IPads Supplanting Blueprints Boosts Builder ProductivityJeff Kearns and Alexander Kowalski
As the wind whips through the top floor of an unfinished eight-story office building a block west of the White House, Steven Denbow points to metal air ducts as an example of work that wouldn’t need to be redone.
The 29-year-old senior project engineer for Balfour Beatty Plc ran three-dimensional simulations before construction began, finding hundreds of clashes, or design elements that interfered with each other. When the software indicated water pipes would intersect the ducts, he requested changes so workers didn’t have to rebuild parts of the $29 million project.
Armed with iPads linked to the newest plans, work orders and information requests, specialists such as Denbow are leading a shift to building information modeling, or BIM. New types of jobs are being created, such as modelers, and updated skills are becoming mandatory for designers and contractors. As builders recover from the worst downturn since World War II, such tools are changing processes used in design and construction.
“The goal is to eliminate problems before they happen,” says Denbow, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering and was trained on the software at Balfour Beatty. “This saves time and money in the long run, which is what everyone wants.”
London-based Balfour Beatty, the U.K.’s largest builder, has 32 employees like Denbow at its U.S. unit dedicated to virtual design and construction, up from six in 2008, said Jason Reece, a senior manager of technology and process development who was the first such staffer in 2007. Another 50 to 100 in the U.S. do clash detection and BIM implementation.
Adoption of the process increased even during the downturn as companies invested in boosting productivity. Use by North American architecture, engineering and contracting firms soared to 71 percent in 2012 from 17 percent five years earlier, according to a January report by McGraw-Hill Construction.
At a medical facility job site in Lorton, Virginia, Jennifer Macks, a Skanska AB supervisor, said that using iPads and Autodesk Inc. modeling software she could request information from architects and suppliers, and use Wi-Fi to show the plans to colleagues on a large flat-screen television.
“We have no administrative staff on this job because all the papers get filed electronically,” she said. “It’s a huge time-saver for us.” Paper blueprints for the $20 million project hung on a nearby metal rack, present essentially for legal purposes only.
Managers like Macks at the U.S. unit of Stockholm-based Skanska, Sweden’s largest builder, saved 9.1 hours a week on average using field data tools, according to a July 2012 study at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.
In Seattle, Turner Construction Co. and ZGF Architects LLP cut the time to build an expansion of Virginia Mason Hospital to four months from seven by using the modeling software.
Christopher Heger, a project manager for New York-based Turner, said the job was accelerated by extensive pre-planning with subcontractors, prefabrication of materials, and using laser surveying and GPS equipment to measure the site. Requests for information from subcontractors and vendors were about a quarter or one-third of what they could have been, he said.
“We’re able to do things faster and have less down time,” said Heger, who even sought to cut walking distances. “When you have to walk back to the trailer you lose time so we were able to transmit this information real time.”
The hospital expansion, completed in 2011, is now a research topic for Carrie Sturts Dossick, an associate professor of construction management at the University of Washington in Seattle, who teaches BIM and studies how builders use the applications on job sites.
“If you have BIM skills you’re more likely to get hired,” Dossick said, noting that the technology has created new occupations. “You now have model managers, BIM managers, people who spend most of their time modeling or coordinating models.”
Gains are difficult to measure because the technology spread during a major construction downturn, she said. Jobs are being added in some stages of design and construction while being lost in others, she said.
“We’re not changing the total labor,” Dossick said. “We’re shifting when that labor is working because we’re able to make better decisions earlier in the process.”
The most-trained workers are finding jobs while others are slower to return to the workforce. Employment for nonresidential building construction managers has nearly recovered from the recession, while total industry payrolls lag.
There were more than 52,000 such construction managers in 2012, near a peak of 53,000 in 2008, Labor Department data show. About 655,000 people worked in nonresidential building last year, down from 841,000 in 2008.
At the same time, the construction industry is recovering after it took a drubbing in the 2007-2009 recession. Investment in structures like offices and malls fell in 2009 by 21.1 percent, the most since 1943, Commerce Department data show. It jumped in 2012 by 10.8 percent, the most in five years.
Increased use of the software and more prefabrication could further enhance construction efficiency, which has lagged behind other sectors, according to Paul Teicholz, a professor emeritus of engineering at Stanford University in California.
Inflation-adjusted construction productivity fell about 0.3 percent per year from 1964 through 2012 compared with an annual gain of 3.1 percent for all nonfarm industries, Teicholz wrote in March for the online building technology publication AECbytes. He cited “structural problems” such as unique conditions at building sites and reliance on paper documents.
Autodesk and other software makers are investing more in the business. The maker of AutoCAD and other architectural and engineering software purchased Burlington, Massachusetts-based Vela Systems Inc. a year ago to expand its applications for mobile devices. The $76 million acquisition was the largest among 17 by the San Rafael, California-based company in the past two years, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
The shift to BIM drives the job market, where those once called draftsmen are now “more computer engineers,” and the biggest firms demand new skills, said James Jirsa, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has taught engineering for five decades.
“Students are very quickly getting accustomed to these tools, and that’s going to be a major driving force of them getting into the labor market,” Jirsa said. “They can’t compete if they don’t make use of these things.”
In Parsippany, New Jersey, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 102 holds 40-hour AutoCAD and BIM training courses to help make members better suited for a wider range of jobs. Local 102 President Bernie Corrigan said some projects now require the training.
Balfour Beatty’s Denbow, who’s working from a trailer office in front of the 175,000 square foot (16,250 square meter) office building in downtown Washington, expects more firms to add BIM specialists like him.
“A lot of companies have people dedicated to creating the models or having someone in-house who coordinates the process,” he said. “Not everyone used to have BIM managers, but now you see more and more that have them.”