Once design and construction contractors understand the U.S. Army Corps Engineers (USACE) is the largest landowner and the largest building owner in the United States, it will only make sense for them to change the way they do business. And the way USACE wants business done is with building information modeling (BIM).
But that’s not the only reason for a contractor to use BIM on USACE (or other) projects. BIM’s digital representation of the physical and functional characteristics of a facility makes building design, construction and management better and more cost effective. So not only do contractors give USACE what it wants by using BIM, they also produce better products.
USACE has made a long-term system-wide commitment to BIM and to its companion technology, the Construction Operations Building Information Exchange (COBIE). USACE is requiring some projects to provide COBIE data as a project deliverable. Manufacturers, suppliers and contractors who wish to do business with this mega-client will need to embrace this approach and these technologies.
COBIE is away for USACE to capture BIM facility data and enable project stakeholders to enter the data as they are created during design, construction, commissioning and use. COBIE avoids the need for data to be recreated at the end of a project in the form of post-construction, as-built hard copies, which are expensive to create and store, difficult to procure and unwieldy to manage. In contrast, COBIE simplifies the work required to capture and record project handover data.
With a 3D BIM model coupled with COBIE data, a traditional computer model is transformed into a point-and-click tool that is an integral part of a project’s design, construction and functionality. Once all of a facility’s information is entered into COBIE worksheets, users can query BIM with a simple click of a mouse to determine the minutest information known about the facility, including product descriptions, manufacturers, model and serial numbers, parts replacement information, suppliers, manuals, warranty data (including start and end dates) and any other applicable information.
Much of that information is provided by contractors into COBIE as preexisting PDF files that have already been created by product manufacturers. Designers and construction contractors can also include shop drawings in computer-aided design and BIM formats or as PDF files.
And while COBIE is used to enhance BIM process, COBIE data can be created and exchanged using simple spreadsheets. That way, design and construction contractors of every size can use COBIE, not just big companies working on large, high-visibility projects.
BIM and COBIE benefit each stakeholder along with the entire design, construction and occupancy phases of a facility. For example, building design teams can create concept images using the BIM application of a project in the early phases, in which various designs and materials can be “tried on” with the simple implementation of new data and the click of a mouse. This level of technological flexibility helps owners make informed decisions about building aesthetics, functions and costs well in advance of the first turn of a shovel.
As construction contractors and subcontractors gather and input relevant project information in advance of actual construction, the BIM process will reveal lurking conflicts that can be solved before anyone goes on site. In contrast, on a traditional (non-BIM) project, conflicts for things like multiple trades intending to put equipment or conduits in the same space will not be discovered, much less resolved, until the workers are actually on site, under tight labor pressures and in no mood to resolve such conflicts with patient, level-headed professionalism. BIM helps prevent these on-site conflicts, making every trade person’s work easier and more efficient with fewer on-site labor delays.
The ultimate beneficiaries of the BIM and COBIE processes are the facilities management team members who receive an incredibly powerful tool to assist them in efficiently operating the building throughout its lifecycle. No more mining for information through dusty old as-builts, hoping they will reveal some small detail that the facility manager must have.
But just like everyone else in the process, facility management team members must input and update COBIE data and modify the BIM models continually to continue to maintain the model’s usefulness as a living tool. As each element of the building—be it an air conditioner, an electrical outlet or a toilet seat—is checked, serviced, or replaced over time, the facilities management team members must update the BIM models with new and accurate information.
The Future is Clear
The initial USACE decision to implement and then to require BIM and COBIE was monumental for the gigantic federal agency. After seeing the BIM process at work on a few sample projects by the design firm Mason & Hanger (M&H), USACE leadership realized BIM was the right future direction. USACE inquiries to general contractors across the country have indicated that the agency is ready to provide electronic submittals, but that many construction managers and facility owners have been previously unwilling or unprepared to accept them.
BIM and COBIE will only get better and more powerful as the technologies mature with greater industry presence. For example, until now, the inputting of data into COBIE spreadsheets has been a manual, line-by-line process. However, M&H in 2009 completed a COBIE update to include previously unavailable automatic inputting features for USACE projects.
Implementing BIM into the facility construction and maintenance process is comparable to the roofing industry’s transition from old-fashioned hammers that hung from roofers’ tool belts to the implementation of pneumatic hammers that are now the industry standard. When pneumatic hammer technology first came along, many roofing contractors likely could not imagine why they would buy this new and expensive technology for every single job site; doing so required both ongoing training and maintenance costs, when the age-old hammer had literally built the world. Now that there has been industry-wide acceptance of the technology, it’s difficult to find a professional roofing crew in the developed world that does not use the labor-saving and cost-cutting pneumatic tool.
The future is clear, and it includes BIM and COBIE. The marketplace is already showing that manufacturers are beginning to provide COBIE-friendly data directly to construction contractors along with PDF catalog cuts. That trend will only increase as the COBIE format is established in the construction industry.
Designers, manufacturers and construction contractors who are unwilling to adapt to the implementation of BIM and COBIE will face fates similar to those of roofing contractors who were slow to adopt pneumatic hammers. In the short term, shortsighted businesses will save a little bit of money and some extra work that will be required to adapt to BIM and COBIE. However, their savings will be comparatively small and their business successes fewer and fewer. They are already cut out of USACE projects, and they will continue to find more and more facilities owners requiring this transforming technology.
On the other hand, the good news is that design and construction contractors still have time to become early adopters of BIM and COBIE. Project teams that implement these sophisticated tools will edge themselves ahead of their competition and position the USACE—as well as everyone else—for success.