Is BIM ready for prime time engineered systems?

Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers have justifiably lagged behind architects and structural engineers in their use of building information modeling (BIM) software. Is it the right time for them to upgrade?

By Michael Ivanovich, Editor-in-Chief, Patrick Lynch, Associate Editor December 3, 2008

**Indicates Bonus, Web-Extra, content and participants**

CSE: Explain why BIM is or is not ready for prime time among MEP design firms.

Robert Middlebrooks : Building Information Modeling is more than just software—it is an integrated design process built on coordinated, reliable information about a project from design through to construction and operation. Using BIM, engineers can generate and exchange information and create digital representations of all phases of the design process. The more appropriate question would be, is the MEP firm ready for BIM? We see many MEP engineering firms moving to BIM to meet requirements for sustainable design, 3-D coordination, visualization, simulation, and analysis. Firms transitioning must absorb learning curves, which will be minimal in comparison to the productivity increases possible with solutions specifically built for MEP firms.

Joel Londenberg : BIM is about adding more information to the final product. Currently there are BIM software tools that are entirely useable for day-to-day design and documentation tasks. It takes more effort in part because we are adding more information than in previous design/documentation methods. Using this different method also requires a willingness to make some changes in the appearance of an engineer’s final product, construction documents, and willingness to spend the time to learn something new.

Shreshth Nagpal : With regard to BIM tools, while information modeling for architectural and structural aspects has been evolving for almost a decade, MEP-BIM is relatively recent. In addition to modeling in lieu of drawing, BIM requires all relevant information about each individual component to be embedded into the model. MEP design involves more technical/industrial components and connections when compared to architectural modeling. This brings a lot of concern regarding whether all component blocks and modules are readily available. Understandably, generating custom BIM blocks requires much more time and is more effort intensive than developing custom CAD blocks. As for the BIM process, the transition from how most MEP design firms perceive design currently is completely different from the way BIM envisions it to be. Much like the name, designs have to transcend from drawings (2-D or even 3-D) and get into information modeling. This entails more effort in putting together the building information model before the design drawings could be extracted out of it. Along with the time and effort required, there is a steep learning curve for designers to understand the information-modeling process, and most design firms are at the beginning of the curve.

Kevin Settlemyre : BIM to me is the building as “a 3-D database” rather than just geometry depicting what the building is going to look like. The database can contain various types of detailed information at both the component and overall building level, such as building geometry, spatial relationships, geographic information, and the quantities/properties of building components. This information can be sliced, diced, configured, formatted, and presented in a range of methods that can benefit the flow and use of information by different stakeholders. BIM is still maturing as an approach, but companies are starting to adopt BIM tools at an increasing rate. In my opinion, the primary obstacle for MEP firms seems to be that the key mechanism for production delivery to date has been 2-D drawings. In addition, the HVAC system designs can be a complex delivery network of piping and ductwork, with numerous variations in size of different components, which makes the ability to draw those in 3-D not a trivial task. The surprise is that the conversion to BIM is just occurring now versus a few years back.

Brad Workman : Many MEP design firms have lagged behind their architectural and structural counterparts, but some of the MEP early adopters of BIM are beginning to see the advantages that it provides. Since MEP firms have long used computational tools for analysis, they initially may not have seen the many additional benefits of BIM. However, the recent integration of analysis and the BIM model is tipping the scale in favor of BIM adoption. This development and the value the integrated model provides in allowing interference detection and coordination are providing the impetus. In addition, behind the delay in BIM adoption by MEP design firms has been the lack of data from MEP manufacturers in a form readily usable by BIM applications.

**Albert Alderete : The BIM process is hampered by the availability of computer technology. A true BIM process requires all trades to have live interaction with one another. This requires an inordinate amount of computer memory and processing power. This process can work adequately on smaller scale projects but as projects become larger, the performance issues can become unacceptable.

CSE: If a design firm is satisfied with its CAD software, why should it switch to BIM?

Workman : Of course, firms should only switch to new technologies and new design methodologies when there are proven benefits to doing so. We have made this transition once when MEP designers moved from manual practices to CAD. However, the move to BIM has more consequences in terms of the adoption curve, but also in terms of the benefits. By integrating the MEP analysis into the BIM model, engineers will be able to work in that model, eliminating duplicate efforts. Modeling for analysis and drafting the resulting design become an integrated activity. BIM provides that advantage. The BIM model of MEP disciplines can be used as the basis for cost and materials takeoffs. Although this is usually the contractor’s responsibility, this capability provides the MEP designer with an early look at this important project constraint.

** Alderete : BIM is the future. Modern sustainable designs require intricate modeling to make informed decisions in the early phases that CAD cannot accommodate.

Londenberg : It is generally not a good idea to fix something that is not broken. Any tool should be chosen because it fits the current and upcoming needs. However, there are a number of benefits: closer coordination and better communication with clients/owners; the potential for more streamlined engineering calculations, i.e. HVAC, electrical load, daylighting, etc.; and automated consistency between all the sheets of your construction documents.

Settlemyre: Because the marketplace is already starting to demand it, and if they have not starting investigating/integrating the use of it in their process, they might find themselves not only “competitively behind,” but blocked from being able to respond to certain RFPs. For example, owners are now requesting—in some cases requiring—that design teams work with and use BIM technology, so the information circulates across the project team more effectively.

Nagpal : BIM offers to the design process what CAD brought to the “drawing” process, the ability to coordinate different parameters and resolve conflicts. BIM offers the idea of a virtual construct of the building that develops through the design process. This has the ability to seamlessly integrate design updates by different agencies working simultaneously on the same model and automatically update all interrelated components to resolve any conflicts. It is a digital workflow process, which moves away from first drawing and then reviewing printed sheets, to ensure that all agencies are coordinated. It presents the potential of a highly efficient process that requires more initial effort, but considerably reduces the drawing and coordination time as the design progresses.

Middlebrooks : Design and engineering firms who are satisfied with their CAD software should not view transitioning to BIM as a loss in investment. Many firms continue to use both AutoCAD and BIM solutions in their workflow, maintaining their investment in existing product and training. With BIM, there is an opportunity to improve efficiencies. Whether it be using the room enclosures for coordinated energy analysis, or clash detection of piping and ductwork, the ability to visually communicate and resolve issues early in the design process is critical.

CSE: For both costs and benefits, what are the economic parameters that go into a decision on upgrading to BIM? What are some hard numbers for costs, savings, and revenue opportunities that could help convince software decision makers?

Londenberg : Hard numbers are elusive. The costs are easier to identify, such as the cost of initial learning and implementation of the new tool. Each project also is likely to experience higher upfront costs because you are putting more information into the building model. The payback begins to appear when it comes to documentation; some of the most time-expensive tasks, like generating sections or 3-D/isometric views, become effortless. Most importantly, well-modeled designs lead to far fewer issues in the field. We have seen significant reductions in the requests for information (RFI) for our BIM projects.

** Alderete : Investment costs are initially steep, and the larger the firm the greater the investment will need to be. Such costs include hardware, software, network infrastructure, training, retraining, process changes, learning curves, and development. Some companies that have been on the cutting edge from the beginning have taken three to four years to make a profit on BIM projects. But such companies are now in a key position to take on BIM projects as the rest of the industry realizes the potential of BIM.

Workman : Users tell us the biggest cost is not the BIM software but rather the training and, more importantly, the change associated with the new integrated practice processes. As was explained in the CURT white paper, the BIM process moves more work in the project to the initial project phases. In this case, the MEP engineers will be involved with the architect earlier. As a result, their input and design can have a greater influence in the design compared to previous methods. For example, Sauda Hydro Power used BIM to automate the creation of more than 450 drawings with repeated recreation of all drawings—resulting in time saved of approximately 30%. GHAFARI Associates’ design and construction of a General Motors plant used 3-D models to integrate facility systems and eliminate thousands of design conflicts prior to construction, and to produce highly coordinated construction documents and installation drawings for architectural, structural, and MEP systems.

Settlemyre : BIM holds the promise of developing one model that can have multiple drawing views that generate to develop a drawing set, with the added bonus of updating automatically across the views if changes are made. Therefore, the benefit can be reduced production time to create and maintain a set of drawings. However, as with any tool, it is not the solution in and of itself. The key determining factor is how it is used and the rigor involved. Just because a firm uses BIM software does not mean it will realize the benefits.

CSE: How does BIM contribute to greener buildings? What evidence is there to support your answer?

Settlemyre : BIM alone does not contribute to greener buildings; it depends on how it is utilized within an integrated design process and with early stage performance analysis tools. The ability to cycle through ideas to assess feasibility in terms of aesthetics, performance, and other key parameters in a shorter time frame means the norm can be challenged more effectively, increasing the likelihood of sustainable strategies being implemented. One of the largest areas of development that we are seeing is the integration of BIM with early stage analysis, a process being termed Integrated Building Performance Modeling (IBPM).

Workman : The contribution to green buildings starts in the early design phases. Having the architect understand the consequences of building form and mass early in the design process provides huge opportunities. Significant energy-saving changes to the design are easier to implement in the initial phases. Using Bentley BIM, the architectural firm Morposis designed the San Francisco Federal Building, a green building that achieved LEED Silver status and reduced total energy consumption by over 28%.

Nagpal : What differentiates BIM from CAD is information. Given that the BIM virtual construct of the building is embedded with information about the location, material properties, and functional requirement of different spaces, it’s only a matter of processing that information to evaluate the ecological impact, building loads, and the relative energy performance of multiple design options. Interoperability with different simulation engines that evaluate parameters such as solar, daylight, and energy performance for a building are being developed within BIM tools. When this functionality is fully utilized, it would enable significant time reduction in development of simulation models and hence would give the design team an opportunity to quickly evaluate performance implications of various strategies and inform the design decisions for maximum efficiency.

Middlebrooks : When using BIM, much of the data needed to support sustainable design has been captured as a part of the design process. By directly linking the building model to analyze software, engineers can better predict the building performance and make informed decisions regarding building energy consumption.

Londenberg : Particularly when it comes to energy usage, there are many opportunities for relatively minor adjustments. You might be optimizing daylighting options or, in hot climates, shading to reduce cooling loads. Whatever the task, model-based analysis has the potential to make iterative changes and compare tradeoffs, all the while providing potential for greater collaboration and decision making between MEP, architect, and owner.

CSE: What remains to be done to make BIM software more appealing to engineering firms that do not already have it?

Londenberg : Ease of use is vital, as with any tool intended for wide use. Currently many find the software very difficult to begin using. Improvements in the interface, the documentation, and available training would be a huge benefit. We found all of these lacking during our office’s implementation. Additionally, as more manufacturers begin releasing their data in BIM format, the hurdle for engineers will lower.

Settlemyre : A key component is a stronger relationship between BIM and analysis tools that will allow information to flow both ways versus one. For example, performance analysis software provider IES has partnerships with both Google SketchUp and Autodesk Revit that provide the ability to undertake early stage performance analysis on the architect’s model and then bring the model forward into a more detailed analysis environment without having to redraw it. From there, the engineer can run with the model and undertake analysis that is more detailed. The effect realization of this process will change the marketplace in and of itself, but another step is more important. The IES link within Revit MEP is only the beginning in terms of potential in this arena. Through this relationship, the user can run the building loads analysis within the BIM environment and have the results populate the BIM database, which in this case means the peak heating and cooling loads become a part of the room information after the analysis is complete. Therefore, a project team could stay within an integrated platform to investigate both the architecture and engineering simultaneously.

Middlebrooks : BIM as a collaborative and analytical tool is continuing to expand. The ability to simulate and analyze a building model provides a platform for extended understanding of building performance, code compliance checking, sustainable design innovation, and virtual user experiences. We are continuing to innovate around Revit MEP, add analysis capabilities, and make it even easier for MEP engineers to support Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) and enable closer collaboration with their design and construction partners.

Nagpal : More is claimed and assumed about BIM-MEP presently than what it seems to be capable of actually delivering. The BIM-MEP software is under continuous development, the steep learning curve for engineers needs to be flattened by easy operability and then overcome by increased technical support, training for designers, ready-availability of industry standard component libraries for BIM integration, and a pragmatic realization by the industry of what can be expected out of a BIM model and what needs to go into it

Workman : In a virtual, intelligent model of the building, there are many opportunities for data reuse and analysis that current methods don’t offer. (The many advantages of this are detailed in the August 2004 study conducted by NIST titled “Cost Analysis of Inadequate Interoperability in the U.S. Capital Facilities Industry.”) Any time the data can be reused and not re-entered there are benefits. However, to achieve this, the BIM model has to become the genesis and source of the data. Today, the use of BIM is reliant on engineering entering the information. Often, this information is transcribed from manufacturers’ catalogs. Having the manufacturing community present their catalogs in standard BIM formats will eliminate this burden.

CSE: If BIM could potentially eliminate change orders and/or requests for information on a project, how would this impact business models of engineering firms and the collaborative nature of construction teams?

Middlebrooks : One of the benefits of BIM is the ability to virtually create a building, clarify expectations, resolve clashes, and reduce RFIs and change orders. Using BIM for collaboration, participating in projects that use an Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) method becomes much easier. We believe the evolution towards IPD will allow contractors to become much more involved in the early phases of design by contributing to constructability and cost discussions. The use of BIM will allow engineers to provide support directly to contractors who will be able to trust and rely on the accuracy of the models for direct fabrication and prefabrication.

Workman : The American Institute of Architects has an excellent paper on what it calls “Integrated Practice.” This paper suggests several new business models. See .

Londenberg : It seems that missing or hard-to-understand information is one of the primary causes for the adversarial relationship often found between the designers and builders. If the various BIM tools help to nurture a more information-based and cooperative process, then everyone will benefit. The way this affects things like liability and fee structures will have to evolve gradually.

CSE: How does BIM translate into operations benefits for companies that do not have BIM software; for example, a hospital, school, or library? Could BIM result in extra costs to keep the BIM models up to date?

Middlebrooks : Since BIM is a collaborative tool, it helps retain knowledge and records decisions throughout the design and construction process. This information can be of significantly greater value to an owner than traditional 2-D record drawings. Even if only using free viewers for BIM models, such as Autodesk Design Review or Autodesk NavisWorks Freedom, they can view and query the model for all types of information such as building systems arrangements, filters, valves, and other maintenance items. With an investment in BIM software, they can actually add value to the model including space planning, quantities, facility maintenance records, furnishings, and inventory as well as recording changes throughout the facility lifecycle.

Londenberg : A well-designed and well-documented building can go a long way toward lower operating and maintenance costs. For projects small in size or simple in complexity, this benefit may not exceed the additional cost of more thoroughly modeling the building and systems. When it comes to ongoing updates to the building model, there are fewer individuals/companies currently able to perform this service, which means higher cost. However, the BIM market is expanding and these higher costs are likely to level out.

Workman : As pointed out in the NIST paper noted earlier, there are huge savings to be gained. The true recipient of these saving is the building owner, whether or not the owner uses the resulting BIM model. This is why so many owners are now demanding BIM. We have a few examples in which information in the BIM model is migrated to facilities management products like Bentley Facilities.

CSE: Are engineering students using BIM software within their educational environments? Is BIM part of engineering curriculum?

Middlebrooks : The adoption of BIM software in architecture and engineering curriculums across the nation continues to increase. Many architecture and engineering departments are introducing BIM to their students as an integrated component to a fundamental design studio or engineering class. For example, John Messner, Associate Professor at Pennsylvania University, has been integrating BIM into his architecture engineering classes for a while now. Messner said the following in regard to how BIM is being used, “One of our main goals is to tie all the information in the model together with some of the analysis tools we use.”

Nagpal : As far as I know, they are not being utilized to any appreciable extent. Following the trend of the industry, while some architecture schools have started incorporating BIM to a certain degree within their curricula, most engineering students seem to be only informed about BIM.

Workman : While educators are teaching BIM software in the classroom, student use in architectural departments exceeds student use in engineering departments. BIM is among the areas of study in architectural engineering, architecture, and construction management programs included in Bentley’s academic subscription offerings. Increasing academic interest in BIM and computational design software such as Bentley’s Generative Components has afforded our BE Careers Network the opportunity to engage segments of the academic community that, up to now, have been unwilling to consider MEP BIM.

CSE: What are some exciting features that BIM offers that are not widely publicized?

Londenberg : We have found that the software is a huge help when it comes to educating new hires. It has always taken a great deal of effort for the older engineers, who are familiar with field conditions, to teach these to people only looking at a 2-D computer screen. However, with complete 3-D models that function to large degree the way the actual systems do in a building, both with regard to engineering calculation and installation, this instruction from old to new is given a huge boost.

Middlebrooks : There are numerous opportunities offered for firms that adopt BIM, such as visual scheduling and quantity takeoffs, but one specific example would be the digital fabrication workflow. Firms who have adopted BIM can much more easily fabricate their building systems directly from the BIM model. This type of workflow tremendously improves the quality and efficiency of the process, especially when the system or building design within the model is created with fabrication in mind. The model can then be used to fabricate premanufactured components such as ductwork and piping that can be delivered in racked systems or modules.

Albert Alderete : The BIM concept in itself is exciting and its potential in the near future is motivating its continued growth. This will continue to bring in excellent new talent that will push the envelope with the capabilities now and in the future of BIM.

**CSE: What is the status of BIM software for mechanical? For electrical? For plumbing?

Middlebrooks : BIM software for architecture has been maturing for many years since the first version of Revit was released. A few years later, Revit Structure and Revit MEP software for the structural and MEP segments was released. Despite only a short time in the market, Revit MEP adoption accelerated quickly. The mechanical and HVAC segments have been the most receptive to Revit MEP, and we have responded to the demand by focusing a lot of our product development in this area. Electrical and plumbing segments are eager to gain the benefits of BIM and integrated analysis. Our development efforts are accelerating to build upon the existing strong foundations already built into Revit MEP.
Alderete : BIM for the MEP industry is developing rapidly, yet it is still in its infancy. There has been a stronger focus on development in BIM software for HVAC, with less attention focused on electrical and even less attention and development for plumbing.
Workman : A new release of Bentley Building Mechanical Systems for both HVAC and plumbing will be available shortly. It will include a significant upgrade in functionality with the release of a gbXMl import/export utility to analyze packages for whole-building energy analysis. It also will include additional catalogs of manufacturers’ content, improved drawing annotation rules, and the use of dynamic views for all building applications.
Londenberg : Our firm is successfully using Autodesk’s BIM software, Revit MEP, for each of these three disciplines. We have used it for a wide variety of project types, such as education, office, commercial, retail, municipal, and multifamily residential, and we have not found any roadblocks.

** CSE: What are some specific examples where BIM saved the day on a project?

Middlebrooks: Many of our customers have benefited from BIM for collaboration. Jarrod Baumann of Design West Engineering stated that he often has problems fitting the ductwork within a structural cavity and has to use BIM to determine whether he has enough space for ductwork or adequate clearances. Another customer, KlingStubbins Associates, responded to the need to create more space for ductwork in a recent hotel project. They found that by using BIM to expand the ceiling space for ductwork late in the project, it only took them two days instead of an estimated two weeks to make the change and have it represented throughout the entire 21 floors.
Londenberg: We worked on an aquarium project with some significant challenges. Any project in a theme park setting has an increased need for careful consideration of the visual theme, requiring more coordination with the decorators. Add to this the additional complexities of an aquarium and a compressed timeline to achieve a target open date. Even with all of these potential complications, we had not a single problem with our BIM-based HVAC design.
Workman: A user recently took advantage of our BIM on a large medical research project. This user was able to take advantage of the spaces created by our 3-D geometry to link into CFD analysis to investigate and address the airflows that are inherently vital to this type of project and facility.

**Alderete: None yet, other than allowing one to work with the BIM project team


Joel Londenberg

Project Manager, Design West Engineering, San Bernardino, Calif

Robert E. Middlebrooks , AIA

Autodesk Industry Programs Manager Autodesk, Inc. Waltham, MA

Shreshth Nagpal , LEED AP

Sustainability Specialist Syska Hennessy Group Washington, D.C.

Kevin Settlemyre

Sustainability Consultant and Head of IES, North American Operations Integrated Environmental Solutions Boston

Brad Workman

Vice President of Building and Plant Solutions Bentley Exton, Penn.

**Albert Alderete**

Senior Associate, CAD/BIM Development Supervisor, Syska Hennessy Group, Los Angeles

Hardcopy: The missing link

Bob Honn: While BIM software presents a significant advancement to the AEC community, one equally critical component should not be overlooked—the digital document printing technology behind BIM rendered images. Those who adopt BIM should invest in a high-quality, large-format technical document system, preferably in color, to produce hard copy output of BIM-generated designs. Otherwise, the benefits of BIM cannot be fully realized. Printing/scanning/copying technology is essential to the entire BIM infrastructure, by ensuring the right plans get to the right project owners at the right time. All AEC stakeholders should have access to the latest set of BIM plans when and where they need them. Preferably, project sites should be equipped with on-site printers that offer technical color output. AEC firms should partner with local reprographers who are accustomed to receiving, processing, and printing large BIM files—and have the robust technology equipped to handle such jobs. Digital document delivery and distribution technology is a critical step in the BIM process that contributes to accelerated project turnaround and overall workflow. Among BIM’s many benefits is its ability to strengthen collaboration between AEC stakeholders, project owners, and even subcontractors throughout the project lifecycle. Expanded multidimensional views in color help illuminate fine design details that might otherwise be left to guesswork and create waste and inefficiency downstream. The ability to visualize and share this depth of detail prior to construction—and even analyze and simulate it against a model—helps expedite the project lifecycle, promote greater accuracy, and ultimately save significant costs. Despite the growing popularity of online plan rooms, paper-based plan sets remain a staple in the AEC industry. Today’s latest large-format technical document print/copy/scan systems yield faster, better presentation quality output of BIM-generated designs that can be readily shared among AEC team members without delay. Construction professionals can even print hard copies right at the building site using a low volume, color or monochrome printer or order hard copies online from a local reprographer. The end benefit is improved collaboration in early project phases between AEC stakeholders, who are getting together much sooner to review designs and overcome initial challenges.