new class of BIM-driven software tools capable of harvesting, collecting and representing data with intelligence that can be used for multiple purposes.

Systems-of-engagement software is recognized by its ability to share this data with other software tools, sometimes offering Internet-based communications, internally and externally. The end result is significant productivity and more efficient project team collaboration.

Some examples of such software include BIM 360 Glue and Autodesk Navisworks.

Going back to the older systems-of-record tools, they left workers mostly on their own to try to fill in the gaps that the software did not provide. Workers were provided laptops, Internet connectivity, email, 2-D and then 3-D design tools and were basically told to go become more productive. And that’s what most were able to do. These basic tools provided workers with a taste of what is possible. Currently, there is added pressure from more complex models and building projects being placed on contractors to come up with more efficient and seamless collaboration and coordination. Because of this, the demand for increased systems-of-engagement capabilities is escalating rapidly. The implications for contractors are significant — organizations need to quickly get in front of this curve or run the risk of getting run over by it.


To better understand the differences between systems of record and systems of engagement, look at one of the more dominant software publishers in the building services market: Autodesk. Autodesk offers a number of powerful tools that make up a BIM solution. In the past, industry discussions focused specifically on Revit MEP as a BIM tool. In the upcoming months, Autodesk will be transitioning from strictly talking about Revit MEP as the BIM solution to their new acquisition of BIM 360 Glue, as it becomes their choice for discussing their BIM workflow, managed specifically in the “cloud.” As the Revit MEP models become more complex, you will likely notice an even greater shift referring to Revit MEP as just one of a number of important components in the BIM process and workflow. Autodesk’s authoring tools, including Revit Architecture, Revit Structure, Revit MEP, Architectural Desktop and AutoCAD MEP will remain important contributors, but not the focus. Data coming from these tools into new tools like Navisworks Manage and BIM 360 will become significantly more important.

Further, moving all of the harvested building data toward the owner and facilities management open standards-based software will be the new BIM norm.

Savvy contractors are recognizing the key advantage of systems-of-engagement tools: providing their workers with the tools to collaborate with others within a fully compliant BIM business workflow. Organizations will differentiate themselves based on how well they assess their traditional functions and create new models of cooperation within their organizations.

Internet impact

The Internet is also dramatically impacting the way engagement systems support contractors. All communication becomes — at the very least — two-way. Attachments such as external references or Revit-linked 3-D drawings will soon become much less important as they become replaced by a BIM-compliant process and tools that support it. Object data could be aggregated in a database that is based on open standards, and is serving the needs of the entire project instead of one distinct task (design, estimating, etc.), and will include every virtual and manufactured object of importance.

By collecting data within an open and available database, the ability to comment on, enrich, amend, modify and annotate is a powerful change. “Best of breed” software applications are available today that address the engagement approach. Because no one tool addresses every  need, you are able to choose the tools that work most closely to fill your requirements.

HVAC contractors need to pay close attention to how and where they invest their time and software budgets. Record systems software will be a necessary — but not sufficient — component for business success in today’s climate. Choose software that can support the design of intelligent data, efficient workflow and collaboration within a BIM process, such as a 3-D computer-aided drafting program like AutoCAD MEP for design and detailing. These tools finally provide the level and detail needed to efficiently complete the job.

The goal for contractors in preparing their companies to take advantage of BIM has to be about the value chain. Specifically, they should look at the BIM process to determine where in that chain they can remove redundancies. Keep in mind that the only way to eliminate redrawing is to be given access to the model and overlaying and extending the MEP objects with real manufactured specified objects.

David E. Quigley has a master’s in business and is a graduate of the Whittemore School of Business and Economics in Durham N.H. He is a director at Emerson Research and Construction Services (, which specializes in BIM for contractors. Contact him at or (603) 672-7880.