Helping Electrical Contractors Advance from 2D to 3D BIM for Estimating
November 9, 2023
Charles de Andrade

Helping Electrical Contractors Advance from 2D to 3D BIM for Estimating

The advent of computers has irreversibly transformed our world, especially within the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry.

In 1975, my journey as an electrician typically began with analyzing a set of plans, focusing not only on electrical schematics but also architectural, mechanical, and site plans to encompass all electrical work. This method required a painstaking process of material counting and labor estimation before submitting a proposal to contractors or developers seeking electrical quotes.

A vivid memory from 1982 involves a discrepancy in counting expensive light standards for a project estimate, which nearly resulted in a costly overbid. After reevaluation and guiding the contractor through my process, we uncovered that his bid was significantly under the mark, potentially leading to a substantial financial shortfall.

Electrical contractors estimating with outdated 2D plans

Fast forward to 2006, at a police locker facility bid opening with 18 bidders, the lowest bid was startlingly less than the engineer's estimate, hinting at a probable oversight. Such instances underscored that a "winning" bid was often synonymous with overlooked costs, leading to strategic "Value Engineering" aimed at cost reduction rather than actual value.

The 1980s saw the dawn of Computer-Aided Design (CAD), which, despite its tediousness, allowed firms to weather financial crises by reducing the need for draftspersons. However, it was still a 2D process requiring manual updates throughout designs.

By the 1990s, the drive for more efficient design replacement led to the development of 3D design understanding and early virtual collaboration tools, despite their high costs.

Building Information Modeling (BIM), a term coined by Professor Charles M. Eastman at Georgia Institute of Technology, brought forth a powerful new philosophy and approach to digital construction. Between 2000 and 2010, BIM became a buzzword, often misconstrued as merely a faster means to generate plans and PDFs.

However, the real breakthrough came post-2013 with the concept of digital twins and a shift towards design-build contracting methodologies, which promoted the transition from construction to building operation, emphasizing the preparation of detailed "as-built" documentation for building owners. Professor Eastman wrote this on the subject in his CV: “With a new generation of architectural and building industry design tools, especially based on parametric design and rule-based design, there is a need for critical assessment, improved specification, and the development of advanced prototypes...”

Architectural BIM 3D Modeling of Library located in USA (Credit: Archdraw on Wikipedia)

Today's estimators face the challenge of an aging workforce, rising costs, legal risks, and the difficulty of attracting new talent, potentially with the average age of commercial estimators in the upper 50s.

BIM technology has advanced so much in the last 10 years that it is poised to revolutionize estimating by providing accurate counts and contextual understanding of materials within a 3D space, thereby reducing the reliance on 2D interpretations and manual counting for quotes.

The new open access through VIM to all the data stored within the BIM model, through such applications as Revit or IFC, now creates availability of many new and exciting potentials. As an electrical contractor, I would maintain a list of suppliers/manufacturers with costing information and availability (time to delivery) information to aid me with the selection and ordering of the needed materials. Now, in this digital age, those dispersed data sets can be merged through programs like Microsoft’s Power BI to produce an instant understanding of what the material cost would be. No longer are miscounts or delivery delays needing to be the general experience for the electrical contractor. These new resources move the contractor from playing the 2D checkers to 3D chess.

Other potential uses, like on-time delivery to reduce storage and potential loss issues, can be mapped out. A picture that paints a thousand words becomes more than a nice slogan, as suddenly teams in the field can examine and understand what needs to be done every day. Those pesky conflicts between trades where the electrical contractor needs to work around other trades (most notably mechanical) can now quickly be adjudicated or even completely avoided because the space requirement for the electrical systems has already been accepted and agreed upon by all involved. Change orders will be significantly reduced, meaning the overall cost for the owner will also be decreased. (And for me, the aggravation of those arguments goes away.) When a change order is needed, well, it is much more transparent "who" is responsible for the additional cost.

The ability to produce even more accurate "submittals/cut sheets/as built" saves both time and effort and raises the owners' confidence in what they are receiving.

VIM (Virtual Information Modeling) leverages BIM to its fullest potential, eradicating the constraints of project size, data silos, stakeholder miscommunication, and more. It enables rapid processing of extensive designs and provides instant access to material data, offering an immersive experience through desktop, web, or mobile viewing.

To witness the cutting-edge of estimating, I invite you to sign up for VIM Cloud and experience the convergence of technology and reality. For a deeper discussion on the vast possibilities of open access to your BIM data, connect with me on LinkedIn.

Best regards, Charles DeAndrade

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