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Fact vs. Fiction: What BIM Is and Is Not

Building Information Modeling, better known as BIM, is a common word or label in the modern construction industry. The processes and practices of which BIM is comprised have been changing the way MEP contractors do business for years now. It’s been a part of what we do for just long enough to cloud the facts about what BIM actually is and what it’s not.

You’re likely already aware that BIM can make a project more efficient and cost-effective, and that adopting it involves costs the contractor needs to consider. You’ve probably also heard that it can triple your bid-to-close ratio, add 60 percent to every project’s profit margin, and cure the common cold, too.

But how do you separate the facts about BIM from all the hype, half-truths, and exaggerations?

Don’t worry. That’s what we’re here to do for you.

BIM: Just the facts

BIM involves the creation of intelligent, 3D digital models to plan and manage construction projects. In comparison to traditional drawings and related tools, BIM allows for a much higher level of actionable, accurate, and accessible information to be shared with project stakeholders so they can make better decisions, faster.

Importantly, though, BIM goes well beyond the development of fancy-looking digital pictures. It’s actually a set of business processes that impact the entire construction project workflow, from the initial estimating and bidding stages all the way through completion and ongoing facility maintenance.

As you can imagine, then, truly adopting BIM involves a lot more than hiring a CAD guy and upgrading to a MacBook Pro. This new way of working will transform project delivery, construction, and design in numerous ways. It’s a real game-changer for MEP professionals, and not a transition to be taken lightly.

At this stage, though, it’s also not a transition you can afford to ignore.

Where folks get BIM wrong

Before we go any further into why and how contractors can integrate BIM fully into their workflow, we need to address the myths and hype surrounding it.

You’ve probably heard conflicting points of view around BIM, especially if you’ve been in the construction industry for more than 10 years. There are the skeptics and ill-informed naysayers:

  • You need to spend tons of money on software
  • It takes a lot more time to draw up plans in 3D
  • BIM is only for “big” companies and “big” projects
  • It’s something “someone else” is working on, but doesn’t affect me
  • BIM is threatening jobs, phasing humans out of the construction industry
  • It’s just another excuse for third parties to step in and make money off of hard-working owners and contractors

Then, at the other extreme, there are so-called “experts” who push the benefits of BIM with almost religious fervor:

  • BIM is a silver bullet for every problem that’s ever plagued your projects
  • Once you adopt BIM, human error is no longer a factor and inefficiencies disappear
  • Adoption = Instantly skyrocketing profit margins (assuming you have enough faith, of course)

The noise is exhausting. Worse yet, it leaves people confused, fatigued, and skeptical, which in turn, leads to inaction.

The facts, as noted above, are really very simple. So, let’s see if we can break through the “analysis paralysis” that’s holding many MEP professionals back from diving fully into BIM.

BIM adoption: Cutting through the hype

Fred Mills, co-founder of The B1M, summed things up succinctly in an article on this blog earlier this year:

“All we are talking about here is using digital tools to make our lives easier. We’re talking about the right information being in the right place at the right time for the people that need it. We’re using technology to help us do that — shared areas online that everyone in a team can access, software that links the drawn representations to the specifications and performance data. Viewers that enable wider teams to see that information free of charge.”

He goes on to acknowledge that adopting this “new way of working” presents a challenging culture change for many. After all, with new technology comes an inevitable learning curve. And, beyond learning the mechanics of BIM, there’s also the fact that the entire workflow demands greater collaboration and communication across the board — a fact that can be intimidating for firms that are still comfortable operating in silos.

Importantly, though, adopting BIM doesn’t have to mean every project takes more time, money, and effort. It doesn’t have to be difficult.

It’s just different.

Be realistic

For MEP professionals just starting to adopt BIM, the journey can be intimidating. There are:

  • Tools and technology to acquire
  • Business processes to change
  • People to educate or hire  
  • Commitments to be made to ongoing education and embracing change

These are legitimate concerns, as all of these factors translate to an investment. Every smart business owner wants to know what they can expect to get in return for their investment, so construction professionals who are considering going all in with BIM rightfully ask the same question.

Beyond the financial investment, there’s also the impact BIM adoption is going to have on their business practices. Don’t underestimate the impact this can have on productivity and efficiency during, and immediately following, the transition to a BIM environment.

Finally, contractors will usually need to bring on at least a few new team members who understand the new language and workflow of BIM. Often, specialized training is needed for the staff to move from 2D to 3D detailing. There will be enhanced authoring tool training, inclusion of additional tools and workflows, such as BIM collaboration software, field layout equipment, and point cloud integration.

The necessary expertise to operate efficiently in a BIM world can add up quickly.

Be optimistic

It’s important to understand, though, that BIM is simply the natural evolution of construction technology. It’s the next logical step, much like CAD slowly, but surely, took the place of T-squares and drafting tables a few decades ago. So, while you need to be realistic about the investments required, you also need to recognize the tremendous value in making that investment.

Ignore the noise, buzzwords, and hype. Just think about yourself and your business: What aspects of this can help your business? How can it improve what you do? How can it make your customers happier and make you more profitable?

Discussing these straightforward business questions, Fred Mills made another important point:

“A while ago, a study by Avanti determined that what I have described could help to drive waste out of the construction delivery process. Waste that currently amounts to 20-25 percent of everything we do. In your typical five-day working week, 20 percent equates to an entire day. If you could gain that time back, you would effectively have an extra working day in each week of your financial year. That means you can do more work, while keeping your overhead more or less the same, which increases your profits.”

So, adopting BIM processes and technology into your firm isn’t just an abstract change in how you’re approaching the work. Now we’re talking about money: increasing the cash in your pocket.

In MEP, successful BIM adoption can mean finding that 20 percent by minimizing the time you spend calculating pipe sizes, flow rates, heat gains, lux levels or ducting routes because you have the right architectural/structural information and performance criteria at your fingertips. It means partnering with the design team earlier in the process to collaborate virtually, building and testing before you head out into the field, and thereby eliminating expensive and time-consuming error resolution on site. And, it means enhancing the estimating and bidding process so you can close more deals, more rapidly, and with greater accuracy than ever before.

That’s not hype. That’s not exaggeration.

That’s just the facts about the results you can achieve when you successfully adopt BIM into your workflow. For detailed information regarding each aspect of BIM, including an in-depth discussion of ROI, visit our collection of Guides.