BIM: Able? Ready? Willing?

As we ease our way into the world of BIM (building information modeling) and alternative ways of designing buildings and projects, one of the questions you’ll hear will be, “Who owns the model?”

In the old days, the facility design was “owned” by the design team, from before programming until the building was signed off on and turned over to the owner for occupancy. That’s in the process of changing. But is the construction team ready for it?

I’ve lived in both the contracting and consulting worlds. I carry the lessons from contracting with me into consulting, and hopefully it has made me a better consultant. One of the lessons is the importance of teamwork.

Now, many contractors may think “teamwork” is a misnomer and they’re just water carriers for the consultant. There comes a time when the consultant has to lay down the pencil and turn the design over to the contractor or integrator to execute (and that shouldn’t t mean “to kill”). Integrators who do design/build can supposedly claim the best of both worlds, but even at those firms, the system designer has to turn his ideas over to the shop to build, install and test. For me, the best projects have been those where we’ve all recognized that we’re part of a team and we learn from one another.

So what does this have to do with owning the model? It’s difficult to go anywhere in our industry without finding articles and advice on how to get closer to the owner or the architect, become their trusted advisor, and land the sale. I’ve known contractors whose entire goal in life appeared to be looking for ways to get rid of the consultant and take over their spot at the trough. With the advent of BIM and alternative delivery models, such as Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), it is now possible for contractors to participate earlier in the process . But it comes at a cost. They have to be willing to step up and own the model.

For my part, I’m being asked to scale back both my involvement in the project and the level of detail I typically provide. That means providing enough detail for an integrator to understand the design intent and develop the details needed to install the project well. At this point, the “ownership” of the design transfers from the consultant to the contractor.

A number of things happen at this point, including a transfer of both trust and liability. My involvement may be limited to doing an over-the-shoulder review of those shop drawings and equipment lists, then observing or participating in the system commissioning process.

To date, I have not had a bad experience with this approach. The AV contractors I’ve worked with this way have been good, and we have worked together as a team to deliver the project. But I heard recently of a project in which the contractor “owned” the model and some changes needed to be made. Rather than recognize their responsibility to document and implement those changes, the contractor insisted that the engineer document the changes. In their mind, “ownership” did not translate to accepting responsibility, a benefit of the overall IPD approach that they’d sold the owner on. Instead of reducing overall costs and streamlining the process, they increased the owner’s cost in both time and money.

We will never eliminate the need for designers and contractors working together to deliver a project, regardless of the model. But if we are to move forward together in this brave new world, it will be necessary for the “build” part of the equation to enjoy the fruits of being involved earlier in the project — as well as the responsibilities that come with taking on more of the process.

You’re able, but are you ready? Or more importantly, are you willing?

About Thom Mullins

Thom Mullins leads the audiovisual design services group for Affiliated Engineers Inc. in Seattle. He is currently chair of InfoComm International’s ICAT Council and has taught classes for both InfoComm and NSCA. For more, visit the Blogger Bios page.

2 Responses to “BIM: Able? Ready? Willing?”

  1. I have similar issues. Some contractors are starting to become conversant with Revit or other BIM software, others insist on staying with AutoCAD, and still others refuse to move beyond Visio. One the one hand, not every project requires BIM or will reap the rewards. On the other, those who refuse to play will find themselves locked in to certain kinds of projects; they will not be able to move into larger projects that will require the level of teamwork and coordination that BIM requires. I continually hear from architects that they prefer to work with engineers with BIM experience, regardless of past relationships or project success. The contractor who is flexible, and willing to work across a variety of project models, using a variety of software tools, stands to gain the most in the long run.

  2. The approach described in the article makes sense and I’m sure has worked well in other parts of the country, but I’m not sure how well it would/will work in my area. Out here we have trouble finding contractors capable/willing to even use AutoCAD to generate shop drawings. So as much as I would like to work on being comfortable with handing over that much responsibility to the contractor it will probably be quite a while before it even comes up as a remote possibility.