Exhaust systems as seen through the building information modeling process, ready for fabrication, delivery and installation.

Contractors are being bombarded with the buzzword “BIM,” but what does it truly mean?

What are the current implications of adopting building information modeling into your business plan? What are the future implications and are you, your team and your infrastructure ready?

“I would recommend that you invest now, do some smaller projects, while the market is slower, or you will be further behind when things pick up again,” said Brett Endres, technical services manager for Washington-based University Mechanical Contractors Inc. “We’re using the best BIM products the industry offers and seeing the benefits on the projects we are building today.”

BIM is much more than a 3-D drawing. BIM is a powerful process that involves synchronizing data - information - and rethinking the way you’re doing business. Some contractors have embraced this modern approach and are already on board reaping the benefits. They’ve become efficient and streamlined, saving time and money, all while minimizing risk and increasing profits.

“For us, (BIM) is a total package providing solutions from conceptual design to fabrication and beyond. Many vendors are only talking about BIM capabilities that will be available in the future, but we are building buildings today and we need real solutions now,” Endres said. “Fortunately, we have found a software solution to supplement our BIM processes that delivers information and product to the project today - it is not a far-fetched marketing concept, it is a reality.”

Dave Pikey of the Hill Group in Illinois said BIM helps everyone.

“Using BIM in a truly integrated project delivery (IPD) environment allows for many more of the decisions to be made for the benefit of the whole group,” Pikey said. “There can be financial incentives to ensure that what is produced is best overall value. The BIM and IPD process bring a building to market more quickly by cutting out excess steps and costs, and when you have a model created with software that has all of its applications connected to a common fabrication and estimating database, you know so much more about the life cycle of the building, from design through building operations.”

Fully coordinated HVAC, piping and structural systems provide a clear visual of the installation.

What is it?

Building information modeling is an information-based process, not a drawing-based process, that builds long-term value and advances innovation. It’s about integrating and streamlining design and construction processes, making them collaborative, and about the software tools needed to achieve that end. And because the BIM process is a new way of doing business in the construction industry, there are still some industry players thinking of BIM as simply creating 3-D drawings in computer-aided drafting software. But it’s the “I” for information in BIM that sets the process apart from simple 3-D modeling.

You can also think of the “I” in BIM as standing for “intelligent” information. It’s the intelligence in the model that makes it BIM. Intelligent data models include not only 3-D images and symbols - which you can get with many computer-aided drafting products - but also systematized and well-defined essential details like dimensional values, fabricating data, price, and labor which then can be used for automating bills of material, cost estimates, clash detections, takeoffs and fabrication specifications before construction even starts.

BIM is also:

Accurate virtual model. “Cloud” computing, a new generation of computing that uses remote servers over the Internet for data storage and management, is being used to manage the different trades’ intelligent data models, especially for clash detection, since those combined files are so large.

Precise geometry. With precise geometry, you know for sure that what’s in the model is actually what’s being built, allowing early clash detection and accurate prefabrication.

Relevant, intelligent data content. Data content in a BIM design must contain dimensional data and fabrication data as well as labor units, material costs and manufacturer’s data.

Support for the construction effort. Allows for clash detection before construction, eliminates redundant design drawing, supports construction scheduling, and promotes “lean” construction, resulting in reduced inventory and waste.

Extraction of information for procurement and pre-fabrication. Intelligent data will allow you to pull from the model product-specific bills of material for the purchasing department, send fabrication information to manufacturing equipment, and generate hanger, sleeve and embedded information for the shop and field. It also allows you to speed the generation of pre-fabrication spool sheets, and populate cost accounting and scheduling programs-all resulting in the elimination of redundant activities.

Post-construction facility management. With true BIM, facilities managers can set up automated maintenance schedules on equipment such as air conditioning, air handlers, chillers and pumps, based on what they know from the intelligence in the model.

Lifecycle analysis. Running lifecycle analysis on equipment can be automated. Owners can determine, for instance, the return on investment for purchasing a piece of equipment and then substitute it into the BIM model. The intelligent model can then be used to calculate the sizing, material pricing and labor so that the owner can quickly assess the value proposition of those changes.

If you’re not using BIM in your organization - your models do not contain size, price, cost, labor and material data that’s usable across multiple applications - you’re undoubtedly squandering time and money unnecessarily, many experts say.

“However, though the software tools are invaluable, it is critical that contractors entering this area go in with their eyes wide open,” Endres said.
br>He said these are some of the things you should know and understand before you invest:

• Develop a complete plan for implementation or improvement of your process.

• You need like-minded leadership that is willing to stand by you throughout the implementation and development of your team.

• Operations must be willing to see the opportunities created by the process and put them into action.

• Understand that traditional roles and barriers will be challenged.

• You need a vision for how your CAD and estimating teams are going to be structured. In the future, they will be more like one team.

• You need to have trade coordination processes and tools that will help your virtual construction services staff succeed in developing coordinated information for your project teams and customers.

• Mechanical contractors should always lead the trade coordination process; therefore, we need to be knowledgeable and prepared.

• Most of all, you need the right people. There are a lot of specializations these days and lumping this entire process on a couple of motivated staff members will burn them out in no time.

• Find a peer contractor willing to talk about what they do.

• Be patient, and don’t lose track of your long-term plan. 

BIM facilitates the fabrication and installation of sophisticated and complex systems like this one.

Up front

The other part of authentic building information modeling, in addition to the intelligence built into true BIM models, is the process of coordinating the construction process. This is where a seismic shift in attitude must be embraced and, not coincidentally, where substantial time and cost savings are realized.

The current common process of design-bid-build is fraught with delays and potential for errors. For example, assume the architect and design engineer take six months to a year to develop the preliminary set of building drawings. These design specifications are full of errors and not coordinated. Nonetheless, the job is put out to bid by either manually distributing paper or by putting the specs and drawings online and requiring bidders to download, analyze and come up with a bid price. This bid process can take at least a month if it’s a big job. The low bidder inevitably gets the job and when the company goes to build, clashes crop up and inspection requests start flowing. The entire construction process slows down, the cost of the project soars and the duration of the project gets longer while issues are resolved. Deadlines are missed and the owner is displeased.

Alternatively, you can embrace the BIM business processes of design-build or design-assist. If you’re using an authentic BIM model with a foundation of intelligence - this won’t work if you’re using 3-D modeling only - the mechanical contractor is involved upfront during the initial design phase with the architects and structural design engineers.

With the design-build method of collaboration, the mechanical contractors are doing the engineering, sizing ductwork, piping, etc. It’s their design and their stamp is on it. That also makes them liable for the viability of the design.

BIM helps ensure that the installed HVAC systems are fully integrated with the building's structural and architectural components.


With the design-assist method, the engineers are collaborating on the design with the mechanical contractors, but it’s ultimately the engineer’s stamp that winds up on the final design.

Both of these processes are currently being used on the most successful projects because of the upfront collaboration and communication between all parties involved. It makes the job go faster, automates clash detection before anything is fabricated or built, practically eliminates requests for inspection and automates any subsequent change requests and estimates.

“Several benefits that come from modeling early in the design process include earlier identification of spatial issues, dramatically reducing the time to develop estimates, allowing for schedule reduction and using a single model for creating design and detail drawings,” Endres said.

If managed well, BIM-implemented jobs are better organized and streamlined, and they’re completed on average two to three months faster than traditionally managed projects. They also require significantly lower contingency funds because of the greater confidence that the assemblies will fit since they’ve been coordinated from the beginning. This ultimately makes the owner happy because the sooner the building is done, the sooner the facility begins generating revenue.

Implementing a BIM process will take more time up front, but you’ll save in the end. It’s similar to paying off a mortgage - if you pay a larger amount each month, you’ll end up saving money. BIM speeds up the construction process, reduces risk and increases efficiency and innovation. The owners will be happy and that customer satisfaction will lead to more jobs.

An example of BIM-designed coordinated and  installed systems.


You have to ask yourself: How automated is my HVAC shop? Have I invested in or have access to a plasma cutter, coil line, duct liner or a spiral duct machine?

If your shop is automated, are you still doing shop drawings in CAD that require you to do a “pickoff” to go to production? That’s a process that’s extremely time consuming and could be automated with an intelligent model.

Where are you going with the manufacturing process? Since the HVAC industry comprises engineered-to-order components like sheet metal, each component is job and project specific. Automation can only help efficiency. If you put BIM into action you’ll have coordinated, intelligent and manufacture-ready objects which can be sent directly to your shop machines without human intervention. You’ll reduce redundancy which reduces errors and saves you money.

BIM users and the design-build process currently benefit from existing, multi-dimensional BIM software every day for managing some of the most complicated construction projects in the world. Their accomplishments and successes are quickly putting BIM in the mainstream as the de-facto construction industry standard, and those who cannot provide comprehensive BIM capabilities are being left out. Owners are beginning to demand BIM and are changing contract terms to enable it.

Contractors who are proficient and capable in BIM are being rewarded, those who are not are being penalized and increasingly, if you’re not able to provide true BIM models, you’re not even invited to the party.

“We see the coordination as an opportunity, not a contractual liability,” said Scott Reidner, sheet metal CAD manager at Mechanical Inc. in Illinois. “With our BIM software, we go from the drafting department, to the field then straight to the shop using the same drawing for all of that since our software works from one common database.”

The creation of these models is best done by the highly skilled mechanical contractors that have decades of experience integrating systems.

“Experience learned through building the real thing translates into a practical, fully constructible building model,” Reidner said. “Too often, BIM facilitators don’t have construction experience and it can add time to the project if they aren’t sensitive to acceptable tolerances and ‘don’t see the forest for the trees.’ ”

In this graphic, the HVAC systems are shaded to make them easier to see.


Building information modeling software plus the design-build process equals a powerful system to improve the way modern, complex construction projects get erected and managed.

“BIM with intelligent data content eliminates labor intensive processes that are typically performed by field crews,” Endres said. “Now the field can review the reports/spools/fab packages provided and focus on planning work, which makes their crews safer and more productive.”

Project economics are forcing the improvement of construction efficiency and competition is rearranging the players in the field. The HVAC industry should take action now for planning modern building design by embracing intelligent building information modeling.

This article and its images were supplied by Austin, Texas-based Technical Sales International Inc. TSI is a provider of BIM software to HVAC, mechanical, plumbing and electrical contractors. Bernie Tamasy is a third-generation mechanical contractor with over 35 years of construction experience. He is the president and CEO of Technical Sales International.