Could a knowledge of Building Information Modeling lend the needed edge?
Famed burlesque entertainer of the 1930s, the late Gypsy Rose Lee, used to say, "Ya gotta have a gimmick!” Twenty-first-century drywall estimators, struggling for a competitive edge, might take her sage advice to heart. As more outfits are reluctantly yielding to the economic pressures of our times and trimming proposals to the nub, they are discovering that even a bare-bones bid will not guarantee an award these days. While a year or two ago, bidders tended to cluster around a median amount, now the cluster is at the bottom where "reliable” firms are rubbing shoulders with "low-ballers.”
OK, what now? How do you distinguish yourself from the rabble? Obviously, reducing your number down to below the anticipated cost level of a project just to land it makes poor business sense. No, it’s clear that demonstrating more value in your offer than brand X has is the avenue that you’re looking for. And one sure-fire way to ratchet up your competitive posture is to offer the best pre-job development team available in that swelling field of low-bid subcontractor prospects. This is where a good working knowledge of BIM can come in handy.
For those who are still wondering, BIM stands for "Business Information Modeling,” which further translates into semi-plain English: a three-dimensional model that reflects building geometry, spatial relationships, and quantities/properties of proposed building components. No, we’re not talking Legos or Popsicle sticks here. This is a digital representation of the building process—virtual construction, if you will—that derives its electronically-generated configuration from a linked-in data structure. OK, that’s still a mouthful, but that pretty much boils it down to the simplest terms that our language allows. It’s complicated.
But as convoluted as it all may sound to some of us, BIM does offer some pretty solid benefits that have made it the darling tech innovation of the decade for commercial design professionals and builders alike:
Improved visualization. This translates into early (even pre-bid) detection of spatial conflicts among the various trades’ proposed installations.
Improved productivity. This derives from ease of information retrieval.
Increased coordination of construction documents. Ensures consistency between structural design and architectural renderings, between architectural drawings and proposed interior design, and so on.
Linking of vital information. The model will allow for simultaneous reflection of construction detail locations, specified materials and quantities required.
Increased speed of delivery. Information flowing from (and to) all participants in real time allows for the streamlining of the current traditional change process, which we can all agree is slower that the creeping death.
Reduced costs. The anticipated by-product of all of the above.
While cheerleaders of the program who call it a five-dimensional concept (the traditional three, plus time, plus cost) seem to be slipping into the twilight zone, more sober observers say it’s merely the next generation of CAD. Common sense guides my first impression to fall somewhere between a thrill and a yawn, and for all its touted glory, BIM has some hurdles to overcome.
First, BIM is an infant technology in an industry that is notoriously slow in adopting change. (Remember how long it took you to lay down the wheel and pick up a digitizing pen?) Then too, in order for the system to deliver on all of the above bullet points, all participants must constantly interact with the program in real time. One deadbeat sub can relegate the entire exercise to futility with his failure to communicate. Moreover, competing versions of BIM data structures are making standardization a struggle.
Admittedly, the BIM process plays out over the entire duration of a project, but that includes pre-bid, so this likely development in our industry is definitely relevant to estimators in terms of sales. Touting at least one member of your team as BIM-literate or at least BIM-friendly could clinch a sale on a BIM-oriented project. After all, in a world where you need to stand out, a good gimmick can’t hurt.
Vince Bailey is a free-lance estimator and consultant who has worked for several wall and ceiling contractors.