“You can do that?” “This project would have never gotten done without [BIM].” “If I had known about this 6 months ago, I could have saved myself $180,000 on my last job!” These and other similar comments have recently been overheard at our office. So what is all the fuss about? Masonry models and the impact they can have on project success, that’s what. If you haven’t yet explored how BIM can help you grow your business as a mason contractor, then perhaps it’s time to take that step. Here are a few reasons why this is the fastest growing technology in masonry.

Working Smarter

Let’s start with the obvious. Great ideas sell themselves. How many commercials or billboard signs have you seen for Uber? I’ve never seen one. Yet their monthly net revenue went from $70M in January 2015 to $180M in December 2015. In any industry, when you can offer a better service, in less time, at lower cost, growth is inevitable. While there are obvious differences between Uber and BIM solutions for masonry, there are some fundamental parallels.

BIM offers you a better service. The beauty of a model is that it provides a visual reference for everything in the contract documents. When you use only two dimensions to describe a three-dimensional object, you are forced to separate data, which opens the door for errors. Ever tried to reconcile a section view that did not agree with an elevation view? Then you understand the problem of disconnected data. Since the objects we are working with are three-dimensional, the tools we use to describe them should be too. By keeping data connected, we make life easier on ourselves.

Let’s assume there are changes to a building – I know it’s probably never happened on your jobs, but just play along. If your counts are in an Excel file and your shop drawings are in a 2D CAD format your data is not connected. You have to track down your sources and methods, change drawings and update counts. The person who did your production order is probably not the same person who did your shop drawings. Your stress goes up, your odds on making a mistake go up and your happiness goes down. Welcome to life as a contractor, right? But if you are working with a high-quality masonry model as your data source, your world is connected. By changing one thing – your model – you immediately have updated counts and shop drawings. That’s smart and it will save you money, time and stress.

But the value doesn’t stop there. Not everyone can make sense of two-dimensional data. When you separate information, your brain has to do the work of putting it back together and you know that some members of your team do this better than others. It can be tricky enough with a good set of plans, but when all the dots don’t even connect due to incomplete or incorrect information. It can take even the best people in the industry days to untangle the mess. And we all know that time is money. But everyone on your team can quickly understand three-dimensional objects because it’s exactly the world we live and build in. Interacting with models or drawings produced from models gets everyone on the same page quickly. That translates to less time reviewing drawings and more time constructing.

Follow the Leaders

There are countless studies on the value of BIM and ROI for BIM, which offer interesting insights from the bean counters. You can track the cost of missed orders versus the cost of solutions that are more accurate. You can estimate labor savings. You can look at case studies of equivalent jobs that use BIM versus those that don’t. These are all good approaches and they make a nice case for BIM but there is a simple approach that doesn’t require your calculator.

For starters, look at how quickly BIM has been adopted by the large general contracting firms. There is no mandate for BIM. Modeling pays clear dividends, which is why models are growing the fastest among those who watch their numbers the closest. Secondly, have you ever read an article from a firm who started into BIM but decided it wasn’t worth it? It’s pretty much a one-way street, which says something about its value.

The third common-sense indicator to the value of BIM has to do with managing financial exposure and risk. You may see BIM as adding cost to your contract and nibbling at your profit. There is a cost involved, but it is a known cost that can be budgeted. Modeling is affordable, the costs are known, they deliver tremendous value and they are effective at preventing large unknown expenses. They function like insurance but with lots of other added value to justify your premiums. It’s true that you might order and install successfully most of the time, but one or two jobs that become problems can wipe out the profits from many jobs that go well.

Come to the Party

Have you ever been on the outside looking in? It’s not the most comfortable place to be. Ever found out that a party was going on and you weren’t in the loop? For several years now coordination parties have been going on with general contractors. The steel team is there with their models, the HVAC team is there with their models, the electrical team is there, plumbing, fire protection, the whole gang. They have been getting together and coordinating their models for years. Coordination is the process where models are merged together and issues related to installation can be studied and resolved. There is an obvious savings opportunity to working out these issues before materials are ordered.

The conversations at a coordination party sound something like this:

HVAC: “I’ve got 4 runs of 8” round ductwork running down corridor 100”

Fire Protection: “Ok, well I’ve got a 2” water line running down corridor 100 branching out into each room along the corridor.”

HVAC: “Since my diffusers all drop down, you should go above me. We’ve got just enough space above the drop ceiling. I’ll drop my runs down 3” and everything will work.”

The models are then adjusted and checked against each other as well as against every other model that is being coordinated. Once everything is addressed, there is a sign-off event where all trades agree that the current state of the model has no clashes and becomes the basis of construction. Since there is now a document verifying a proper fit (the coordinated models), each trade can begin fabricating components off-site with a high degree of confidence. It’s a win for everyone.

This illustrates the power of modeling and coordination and is the reason it is becoming the new normal. However, there is one big problem with the process described above. The mason wasn’t invited to the party since he didn’t have a model to coordinate against. So now while HVAC and fire protection are busy fabricating their assemblies off site, the mason is out in the field erecting walls. Now when that 30’ section of ductwork with perfectly angled elbows and transitions that fit like a glove is delivered to the site, it is discovered that all the branches hit a bond beam. Had they known during coordination, they could have easily factored that in, but now they have to scrap the plan – and the perfectly built section of duct work – and adapt. So much for coordination.

Suppose you were at the party and it was immediately noticed that your bond beams were at the same elevation as the ductwork. Now a healthy conversation begins. Maybe you can easily drop the bond beam 8” at no cost to you. Problem solved. Maybe you can’t move the bond beam because of embeds or a structural schedule. Now it’s on the other trades to factor that in. Either way it’s a win for everyone and you are no longer the perceived “problem” but you have been part of the solution. Mason contractors need to take their rightful place in coordination meetings. You have a lot of value to add as an integral part of the structure. It will make your life easier, it will help jobs run smoother, and you will make a lot of new friends along the way.

Keeping Pace

There is so much that BIM is already doing for the mason contractor. Masonry models yield the most accurate orders. They allow the person ordering material to record their decisions in the same model that is used to produce layout drawings. They allow field cuts to be located and studied to optimize their place in the overall elevation. Models provide a simple visual reference to confirm color, texture, bond pattern and other design details. They can be used for coordination with other trades. They can be used to locate and coordinate rebar. If you are not benefitting from these advantages, maybe it’s time to explore how models can help you succeed.

In spite of all that is currently available to the mason contractor, the best could still be yet to come. We have begun using masonry models with reality capture technology. Reality capture is the process of scanning the existing conditions of a site with lasers and photography to construct a model called a point cloud. These models have an accuracy in the range of 1/16” and are shockingly realistic. You can measure items in the model and even project modeled elements of future work into the point cloud to check for proper fit. It’s possible to section these models and make measurements that are more accurate than traditional field verification. Just imagine the time and expense you can save by capturing field conditions and simply checking them from your office. These scans are surprisingly affordable and can be performed in just a few hours.

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are also finding their way into the market. Virtual reality allows you to explore models by “flying” through them wearing a variety of headsets on the market. It’s a very fun way to visualize models. You can literally fly through walls, down a plumbing chase, or over the top of a site. Most of the current applications are geared toward the owner and architectural design process but we are watching this area for meaningful construction applications as well.

Augmented reality is similar to VR but rather than being immersed in a video game-like environment, you are using a special clear lens that allows you to see your surroundings but projects a model into the space that you see. It could be used to project an entire building onto a site or to project a new wall into an existing space. With AR, you can walk around the model and look at it from all angles. It’s like taking a reality capture model, projecting new construction into the model, and then having the freedom to walk into the environment and explore it. You may think this sounds a bit like science fiction, but these technologies are reaching deeper into the construction process every day.

What Are You Waiting For?

Will new developments like VR and AR find a useful application for the mason contractor? I don’t know, but I do know that VR and AR are completely useless to masons without a good masonry model. The same is true for integrating orders with shop drawings, coordinating with other trades, reality capture and everything else we have discussed. Models are the foundation of the future for the construction industry and the sooner mason contractors begin developing and sharing their models the better.

There is so much opportunity available to you as a mason contractor through BIM. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your projects are not big enough or that you should wait until someone requires you to supply a BIM model on your job. Masonry models and their value are scalable so they are frequently used on jobs with 1,000 units as well as jobs with hundreds of thousands of units. BIM is not a requirement that is bearing down on you, but rather it’s an opportunity for you to work smarter, be more profitable, and add value to the coordination process. Once you start using models, you will begin to see how they can be used to benefit your business. I’m confident you will be glad you did.

Words: Tom Cuneio
Photos: Tom Cuneio