America’s consumers have become extremely familiar with virtual reality.
The box-office hit “Avatar” is filled with computer-generated images, and most Sony PlayStation games are set in complex digital worlds of action and adventure. But many of those consumers may not realize that the technology of virtual reality is now being used in designing construction projects.
In the construction industry, the technology that employs virtual reality is called building information modeling, or BIM. For many contractors, it’s a big change.
“BIM is changing the construction industry more than any other development within the last 20 years,” said Stephen Lamb, executive vice president at the Mechanical Contractors Association of Chicago. “Plus, construction efficiency is increased dramatically when BIM technology is used in conjunction with pre-fabrication - the simple concept of putting components together in advance.”
MCA of Chicago member contractors work to build power houses, install and service heating and air-conditioning systems, and install piping wherever it is needed, from hospitals to oil refineries.
How does BIM work?“The idea behind BIM is simple,” said Dan Bulley, MCA senior vice president. “If you build something virtually before you build it for real, you will save money.”
BIM is a revolutionary process in which the details of a construction project are combined to create a 3-D digital model.
In his essay “What is BIM?”, Chuck Eastman, director of the AEC Integration Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology, wrote: “BIM involves representing a design as objects – vague and undefined, generic or product-specific, solid shapes or void-space oriented (like the shape of a room), that carry their geometry, relations and attributes.”
Eastman added that BIM design tools allow for extracting different views from a building model for drawing production and other uses.
“These different views are automatically consistent - in the sense that the objects are all of a consistent size, location, specification - since each object instance is defined only once, just as in reality. Drawing consistency eliminates many errors,” he wrote.
“BIM is catching on fast,” Bulley said. “And many contractors, including some of our own MCA members, are using this technology to take control of the construction process.”
Bulley added that mechanical contractors can make their own virtual models and design the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems within a virtual structure before they start fabricating and installing them.
These contractors can also work in collaboration with the design team.
“One of BIM’s most valuable qualities is its ability to be used as a collaborative tool,” Bulley said. “When designers develop a project using BIM technology, they can take into account the expertise and suggestions of numerous consultants, including structural, electrical and mechanical engineers, among others.”
Bulley noted that many architects and engineers are using BIM technology to design buildings, and both private and government entities are starting to require its use.
“On the private side, it tends to be the big companies like Intel, Disney and Crate & Barrel,” he said. “On the public side, GSA has taken a lead, and locally, both the public building commission and Illinois capital development board want to require its use as soon as they can put rules together.”
Think ahead, build ahead“With BIM it is possible to see what materials will be needed and when, and that data can be used to lock down costs,” Bulley said. “Materials can be delivered and components can be scheduled for fabrication well in advance.
“Owners are recognizing the performance benefits offered by BIM, in terms of reduced costs and change orders, in terms of better building performance – and as a result, are increasingly requiring it,” he said.
Selena Worster, project manager with Mechanical Inc., said that when BIM is used in collaboration with prefabrication, “the technology is truly being put to its best possible use.”
And while BIM technology is excellent for new construction, it can also be integrated into projects involving existing structures.
“A building space can be scanned, picking up data points to create a model of that space,” she said.
“BIM gives you an accurate picture of a project and shows you how pre-fabrication will fit into it,” Worster said. “You can work through any potential problems in the model space, as opposed to the jobsite. Time is money out in the field, and you don’t want workers to have to wait because of a problem. BIM and prefabrication allow you to minimize errors and delays, for maximum efficiency.”