Thoughts on construction law from Christopher G. Hill, Virginia construction lawyer, LEED AP, mediator, and member of the Virginia Legal Elite in Construction Law

Raising Your BIM Fluency

Raising Your BIM FluencyFor this week’s Guest Post Friday here at Construction Law Musings, we welcome newcomer Lauren McLaughlin. For over a decade, Lauren has devoted her law practice to representing professionals in the construction industry. When she is not drafting contracts, negotiating change orders, litigating trials, or doing site visits as project counsel, she speaks at a myriad of construction industry events and writes for several trade associations. She has been an invited speaker to the Construction Superconference, American Bar Association (ABA) Forum on the Construction Industry, DC Mechanical Contractors Association, American Subcontractors Association of Metro Washington, Structural Engineers Association of Texas, American Council of Engineers (ACEC), and the Virginia State Bar, Construction and Public Contracts Law Section.

After several years practicing with larger law firms, Ms. McLaughlin co-founded BrigliaMcLaughlin, PLLC, a construction law firm representing owners, general contractors and subcontractors. She is the co-author of “The Law” column in Civil Engineering magazine published monthly by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Recently, I had the opportunity to moderate and present a panel for the American Subcontractors Association of Metro Washington (ASA of MW). Our topic was Building Information Modeling (BIM), the ever-present trend in the A/E/C industry. While BIM is featured prominently now in trade magazines and legal conferences (journals have sprouted dedicated exclusively to the topic) – just what is BIM? Why is the discussion relevant? How is it different from the computer-assisted (CAD) drawings used previously? Finally, what concepts and terms of art do you need to be familiar with to raise your own BIM fluency?

First, the “Why” – The rationale for diving in: Why do you need to know about it? It is becoming readily apparent that BIM is not just for large, complex projects anymore, but for mid-sized and even smaller sized projects. In addition, many suggest it is no longer a trend or “wave of the future” but a technology staple of how business is now being done. Is this circumstantial hype or is it backed up by some empirical measure? McGraw Hill recently published its SmartMarket report after surveying participants from each sector (owners, AEs, GCs, subs) to track BIM usage:

Almost 50% of the respondents indicated they are using BIM or BIM-related tools today, which is a 75% increase from two years prior, when only 25% of participants reporting using BIM. Of the non-users of BIM surveyed, 42% of them believe that BIM will be highly or very highly important to the industry in five years.

Client demand for BIM is increasing, contractors are winning work because of it, and subcontractors are having to adapt. And because many construction lawyers adhere to thy first proverbial commandment – know your client’s business – those of us in related professions must come to appreciate BIM’s impact. In other words, no matter what sector of the construction industry you hail from, if you are not already using BIM, or trying to expand your understanding of it, you had better start now.

Second, the “How is it different” – Leaving the old system behind and embracing the new:

“$15.8 Billion per year is wasted due to inadequate information sharing.” National Institute of Standards and Technology, 2004 Report

When you think about how technology has kept pace with other consumer industries, you begin to realize how the construction industry has truly moved at a snail’s pace in incorporating technology to the building process. For instance, in the banking industry, consumers have for years come to know and expect real-time information. When we make a deposit, we can do so from the comfort of our own computer, we can see that deposit on our accounts instantaneously online or on our ipads. We have immediate access to information as debits or credits are made to our credit card, we can see pending transactions. Everything is transparent.

In the construction industry, without integrated project delivery (IPD) or BIM, owners, general contractors, and subcontractors have presumptively adverse roles. If an owner considers making a change on a project, traditionally, the designers could take days or weeks to furnish new drawings. The contractor needs time to process the time impact. The subcontractors need time to assess the cost impact. The fabricator needs time to order the materials. Transparency is a foreign concept and each phase or proposed change is drawn out needlessly. This is the pre-BIM status quo, despite that time is an even more important commodity in this industry than anywhere else.

But how does BIM change this?

First, design conflicts and owner changes are identified much earlier in the process because of BIM modeling. The availability of three dimensional, four dimensional, and five dimensional models that contain design data help detect conflicts before work even progresses in an area, eliminating very costly field-generated changes. “The owner and architect manipulate the model during the design phase to uncover the best solutions quicker and more effectively. The contractor can view the 3D model during construction, which reduces the number of clarifications and change orders.” BIM also allows accurate quantity take-off which reduces waste.

Think of the number of projects that are still using a two-dimensional process: a set of specs and architectural drawings that depict just the geometry of a building (height and width) sent out to all trades. Then think of all the information generated from each trade during construction, which is then filtered back to the GC, then back to the Architect, then the Owner. It seems pre-historic when you consider what BIM allows you to do.

BIM allows for real-time exchange of data and information in a single software to view not just the geometry of the building, but the spatial dimensions (3D), with time as the fourth dimension (4D), and cost as the fifth (5D). BIM covers relationships, light analysis, geographic information, quantities and properties of building components (such as manufacturers’ details).

With the advent and staying power of the BIM process, clients have expressed that it is hard to conceive of going back to the old ways. “Why would I ever go back?” one prominent BIM user at an international contracting firm recently explained to me. Indeed, why would you?

Third, the “What” – Product vs. Process: In the discourse on BIM, you’ll find a vast and wide array of definitions for BIM. The “market confusion” over BIM terminology stems from distinct concepts that are used interchangeably. “A building information model is any compilation of reliable data, in single or multiple electronic data formats, however complete or incomplete, that supports a systems approach in any stage of the lifecycle of a building.” In other words, the model is the repository or the tool that permits all users, at conceivably every tier, to store data on a project.

BIM “thought leaders” such as Dana K. Smith and Michael Tardif, however, argue that focusing on the model (i.e, the product) will prevent business owners from recognizing the true value of BIM. Instead, they encourage widespread understanding and adoption of BIM as a process, whereby the “M” in BIM is not just the software tool, but a collaborative systems approach. Building Information Modeling is a “systems approach that requires everyone in the industry, every participant, to begin thinking of themselves, their products, and their services as part of a model.”

Fourth, “Say that Again?” – Speaking fluently with BIM users:

The BIM world is creating new acronyms at the speed of light. Here are some selected terms used with frequency in the BIM world.

Fifth Dimension – Thoughts on BIM:

I can say that what I love most about the AEC industry are the people in it. Despite my trade, (and all the unfortunate lawyer jokes that accompany the legal profession!), I am passionate about helping to create a more fair, more harmonious environment for my clients to achieve results, and to build something their proud of. And that’s really the lynchpin of what the BIM process is all about – collaboration.

As always, Lauren and I welcome your comments below. Please subscribe to keep up with this and other Guest Post Fridays at Construction Law Musings.

Raising Your BIM Fluency
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3 Responses to Raising Your BIM Fluency

  1. Although BIM is wonderful at eliminating physical conflicts, it still hasn’t been able to overcome the emotional ones. Despite the apparent benefits that BIM offers, human nature is slow to adapt. I am still hearing complaints by contractors who tell of owners requesting changes well beyond the date that all parties signed off on a combined model.
    Such behavior gives contractors a valid reason to question their BIM investments, when nagging old habits erase productivity gains and leave the construction team in a lurch.

  2. It’s great to see the digital modeling process being emphasized in the architectural sector. Perhaps recognition would increase even more if it were not called “Building” Information Modeling. The process has been developed and utilized in the industrial construction sector for many years. The advantages of early clash discovery between design disciplines and associationg specification information from electronic databases with project equipment and materials in one location online have been well established in petrochemical, refinery and power projects since the early eighties. Perhaps the process should be re-named “Project” Information Modeling, or PIM, rather than BIM in order to accelerate acceptance in other sectors.

  3. Thanks for the comments and insights Rob and Robert. @Rob, I agree that on residential projects BIM and emotion at times don’t mix, but BIM can be better than the alternative.

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