It’s BIM Buy-in Time

Contractors can get a leg up on the competition if they learn to model before they build.

Mark L. Johnson / June 2016

What’s all this talk about Building Information Modeling in the construction industry?
    
The United Kingdom has mandated the use of Level 2, 3D collaborative BIM on all central government construction projects this year. The Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry is set to launch the BIM—Doing It Right™ program soon. And, some wall contractors are talking about using their models to help estimate new jobs.
    
“The evolving ubiquitousness of BIM has been interesting to observe,” says a Dodge Data & Analytics report.
    
Many are enamored with BIM, but what about the bulk of wall and ceiling industry? Since BIM projects are effectively built twice—once in the computer and then later on site—is the industry ready to double its work? Why build in a computer anyway?
    
“We got into BIM to make money,” says Travis Vap, president of South Valley Drywall, Inc., Littleton, Colo. “It’s about the bottom line.”
    
While BIM won’t generate cost savings on every project, nor is it affordable and scalable for every wall and ceiling firm, BIM, in general, resolves problems before they occur and enhances productivity. A wall and ceiling firm working with BIM and coordinating with other trades can stage its work more efficiently, manage man-hours better, generate less waste and reduce callbacks.
    
“BIM takes us back 20 or 30 years when we all took the time to work together and had the time to do it,” Vap says. “It moves communication upstream and forces all the stakeholders to talk.”

Sustainable Productivity
Why construct walls and ceilings first virtually? Because you can and because, maybe, you should.
    
“[BIM] is significantly altering the way that the construction industry creates and cares for its assets,” says “First Steps to BIM Competence: A Guide for Specialist Contractors.”

In 2015, The Economist surveyed 250 global construction-industry professionals. The respondents were relatively senior (73 percent held C-level positions) and most (58 percent) were with firms having $500 million or less in annual revenue. When asked which technologies and management strategies could have the greatest impact on improving productivity over the next three years, 36 percent selected “Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) / Building Information Modeling.” It was the single most frequently cited process, and the list included online project management, online training, alternative contracting strategies and more.
    
“The construction industry isn’t always seen as a progressive industry,” one Economist source said. “But we have to make changes if we want to see sustainable productivity improvements.”
    
Wall and ceiling contractors are using all kinds of new technologies—estimating software to do takeoffs accurately, tools to measure and cut precisely and mobile devices to access documents and databases wirelessly. New robotic total-station layout systems enable firms to work more efficiently. Tech-focused firms live on the cutting edge. They’re beacons for the industry and inspire others to layer new technology into their operations.
    
The thing is, BIM is not “technology.”
    
While it requires computers, special software, software maintenance contracts and trained technicians (or relationships with BIM firms), BIM itself is a process—as are just-in-time supplier coordination, lean construction management and integrated project delivery. The act of building detailed models, loading models with information and collaborating as the models grow, develop and change, calls for participants who have an all-in mindset.
    
“It’s a culture thing,” Vap says. “We always try new things to make us more competitive.”
    
South Valley Drywall has been doing BIM for eight years. It has had a full-time modeler on staff for five years. The investment in BIM, Vap says, has been profitable.
    
“Say we have a job with an 11-foot, 2-inch deck,” Vap says. “Most estimators would take off to 12 feet. They would round up.”
    
Not South Valley Drywall. The firm’s models, in this case, would allow for ordering studs exactly—11 feet, 2 inches—saving 10 inches per stud of wasted material. By ordering directly from a steel stud producer, the firm eliminates having to field-cut each stud.
    
“Think of how much labor and material you’re saving on a 70,000-square-foot floor,” Vap says. “This [BIM] is low-hanging fruit.”
    
South Valley Drywall adds every wall assembly to the project model—every stud, every length of stud, on every floor of the structure. The detail can be accessed by other trades to identify potential conflicts and even reused and repurposed on subsequent projects to order exact quantities needed before any work begins.
    
“You save money if you can order perfectly to length,” Vap says. “BIM is our tool of choice.”

Prefab Connection
South Valley Drywall’s example shows why BIM is not just about drawings and renderings. It’s about information modeling. Whereas traditional CAD software, in simplistic terms, creates line diagrams on a computer, modeling incorporates data into the renderings—load values, gauging, stud spacing, gypsum board thickness, whatever is needed.
    
This is what brought Baker Triangle, a Dallas wall and ceiling contractor, to launch an in-house BIM department about five years ago. The firm wanted to work more closely with mechanical, electrical and plumbing contractors.
    
“We got into it for coordination,” says David Keane, virtual design and construction specialist at Baker Drywall. “We decided to be at the forefront.”
    
Interestingly, research by Dodge Data & Analytics on BIM use in North America shows that BIM adoption by construction contractors now exceeds that of design professionals.
    
“Contractors continually expand the types and uses of models they build and increasingly integrate them with other tools and technologies to work more efficiently,” says the Dodge Data & Analytics report, “SmartMarket Brief: BIM Advancements No. 1.”
    
Keane says his BIM department likes to model what he calls “critical studs”—load-bearing studs, jam studs and corner studs that run floor to deck without interruption. BIM’s 3D modeling tools enable Baker Triangle and MEP contractors to visualize together any potential conflicts and thereby do better planning and design.
    
“It prevents a lot of clashes that would have happened in the field,” Keane says.
    
Baker Triangle now uses BIM on a larger scale and on more projects. The firm has nine offices in Texas and Oklahoma, but its BIM department is based at BakerTriangle Prefab, a Dallas prefabrication shop.  Baker Triangle models everything it prefabricates, Keane says, though not everything modeled is prefabricated.
    
“They’re separate divisions—BIM and prefab—but our prefab is heavily tied to our BIM,” Keane says. “There’s no adjustment in prefab once something gets on site, so we model 100 percent of what we prefab.”
    
Like South Valley Drywall, Baker Triangle also uses its models to quantify material. It knows the exact number of studs and their lengths for each prefab project, so the company can order material using precise information available from its BIM software. The firm outsources engineering to structural engineers, some of whom care for the modeling if they have the capability to produce shop drawings and advanced models. Otherwise, Baker Triangle models “anything that has value and is worth the investment of time to model,” Keane says.
    
“We have become proficient with the software,” he adds.

Fewer RFIs
Research on the adoption of BIM processes shows it being prominent in construction and likely to continue to spread.
    
In 2015, Dodge Data & Analytics surveyed 145 architects, 31 civil and structural engineers and 131 general contractors, all from the United States and all with BIM experience. Respondents identified the degree of impact of five BIM outcomes where they saw improvement of at least 5 percent:

  • Fewer RFIs during construction: 70 percent saw improvement.
  • Reduced material waste: 54 percent experienced improvement.
  • Shortened construction schedule: 51 percent had improvement.
  • Lower final construction cost: 48 percent experienced improvement.
  • Fewer safety incidents: 25 percent experienced improvement.

Clearly, contractors are in the prime position to benefit financially from model-based processes. These figures show how BIM is reducing uncertainty on projects (fewer RFIs), leading to less on-site labor (shorter construction cycles) and saving companies money. While safety showed up at the bottom of the list, the relationship between BIM and safety is still emerging. Shortened schedules and lower construction costs have long been anticipated BIM outcomes. That half of the respondents reported at least a 5 percent impact in both areas serves as “a harbinger of greater future gains,” the SmartMarket Brief says.
    
Wall and ceiling contractors have a wide open niche to deliver construction modeling. Nearly 30 percent of GCs picked interior contractors as the trade with the greatest unmet BIM value to offer.

BIM Price Tag
How much does BIM cost?

“You need two or three projects before you can put a full-time modeler on your payroll,” says Jason Gordon, president and CEO at Heartland Acoustics & Interiors, Englewood, Colo. “Three projects outsourced will run $60,000 to $80,000, the equivalent of a salary with benefits.”
    
Vap says a BIM investment runs about $130,000 a year, which includes the modeler, technology and annual maintenance for the technology. Economizing the investment comes more easily, he says, if projects are consistent in scope and big-budget.
    
“If you’re completely inconsistent on project type, it can be done, but your upfront [return] is going to be harder,” Vap says. “You won’t see it as quickly as you would if you had similar type projects over and over.”
    
Frankly, not all BIM projects deliver on promised cost-savings.
    
“We did one hospital project that worked well,” Gordon says. “But the deconstruct was that we only built the job quicker. We avoided mistakes and avoided rework and slow work, but it still cost more.”
    
Heartland Acoustics’ current active BIM project, a high-rise office in downtown Denver, is being built by Hensel Phelps Construction, which called for all primary subcontractors to add modeling to their contracts.
    
“We threw in an allowance and outsourced it to a company that’s supplying information to their modeler,” Gordon says. “We’re not creating the BIM. We’re just feeding the system layers of BIM that they incorporate into their master.”
    
Gordon sees BIM being common in the medical sector, on high-rise jobs and on design-build projects. Early collaboration as designers allows the design-build team to model as they go. He also sees BIM being more common with wall contractors than with ceilings installers. While there may be more potential conflicts overhead and within the plenum, ceilings “don’t get ‘BIMed out’ nearly as frequently as walls,” Gordon says, “because heights, access and hanger wire conflicts are easy and quick to resolve.”

Estimators, Get Ready
The next big push with BIM is to bring the process forward to the estimators. Estimators already have take-off systems, but soon they may pull their bids together by tapping into the quantities of material already loaded into modeling software.
    
“We have architects who can turn over models to us. They already have the walls and ceilings in there as they need them,” Keane says. “Why can’t we take all that and basically run takeoffs from there? I think we can.”
    
This is BIM’s future. Not just to have more wall and ceiling firms using it, but to have BIM used more thoroughly within each firm’s operations. Keane says some AWCI members already push their estimators to use BIM software to integrate their expertise with that of the modelers and, thereby, use one system to create bids and manage production. It’s the start of a new world of optimized estimating and project management. And some firms may have a big head start.
    
“There are people on our staff who are outstanding and who would never have been with our company without our having BIM,” Vap says. “They were looking for a company that’s innovative, and they found us because we have the latest stuff. BIM attracts a certain personnel and clientele that fits us. It’s who we are.”

Mark L. Johnson writes regularly for the construction industry about process management. Catch him at @markjohnsoncomm and linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.