If there was a top-10 list of overused terms, “paradigm shift” would surely be on it. When a company or organization confronts major change, it’s often called a paradigm shift. But how often does this mean a transformation of the rules of the game? The architecture/engineering/construction (AEC) industry has no worries on this score—it truly is undergoing a paradigm shift. Its rules are changing profoundly, thanks to the advent of computerized 3-D design, otherwise known as building information modeling (BIM).

BIM has come a long way from five or six years ago when HEALTHCARE DESIGN started covering it. As BIM emerged, its principal application seemed to be in MEP clash detection. Because MEP has always accounted for a significant portion of the construction budget, the joke at the time was that MEP contractors were finally asserting their “control” of the design process.

For sure, the relative relationships of the A’s, E’s, and C’s in AEC continue to rebalance as use of BIM evolves—some have even gone so far as to say that the C’s are leading the way: Online newsletter AECbytes, reporting from this year’s Autodesk Revit AEC Technology Day, noted that “AutoDesk is finding that the use of BIM is gaining unprecedented momentum among contractors—they are currently leading the value chain and are the biggest beneficiaries of BIM.”

As vendors such as Autodesk Revit, Vectorworks, Rhinoceros 3-D, and form-Z grow in market acceptance, are the C’s—and, for that matter, the E’s—taking over for the A’s in healthcare design?

Not exactly, but their respective roles are being redefined. One healthcare client who’s been extremely busy of late, Sidney J. Sanders, senior vice president of construction, facilities design, and real estate at The Methodist Hospital System of Houston—overseeing five major facility projects in five years—told our sister publication Healthcare Building Ideas (“Is ‘design assist’ the IPD wave of the future?,” Spring 2011, p. 28): “The vision we had was that the design team would define everything they needed in terms of building scope and system attributes using 3-D BIM technology. The subs would work collaboratively and suggest changes and alternatives … in such areas as the building’s vertical core, the skin, and the MEP … There would come a point in the design process—what I called the transition point—where there was sufficient documentation for the architect and engineer to sign off to obtain a building permit. At that point, further development and refinement of the design would be handed off to the subs. Before fabrication, the subs … would input their fabrication shop drawings in the 3-D BIM model for A/E review. The A/E role at that point would be verification that the design intent had not been compromised.”

Even though Sanders is the first to admit that things didn’t always go as planned, it is a paradigm shift and, he says, “There is a steep learning curve here.” He found that the project for which he used this system throughout saved from five to 13 months compared to the schedules of two more traditional construction manager (CM) at-risk projects. And he is not alone in experiencing such results.

Massachusetts-based Suffolk Construction, according to President of Healthcare/Science and Technology Peter Campot, realized major savings on healthcare projects developed using BIM, including $650,000 in clash detection, nearly $815,000 in reduced RFIs, and $100,000 via prefabricated piping and valve assemblies for MIT’s David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Also, Campot reports, sufficient budget flexibility was found to finally construct an already planned but cancelled pediatric wing for the Baystate Medical Center at no additional cost.

California-based DPR Construction was able to take four to six weeks out of the schedule for its Palo Alto Medical Foundation project due to highly accurate modeling of the building’s podium, says BIM Manager Christopher Rippingham. DPR also reported savings of $9 million and six months’ schedule for the Camino Medical Group Mountain View Campus’s 250,000-square-foot outpatient center, compared to the traditional CM at-risk approach.

More recently, DPR completed a last-minute 3-D redesign of office space to patient care space at the Sulpizio Family Cardiovascular Center in San Diego inside of four months, well ahead of schedule. And at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in San Francisco, the design team identified $18 million of savings in 24,000 clashes avoided for the 11-story patient tower.

Meanwhile, the architects—the A’s in AEC—are finding plenty of opportunity in BIM. “Three-D offers more precise details that help clarify the design for everyone,” says Angel Burgos, BIM manager for HGA Architects and Engineers. “We have all become more aware of what we design in terms of constructability.” HKS BIM Manager Steven Valenta notes, “We’re leveraging more and more of the ‘I’ in BIM. We’re developing guide sheets using details and data extracted from the model that repeat from project to project to reduce repetitive drawing tasks, which frees our architects to explore design ideas in the same amount of time.”

BIM is also proving its chops in advancing sustainable design. Revit’s Green Building Studio, for example, can perform sufficient energy analysis, lighting calculations, and specification management to make a BIM model LEED-worthy.

Needless to say, none of this comes easily. The fact of the matter is that the AEC world at-large simply isn’t far enough along with BIM to make virtual design a seamless reality for all participants. A survey of CAD managers published this February by Catalyst.com found that only 6% of responding firms reported themselves as being “totally 3-D” and 12% “mainly 3-D with legacy 2-D,” and 60% noted they were either totally or mainly 2-D.

Products such as AutoCad are not going away any time soon, and in fact are still used on BIM projects to prepare documents for permit agencies still operating in a 2-D world, plus drafting details—for example, flashings—that may not be cost-effective for 3-D modeling.

Firms that are not completely up to speed with BIM have their work cut out for them—and so do their BIM-driven partners. “There is a lot of struggle these days with varying platforms and capabilities,” says Gilbane Building Co. Vice President Adam R. Jelen. “You absolutely need a BIM execution plan committed to Lean processes, with everyone being totally honest about their capabilities and totally trusting in working the solutions out together. This is the basis for collaboration. Without collaboration, BIM is nothing.”

DPR Construction has noted that close attention to detail is also needed to optimize BIM. “Small items are often overlooked in a model,” a DPR white paper notes, “such as anything less than a 1.5-inch diameter, miscellaneous steel, hangers, connections to exterior skin systems, bracing, gusset plates, seismic connections, headwall units, and systems, including a pneumatic tube and medical gas.” Some details are important for BIM coordination and accurate materials estimates, DPR says. For example, concrete slabs that are modeled need construction joints included and drywall models should include stud spacing and backing.

Another challenge to be addressed is the necessity (so far) for design team members to collaborate on a model using different platforms. Architects and engineers may work on Revit, for example, only to see subs using programs such as Cad-Duct, CAD-Pipe, and CAD-Mech to process their share of the model as shop drawings for fabrication. But Suffolk Construction’s Campot notes that “programs are becoming more compatible every day, and this is quickly becoming less of a problem.”

HKS’s Valenta adds that “construction management programs like Navisworks help with a lot of this and, as time goes by, firms that have a track record of working together will see coordination to be much less of a problem.”

Still, another difficulty confronting would-be BIM collaborators: The files used in AEC design are (not surprisingly) huge. Networks and mobile workstations are developing to expedite file exchange for BIM, but remote users can still encounter difficulty. Might this be an opening for “the cloud,” the latest hot topic in IT?

Large-capacity virtual servers acc
ommodating multiple users and workstations in real time for a monthly fee (as opposed to a major hardware investment) might seem an attractive alternative worth contemplating. But Campot disagrees: “Cloud computing today still has a problem with file size in this area and, besides, we’ve come up with ways to compress files and otherwise get around this problem. This is another area that’s getting better all the time.”

A final solution might come from the National BIM Standard project being conducted by the buildingSMART Alliance. A version 1.0 was developed in 2007, essentially laying out the recommended steps for BIM adoption. Version 2.0 further integrating today’s BIM products is due at the end of 2011.

For now, the healthcare AEC field is working through its paradigm shift. For example, the Methodist Hospital System’s Sanders now expects to develop a BIM manual overseen by a BIM project director for his next project. HKS’s Valenta foresees movement toward an even more detailed approach: “You’ll see plug-ins for such modeling items as renumbering rooms or doors. Utilities will link to Excel spreadsheets providing data for door hardware sets, for example, that can be used to populate the model with minimal errors. I even see a world where mobile viewing of the model at the job site is possible—in fact, it might just be around the corner. It’s possible, for example, to view a Revit model on an iPad using remote desktop. In general, we’re going to see projects in a way we’ve never seen them before." HCD

For more information on participating in the National BIM Standard project being conducted by the buildingSMART Alliance, please visit www.buildingsmartalliance.org.