Collaborative project planning and information sharing are key technology advantages for mechanical contractors. 

Pictured is a side-by-side image of one of J.C. Cannistraro’s mechanical room models juxtaposed with a photograph of the actual installation. Photo credit: J.C. Cannistraro

If you’re a mechanical contractor and aren’t using building information modeling on your projects, you will be soon - or you’ll lose a lot of business.

“Any firm looking to stay competitive and win more work is truly going to have to promote itself as a BIM-ready firm or end up leaving money on the table,” saysSarah Hodges, senior industry marketing manager atAutodesk. “BIM has grown tremendously in the AEC industry, particularly in the United States. And we’re seeing that fluctuation move downstream, so as architects are using BIM, they’re looking for engineers who use BIM. And those engineers expect their mechanical and plumbing contracting partners to be BIM-ready.”

It’s not just industry professionals demanding that their partners use building information modeling, she notes - building owners also are beginning to understand the benefits of BIM. They look at how BIM can help with operations and maintenance once the building is completed, as well as with future renovation or retrofit projects. So they are pulling BIM through the planning, design and build phases to the manage phase.

“About 80% or 90% of a total building’s cost happens postconstruction, so owners are deeply concerned about cost predictability and energy efficiency to get those costs down,” Hodges explains. “They have a tremendous interest in BIM postconstruction so they can leverage that model to predict performance before its built, and use it to make better-informed decisions to improve performance throughout the life cycle of that building.”

Steve Shirley, president and CEO of El Cajon, Calif.-basedUniversity Mechanical & Engineering Contractors, an Emcor company, says the mechanical contracting industry was the first trade to invest heavily in BIM and many of those early adopters benefitted from the investment. He also sees building owners becoming more interested in building information modeling.

“Many building owners today are recognizing the benefits BIM can bring to their activities and they are demanding it from their design professionals, construction managers and other trades,” he states. “I see very few mechanical specialty contractors who will be able to ignore the existence of BIM.”

So what are the advantages for contractors to use BIM? Cost and time, saysBrett Stacks, MEP CAD segment manager atTrimble Building Construction.

“When the process is adopted and properly enforced on the project, each contractor involved is guaranteed to eliminate excess material as well as reduce overall labor costs,” he notes. “This does mean a larger investment on the front end of the project, but this is typically the best time to control these costs. If done correctly, the project schedule is more easily adhered to and deliveries are better managed, thus minimizing issues with staging of the materials and installation crews being able to do their jobs more efficiently with minimal field adjustments.”

Shirley, who is chairman of theMechanical Contractors Association of America’s Building Information Modeling Committee (Cannistraro and Mackenzie are members), says his company has used some form of 3D modeling since the early 1990s and adopted BIM in 2001.

“Prior to BIM, construction managers and other trades often ignored the efforts of mechanical and electrical contractors to effectively and efficiently coordinate their scopes of work,” he explains. “BIM has forced them to become active participants in the process.  This has opened up lines of communication where those who best understand the requirements of projects are placed into positions to identify and resolve potential problems that would otherwise hinder good project execution.”

Mechanical construction often comprises 40% to 60% of a project’s costs, saysMike Cannistraro, vice president of service and engineering at Watertown, Mass.-basedJ.C. Cannistraro. “BIM just makes sense for the mechanical trades. In fact, it makes sense for most trades, particularly on a project that is being delivered in a collaborative project structure. Most importantly, BIM allows us to collaborate with our project partners to ultimately deliver a better job. Many people refer to BIM as a technology or a software program, but it’s really aprocessmade up of construction professionals using various platforms.”  

ForPete Mackenzie, BIM manager at Freeport, Ill.-basedMechanical Inc., BIM turns chaos into order.

“We have all been on jobs that start out as a mad rush with everyone jumping in full speed ahead before they have an adequate understanding of what the job entails - sort of a ready-fire-aim approach,” he says. “The installation process becomes a race to see who can get there first and the job generally becomes a practice in confrontation and conflict with daily disputes.

“A well-executed BIM process, on the other hand, necessitates clear commun-ication between team members in an environment that promotes information sharing, collaborative planning and cooperation. That is not to say that BIM is without its issues and problems, but it does provide means and methods for collaboration and cooperation for those contractors who see it in their best interests to achieve it.”

Contractors can use BIM during meetings, such as University Mechanical’s BIM coordination meeting shown here. Photo credit: University Mechanical & Engineering Contractors


Building information modeling is a process for those involved in the design and construction of a building to generate and manage data throughout the building’s life cycle. “The key to this process lies in the ability to share data across different software platforms,” Stacks notes. “By supporting interoperability of the data, each stakeholder - engineer, contractor, subcontractor - has the ability to contribute to the existing data during the construction process.”

He adds that MEP industry standards are needed to support file exchange to any product, regardless of product origin, so information can be used by other trades. Once those standards are established, he sees increased growth of BIM usage in the mechanical and plumbing trades.

University Mechanical’s original purpose to adopting building information modeling was to improve productivity among its work force of about 500 field and office personnel, as well as reduce or eliminate rework. But it became much more to the company.

“BIM has transformed our entire business model,” Shirley says. “It started as a drafting tool but soon expanded into purchasing, fabrication, estimating, etc. It became a core process from which almost all our project planning was focused upon. BIM significantly increased our prefabrication volume, which is a huge improvement in a project’s overall productivity.”

At J.C. Cannistraro, the decision to use BIM came down to one concept: prefabrication.

“Many people talk about the benefits of clash detection and the opportunity to visualize the job in a 3D environment, but those are just the basics when it comes to identifying the ROI of BIM,” Cannistraro explains. “BIM enables us to prefabricate a large percentage of our piping assemblies off-site in a controlled environment. This BIM-enabled prefabrication helps us manage quality and safety, and also allows us to utilize just-in-time delivery methods.”

In 1999, J.C. Cannistraro first used 3D modeling on a terminal expansion project at Boston’s Logan Airport. The firm steadily increased its BIM experience on major laboratory projects in Cambridge and Boston, using the technology for prefabrication, scheduling and eventually facility management. “There is no question BIM has helped shape a leaner, more effective operation,” he says.

BIM is a must-have project management tool at Mechanical Inc.

“While some contractors view BIM as just one more contract obligation that adds additional costs to the project, we see BIM as a tool of project management that allows us to use the model to preplan nearly all our work,” Mackenzie says. “For craftsmen to operate at peak efficiency they must have the right tools, the right material and a well-thought-out plan in front of them. If you take any one of these elements out of the equation, it means downtime and increased costs. It boils down to less head-scratching and more wrench-turning.”

He adds that for MEP contractors bidding on large multimillion dollar projects, especially in the health-care field, they will have no choice whether or not to use BIM because it is being specified in the proposal requests for nearly all commercial and industrial jobs. And that requirement is even trickling down to smaller projects.

Mandates requiring BIM usage on government building projects are becoming more prevalent, Hodges notes. “The UK government is now requiring a fully collaborative BIM process for future public projects within the next four years. That is going to have a tremendous effect on engineering and construction firms either doing business in the United Kingdom or based in the United Kingdom.”

She adds that some state governments in the United States also are making BIM a requirement. In a slow-moving economy, contractors with increased skills such as BIM expertise are the ones who will be able to compete for lucrative government, commercial and industrial jobs.

Facebook and BIM

Unless you’ve been a contestant on “Survivor” or living on a deserted island, the rapid rise of mobile technology has not gone unnoticed. From smartphones that do everything except your laundry to tablets and cloud-based technology, mobility is paramount in today’s 24-hour-access world.

“Technology innovation is happening everywhere we look, and that’s having a tremendous effect on the AEC industry as well,” Hodges states. “How we interact in our personal life with things such as Facebook and other social media affects how we work. The way information is being consumed, delivered and shared is different than it was even two years ago. When we use the cloud through Amazon to read a book, those same expectations filter through into the design process. How can I have instant access to my drawings when I’m on site? How can I make changes on the fly? How can I conduct my analysis more efficiently?”

Cannistraro agrees: “The future will undoubtedly bring BIM to the cloud. More and more companies are moving to tablets in the field, and the BIM world needs to be ready. Just as products like the total station improve efficiency in the field, cloud-based technology will revolutionize the industry once again.”

Brad Harkness, a journeyman plumber, estimator and CAD detailer at Mechanical Inc. works on a plumbing and mechanical model. Photo credit: Mechanical Inc.

A long learning curve

“It is no secret that implementing BIM across an entire firm involves a relatively steep learning curve,” Cannistraro says. “However, it is important not to get discouraged, as the benefits are real and significant. The best advice I can give is to identify a project that makes sense for your first endeavor into BIM, and start getting your team up to speed a little at a time.”

MCAA and its BIM Committee have taken a two-pronged approach to BIM training: first, to provide BIM education solutions to members (; second, to provide a presence in the national BIM AEC community that advocates the interests of plumbing and mechanical contractors.

In addition to conducting spatial coordination/BIM seminars for MEP contractors at various locations across the country, as well as at MCAA’s national convention and local MCA chapters, the committee has partnered with the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association and the National Electrical Contractors Association to jointly develop a comprehensive guide to BIM and spatial coordination in the mechanical/electrical/plumbing industry, Mackenzie says. The guide is expected to be published later this year.

The three associations joined together again to address concerns raised by members about the use of the BIM process on design-bid-build projects, concerns that centered around the line between spatial coordination and required design changes.

They approached theNational Institute of Building Standardsto help define an acceptable industry practice for spatial coordination. NIBS recently published that definition in itsJournal of Building Information Modeling(2011 fall edition,

Mackenzie’s advice to mechanical contractors interested in adding BIM to their portfolio of services is to make sure the entire project management team and executive management is involved. And do your research: The more you know, the better decisions you will make for implementation in your company. Lastly, he suggests putting together a comprehensive BIM business plan that defines the “who, how, what, when, where and how much.”

“The BIM learning curve is long,” Shirley adds. “Not just the technical aspects of the tool, but the sociological change to a collaborative BIM environment. Waiting to win a project that requires BIM before investing in the process will likely be too late for a successful conclusion.”