Benefits of BIM and VDC: A Contractor’s View

Rendering by Studio Gang Architects

Unsurprisingly, statistics show that the percentage of contractors using building information modeling (BIM) and virtual design and construction (VDC) is rising each year; but why is that number increasing and how are contractors using them? Personally, after pushing the envelope with technology as a designer, working for a contractor was my next logical career move because contractors are now the leading users of BIM. That is why I am proud to work for Mortenson Construction, which has been using BIM and VDC for nearly 20 years. Today, Mortenson is one of the many contractors across the world using technology to improve processes, safety, quality, cost, and schedule.

Study Shows Significant Benefits

In July 2014, Mortenson Construction and its research partners published results from an analysis of 18 Mortenson projects completed between the years 2003 and 2013. It details activities beneficial to the projects, highlighting those benefits, and why VDC activities are important. While not all benefits are quantifiable, the analysis identified three consistent key performance measures: time, cost, and productivity. The measurable results are significant, and suggest there are increasing opportunities for the building industry to deliver value through the implementation of VDC. With 600 total direct days of schedule reduction and 2.95 percent average direct cost reductions attributable to VDC processes, the numbers speak for themselves. In addition to savings on cost and schedule, quality and productivity have increased significantly as well. Some studies show a 25 percent increase in productivity, while others show an even higher increase. Regardless, the benefits of VDC for contractors are substantial, and the value increases when the model is the basis of fabrication and assembly.

Figure 1: Mortenson Construction study results

Extreme Integration at the University of Chicago

The Mortenson study found that the higher the adoption of BIM and VDC on a project, the higher the value output. A great example is the University of Chicago’s new North Residence Hall and Dining Commons, currently under construction by Mortenson. At the University of Chicago, Mortenson is creating an extremely integrated VDC process within the entire project. This design-build project allowed Mortenson and some critical path trade partners to be on board at the start of the project. Using digital fabrication software called SysQue, our mechanical, engineering & plumbing (MEP) trade partners were able to create fabrication-ready 3D models in Autodesk® Revit® for the first time in Chicago. This allowed our MEP trades to work in the same software platform as our designers. While the standard Navisworks® 3D coordination process didn’t change much for this project, the design team and trade partners were able to use one model for both the creation of design documents and shop drawings. This way, the design team focuses on design and not drafting, while the trade partners create detailed fabrication models and provide input into the design based on their own construction experience and expertise.

The model was then passed between the trade partners and design team in order to create a higher level of development drawings for permit documentation. From the very start of the project, this high level of team integration driven by Mortenson provided huge benefits to the team including:

  • increased quality of drawings;
  • increased productivity of team members from early project engagement and design familiarity;
  • reduced RFIs;
  • reduced schedule time and model re-work; and
  • opportunities to utilize the model even further in both the field and facility services within the University.

Figure 2: LOD 300--design-intent Revit model

Figure 3: LOD 400--fabricaiton Revit model (SysQue)

The MEP team was not the only team that integrated VDC processes into their workflow on this project. Prior to construction, Mortenson’s estimating group was able to use model base estimating with a higher level of accuracy due to early involvement of both the design team, Mortenson, and the trades. Mortenson was able to provide feedback to the design team and create parameters that helped with the estimating process. This allowed for tighter prices from trades based on confidence in design information. The visual planning models (4D) were also created simultaneously with the project schedule. These models were crucial for communicating the construction phases throughout the life of the project and finalizing the schedule.

In addition, our precast trade partner modeled all panels and connections in Revit. Once completed, our team did an extensive review of the enclosure system in both 2D and 3D. Using software including Bluebeam Studio, we were able to review submittals in the cloud in real-time, with multiple parties at once. In addition to running 3D clash reviews in one shared Navisworks model shared on, we used the drawing comparison tools in Bluebeam to compare 2D drawings of both the design and fabrication precast panels.

Due to this extensive and highly integrated process, our design team members ultimately removed the precast panels they created in their model and linked in the precast trade partner’s model for the creation of the permit documents. This was possible because both parties were modeling in Revit and confident in the trade partner’s model due to this extreme review process. For Mortenson, this enabled an improved decision-making process, which dramatically reduced quality risks because the design-intent model literally matches the fabrication model.

Now in construction and scheduled to be complete in May 2016, the North Residence Hall and Dining Commons will have VDC processes continue into the field. Mock-ups were created and reviewed in 3D before being built on-site, and all team members have access to linked drawings and 3D models on both iPads and large-screen computers, in the field and in the Mortenson trailer. With such detailed and coordinated 3D fabrication models, Mortenson and the trades will be installing various systems in the building using Trimble and other similar layout tools. Some trade partners will also pre-fab their systems for the first time in their company history, which also improves quality and time on the project. BIM 360™ will be used on this project for checklists, punch lists, and commissioning as well. All of this is possible because of BIM and VDC. While Mortenson integrated multiple VDC processes in the North Residence Hall and Dining Commons project, many other successful projects and contractors have seen huge benefits from even implementing just one of these VDC processes.

Figure 4: Visual planning models (4D)

Figure 5: 3D coordination 

Implementing BIM and VDC for Your Projects

While the value for a contractor is huge, not all contractors are using BIM and VDC. Many of the new processes and ideas need to be encouraged from the top. With nearly all young engineers coming out of school with a wide range of technology experience, companies should take advantage of this knowledge and ambition. While the generation gaps in the industry are often cited as a reason for the disconnect between the office and the field, education and training programs can help create these integrated and high-performing teams that many owners are seeking for their projects.

Figure 6: Virtual mock-up

Mortenson integrates VDC into key construction operational processes, which is deployed through a company-wide best practice education program. Through a “40 to 400” program, our VDC team provides “just in time” training to our project team members on various tools that support and improve operational processes. This is continued in the field with what we call The Last 100 Feet®, which bridges the technology to our people and process through mobile solutions.

In addition, many third-party companies can assist contractors in starting a VDC or BIM program within their companies. These firms can provide consulting or modeling services for a competitive fee. Some software companies such as SysQue also allow people to “lease” software licenses for a shorter period of time to try them out before buying a full license.

A successful process is one that is scalable and repeatable, and this concept can also be applied to BIM and VDC. Therefore, no matter the size of your company, it is never too late to start implementing VDC processes into your workflow and gain the substantial benefits of improved productivity, safety, quality, cost, and time.

Jennifer Suerth is an integrated construction coordinator at Mortenson Construction and is currently managing the implementation of BIM and Virtual Design and Construction on the University of Chicago North Residence Hall and Dining Commons. With a unique design background in both Architecture and Structural Engineering, Jennifer offers a comprehensive approach to the use of BIM and VDC. Along with industry speaking engagements, she has been actively involved with educating others. Recently a recipient of the Chicago Building Congress Future Leaders Award and ENR Midwest’s Top 20 under 40, she is also an active member of the Chicago Architecture Foundation Auxiliary Board and City of Hope Future Leaders Board. Jennifer is a graduate of the University of Illinois Urbana/Champaign with both a BS and an M.Arch.

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