3-D models cut construction disputes

In most construction projects, an architect builds a three-dimensional model and then creates two-dimensional drawings for the general contractor and the dozens of subcontractors who are typically involved in a big commercial job.

But the process isn’t an exact science. Errors often result in thousands of dollars being spent on change orders as the design is adjusted in the field. Problems can include things like duct work running into sprinkler systems and sprinkler systems running into staircases.

Increasingly, however, companies are turning to Building Image Modeling, or BIM, to create three-dimensional, computer-image models that factor in all kinds of potential construction conflicts. And despite the badly slumping construction industry, Suffolk Construction Co., based in Boston, says it is investing in the technology.

“This is a paradigm shift in the industry,” said David S. Dutton, Suffolk’s manager of estimating services.

BIM has been around for more than a decade, but only in recent years has it become the industry standard. The process was used in an estimated 60 percent of commercial and institutional construction projects in 2008, up from 30 percent in 2007 and 15 percent in 2006, said Jan Reinhardt of Adept Project Delivery, a Pittsburgh firm Suffolk hired to consult on its BIM efforts.

In almost all cases, officials said, the process saves time and money. It also eliminates the often testy meetings between subcontractors as they try to determine how to make changes to a building under construction. With BIM, conflicts are resolved in meetings that take place before a shovel goes in the ground.

“Some subcontractors have been doing BIM for a long time – for sheet metal and duct work, for example, it makes a lot of sense,” Reinhardt said. “What has happened in the last three years is we’re really seeing everyone get on the same page.”

Privately held Suffolk, with about 800 employees, has long been known as a commercial construction company, but officials said BIM will allow it to compete more for government and healthcare contracts when the recession ends.

“A lot of people are pulling back and wouldn’t consider investing into something new, but Suffolk is really spending money on BIM,” said Corren Collura, the company’s chief information officer. “It’s definitely something that is paving a new road in the industry. It’s turning out a different thought process on how to build.”

Subcontractors said using BIM gives them more of a say in how a project is executed.

“I think Suffolk has been very good in adopting the process as a general contractor,” said Anthony Mason, president of AMA Associates Inc., a construction company in Los Angeles that worked as a subcontractor to Suffolk on the Jewish Home for the Aging in Los Angeles.

By using BIM, the $43 million project was completed without a single change order, Mason said.

“The system is going beyond what architects have traditionally done,” he said.

“Subcontractors are carrying a lot of the load these days, and something like BIM helps them work with the general contractor to be part of the process.”

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