Contractors: A Practical Approach to BIMAECbytes Viewpoint #83 (June 29, 2017)

John Hallgarth
Founder and CTO, 3D Constructor



If you work in AEC, you understand that commercial construction can be complicated. BIM as a tool is intended to simplify tasks and help us collaborate, but it can also complicate things further depending on how you use it. General Contractors new to BIM may feel a little overwhelmed and not sure where to begin. If you are a GC that’s been doing BIM extensively for years, you’ve either figured out what works for you, or perhaps you feel like hitting the Reset button.

BIM software is expensive, and over time the amount of licenses can add up as you test and add new tools to your belt. So it’s very important to consider your company’s goals, approach and options before you dive in. There is no single right way or perfect solution, and it’s not uncommon to find your teams frustrated when trying to implement BIM, which is especially true when making major investments in software and resources.

Virtual Design and Construction can be exciting though, especially considering the untapped potential for General Contractors. In this article, we’ll explore some practical ways to approach BIM, some outside-the-box ideas, and some key opportunities not to be overlooked by commercial builders.

Simplicity is our goal. Over-complication = inefficiency (& headaches)

Let’s refresh our view and step back to see the big picture, as we merge some traditional and very necessary CM practices with BIM. Keep it simple, and it’s not as tough as you may think. Consider the roles that make up your teams, and explore how you can come together through AEC technology.

Isn’t that what BIM’s all about in the first place?

Contractor Roles and BIM

Let’s take a quick look at the common General Contractor roles and identify their primary responsibilities on a project. This will help us understand who makes up a team, and where to start when looking at how to apply BIM.

  • Project Executives: Oversight and High Level Decision Making
  • Project Managers: Bidding, Buyout, Contracts, Cost Reporting
  • Design Managers: Design Reviews, QA/QC, Constructability, Design Alternatives
  • Estimators: Quantities, Costs, Allowances, Bids & Reports
  • Schedulers: WBS, Tasks, Durations, Updates
  • Superintendents: Logistics, Scheduling, Safety & Field Reports
  • Project Engineers: Submittals, RFI’s, Change Management, Document Controls, Closeout
  • MEP Managers: MEP Design Review, Bidding, Coordination, Commissioning
  • QA/QC Managers: Site Specific QA/QC Plans, Reports, Status-ing, Pre-Install Meetings
  • Safety Managers: Site Safety Plans, Jobsite Hazard Analysis, Compliance

And then there’s the BIM department (if you have one):

  • BIM Engineers: Modeling, Logistics Plans, Clash Detection , 4D Sequencing, 5D Estimating,  FM Data, Total Stations,  Laser Scanning, Exporting DWGs, IT support, etc.
  • BIM Managers: BIMXP’s, Proposals, Coordination Oversight, and any of the above.

When you list them out, it’s easy to draw a line between the BIM roles and the “traditional” team. Bridging that gap from both sides is very important to the process, and something everyone has a part in. Teams that are successful implementing BIM tend to cross that line and work together to fulfill both traditional and BIM deliverables.

A common challenge is when BIM deliverables become too far separated from the rest of the teams’ day to day functions—of planning, reporting, and tracking project details.

When this happens, you see a “leave it to the BIM guys” mentality. Too often, teams are constantly chasing the metaphorical “fires” on their project and can’t slow down to fix the process that put them in that situation to begin with. This is the biggest cycle that GC’s need to break in order to boost success.

BIM is the tool that can help, but only after you take a deep breath, focus, and take a team approach.

Identifying Some Practical Goals

It’s time to look at your own company and be honest with your current BIM capabilities, staff and assets, and set some realistic goals for how you go about implementing BIM.

Consider the bottom line, and always ask yourself the question, so what? Why are we doing this? Does it make our operations and services better? Does it bring value to our owners? Does it save us money? Does it help minimize our risk on a project? Will this grow our business? There’s a lot to consider before you make a move forward.

Own Your Process

No software company can tell you what’s right for you and your operations. The best BIM implementation plans are built by addressing your current methods for doing work and finding ways to enhance those processes by leveraging specific tools and workflows.

If you don’t break down your existing processes, it’s tough to set goals for how to improve them. If you don’t have a process for common CM tasks like design reviews, content management, data management, estimate progressions, procurement and so on, now’s a great time to come up with one.

BIM is all about process, so you have to own it—understand it, test it, break it, fix it. Owning your process is the first step to BIM success.

Simplify Your BIM Tools

While the software companies want you to buy more and more subscriptions or enterprise wide agreements, I think you’ll find that the more applications you use, the more information you lose. This means that every time you handoff from one platform to another to achieve a specific purpose, you end up segregating your workflows, and adversely affecting learning curves and team collaboration.

I would always recommend keeping your BIM tools to a minimum. Figure out which tools work the best for you, and don’t be lured by the latest flashy app or plugin. The most efficient BIM workflows include the least amount of steps and software needed to achieve a goal. Often the most stripped down, raw, transparent workflows are the most successful.

Consider the learning curves for each different team role, and ask yourself—how do we involve this person into the BIM workflow, without making their job more difficult? BIM is supposed to enhance your workflow, and make things easier.

The fewer tools you have, the easier the process is to manage, and the more people you can bring together.

Don’t Forget About 2D

You might be excited to make the jump into 3-dimensional building information modeling, but there’s a key file format that you can’t ignore on your project: That of course, is PDF.

PDFs are an integral part of the Design and Construction delivery process. Official bidding and contract design documents are always issued in PDF format. Shop drawing Submittals are received in PDF format. As-built record drawings are always scanned to PDF. This format is all around us at every step, phase, and milestone deliverable.

While most of you probably think of PDFs as something viewed outside the BIM environment, it’s often the only file type available when starting BIM projects.

The ability to import PDFs into the BIM environment is absolutely critical. When doing so, you create an opportunity to open new doors into project reviews. Placing PDFs into context and scale within the BIM environment allows you to align various views of your project at will, flipping between overlays of various design disciplines, subcontractor trades, and everything else stored in PDF format (Figure 2).

Before you tackle the 3D environment, make sure your team is equipped to handle the 2D drawings. As a GC, design review of 2D content comes first.

Figure 2. An illustration of how both design documents and trade submittal drawings can be brought together, using common views of the BIM model. Both 2D and 3D content can be placed on stories, sections, elevations, or any other view of the model.

Creating Project Context

As a GC starting a new project, one of the first things to consider is what types of content you will have to work with. You should also ask yourself, “How can I use what is provided to create context?”

Project context for Construction Managers is achieved when all the various content types are brought together, in location and in scale, with the ability to trigger and review a single deliverable against the rest of the project, both 2D & 3D.

Let’s consider the file types you’ll most likely be working with. PDFs, we covered already. Image files are also common for miscellaneous purposes (aerials, concept sketches, diagrams. etc.), 2D and 3D DWG files are produced from various CAD/BIM applications. This format is commonly provided by design teams as “backgrounds” for use between disciplines, for coordination, and also for subcontractors’ reference while producing shop drawings. 3D DWGs are the most common format produced by subcontractors during detailing and coordination workflows. So make sure that you know how to open, view, and integrate them into your BIM workflow. There are several DWG viewers that allow you to open, view, plot or print to file for free.

IFC (industry foundation class) is a format that really takes model element transfer between BIM platforms to a new level. It’s interoperable between platforms, and some BIM programs even have IFC managers where you can access elements based on their IFC hierarchy, making this a very good way of reviewing your models and understanding the organization and data contained within. Most leading BIM authoring platforms support IFC import and export.

The more context you create for various types of drawings and models, the better you can review them. First identify what file formats you typically receive on your projects, and then consider how to bring them together to create context for all (Figure 3).

Figure 3. An example of bringing two types of content together from opposite ends of the spectrum—a hand drawn structural record document from the 1970's, compared against a laser scan point cloud of a building. This is a good example of merging old and new within a BIM environment.

Design Review

Performing design reviews is a core responsibility for any General Contractor. Project Managers, Design Managers, QA/QC Managers, Project Engineers, and the rest of the team all play a vital part in reviewing project documents.

How do you perform design reviews? Do you have a specific process for scrubbing drawings to identify discrepancies and issues? A traditional approach was printing and overlaying using light tables, but we now have new methods and tools like PDF and Model Viewers.

Reviewing files in their singular form, meaning without a trace reference, a background, an overlay, or a composite view, can be very limiting to the process. This goes back to creating project context, and being able to review various sources of content against each other in scale.

You must bridge the gap between different formats. PDF vs PDF. PDF vs DWG. DWG vs Models, Models vs. Models, Model vs PDF, PDF vs Point Cloud, and so on. BIM is the tool that brings all these formats together, by placing various content types into the true project scale (Figure 4).

There’s a case to be made that great 2D reviews can outperform good 3D. Design Documents, Shop Drawings, Record As-Builts—they all play a part and need to be reviewed against each other. These again are always in PDF, 2D format.

Figure 4. An illustration showing a virtual overlay process. By bringing together different content types, and applying quality control checks, you can create a systematic approach to performing reviews.

Tips for Contractor Modeling

As a contractor, we’re typically not designing any permanent components of a building. But we do have a lot of input into how designs get built. We take the lead on temporary systems put into place during construction, including logistical approaches like cranes and man-lifts, temporary site facilities, formwork, scaffolding systems, pour sequences and so on (Figure 5). While you should be receiving models from both designers as well as key subcontractors, if you do chose to model your own elements, there are a few recommendations.

Model how you would build it. This means that you draw structural columns and walls to their true height, and you try to break components up into elements that can be tracked by the trades building them.

Consider the outputs. Are you modeling to create reports or drawings? How will the information be used downstream? Understanding the purpose helps you get it right the first time.

Virtual simulation is best done when model elements closely resemble their real world components. This is true for data, as well as for geometry. Don’t take shortcuts, you’ll be wishing you hadn’t when it comes to reporting the content of your models.

Utilizing a company library of standard model elements makes it easy to pre-set your reports, saving you time over the process. Modeling with favorites you created makes life so much easier, and allows you to take advantage of all the specific data systems that represent your process.

Figure 5. Modeling temporary construction elements.

Elemental Data Management

As a contractor, you have several team roles, responsibility for specific reports through preconstruction, construction, and right on into closeout and facility management.

Let’s talk about the 3D model elements themselves. Think of them as blank containers that can represent 3D geometr, as well as contain any other type of data or information. If your goal is to collaborate through models, then each team member needs to have their specific parameters, or fields in their report, contained within each element needing tracking and management.

So once the element is placed into the model, it creates the opportunity to run reports for each specific role and responsibility: identifiers, quantities, costs, rates, locations, durations, procurement status, QA/QC, Commissioning, FM, etc. To make data management simple, you only have to consider what information each role is already responsible for. Then attach it to an element, and you are ready to plan, report, status, and track from phase to phase and between team members.

Elemental data management is a key part of building your company BIM standards, and an approach that can bring non-traditional BIM roles into the common workflow. Start with the minimum amount of data, and build from there as needed.

5D Estimating with Excel

Guess what? Excel is the most powerful 5D estimating platform that you already have, but probably aren’t using with BIM. Most estimators (and BIM Managers) don’t realize how easy it is to connect their BIM platform to their Excel estimate template. It takes a little time, but the learning curve, efficiency, and total benefit is far greater than using any external 5D estimating system.

Besides, isn’t literally every estimator in the world better with Excel than they are with any other estimating software? Maybe not everyone, but certainly the vast majority working in commercial construction. I’m convinced most estimators are much more comfortable using a system that they know how to check, build, fix, and test on their own—not reliant on someone else’s programming, someone else’s models, and someone else’s data.

If you know your process for how you run reports in your BIM platform, you can take on any external model, import and quickly apply your standards, and run your reports setup to work with your own Excel templates.

Model Based Scheduling, Not How You Think

If you’re a large General Contractor, my guess would be that you’re using P3 or P6 to create your project schedules. If you’re a small firm, maybe you are using MS Project or maybe even Suretrak (some of us are change resistant).

When you think about 4D Scheduling, you typically think Synchro. Part scheduling software, part animator of imported model elements. A good approach to sequencing, but challenging when your contract baseline schedule and updates are created and maintained elsewhere.

Let’s think about model based scheduling a little differently now.

Before we ever export any model elements for 4D animation, we have the ability to create whatever data we want, including scheduling parameters. So after a model element is placed into a BIM project, we have the ability to report it by location, phase, area, responsibility, and so on.

For each different team member, we can create different schedule parameters that help us track from phase to phase of the project, starting in preconstruction, and working our way through closeout.

We now have the tools and reports to track an element’s status during coordination, submittal reviews, fabrication and delivery to the site. From there, we can track when elements have been checked for QA/QC, as well as installed. And of course, we can track plenty of other data and reporting such as Commissioning for MEP equipment as well as information necessary for Facilities Management.

This is another method for connecting team members through BIM elements—a common thread between project phases and roles.

Drawing Status Reports

As a contractor, you’re probably already creating reports to track drawing status. It’s called document control, a list of the latest drawings from all design disciplines, tracking issue date, bulletin/addendum #, CO #, etc. If we step back and look at the overall design process, we can use this type of report a little differently.

In BIM authoring platforms, you have the ability to place filtered model views onto paper sheets or layouts. This is how 2D CAD and 3D models get plotted onto paper for the most part.

A layout/sheet within a BIM application can be reported, just like model elements. It can be status-ed—used as a means of tracking design progress, estimate responsibility, submittal status, coordination status and so on. A blank sheet, representing a single line item on a report, can be a powerful way of managing a project.

This mechanism can be another bridge of bringing team roles into the BIM workflow.

Pulling It All Together

No matter what BIM tools you decide to use, the most important thing to remember is that BIM is something to be used to support your process. It’s not meant to totally disrupt how you do business. If this is the case, you might reconsider your approach.

Simplicity is the key. If you want everyone on your teams to collaborate, you have to make it easy enough for them to interact in a collaborative way. Or else, it just doesn’t work. Start small, and don’t rush it. Know your process, know your path to your goals, and try to make it fun and effective for all.

Keeping your tools to minimum will help with this. Software overload is a killer of BIM production.

Conclusion: BIM is More Than Clash Detection

As a GC venturing into BIM technology, hopefully you will find that it is a tool with much greater potential than simply clash detection. In fact, clashes are often the result of poor approaches to design and trade coordination efforts. If your process is planned and executed properly, the amount of hits between virtual building systems should be minimal.

At its heart, BIM is a communication tool. It can work extremely efficiently when you know your process, or it can make you less efficient if you try to figure it out as you go.

Use it as a tool to find ways to connect your people. Remember, placing a single model element into a BIM project can become a common thread for every team member on that project. Eliminate overlapping efforts by collaborating in shared data systems.

Keep it simple, and focus on how BIM as a tool can enhance your existing workflows. If you do this, you’ll be better prepared for taking on complicated construction projects of all types.

About the Author

John Hallgarth is a BIM enthusiast whose passion is applying Virtual Design to Construction Practices. After working in Southern California's commercial AEC market for a decade, he's now developing new systems and workflows for Construction Managers. John's company, 3DCONSTRUCTOR LLC, is preparing to launch a new series of products, tutorials, and opportunities for Contractors to learn and grow with the technology that now propels AEC industries.

As an alternative to the status quo, 3DCONSTRUCTOR is promoting a new brand of BIM. A brand that is built on real world construction practices, with a focus on practical applications for contractors. John has fun with BIM, and he wants to show you how you can do the same.

As a resistance to industry norms, John is pleased to announce ContraBIM, which will be available commercially for AEC professionals and educational programs for the Design, Engineering, and Construction programs. You can follow his progress at www.contrabim.com. If you'd like to contact John directly, please email john@3dconstructor.com.

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