Getting Over the Implementation Bubble

It has been about three years since we, Gannett Fleming, started our push to Autodesk® Revit® as our primary design tool, for a variety of projects. And as expected, it hasn’t exactly gone as one would think. It was easy, as a consultant on the outside looking in at an engineering firm, saying “fix this,” or “change that.” Plans change, and you work to adapt to the fluid project environment. One of the biggest challenges I’ve come across hasn’t been using the ever-improving software tools, but getting into the culture of a company and learning how to fit the tools in the environment.

Engineers, by their very nature, are creatures of habit. Disruptive software and work methods cause them great discomfort, and is usually the main reason why implementations fail. As leaders in this process, BIM managers have to understand the big As—awareness, adaptability, and actions. Let’s take a look at these items, and learn how to use them to help you get over the implementation hump.

Awareness. Project Tasks. Confusion.

How often have you had a project manager or lead engineer come up and say, “I need to do the BIM thing…you’ve got 15 minutes to make it work on my job, which is requiring it…”? The problem isn’t that these folks aren’t aware of the term—what they aren’t aware of is how it affects project schedules, deadlines, and design tasks. Typically, when novice managers start a BIM project, their inclination is to go with what they know—how to apply money and time to CAD tasks so a set of paper documents can be delivered. With most jobs, the document is still the end goal of the design process, so BIM managers can’t ignore this.

Where you need to train your staff is how BIM alters CAD tasks and changes the time and location. For example, on water treatment plants, one of the first steps is to define a process diagram that outlines the treatment process. During this stage, engineers acquire data regarding typical equipment such as filters, mixing devices, chemical treatment systems, and more. Most of the time, they’ll refer to something used on a previous job, and then ask a vendor to provide a cut sheet. This document includes information about the equipment, and can include electrical data as well.

Here’s where traditional work process fails. Many engineers will wait until the last minute to engage the electrical design team and not provide critical data that’s needed to define systems and circuits. Since Revit works best when the equipment  along with parameters storing data such as voltage, load, phase and more, is placed in the model first and then used to define electrical circuits within the model.

To make this a little easier, firms need to address the design process and inject explanations where a BIM project benefits from the change. Here’s an example of a workflow diagram to help explain this:

©Copyright 2014, Gannett Fleming

Along with the diagram, you need to include other relevant information, such as the task cost per unit, roles and responsibilities, and any other information to help the project manager and engineer understand the required tasks. It also helps explain why this task is important at this stage, and the downstream benefits of completing the task this way.

Awareness. Project Scope. Existing.

Another area where project managers get into trouble relates to using BIM for existing work. I love it when people tell me that BIM isn’t suited to existing renovation work, or think that BIM is really nothing more that 3D (and also that laser scans, photo captures, etc.  are complete alternatives to a true BIM file). Let’s clear this up so your company is better prepared to deal with this type of work.

Not every project is worthy of being modeled. Do your risk assessment early to determine this. In some cases, scanning and imaging are great ways to capture existing conditions, but they are only static points in time and don’t replace the need for a vibrant, data rich model. One of the key items I’ve always thought gets overlooked in planning is the data, and how important it is to incorporate as much of this information as possible into a model.

There have been a ton of articles devoted to model level of development, and the latest version of the National BIM Standard ( addresses this in better detail, but they only go so far as to identify how much detail is included and how the information is classified. (For the uninitiated, Revit follows OmniClass, Spend the time to get to know it!).

There are two ways to classify information in a model file. The traditional method, by element, addresses typical specifications for materials such as brick, block, mortar, and reinforcing. OmniClass expands the information to include products as a composite, so the elements become the equipment, or wall type, based on shell or interior conditions.

What does this have to do with existing conditions? It’s easy—with an existing structure, it’s not about capturing every nut and bolt, but about capturing enough detail in modeled components to associate data with it. One of our major projects the last couple of years was a water treatment plant renovation project in Pleasant Hills, Pennsylvania.

Pleasant Hills Water/Sewer Authority - ©Copyright 2014, Gannett Fleming

The majority of this project was a renovation with a few additional structures added, but the guts of the facility replaced. In this case, we spent significant time with the project managers and engineers reviewing how to quickly model the existing conditions, which we settled at LOD 200 for architectural and structural. Since the client wasn’t concerned about capturing existing data associated with MEP and process equipment, we added only enough existing items to address coordination. Demolition items were defined as 2D elements, based on our original project CAD drawings (we designed the original facility). All new items were modeled to LOD 300, suitable for construction documents. OmniClass labels were added to all new families, to help us sort the information easily for post design database usage.

The point is that we made the design team fully aware of what elements and data needed to be included, and what didn’t—and why it was important—before the job started. Situational awareness helped us understand how important other specific tasks were, such as placing all MEP and process items in one Revit project file, separating new and existing architectural and structural models, and leveraging worksets for visibility control for phases. And most importantly, by creating true BIM objects to represent as-built conditions, we give the client and ourselves a better starting point for future designs and renovations. If a specific object, such as a wall, needs renovation or replacement, the design can start from the BIM object, making the changes easier.

It’s important that all projects identify the BIM tasks prior to the start of the job, and review them with the project management and design team. This way you don’t wind up with budget surprises before you finish the design.

Adaptability. Webster. Definition.

Based on the word adaptable, meaning able to change or be changed in order to fit or work better in some situation for some purpose. Also able to adapt or be adapted. Thank you, Mr. Webster (

BIM users throw this word around, but what does this mean in a BIM implementation? Most people think that means replacing drafting with modeling, but that’s only part of the picture. What does this mean to the design team, from the principal to the end user? One thing we’ve told people is to throw everything away that you learned about CAD because BIM is different. But, boy, does that get taken the wrong way. That doesn’t mean that a BIM project totally excludes CAD and drafting. In fact, one of the advantages of BIM with regard to how you use CAD is that it helps force standardization while clearly outlining tasks. The strength and weakness of CAD is its ability to make changes quickly, and the same rule applies to modeling. But out-of-control BIM is just as bad as out-of-control CAD, and in some cases, can be even more costly.

So how does being adaptable help the BIM team get over the hump? Easy – by learning what still needs to be drafted versus modeled, prior to the start of a project. Technicians have to be proficient in both platforms, although a strong skill set in one doesn’t necessarily translate to the other. The user has to be able to understand and create based on design skills as opposed to drafting.

The point is to model as much of the physical representation as makes sense, and then fill in the gaps with CAD. For example, instrumentation diagrams aren’t BIM’s strong suit, so we adapted AutoCAD P&ID for most of this. It wasn’t because it was the based for modeling in Plant 3D, or because it was a faster drafting tool. It had more to do with its real-time link to a SQL database, which allowed us to gain efficiencies in areas such as I/O reports. Eventually, we’ll link the data between the diagram and the model, but planning ahead for this was a critical decision for us. We also leverage other applications (a great example is the HVAC Solutions software for HVAC 1D system design) to help us with 1D and 2D diagramming. So knowing what these tools are, and how they will be integrated on a project, is essential for proper planning.

Actions. Louder than words.

During the course of an implementation, it’s going to boil down to the simple tasks of just getting things done. Implementing BIM means a lot more than just setting up templates with lineweights, annotation styles, and default schedules. It means more than scheduling classes to cover the basics. It means identifying areas in your work process where you have weaknesses, and then leveraging BIM tools to improve them. This culture change is the hardest, since most long-term users will cling to plain AutoCAD until you drag them away from the keyboard and their 2,000 shortcut key combinations.

To supplement the design team’s task, it’s important to clearly define your BIM management team’s long-term roles in the company. In smaller companies, this is often a strong designer who only manages BIM part time, while larger companies will find that having a full-time dedicated staff works best. It doesn’t have to be a huge team, but it has to be positioned in such a way that specific tasks that can take up billable project hours are better handled by non-project staff.

If you need proof of the success of your implementation, you only need to review your own content library. In our case, project support mainly revolves around content and ongoing, over-the-shoulder training. We have some strong users that like to make their own stuff, but when a new user gets on the job, we’d rather they spend their time focusing on applying BIM work processes, such as the four-step system (analyze and add equipment, define air/fluid/power systems and circuits, create connecting geometry, and annotating a project). If they need something complex, we’ll make it for them. One advantage to this includes the ability to use company standard parameters that align with predefined schedules, to help project teams expedite this task.

And we’ve been very fortunate to have users that like to take actions on their own. They’ve discovered that BIM isn’t about a physical building, but is about the building process. We’re using it for dams, power, transportation, environmental, and other projects, in addition to old-school schools. It’s that willingness to take action and work outside the box that makes the implementation work, so choose your staff wisely.

Conclusion. Amazed.

Get used to it: BIM implementations, like layer standards, will constantly evolve. There isn’t a magic button to make anything happen automatically. And it’s a good thing to be aware, adaptable, and ready to take action when projects need help. Look back at how we were doing things a mere couple of decades ago, and be amazed at where we’ve come as a design industry. And don’t get scared, running home to 2D. It’s all going to be okay.

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