Orginally posted Monday, 26 March 2012

Written by Patrick Wilson

In 2009, a McGraw Hill survey found that 49 percent of the building industry was using Building Information Modeling (BIM) tools. Today, usage is estimated to be as high as 75 percent. There’s no question that BIM is employed by an increasing number of architects, engineers, contractors, and clients every day. Massive sky scrapers, research facilities, university and hospital complexes aren’t even imagined, not to mention designed and built, without the technology.

The quick and widespread adoption of BIM by major architects and builders has had a very real and dramatic impact, reducing the high start-up costs associated with the technology, while also increasing the cost rewards of errors avoided and time re-claimed through the development of standardized practices.

Leaders in the conversion to BIM, Gensler and Mortenson Construction recently teamed on a critical renovation project for the University of Chicago that establishes how BIM now makes good sense even on small projects under $5 million. In addition to verifiable cost savings, this project illustrates that BIM brings measurable value to projects involving occupied spaces, new infrastructure components, significant end user involvement, hidden conditions, and tight construction timelines. Further, the project demonstrates that a small job can also provide prime opportunities to expand BIM knowledge among smaller firms, deepen experience with related processes such as laser scanning and paperless job sites, and spur innovation of new methodologies through small-scale, controlled trials.

Establishing a Client Protocol Manual

BIM had been used in a number of large-scale projects at the University of Chicago with much success. Though fully supportive of the technology, the University had not yet had the opportunity to develop its own BIM conventions to guide subsequent jobs on the campus. The renovation of the Administration Building and it’s modest $3.3 million budget provided the construction firm the opportunity to work with the University and design team to create a BIM Protocol Manual—a game plan for successfully implementing BIM on a project.

The University embraced the opportunity to develop a tool that represented their interests to inform future campus projects. Patrick Wilson, Project Manager for Facilities Services at the University of Chicago, was especially motivated, “We were very keen to develop BIM protocols for our campus, and the opportunity to do this with experienced BIM users like Gensler and Mortenson was terrific. Although this was a small project relative to some others on our campus, we leveraged it to move our BIM capabilities forward in a big way.”

Renovation and BIM

Since it’s inception, BIM’s advanced 3D modeling has been best suited to new construction—projects that are imagined and realized with BIM before actual construction begins. At least, that is, until now. Laser scanning technology has revolutionized BIM applications, expanding them to the renovation of existing buildings.

Original drawings for the University’s Administration Building, built in 1947, were created by hand and had not been updated, a circumstance that often proves misleading with regard to the actual, “as built” environment. The design team adeptly used Revit to create a 3D set of drawings based on the originals, while the construction firm employed laser scanning technology to generate a “point cloud” of geometric samples derived from the building’s existing conditions. Aligning the Revit drawings with the point cloud field conditions survey generated an accurate set of 3D as-builts for the project.

The use of laser scanning helped the designer minimize potential design issues associated with existing condition conflicts. Anthony LoBello, Senior Associate with Gensler, viewed the process as particularly successful, “We worked in BIM from the beginning of the project. However, with an older, existing building, the original drawings required rigorous site validation. Laser scanning technology saved the team—and the client—countless hours of on-site observation, moving the project forward quickly with tremendous cost savings.”

Used extensively by the entertainment industry in the production of movies and video games, 3D laser scanning analyzes real-world objects or environments to collect data on shape, mass, and even color. Collected data is used to construct a digital, three-dimensional model. This innovative approach dramatically reduces the high cost of traditional, as-built surveys, analysis, and translation of 2D data into the 3D format required by BIM. This advancement is critical to renovation projects because they are now able to access BIM’s cost effective management of tight construction timelines, occupied spaces, and significant end-user involvement, as well as problem solving with regard to hidden conditions and the introduction of new infrastructure components.

Exposing Smaller Firms to BIM

The University of Chicago has an active community engagement policy that routinely involves small, local sub-contractors in projects. This community of tradesmen generally doesn’t utilize BIM technology, and the University was concerned that if the Administrative Building was managed with BIM, these firms would be deterred from bidding.

Acknowledging the University’s commitment to the community, as well as its goal of attracting competitive bids, the construction firm leveraged the relative size of the Administrative Building project to provide pre-bid training sessions for sub-contractors not yet familiar with BIM. In conjunction with the site walk-through, trades were invited to learn about the cost savings, quality control, and enhanced safety and efficiency afforded by BIM applications. Of particular focus, the 3D Building Coordination process—involving the overlay of 3D models produced by each subcontractor—was explained and detailed, along with the advantages it provides in resolving potential conflicts prior to construction, as well as labor and cost savings through off-site prefabrication.

“BIM is the future,” says Andy Stapleton, Director of Business Development at Mortenson Construction, who has worked with BIM technologies for more than 10 years. “However, many subcontractors have not had the opportunity to work within a BIM process, so they don’t have a full understanding of the methods or the benefits that are attainable. BIM is a process, not simply software. This project created a great opportunity to expose local subcontractors to BIM protocols and continue to expand awareness of, and enthusiasm for, the technology.”

Paperless Job Sites

Once the fantasy of space-age cartoons, paperless job sites are now a tangible reality. The builder’s extensive integration of BIM technologies has initiated a new era in eco-friendly project management and strengthened inter-team communication. Traditionally, jobs involved multiple sets of ever-evolving documents that were re-issued numerous times from concept through construction. BIM eliminates the expense associated with printing, delivering, and storing drawing sets and greatly enhances information timeliness and accuracy.

An electronic project dashboard facilitates up-to-date information exchange among the entire team and supports the use of an onsite Digital Plan Table that enables problems to be identified, reviewed, and resolved before they are encountered2_SMALL_SMART_FIG2 on the physical job site. For the renovation of the Administration Building, the University of Chicago was able to document repeated instances of tangible cost savings directly attributable to the application of the virtual approach. It is estimated that BIM implementation resulted in measurable cost savings on this project. A specific example of BIM’s value is highlighted in Figure 2.

From BIM to Facilities Management

Beyond reducing the time and cost of construction, virtual design and construction has the potential to deliver a seamless and inexpensive transition of a building from the project team to the client’s facilities group. Even the Administrative Building team, although highly experienced with BIM, had yet to realize a digital handover. The small scale of the Administrative Building presented a great opportunity to pilot this process.

“One of the primary drivers in our push for BIM is the ability to leverage the vast amount of data collected through the design and construction process during the post-occupancy period,” Boyd Black, Assistant Vice President of Capital Project Delivery at the University of Chicago. “Using the information to streamline and reduce the cost for maintaining our facilities is a very tangible benefit of using BIM.”

While BIM is noted for the 3D quality of its modeling, it’s most significant value is the depth and accuracy of information that is captured, documented, and made available. The 2D lines of AutoCad are replaced by doors, walls, and equipment in BIM, each with detailed information attached, such as dimensions, product model, and serial numbers. It has also proven to be a great tool to communicate the 3D images to the client.

Utilizing the Construction Operations Building Information Exchange (COBie) process as a foundation for their experiment, the University of Chicago developed a custom form to assist in the transition of extensive data collected as part of the BIM process into their computerized maintenance management system (CMMS), IBM’s Maximo. As the project was completed, detailed project information had been collected, vetted, formatted, and seamlessly integrated with the University’s Maximo database.


Drawing from this carefully documented, real-world case study, it is easy to conclude that small projects and renovations can get big benefits from a process that utilizes BIM at all phases, from planning through occupancy and ongoing operations. The benefits to all stakeholders—architects, engineers, contractors, and Owners—are clear.

The experience of this project also demonstrates that conventional BIM tools gain even more power when integrated with other digital structures used by Owners, including CAFM tools, work-order systems, asset tracking, and even the overall ERP systems. Careful design of information structures and thoughtful process engineering only serves to accelerate this valuable integration.

The bottom line: BIM is no longer limited to the realm of mega-projects with substantial economies of scale. In fact, smaller scale projects can offer ideal, lower-risk circumstances to innovate and expand the use of the technology.