August 28, 2008

7 questions project managers should ask about BIM

  • Building information modeling can be a boon for schools, but only when the process is well managed
    PCS Structural Solutions


    Building information modeling has been one of the hottest topics in the design and construction industry for some time now. Recently the topic has gained much more traction in the public market, including school design and construction.

    A primary reason is that conflicts within the documents — either real or perceived — have created an environment where change orders have become commonplace. Owners want a better process and are increasingly looking to intelligent models such as BIM to reduce document conflicts and field questions.

    Just having an intelligent model does not accomplish this: BIM must be managed and directed properly during the design and construction process to achieve these benefits.

    BIM is more than simply a new software tool: It’s a new process that requires a different outlook on time management, decision making and team communication. Project management procedures need to be closely scrutinized and effectively adjusted in order for the BIM process to meet its full potential.

    Image courtesy of PCS Structural Solutions
    Schools like Lake Washington High School are using building information modeling to help reduce change orders

    In a perfect world, all members of the design team would have an in-depth knowledge of all the technical aspects of modeling and producing the project deliverables. For many K-12 project types, however, the project managers may actually have little involvement with the day-to-day progress of the model.

    These project managers must realize that their knowledge, leadership and participation in the BIM process are just as critical for success as understanding BIM software. To help develop this perspective, here are a few critical issues to consider early and often:

    What software packages are being used by other team members?

    Since it’s necessary to have the capability to import or export information to other consultants’ models, it’s beneficial if everyone is using the same software package. And currently it’s also necessary that the team members are using the same version of the software, since newer releases aren’t backwards compatible with previous versions.

    If different software packages are being used it may be necessary to use a third-party vendor in order to merge the models together to view how all the models interact. While powerful, the third-party software packages can also be expensive, and some of the intelligent information contained in the models can be lost.

    Early in the process, the project manager must be aware of the software used by the entire team to ensure the models can interact with each other.

    Who “owns” the components created by the different team members?

    There are several ways to create the model, and team members must coordinate who will create and maintain elements within their own models.

    Elements from the different team members can be copied from one model to another, linked in as background elements, or shared and monitored. Each of these methods has advantages and disadvantages, and requires a different approach to model building.

    Thorough collaboration and coordination is mandatory to successfully exchange model information. The project manager must understand each of the processes and implement the proper one for the specific project.

    What level of detail is required?

    Even with broader acceptance and use of BIM, currently most legal contract documents consist of two-dimensional printed drawings. Building components that wouldn’t be seen on scaled plans or elevations will unnecessarily add complexity to the model.

    A finer level of modeling may be required where wall sections or large-scale details are necessary. The project manager’s knowledge of both the capability of the software and the modeling process will help determine where the fine level of detailing is required and where it’s not.

    When should the modeling begin?

    This answer will be different for each design team member.

    The architect may wish to create several low-level detail models so that massing and program requirements can be reviewed. The rest of the design team may need to hold off creating their first model until the basic layout decisions have been made by the architect and owner.

    Starting the model building too early may lead to several unnecessary revision cycles, and starting it too late will be disruptive to the process and create challenges for other team members. “Place holders” can be effectively utilized until further model refinement is appropriate.

    Depending on the consultant’s role in the project, the project manager may require that his team create a model anywhere from the beginning of schematic design process to early in design development.

    Will the model be used for analysis?

    For many projects, it’s beneficial to export the model to a separate analysis software package and then send the results back to modify the BIM.

    However, each analysis package interacts differently (and with varying success) with BIM software packages, and the model may need to be built slightly differently in order to successfully export information. Project managers need to specifically discuss this with their entire team so the model can be leveraged to its maximum advantage throughout the design process.

    Will the model be used by the contractor?

    Obviously, and due to process and legal impediments, this is a difficult decision to make in the traditional design-bid-build process. However in some circumstances, such as a school district using the general contractor-construction manager process, the contractor may have the necessary expertise and interest for involvement in the BIM process.

    While currently 2-D drawings are still the contract documents, a 3-D model may be helpful to the GC/CM. With early feedback from the general contractor, the design team may be able to make simple adjustments to their model that would create significant cost-saving benefits during construction or to the bidding process. At the same time, if the adjustment adds to the scope of work for the design team, fee adjustments may be necessary.

    The owner, design team, and GC/CM need to work closely together to make sure that contractual obligations are fully outlined and understood, and project managers will need to anticipate the expanded use of the model and prepare proper strategies.

    Does the owner expect the design team to provide the model as the as-built documentation?

    A significant opportunity exists for the owner to use the model for facility management of the building after occupancy.

    For example, monitoring mechanical system maintenance cycles and equipment specifications can be performed at the click of a button. However, there is increased effort to embed this level of component intelligence in the model.

    The project manager needs to make sure that expectations are clearly understood early in the design process and spelled out in scopes of work and contracts.

    BIM has the opportunity to become a significant advancement for our industry. Since the process of creating a 3-D BIM model “virtually” builds the facility prior to construction, traditional shortcomings of the 2-D process can be minimized.

    The process has the capability of improving coordination and, subsequently, documentation. This will reduce construction-related questions, leading to a reduction in change orders and the length of construction.

    For the process to be successful project managers don’t have to be expert model builders, but experts in how BIM will affect the process they are managing. By understanding the process, knowing when to make decisions and guiding their teams accordingly, project managers will allow the advantages of BIM to be realized.

    Craig Stauffer is president of PCS Structural Solutions and works on many of the firm’s educational facilities. PCS is a 63-person single-discipline structural engineering firm with offices in Seattle and Tacoma.

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