BIM Grows Up: Separating Hype from Reality in a 3D World

While BIM adoption still lags in both design and construction, some enterprising owners, architects, and contractors are unlocking the potential of this dynamic technology.

April 13, 2011 |

No other AEC technology initiative holds as much promise or generates as much discussion as switching from 2D CAD to 3D BIM. More firms than ever before say they’re interested in changing their design processes from 2D to 3D building information modeling. According to ZweigWhite’s 2010 Information Technology Survey, 69% of architecture and engineering executives surveyed said their firms wanted to increase their use of BIM.  Yet these same executives said they used BIM in a paltry 3% of their projects.

Even though parametric 3D modeling has been around for more than a decade, many firms are still using BIM only for grabbing the low-hanging fruit like clash detection. They are not unlocking the full potential of attaching parametric information to individual objects within their 3D models.

It is true that certain barriers to greater adoption of BIM remain: continued lack of interoperability among software tools, and the significant upfront cost of high-end graphics processing technology. But neither of these is sufficient in itself to limit the technology to such a small percentage of use, not when more and more owners, particularly governments and high-end building owners, are clamoring for BIM to be used in their projects. For some reason, the great majority of AEC firms are just not getting it.

There are, however, a number of innovative organizations that are using BIM for much more than simple tasks like clash detection and garnering clear cost savings and competitive advantage as a result. These firms are delivering services thought impossible as little as five years ago. These innovators include:

•  A major retailer with an in-house design team that is using BIM to save millions on new store design and construction thanks to 4D scheduling, an innovative delivery process, and prefabricated store components.

•  An A/E firm that has formed a separate integrated project delivery company with a partner construction company to deliver truly integrated design and construction.

Crate & Barrel: BIM makes expansion possible again

Northbrook, Ill.-based Crate & Barrel, a retailer of housewares and furniture with 106 stores in the U.S., Canada, and Dubai, prizes the architecture of its stores more than almost any retailer. Founded in 1962 by Gordon and Carole Segal in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, a majority stake in the company was sold to German mail order conglomerate Otto Group in 1998.

Each store has a unique design, with complex articulation in plan and elevation, yet all Crate & Barrel stores follow a neo-modernist approach to design and detailing and use materials that are not always easy to source.

“Our stores are challenging to build,” says John Moebes, AIA, Director of Construction for Crate & Barrel’s in-house construction group. “We use a lot of lighting to illuminate our merchandise, which requires complex electrical and HVAC infrastructure. There’s also a high sensitivity to the delivered facility, as it represents the brand.”

While Crate & Barrel had been using BIM before the current recession, their post-2008 projects have all used it for much more than design. The company’s in-house architecture and design group produces each new store’s schematic design package. The in-house construction department then acts as construction manager at agency for their projects. Their Building Teams almost always include an outside associate architecture firm (for construction documents), a structural engineering firm, and an MEP engineering firm. The team members use the AIA 101 stipulated sum contract and a heavily edited version of AIA 201 for general conditions.

In the last few years, several members of the Crate & Barrel standard Building Team have been staying together to work on new store projects. Structural engineer Moore Lindner of Matthews, N.C., steel fabricator SteelFab (, of Charlotte, N.C., and light-gauge metal stud panel manufacturer Codding Steel Frame Solutions (, Rohnert Park, Calif., have worked together on the last five Crate & Barrel stores. (Moore Lindner and Steelfab worked on the last nine.) Those five new stores, plus four more currently under construction, use what Moebes calls “full-building BIM.”

“We have very well-developed professional relationships with these companies,” Moebes said. “We each know what the other is going to do without having to talk to each other. I always thought that was what you’re supposed to get to with IPD or design-build. It’s amazing to me how many BIM problems can be solved by simply working together more often.”

Crate & Barrel’s design teams model structure, building skin, metal framing, and even doors and hardware almost entirely using Autodesk’s Revit BIM platform.  Because these models are so dense, the contract documents created from them can be sent in pieces to their subcontractors—all of whom have had a voice in the design process from the start—for fabrication of panels, store fixtures, and millwork. Taking building components to the level where they can be prefabricated offsite has revolutionized Crate & Barrel’s construction delivery process.

EXTRA: 'IPD lite’: Do you need a contract to deliver an integrated project?

Disciplines that require local on-site subcontractors, such as concrete and carpentry, still use Crate & Barrel’s Revit models. The retailer requires that its BIM model be exported into TotalStation, Trimble, or another acceptable program for shop drawings. There’s still a direct relationship to design data and shop drawings.

“We’re figuring out, through better modeling, how we can carve out interior partitions with finishes and turn them into something that can be prefabricated through better documentation and modeling,” Moebes said.

Moebes studied the manufacturing processes of Boeing and other airplane makers to discover how they managed to “uncouple” components from any factory in the world and assemble those finished components in their assembly facilities. As with the airplane manufacturers, Crate & Barrel’s standards for tolerances are so tight and their documentation so good that all the parts fit. No sanding or sledge-hammering is needed in the field.

“Any drawing that an architect brings us, we can provide an exact duplicate of in panelization,” said J.R. Gunter, president and CEO of Codding Steel Frame Solutions. “Our product is manufactured to achieve very tight manufacturing tolerance levels. We’re using assembly techniques that make it very accurate. We use compression tables to square up the wall panels, and the way the information is taken directly from the client’s software doesn’t allow any human error or loss of information in transit.”

Codding Steel uses a proprietary adaptation of Autodesk software to prepare the models they receive from clients for production in their 50,000-sf factory in Sonoma County, just north of San Francisco. From there the panels are shipped out on trucks ready to be installed as soon as they arrive on the site. The exterior of Crate & Barrel’s 24,000-sf Pittsburgh store was enclosed in 13 days and opened six weeks ahead of a traditional schedule. The schedule for the recently opened Durham, N.C., store was trimmed by 11 weeks. Gunter said he and Moebes have discussed installing electronics and wiring in interior wall panels in the factory so the panels can be installed already wired.

Since switching to full-building BIM Crate & Barrel has seen its cost per square foot drop by almost 45%. With full-building BIM, the time it takes to design and build a unique store has declined from 88 weeks to an average 56 weeks. Moebes’s goal is to get that figure down to 40 weeks before the end of the year.

 “A lot of BIM exists at the tactical level right now,” Moebes said. “However, it’s not changing how the industry at large builds buildings. That’s what I’m interested in.”

SHP: Leading BIM design

Cincinnati-based SHP Leading Design ( has been doing integrated A/E and construction design-build projects since before there was such a thing as integrated project delivery. In the last 10 years, SHP and Messer Construction (, a large regional construction concern, have joined forces as 2enCompass (, a 50/50 integrated design and construction company that offers performance-based design and contracting for private education projects. The joint-venture operation works mainly for owners who agree to performance-based contracts. On most 2enCompass projects, the owner agrees at the outset on a predetermined profit pool that gets unlocked based on how successfully the Building Team hits agreed upon milestones. In the past five years, 2enCompass has completed $100 million of work using BIM and IPD, in addition to SHP’s more than $1 billion of completed work using BIM.

“It’s almost like we’re too far in front of the messaging sometimes,” said Aaron Phillips, director of technology and BIM services at SHP. “Some owners actually want the adversarial relationship between an architect and a construction manager, because they view it as a system of checks and balances. It’s sort of what we, as an industry, have taught them to expect.”

Founded in 1901, SHP has grown from a single proprietorship into a multidisciplinary A/E design practice with offices in Denver and Hamilton and Columbus, Ohio, as well as its Cincinnati headquarters. In 2001 the then fresh out of college Phillips volunteered to lead the firm’s switch from PowerCadd to AutoCAD and became a CAD manager. In 2005 he oversaw the firm’s switch to Revit and became a BIM manager and, eventually, Director of Technology and BIM.

After using Revit on some smaller projects, SHP and Messer began their first full BIM project as 2enCompass, the $12.5 million renovation of the Hebrew Union College Klau Library ( near the University of Cincinnati in 2007. The library is the repository of the second-largest Judaic text collection outside of Jerusalem; some of the rare books in its vast collection are more than a thousand years old. The project included renovating the existing five-story library and the construction of a new addition with stacks and a viewing area for the collection, as well as conference and office spaces.

All the texts needed to be moved into clean, environmentally controlled storage areas while their new home was being built, so model-based scheduling was crucial to the success of the project. In addition to using the Revit BIM platform, SHP and Messer Construction laser scanned the existing building during construction to verify the accuracy of the installation against the model. Estimation from the model was done, too. Utilizing a design-build delivery with a very integrated relationship between Messer, owner Hebrew Union College, MEP engineer KLH Engineers (, Fort Thomas, Ky., and SHP, the project followed the principles of lean construction. Hebrew Union College had representatives in most design meetings of the Building Team. All performance goals were met, including a change-order rate well below what was set as acceptable.

Phillips said the project opened the way to exploring BIM. “We made some mistakes but we learned very quickly from the client, and it was the perfect lab for our first project. The number of change orders and amount of information that has to be given after the fact has definitely been decreasing at a significant rate on our ensuing projects. Our change-order rates on most projects are significantly better than industry average and better than what we, in 2enCompass, demand of each other.” The process itself hasn’t really sped up,” he added, “because we’ve chosen to do more on each new project, including energy simulation.”

One recent project that 2enCompass flexed its BIM muscles on was the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (, in  Louisville. This fast-track project received the go-ahead on April 7, 2008, and had to be completed by April 1, 2009, so the seminary could host the 150th anniversary Baptist Convention. Steel was ordered and delivered to the site by May 31, 2008. Messer and SHP were able to beat a 15% steel price increase that could have cost as much as 50% more for the structural steel package.

“We responded very quickly with design opportunities,” Phillips said. “Before, we might have seen a price increase coming, but there was nothing we could do about it. Working in BIM, we were able to purchase that steel and have it designed and ready to install earlier and get the steel package done fast enough to avoid the price increase.”

SHP has taken the lessons from its 2enCompass projects and applied them to its solo work. Phillips is currently working on the integrated BIM model for a 189,500-sf high school in Oxford, Ohio. The LEED-Gold-seeking school is scheduled to open in October. Thanks to their BIM execution plan, SHP and the rest of the Building Team are about 75% completed with construction, utilizing prefabrication and virtual mockups. When the building is turned over to the Talawanda City School District, SHP will move its Revit model into the administration’s facilities management system, so that the school can realize the savings from the BIM process.

As SHP continues to complete more Revit projects, they’re looking to monetize their residual intellectual content. Having worked in Revit for five years now, SHP has developed a library of thousands of commonly used intelligent BIM objects. The firm is currently developing a separate corporation called Shape Environments ( to sell these smart BIM objects to other AEC firms and to create new objects for building product manufacturers.

There’s good reason for SHP to be involved in BIM, said Phillips. “In our firm, we’re asking ourselves: What’s the cost of doing nothing? If we continue to do the same things over and over, it costs us more to do that than to change.”

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