UW News

June 21, 2011

New 3-D computer models improve building design and construction

In the shell of a new building, a construction foreman studies a three-dimensional model of the structure on an iPad, then tells two workers where to install a 16-foot pipe.

Building information modeling in use.

Building information modeling in use.Shinn Mechanical

They position the pipe in the wrong place.

“No,” he says, “look here.”

They study the model and reposition the pipe.

Later, a surveyor measures the pipe with a laser, and plugs the information into the computer model to verify correct placement.

A recent report shows that building information modeling is challenging and changing the construction industry, including the ways mechanical contractors organize teams and technology.

“Its making design and construction much more precise and efficient,” said Carrie Sturts Dossick, an associate professor in construction management at the University of Washington. She is also executive director of the Pacific Northwest Center for Construction Research and Education, which issued the report.

Such modeling allows architects, engineers and construction professionals to shape a project, associate data and then use the data throughout construction.

Comparing mechanical, electrical and plumbing contractors in western Washington to their peers around the country, Dossick and her team found that Washington contractors are adopting such modeling more aggressively.

A building information model of a multi-use structure. The model was created in a UW studio course.

A building information model of a multi-use structure. The model was created in a UW studio course.University of Washington

The report identifies four trends in building information modeling:

  • There is an increasingly important role for technologists on project teams. Construction increasingly uses a distributed network of models, and information flows quickly, so management must be technologically savvy.  For example, the mechanical, electrical and plumbing coordinator must be able to consolidate models so teams can evaluate clashes between systems.
  • Mobile computing technologies link field to office. More and more projects use building information modeling for field installations. Surveying systems, for instance, can project coordinates from models into physical space for quicker, more accurate layout of materials.  These same survey tools also verify installation.
  • The line between design and construction is blurring. Building information modeling makes problems more explicit earlier in the project. Designers and builders can explore what-if scenarios.
  • Building information modeling expands prefabrication possibilities. For many mechanical contractors, building sites of the future will be for assembly and installation only. Tight links between design and manufacturing will also shorten installation time. Mechanical contractors are becoming leaders in prefabrication, and can establish best practices for both their trades and others.

Based on analysis, the UW researchers recommend:

  • Strengthening teams. Understanding conflicting obligations of mechanical, electrical and plumbing contractors is the key to making building information modeling projects work.
  • Cultivating technology leaders. Mechanical contractors who use building information models must cultivate personnel willing to lead.
  • Planning for multiple building information models. Separate designs for architecture/engineering and construction will continue but be linked. At least in the short term, managers will be in charge of consolidating models.
  • Designing environments, not programs. Social and organizational aspects of building information modeling are critical. Managers will have to decide how to support collaboration.
  • Quantifying current practices. Mechanical contractors should call attention to big changes that building information modeling is causing. The building industry needs metrics to track building information modeling and its impact on contractors, as such metrics are conspicuously absent from national dialogue. If mechanical contractors who are using building information modeling gather quantitative data, it could be used to describe how such modeling is affecting labor and project management.
  • Remembering that technology is an opportunity for change. The report found that some teams worked in conventional ways, conducting clash-detection meetings and producing two-dimensional shop drawings for review and installation, while other teams had switched to the tactics that make building information modeling work best.  The industry can use the new technologies in old ways, or it can take the opportunity to work in new ways.

The research was funded by the Mechanical Contractors Association of Western Washington, and is a part of a larger research initiative funded by the National Science Foundation, the UW Department of Communication, the UW College of Built Environments and the colleges Deans Development Fund.


For more information, contact Dossick at 206-221-4894 (o) or 206-491-3623 (cell) or cdossick@uw.edu .