BIM Is What’s Driving the Industry

November 26th, 2013

For the past decade, many would argue that building information modeling (BIM) has metastasized aggressively throughout the AEC industry, but what does BIM really mean? More importantly, what does it do for us and for our industry? Ask someone who has been in this industry for more than 25 years or those nearing retirement and you’ll find that less than half see its value, much less care to make the effort with its implementation. These questions mean something different for those who have been in the industry the past 10-15 years. Recent college graduates, however, with their tech-savvy capacity and high expectations, are eager to implement anything that resembles cutting-edge, flashy technology. Typically, they are the ones most receptive, if not adamant about, putting their talents to use through BIM.

I recently gave a BIM presentation, with an emphasis on mechanical systems, to the summer interns and new hires at our company—all were non-BIM users except for one—but my presentation did little justice to BIM. Half of my audience had found a cure for their insomnia when they realized this wasn’t the latest edition of “Call of Duty.” That was no reflection on BIM by any measure. Simply put, I fell short of connecting with a potentially captive audience, eager to know what really makes BIM intriguing or how it would give them an edge in the industry. I didn’t think to look past presenting the facts of its processes and benefits. To simply have stated that proficiency in any of its many facets will promote a lucrative career, would give those still awake the impetus to jump ship. In hindsight, the first step I should have taken to begin this presentation was to ask what they wanted to get out of BIM.

If you think it’s hard conveying the value and splendor of BIM to receptive and impressionable young minds, try to convince the weathered veterans, dead-set in their “old tricks.” For every experienced veteran who has converted to BIM, there are two “old dogs” that can’t shake “the good ol’ days when we used vellum and light tables.” Guess what—an increasing amount of naysayers are starting to come around, including those who say they’ve been burned by BIM in the past. They are seeing the simple solutions BIM presents and how these solutions translate into cost savings. More and more of those who had formerly questioned BIM’s utility are convinced when installation efficiencies are not only realized, but quantified.

Another factor in the evolution of BIM is its tendency to expand faster than the pace of its general population of users. Those of us proud to be catching up to what we think is cutting edge quickly realize it was just another false sense of accomplishment as BIM’s web continues to grow exponentially. The solution is rather simple: Focus on what you can handle and always have the presence of mind, and sense of caution, to avoid being overwhelmed by the wake of BIM’s progress. There’s plenty of money to be made and countless facets to explore as long we have the following mentality: We live in the information age and those willing to share knowledge will reap the rewards of communal synergy.

On the opposite end of the spectrum you might find our industry’s opportunists.  In a hurried frenzy to claim their spot in the intellectual property queue, these opportunists get carried away with pioneering what they assume is the latest improvements to BIM. Instead of stopping to absorb and develop the benefits of 4D, 5D, 6D, and so on, the pioneers are spreading these “Ds” thin with abandon, further expanding the gap between quality and quantity. None of this is to say that we’re heading in the wrong direction. On the contrary, let’s call it more of a positive economic problem—the demand for BIM expertise and development outweighs the supply of available users.

Fortunately, as collegiate curricula catch on to this industry trend, the point of equilibrium will soon follow. For as long as I can remember, respective companies’ 2D CAD departments have been a significant source as the breeding ground for potential BIM users. While this route hasn’t changed, regarding the career path of a draftsperson, the source pool has expanded to include architects, engineers, and construction managers, just to name a few. It’s even hard not to notice its stark demand when BIM and Revit courses are being increasingly offered at local community colleges. I knew then that you didn’t necessarily need an undergraduate degree, back when I got my foot in the door of this industry. This probably won’t hold true in the coming years. Still, the privileged few who are already a part of this industry subset can rely on their experience in this fast-paced market to continue to propel their careers forward ever faster. All these few need to do is grab onto a small piece of BIM’s wing and hang on tight for the ride. The fresh-out-of-college entrants might have a harder time grabbing onto this wing that’s already in motion.

To those who are only vaguely familiar with BIM, it is typically perceived as the equivalent of a 3D role-playing video game. In this case, it’s not difficult to capture a “snapshot” image of a 3D model, shadows cast across random metal objects taking up space in an orderly fashion between ceiling spaces and walls. What is difficult is conveying the abundance of value behind the pretty picture to a client who’s only interested in the pretty picture. Who isn’t familiar with the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words?” Why not change that saying to “a BIM model is worth five thousand hyperlinks?” Now we’re talking lifecycles and facilities management. This supposed video game has suddenly become an encyclopedia of usable information. But wait, it’s not just static information that’s stuck on a DVD on a shelf in some owner’s random storage closet. It has now become a living, dynamic source of real-time data. Maintenance technicians will know exactly where to go when the active 3D model loaded on their laptop highlights a hot water pump needing service while concurrently bringing up the cut sheets and operation and maintenance manuals specific to that pump or system. Better still, the source of information has shifted from multiple stacks of large drawing sets collecting dust to several hundred gigabytes on a hard drive. Yes, Mrs. Client, your 3D BIM model will be usable for the next 20+ years.

Even though you might not necessarily think about it, some of you probably realize that BIM has become the “middleman” for so many key components in the construction cycle, well beyond its intermediary role between design and construction phases. You want to do some significant tenant improvement in an existing building? Laser-scan the existing conditions. That’s BIM. Is the general contractor racking their brain trying to figure out where to station the crane for the project or pave the pathways for delivery trucks? Now they’re looking to BIM to answer these questions and optimize their decisions. To take it a step further, at which end of the building do we want to load thousands and thousands of pounds of sheet metal and pipe? And then, which trades should be installing their systems first in any given area of the building? That’s right; we’re deriving sequencing and timelines from the BIM model to establish the best routes to take while addressing any constructability issues. BIM has become the consultant that wears most of the hats. It’s our one-stop-shop.

I know that I’ve personified BIM as if it’s the brains behind all of its success. Let’s take a moment to focus instead on its collaborators or the sum of its integral parts to show that, in reality, we are Dr. Frankenstein and BIM is our monster. Except in our case, we’re beginning to tame our monster and those who were previously frightened by it are starting to see that it indeed is no monster. In fact, while evolving to do—and become—greater things, BIM is transforming into an industry hero. The point of convergence is approaching because we’re saving money, time, and even trees. Soon enough BIM will be the industry standard even on the smaller projects. Let’s keep the pedal to the metal.

You want to know the best news? Most of us haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of BIM, but we’re in strategic positions to reap the rewards. Taking the possibility of its vast potential into account, isn’t it reassuring knowing that in these tough economic times, we’re engaged in an industry that has a shortage of well-qualified BIM experts? Our exposure alone sets us up for success. Now ask yourselves this question: Is BIM driving our industry or is it the BIM user?

Vladimir Triantafillidis works for a leading mechanical contractor in the San Francisco Bay Area with more than 10 years of experience in the industry.  Although he has a bachelor’s degree in biology, his unique career choices have firmly rooted him in a substantial BIM role, awarding him the opportunity of progressing alongside the relentless evolution of BIM. Outside of his career, he’s always open to new adventures whether trying a new cuisine, exotic travels, or extreme sports. The latter adventures have recently subsided as the balance of life has shifted his focus on spending time with his growing family.

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