The Flexibility of BIM and Benefits for MEP Engineers

AECbytes Viewpoint #91 (Sep 5, 2019)

Michael Tobias, PE, LEED AP, CEM
Founder and Principal, New York Engineers


Traditionally, there has been very limited coordination or communication between the various professionals and trades involved in the different elements of construction-industry projects in all sectors: commercial, industrial, and residential. These range from individuals and teams concerned with building design, planning, costing, and construction to those responsible for the provision of vital services like plumbing, electricity, and sometimes gas, as well as safety and on-going operation, management, and maintenance requirements in buildings.
 
In the mid-1980s, computer-aided design (CAD) took AEC industries from hand-drawn, single-dimensional plans to the computer, enabling architects and engineers to create 2D models. But even more sophisticated building information modeling (BIM) has continued to develop the concept by centralizing data in a much more sophisticated 3D model that allows collaboration by all key team members well past the construction phase.

An ever-growing number of MEP and other engineers now embrace the approach, at least to some degree, though there are indications that some may still regard the sophisticated software required to drive it with some skepticism. Two issues are:

  • Employees who have been using well-established AutoCAD software for decades don’t want to change systems.
  • Managers aren’t overly concerned as long as the job gets done.

The reality is that those who haven’t embraced BIM haven’t identified the competitive advantages it offers or recognized just how flexible the BIM approach to building design, construction, and management can be.

In essence, BIM is a shared knowledge resource that provides vast and varied information about structures from the planning phase throughout its entire life-cycle, right through to demolition (if and when this happens). There’s literally no more need to go back to the drawing board at any stage! Instead, if anything in the model is revised at any stage of the lifecycle, anything the change affects is automatically altered within the model, saving time and energy, and increasing efficiency and accuracy.


Figure 1. BIM is a shared knowledge resource.

While the general concept and technologies behind BIM go back more than two decades, the benefits and potential benefits of BIM continue to increase constantly, phenomenally improving coordination, collaboration, and communication between everyone involved in the full spectrum of construction and engineering projects – not only engineers but architects and contractors as well.

Quite simply, the real-time benefits of BIM get better and better because of the information management system that is at the very core of BIM, and because of its incredible flexibility.

Software for BIM

The BIM process is supported by a variety of different tools from different sources that are designed to increase productivity in the building design and construction industry. These technological tools are designed to enable and implement BIM at various levels.

Autodesk has been at the forefront of what is known as object-orientated AEC-specific 3D CAD, and the company’s widely used AutoCAD software enables a degree of BIM for instance in the realm of structural design, cost estimating, and third-party scheduling. But its usefulness is severely limited, largely because CAD and object-CAD solutions (which are more effective in this context than straightforward CAD) are anchored in graphics, so it is hardly ever used for BIM. It simply can’t compete with parametric building modeling technology that combines a behavioral change-management model with a geometry-based data model. Parametric modeling is based on various pre-programmed parameters or algorithms that automatically adjust design elements when changes are made to the model.

Purpose-built for building industry professionals, including MEP engineers, Autodesk Revit software is undoubtedly the most widely used parametric building technology software used for BIM. In fact, it was developed specifically to deliver a fully integrated, self-coordinating building information model.

It’s important for inexperienced BIM users to understand that while parametric building modeling is vital to BIM, not all parametric modelers scale to building projects. For instance, geometry-based products rely on manual corrections. Even if BIM solutions rely on smart engineering and architectural objects, unless the entire model has a data network that links all the objects or elements of a building, inter-element relationships won’t be retained when modifications are made. The model must also contain sufficient information for evaluating and analyzing building performance so that fully coordinated, reliable, and accurate documents can be produced relatively instantly in the same way figures are instantly updated in a spreadsheet when changes are made.

You can be sure that any well-established MEP engineering firm in Chicago, New York, or any other major city, is using Autodesk Revit to produce design drawings and construction schedules that are synchronized instantly, thus simplifying and improving building design in every possible way. The flexibility of the system, specifically BIM enabled by this highly advanced parametric modeling technology, is currently unsurpassed.

Figure 2. The BIM model of a building.

Benefits of BIM for MEP Engineers

The benefits of BIM for MEP engineers are huge and broadly diverse. While basic CAD software helps to convey intent and improve documentation, BIM enables engineers and other building design, construction, and building management role players to think 3D from the planning phase right through to consideration of everything required to maintain buildings sustainably and economically. Quite literally, from the beginning into the future.

But being able to think in 3D is certainly not the only benefit or the only important component that makes BIM so valuable. Certainly, 3D is great for visual renditions and it plays a vital role in showing how various elements fit into the building design. The I in BIM is perhaps the most compelling part: for example, in the form of data for specifying and cost estimating tasks, or for calculating energy loads and doing heating and cooling analyses. It’s at the very core of energy-efficient mechanical heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, and sustainable plumbing systems that conserve water and energy.

Of course, basic 2D CAD software is still widely used, particularly for smaller, simpler projects, and 3D CAD software is used for more complicated individual drawings. For example, AutoCAD is a computer-aided drafting tool that utilizes geometry and sometimes objects to create drawings of buildings. BIM software (Revit in particular) is much more powerful. Built specifically for BIM, Revit incorporates the tools needed to design, build, and maintain “intelligent” 3D building models and enables the user to update the model with real-time information, automatically revising everything when changes are made to plans, drawings, and data.

Across the board, the best BIM software:

  • Increases the speed of delivery, saving time
  • Improves coordination between team members, reducing errors
  • Decreases costs (because of the above), saving money
  • Improves and increases productivity
  • Produces higher-quality work on all levels
  • Offers new business and revenue opportunities

More specifically, critical information can be accessed in each of the three building phases so that engineers, architects, builders, and property owners have a very clear vision of the project at every stage. This enables decision-makers to find answers and make choices faster, which has the effect of optimizing quality and improving project profitability.

Focused information in each of the major phases is shown here:

  • Design phase: design, schedule, budget
  • Construction phase: quality, schedule, cost
  • Management phase: performance, utilization, finances

Of course, these overlap, at least to a degree. For instance, in the design phase, construction information is vital, and vice versa. Both of these phases also offer indicators for the management phase that follows construction. After all, if buildings aren’t designed and built with considerable forethought to operations and maintenance, the overall success of the building’s lifecycle could be negatively affected.

Figure 3. BIM modeling in progress.

So how do MEP engineers benefit from BIM? 

Those offering MEP services, including professional designers, like New York or Chicago engineers, frequently work in BIM so they can access every conceivable type of design data from the architectural model, including the planned electrical devices and plumbing elements that are accommodated within the walls of the building or structure. The building model they initiate incorporates all the physical properties of the structure and shows how all the building components interact.

But it’s not only MEP engineers who reap the benefits. Additionally, architects, surveyors, and structural and civil engineers can also have input so that the digital model includes data that the whole team can use to make decisions during the all-important design process. Fabricators and subcontractors are able to access the information required to construct the building. Building owners also benefit, because they have the parameters defined to manage and maintain facilities throughout the lifecycle of the build.  

Apart from the prime advantages of saving time and money, reducing errors, improving productivity and quality, and offering valuable opportunities, additional benefits of the BIM process include:

  • Optimization of the building schedule
  • A high level of flexibility
  • Detection of conflict in the early stages of the project
  • Mitigation of risk
  • Optimization of cost – accurate cost estimation and bill of materials
  • A high level of customization
  • Sustainable building designs and construction processes
  • Improved building design
  • Streamlining of information
  • Integration of workflow
  • Effective building performance analysis
  • Efficient maintenance and improved lifecycle management

MEP engineers also find it useful to optimize spatial coordination between equipment and to improve the routing of the plumbing system and HVAC ducts.

In a nutshell, BIM is an intelligent, model-based process that helps all AEC professionals, including MEP engineers, collaborate for better insight into how their work fits into the project as a whole. Once the data is incorporated in the model, it defines the design elements and establishes relationships between model components and determines the way they behave.

Ultimately, by working together as a multi-disciplinary team, the professionals involved have the flexibility to use all the information in the model to improve the design before it’s been built.

There is no doubt that the power of BIM is growing and the AEC industry is in a state of positive transformation.  

About the Author


Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of New York Engineers, featured in Inc 5000 Fastest Growing American Companies list in 2016. He leads a team of 30+ mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City, and has led over 1,000 projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia.

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