A fully coordinated mechanical, electrical and plumbing model. Image courtesy of Southland Industries.

The 18th century scientist and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.”

There is much talk about adopting BIM, but little action by the majority of contractors. Even among those contractors taking steps, there are often misconceptions about what BIM truly means. Yet, while the majority may take a wait-and-see attitude, a growing number of contractors are embracing BIM and moving forward. That means everyone else risks falling further and further behind.

The fact is if you want to make BIM a reality for your firm, it’s time to begin. The journey can be challenging. But as one firm, Irvine, Calif.’s Southland Industries has proven, it also leads to great rewards.

This article shares many of the lessons learned by Southland’s BIM integration into its business - valuable lessons that you can use to move your firm forward and position it for success in the ever-changing building industry.

Interoperable new software tools are saving contractors time and money. EastCoast CAD/CAM’s new Revit design-to-fabrication conversion utility converts a fully connected Revit MEP duct system over to AutoCAD MEP for fabrication without redrawing. Image courtesy of EastCoast CAD/CAM.

What is it?

It may seem obvious, but it’s critical that everyone have a clear understanding of what building information modeling really means. Many contractors say that BIM is simply three-dimensional coordinated drawings.

While coordinating with 3-D drawings is an important part of BIM, it’s only one component. To be truly BIM capable, there are a number of practices, methodologies and technologies that a company must integrate into its standard business and shop operations. Among them:

• Aggregating multi-formatted 3-D outputs

• Managing internal processes for scheduling, material planning and fabrication

• Managing data and information technology

• Defining and managing the project structure

These are the capabilities that contractors must have in place to respond to specifications which require BIM construction practices. In fact, it likely won’t be much longer before a firm will not be asked to bid if it cannot demonstrate an ability to effectively work inside a BIM-driven project.

EastCoast’s Fabrication for AutoCAD MEP contains all of the building information modeling detail needed for estimating, scheduling, downloading to CNC machines and pre-fabrication. Image courtesy of EastCoast CAD/CAM.

How to begin

If you’re wondering where and how to begin, here are several major areas within your business that must be addressed to be truly BIM compliant.

One is project structure. Every trade, architect and engineer has his or her own perspective on an integrated BIM process and protocol for managing the structure. At the onset of a project, everyone needs to agree that the most important project structure is how to best use and pull the information out of an aggregated main model. This will feed each trade’s sub models and define who controls what parts of the main model. Decisions around what information people have access to and when they are permitted to access it should be reached long before the first coordination meeting is held.

Software tools are another. Implementing BIM requires a number of software technologies that interact and are fully interoperable. That’s the first challenge. While there are many tools currently used in the practice of 3-D design, few are tightly integrated with other software needed in the process. In addition, most tools lack the built-in intelligence to share key data from one stage of a project to the next.

There are industry-standard tools such as Microsoft’s SQL server, Autodesk’s Revit MEP, AutoCAD MEP, Navisworks and AutoCAD, and EastCoast’s fabrication software for AutoCAD MEP that publish and have open-application programming interfaces to interoperate with a wide birth of other very competent BIM technologies and software tools.

There are also dozens of new software technologies entering the market that can share data with these standard applications. Before long, the intelligence in these software tools will allow contractors to take their models from design all the way through to control and facility management, tied directly into the building management systems.

Navisworks, in particular, plays a key role in coordination, replacing the traditional light table overlay. While individual firms have their own ideas and strategies for how to run a Navisworks coordination meeting, here is one consideration based on the experience of Southland Industries.

Using Navisworks 2010, check for clashes based on trade vs. architectural, trade vs. steel and MEP vs. MEP. The MEP vs. MEP allows the identification of multiple clashes with multiple disciplines at one time. Most clash detections run one trade vs. another.

Steel vs. trade and arch vs. trade are to be reviewed by each trade before coordination meetings so they come prepared to talk about issues. The goal is to find the issues and streamline the coordination process and the meetings. Focus on zero-inch clearance issues first with all trades mains and branches to ensure it all fits. Then examine the next level of coordination such as hangers and supports.

It’s critical to get everyone involved on the project to agree on a format for managing the coordination meeting process. So, getting the wall contractor involved and including all the studs and kickers is another important element beyond good steel structure. The model is only as good as the information that’s put into it and if people lack key information on the equipment or materials they’re using, it impacts everyone in the project. 

Data management

Information is at the core of BIM. After selecting the right software, the next important step is defining the process for controlling and handling information and getting it out to the field at the right time. Essential is understanding how and when the model is complete; when it is ready to be signed off; if there are any associated risks with releasing the design; and how changes or revisions will be identified. It’s all in the timing and anticipating issues long before the project is in full gear.

It’s also essential to review the process throughout the lifecycle of the project to ensure that initial plans are updated based on conditions raised during the process. The management of the files and data associated with the project will become a full-time job. That contractor must have software and data management tools in place that allow for the drawing to be easily modified, and a process for tracking changes.


In addition to technology, an issue for most contractors moving from a traditional design process to one incorporating building information modeling is the increased level of detail, schedule impact and a major resource impact on their detail department.

BIM requires that your detailing department become involved in the project much earlier than in the past. They will be asked to add and build more complete drawings early in the design phase and to anticipate and plan on taking a more active role in getting scheduling information onto the drawings.

In many cases, detailers are reviewing, coordinating and adding an extra level of quality control to the design model. This is a significant change in their previous role in which detail and scheduling information was typically added after the job had been designed. The schedule impact is that traditional design and detailing scheduling is being used for this process and more deliverables are being required in this time frame.

Many contractors will find that detailers and draftsmen are not always easy to locate, so keeping up with these schedules can become an issue. There is a major shortage of qualified people in the mechanical, electrical, plumbing and sheet metal industry. Contractors who are not involved in this design-assist process will be starting off their BIM project playing “catch up.”

An example of Navisworks’ clash-detection capabilities. Image courtesy of Southland Industries.


One of the greatest benefits to BIM is to take “pre-fabrication” to an entirely new level. With the level and depth of coordination resulting from the BIM process, contractors have tremendous quantities of data - and confidence in the quality of that data - to schedule material purchases and pre-fabrication. BIM models will give contractors increased opportunity to pre-fabricate supports, section or spool duct and pipe, and use technology for inserting hangers, sleeves and openings. The ultimate payoff to this technology is that all of these will improve field installation productivities.

Among the most difficult tasks for any contractor is to find and retain talented staff schooled and efficient on all of the BIM-related technologies, including Revit and AutoCAD MEP. There are just not that many people in the market today. Those coming into the market are largely new engineering graduates who lack the industry experience and know how. Contractors may find that it is easier to teach computer-aided drafting to an experienced field technician than teach the field installation techniques to a draftsman. But contractors will want to use draftsman to help on some of the basic tasks of CAD file management and keep crew rates down.

Understanding the real costs

For small contractors adopting BIM, the cost of software and hardware is significant. But the “soft costs” of personnel downtime and technology training can be even more significant. A company must place it in the hands of a capable CAD manager, along with a commitment to someone who will maintain and manage your database.

Another surprise cost that can impact contractors’ budgets rise out of the increased time spent revising drawings. The higher level of detail causes more corrections that come from the BIM coordination process.

What’s important to understand is that many of these corrections would never have been identified from a two-dimensional flat line or visualized on a light table. They likely would largely have gone unaddressed and end up being field-coordination costs.

Now, with tools such as Navisworks, many more issues, errors, and problems can be identified and addressed, resulting in a much higher level of quality in the end. Nevertheless, you should expect to spend much more time on internal and external coordination along with making more coordination changes to update the model.

Integrated 3-D BIM coordination is not new to all trades, but it was just never done to the level and degree that it is today. Mechanical contractors in particular should also anticipate that, because of their history of doing 3-D for fabrication, general contractors will burden the mechanical contractor with setting up and maintaining the Navisworks model with very little compensation for their management and leadership.

Setting expectations, project managing and anticipating this potential role is another element of how BIM projects are being managed.

Being an innovator

Yes, there’s much too learn for truly integrating BIM into a contractor’s process flow. There are also many people promoting their BIM technology, capabilities or project management skills who are not qualified to do so. In fact, the definition of a BIM manager can be misleading right now because there are a lot of individuals saying they’re BIM managers because they went and learned how to run Navisworks. It’s important to note that understanding Navisworks does not mean an individual understands the complete BIM process.

It’s not too late to begin incorporating BIM. The industry, as a whole, is just scratching the surface. The true impact of BIM in how design, construction and building maintenance are done is fast approaching. Every contractor’s journey into BIM will be different, but regardless your organization will eventually have to move forward. The time is now to make your company an innovator and one that will differentiate you from your competitors. Invest in good people, sound technology and the training and equipment necessary for your company to be part of this new era.

David Francis is a planning manager with Southland Industries’ Garden Grove, Calif., office. David E. Quigley, who holds a master’s in business administration, is chief operating officer of Littleton, Mass.-based EastCoast CAD/CAM. Contact him at dquigley@eccadcam.com. For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.