Managing BIM Projects Without Going Crazy

By David Butts for Autodesk University

This article presents effective practices for project managers, architects, engineers, and designers working on Building Information Modeling (BIM) projects for all areas of architecture, structure, and MEP (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing) systems. Learn how AutoCAD software and Revit software have altered the traditional design workflows and processes, and discover how to manage the disruptive changes. We’ll cover preproject planning, as well as project content and understanding what tools can really help a project’s bottom line. We’ll also review key CAD and BIM standards, and explore where Revit software alters typical project tasks for higher levels of development. The information is well suited for the first-time manager and experienced user.

I’m an old dog, and have been around the industry for a long time. I’ve been fortunate to witness the evolution of our design tools in a way not thought possible three decades ago, and while we may not be in a Jetsons-style flying car, we’ve definitely pushed the limits of the software — and user — capabilities. And it’s a good thing, since pushing both to do more, and better, is what helps us grow. But sometimes, we get moving so quickly, that we miss things we shouldn’t, or we try to go too far running when we should be walking.

It’s time to back up, take a deep breath, and figure out how to really get into the meat and bones of the BIM process. Too often we’re not aware of how the process changes the very essence of how we’ve completed projects, and how new tasks need to be understood before starting the job. We also need to learn what we don’t need to be doing anymore, and what’s changing in the project deliverable set.

So, there are four areas we’re going to review. The first backs the team up to day one, and covers the Project Execution Plan (PxP) — its key points, and how to properly staff a project so you can meet the goals of this critical document.

The second topic covers understanding how BIM and Revit alter CAD tasks, and how they affect your project schedule and timeline.

It’s important to understand how BIM and CAD software often work together, as David Butts explains.

The third section covers how the defined BIM goals affect one of the more critical phases of a project. The example used displays the difference between traditional critical equipment/selection and indication in a document set, and what the BIM project requires that changes everything. After these points are hashed out, the third topic covers the part that vexes most project managers, architects, and engineers — how to change from a 2D symbolic content to third party content from vendors, and how to determine the key data that should be included.

We’ll wrap it up in the fourth segment reviewing level of development impact your workflows and methodology, and how to determine where design ends and fabrication begins. Now, it’s time to take those straitjackets off, and free yourself up to move to the next level…are you ready?

Managing the Project Execution Plan and Proper Staffing

What types of projects does your firm design?

It doesn’t really matter what you’re designing — if you don’t have a plan for integration of BIM work processes, and the right staff to implement it, you run the risk of losing money on your work. It’s important that with any disruptive change in a business you have to learn how to adapt to the craziness that is involved in managing a BIM project.

Deciding Go or No-Go on BIM Projects — Before the Project Execution Plan

The first step that most companies fail on, when it comes to planning for a BIM project, involves the risk assessment, during the proposal process. It’s critical to know what the deliverable requirements are, including:

  • Required software package and version
  • If BIM, then the Level of Development required
  • Ancillary packages that are linked to the design software — energy analysis, specific object modeling (bridges, roadway, process, etc.)

When making the Go/No-Go decision to pursue a project, it’s critical that project managers and planners understand what these requirements are. All it takes is one missed sentence in an RFP — failure to do so can result in missed costs, such as those involved with the purchase and training of a software package such as Revit. Influencing factors should include the following items:

  • Is the client requiring BIM as a deliverable?
  • Does the client require specific software and version?
  • Does the client demonstrate understanding and expertise with the required software and deliverables?
  • Does the client include standard files, such as templates and content?
  • Does the client require interaction with data, which is associated with the model, for life cycle and asset management?

With all of this said, an RFP that does not include these items does not preclude your firm from using BIM as a tool. Understanding the client’s expectations, and making sure you can meet them, is the critical first step.

You’ve Won the Project — Now What?

Now that you’ve successfully won the work, you probably have some good traditional workflows that help set up and organize a project. But what if this is your first BIM project…or worse, you worked on one before, and failed?

More often than not, projects fail because of poor design practices than as a result of implementing and using new software and techniques. One item you’ll find is that the BIM workflow tends to uncover these weaknesses in your traditional process. The BIM workflow can be more restrictive, with requirements that some tasks actually being completed before moving on to other areas. In addition to setting overall project goals, the Project Execution Plan can contain much more detail that helps a project stay on track.

The National BIM Standard, US Version 3, includes guidelines about this workflow. This document is intended to “encourage further productive practices by all members of the architect/designer, engineer, contractor, owner, and operator (AECOO) team for the life-cycle of a project. This and succeeding versions will provide the necessary structure and framework for a collaborative basis for the process, the ethics of trust between the professionals, the standards for building information technologies, and a system for an integrated practice within an open, nonproprietary, standard accessible to all professionals within the industry.”

While a newer version of the NBIMS is in development, this document provides the foundation for what BIM standards can look like. One key area, in Chapter 5.3, addresses the BIM Project Execution Planning Guide. There are four key areas a PxP must address, in order to make sure you are meeting your goals.

1. Identify goals and high values BIM uses during each project phase.

2. Design the BIM Execution process through the creation of process maps.

3. Define the BIM deliverables in the form of information exchanges.

4. Develop the infrastructure to support the implementation such as contracts, communication procedures, technology and quality control.

The BIM Project Execution Planning Procedure, National BIM Standard, Penn State, Figure 5.3.1.

To boil this down into simpler detail, you need to look at these items prior to starting a project, making sure you understand the tasks related to each step.

Identify BIM Goals and Uses, and Identify Staff

When deciding how BIM will be used on a project, you need to ask these questions:

1. What parts of a project will be modeled, and what part will continue to be produced in CAD?

Most new users have the impression that on a BIM project, everything will be produced within one document. But this is rarely the case, since there are still parts of project that BIM tools don’t easily address. For example, on a water treatment plant, a process flow diagram has to be defined first, which explains from a graphical standpoint how the treatment process is defined.

Once the process is defined, a model of the equipment and associated components — piping, accessories, power supply and more can be defined. But there are small components that may not need to be indicated in a model. In this case, a process and instrumentation diagram is created, and produced as a CAD document. Autodesk addresses this with the AutoCAD Plant 3D application, which is a SQL database driven CAD file. Other types of 2D documentation that are still CAD-produced include power diagrams, plumbing riser diagrams, and standard details that provide additional detail that is not included in the model.

2. How accurately should the model represent the actual conditions of the finished product?

At the start of the project, you decide to what level of development, or LOD, is going to be used. You may already be familiar with this standard, since the AIA addressed this several years ago, when BIM was starting to become more widely used. The original E202 document from the AIA was update and revised to G202–2013 in June 2013.

LOD examples.

The levels are defined as such:

  • LOD 100: The Model Element may be graphically represented in the Model with a symbol or other generic representation, but does not satisfy the requirements for LOD 200. Information related to the Model Element (i.e., cost per square foot, tonnage of HVAC, etc.) can be derived from other Model Elements. We use this level in the early design stage for energy analysis, orientation and other early design decisions.
  • LOD 200: The Model Element is graphically represented within the Model as a generic system, object, or assembly with approximate quantities, size, shape, location, and orientation. Non-graphic information may also be attached to the Model Element. Most of our existing model conditions are represented at this level.
  • LOD 300: The Model Element is graphically represented within the Model as a specific system, object or assembly in terms of quantity, size, shape, location, and orientation. Nongraphic information may also be attached to the Model Element.
  • LOD 350: The Model Element is graphically represented within the Model as a specific system, object, or assembly in terms of quantity, size, shape, orientation, and interfaces with other building systems. Non-graphic information may also be attached to the Model Element. Our primary design goals are to model to this level for all projects, as specified in the contracts.
  • LOD 400: The Model Element is graphically represented within the Model as a specific system, object or assembly in terms of size, shape, location, quantity, and orientation with detailing, fabrication, assembly, and installation information. Nongraphic information may also be attached to the Model Element. Some parts of our projects reach this level, when we can obtain the actual equipment to be used. Design-Build is more likely to use this level.
  • LOD 500: The Model Element is a field verified representation in terms of size, shape, location, quantity, and orientation. Non-graphic information may also be attached to the Model Elements. This represents the as-built conditions with data correctly associated, for OMMS and other post design application.

With most design firms, you need to know when to apply these levels. For example, your project may involve the requirement of providing an as-built model, to represent existing conditions. Laser scans, which help with the 3D component, may fall short when it comes to representing the exact, object-based elements, which are recognizable as BIM objects, and require data association. In this case, you should at least limit your LOD to 200 for existing conditions, so you are not liable within the model of representing what’s inside a wall, or fully enclosed and difficult to verify.

But new work in the model can easily be represented at LOD 300 and above. It’s critical to check the initial RFP and understand what the client will be expecting — you don’t want to budget for 350 if you are the design team, but then be required to deliver 400, without understanding the consequences.

3. How do I select the appropriate staff for the project?

This is usually a tough item, especially as companies work to deal with reduced margins, and higher expectations of the client and the deliverable. The design team must be capable of adapting from the traditional, CAD-based drafting mode, to the model and data based environment of the BIM team. Planning for and addressing staff issues for effective use of new technology, and preparing a training program is critical. If you are responsible for managing the implementation of BIM into your firm, you have to accept these facts:

  • Your staff is the key to success.
  • Your understanding of today’s tools is critical.
  • Training is forever — it’s better to train them and have them leave, than not train them and have them stay.
  • Implementation is the blob — it goes on forever.
  • Overcoming the fear of change is paramount.

Understanding skill levels from project management to design staff is critical, so here are some requirements:

The Design Professional/Project Manager

  • Understanding of BIM work processes and methods
  • Understanding of task allocation, time and CAD/BIM differences
  • Strong vendor relationships
  • Ability to work in different software environments with ease
  • Ability to learn and adapt new features, methods, and follow company SOPs
  • Ability to clearly communicate
  • And most of all, professionals are never above using the software, just as a technical team member would be — it should be encouraged

The Technical Staff

  • Design experience, not just drafting — and willing to put in the required effort
  • Ability to work in different software environments with ease
  • Ability to learn and adapt new features, methods, and follow company SOPs
  • Ability to visualize and work in 3D environment
  • Ability to clearly communicate
  • Contribute to improving standard procedures and work methods — don’t be afraid to question “the way we’ve always done it”
  • Willingness to take ownership

4. Once the staff is assigned to the job, how do I make sure they can do the work the way it needs to be done?

Has this ever happened in your office? You won work, the contract was awarded, and the PM shows up. They tell you that you’ve got to use XYZ software, and the project budget is tight, so go get a book, and learn how to use this on your own.

This is the number-one recipe disaster for failure on a project — where I’m from, we have a sporting challenge for these kinds of managers (don’t worry, we give them all three bottles of water, a mobile phone with no email, a half-dead battery, and a two-minute head start).

The reality for today’s design firm:

  • Training is required and ongoing. You should have a plan for making sure that you and your staff can get the adequate training needed to use today’s tools. These applications are not simple — in fact, they can get quite complex. As the LOD on the project goes up, the understanding and skill level must increase as well.
  • Start with trusted advisor. There has to be someone that can offer you guidance, and it can come from a variety of sources. A true trusted advisor will be the one that has the product and process knowledge for BIM, and be able to help you relate the traditional to BIM transition in a way that makes sense. Most good advisors will learn how you learn, then recommend one of these options:
  • Instructor Led
  • Online Live
  • Online Video
  • Books/Manuals

In many cases, it won’t be just one of these options, but a combination of all of these. Keep in mind the first project hurts; the second, not so much; and by the third, you should be on your way.

  • Develop in-house expertise — the Subject Matter Expert(s)

For ongoing success, you need this person more than anything, but you have to be picky about who this is. Characteristics of a good expert include:

  • Willingness to adapt and learn with an open mind.
  • Capable of taking into consideration the opinions and ideas of others.
  • Understand that their role is, above all, to be in service to others. It’s not about them.
  • Have a well-formed training plan, based on the staff.

If you try to teach a cat how to sit, roll over, and beg, you’re going to have some issues. Training engineers, managers, and technical staff can be widely varied, so having a training plan that fits the individual is critical.

Selecting and Adding Equipment

You’ve reviewed the contract and know what is required. You’ve picked the staff, and set them up with training. Now you’re ready to start on the project, and you get smacked in the face with your first BIM challenge — and it’s got nothing to do with CAD. As an MEP or Process engineer on a project, the primary components that define your systems start with the equipment. You’ve got know a lot of information before you can even start to put pencil to paper…or, push mouse to ribbon.

This is the first example of how a BIM project differs from a traditional job, and where you need to start. The scenario is: We’re designing a maintenance facility, and we have industrial equipment that’s provided by the client, mechanical service equipment that’s part of the building, and electrical equipment that powers it all. One of the first things we taught our project manager was the information and content we needed, and why it was needed earlier — not later — in a project.

Traditionally, electrical data is usually one of the last items addressed in a project. You want to have everything in place before you power it up. And that’s fine — except in many cases, that data doesn’t arrive in the engineer’s hands until a few days before the document set is due. Our goal was to change that practice, so it also meant a change in how we dealt with our vendors, and how we selected and placed equipment in the model.

Developing Equipment Lists

At the start of the project, you want to gather as much information about project equipment in the early phases of design — preferably in schematic design. The size, orientation, clearance, and access requirements drive the design in this scenario. In Revit, we define equipment (or source) families based on two primary categories — mechanical equipment and specialty equipment.

Mechanical equipment is defined as servicing equipment related to the operations of the building. It’s purchased and located by the general contractor and their subcontractors. Examples of mechanical equipment include fans, boilers, air handling units, and more. This type of equipment usually includes one or more electrical connections that’s built into the model. It’s not unusual for an air handler to have two different voltage connections, based on the components that make up the unit.

Specialty Equipment is used to create models of owner provided equipment. This can include examples such maintenance tools, fueling systems, and conveying and lift components. Most specialty equipment is connected via plug loads, but in some cases, disconnects or terminals are provided as fixtures, which carry the load data.

All of this is key to the electrical engineer, who will be powering the entire system. Their responsibility is to place the power distribution, generation and terminals needed to make everything run. They can’t move forward until the owner of the equipment — the mechanical or industrial engineer — provides the electrical data they need to move forward. While some assumptions can be made, the sooner this information can be passed on, the better.

Start with your equipment list. Traditionally, this is made up of a spreadsheet, which lists the key ingredients and adds some basic data. In our world, we like to take it one step further. We’ve built a system that integrates the data directly into a SQL database. This not only gives us the ability to track the data, but to coordinate it with all disciplines.

Not every project you’re going to complete would need to go to this high of a level — but when you’re working in BIM, you want to associate as much data — the right data — as needed when the model selection is made. The first thing this will change is the relationship with your vendor.

Working with Vendors

When requesting equipment information for a project, the sales rep is most likely going to give you a PDF of a page printed from an equipment book. While I love my sales reps, they want to do the least amount of work to get the highest ROI on the sale. A couple of years ago, when we really started to get into Revit, we started requesting 3D models of the equipment, along with the same data. And the responses were interesting — some of the old school vendors said no, while some of the newer players respond enthusiastically. They definitely wanted their representation of the equipment to be the basis of design, which increased the likelihood of their equipment being selected.

Here are the steps we go through when selecting equipment:

1. Does the vendor provide equipment models through their website, to go with their equipment selection tools?

This is the first indicator we look for, and the industry has definitely changed. Major HVAC suppliers such as Carrier and Trane already have models of their equipment, along with associated parameters than contain engineering data. We’ll come back to the data shortly, but the fact that we can get a model with little effort is a good thing.

The “gotcha” that shows up with most users occurs when a person, who doesn’t know exactly what they are looking for, grabs everything. Be patient — work within a specific range, and make sure it can be used as a basis of design. Don’t download everything that you find on Seek, ARCAT, or any of the content aggregators, you’ll just wind up with a lot of parts you don’t need.

2. Can the vendor provide the file in a format you can edit?

When we say edit, we don’t mean redesign. What we’re looking for is content that represents the shell, more than the complete part. We can take most file formats, such as SAT, STL and STP, and convert them to an ADSK or RFA file. Getting an Inventor model is a bonus — now that our vendors that use Inventor have figured out they can do the Revit file export for us, we’re starting to see more of this. You’re looking for as close a representation of the real world part as possible, but it only has to be accurate where connections are made, and clearances required.

The next few steps are a quick overview of using Inventor to convert non-Autodesk files to Revit Families.

David Butts is an Autodesk Expert Elite Team member and BIM specialist for Gannett Fleming with over 30 years of experience in the AEC field. He is responsible for implementation, training, BIM project support, and management for engineering design applications, including Revit, AutoCAD P&ID, AutoCAD MEP, Navisworks, and more. He was an Autodesk Authorized Training Center (ATC) training manager and application engineer for an Autodesk Reseller for 13 years, providing implementation and training services across the United States, and serving as a subject matter expert for Autodesk, Inc.’s, Building Design Solutions. He has design experience for a variety of project types, and is an Autodesk University top-rated speaker for labs and lectures. He authors training videos for 4D Technologies, and he presents BIM topics for other industry associations annually.

Want more? Read on by downloading the full class handout at AU online: Managing BIM Projects Without Going Crazy.

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