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BIM: Pipe dream or promised land?


BIM: Pipe dream or promised land?

Lean expert Scott Sedam goes back to his home-building roots to help pinpoint BIM’s potential as a powerful enabler for Lean building and the relentless removal of waste from product and process.

By Scott Sedam, Contributing Editor October 23, 2011
Lean building, Scott Sedam, BIM, building information modeling
This article first appeared in the PB October 2011 issue of Pro Builder.

In January 1989, nearly 23 years ago, I went on my first field walk with Bill Pulte, retired chairman and founder of Pulte Homes. Mike Rhoads, director of construction in the Chicago Division and one of the best mentors I ever had, said simply, “watch, listen, and learn.” It was one of those rare Indian summer days in the upper Midwest, and we basked in a warm winter sun with our coats unzipped and hats off. The project was Elgin Green, which I recall vividly for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the discovery that we were building house No. 5 in Phase III and did not yet own the land. Ah well... details. We were really busy.

Bill Pulte came to Chicago to review two new plans at the drywall stage. Watching him take the first model apart, room by room, was an eye-opening experience for this new recruit. Not one to mince words, Bill walked through the house methodically, barking out one instruction after another: “Look, this arch is too steep, flatten it out. Over here, this doorway opening would work better if it was 2 inches wider, and it’s a left-hand swing; it should be a right-hand. That location for the dining room fixture is all wrong; it will never center over a table. Move it 6 inches toward the kitchen and 8 inches toward the outer wall. You don’t need that outlet in the hallway; get rid of it. Take 9 inches out of the back of that powder room and add it to the pantry. Check the plans; These bathrooms aren’t lining up — that’ll cost us. Why did we build a stem-wall at the end of the bathroom countertop? That’s pure waste; take it out. Look at the distance between the stairway and the ceiling; no one will ever get a queen-size bed up there. That’s asking for an unhappy customer. Fix it. Replace those spindles at the top-stair railing with a knee wall — no one wants to look straight into a bathroom from the foyer. Now, take the money you save on the spindles and change out this ugly light fixture. It makes a bad first impression walking in the front door. This kitchen isn’t framed out right. If it was, we wouldn’t need those fillers between the cabinets. Those aren’t on the plan and they cost money. Why is this garage wall 8 feet, 2 inches? No reason for that, and it takes more labor and material.”

“The fact that most builders cannot handle the demands of BIM is your distinct competitive advantage.” - Scott Sedam

Bill went on and on while the substantial entourage of project managers, superintendents, design staff, and I (the new “quality guy”) listened and wrote — all dumbfounded, except for Mike. This was exactly what he expected and why Mike had asked Bill to come over from Detroit. After finishing the first model, we had a block-long walk to the second, down a street full of homes in various stages of production. While asking a lot of questions, Bill’s eyes focused in on a framed-out unit. He paused and pointed at the front of the house. “That valley is a problem the way it dies into the base of the gable. That’s a leak waiting to happen. Rework it.” At the next house he suddenly stopped, then stared intently. Squinting and tilting his head back and forth, Bill walked through the snow up to the front door opening and peered in. He turned around and, as he walked back, yelled to the local architect, “That kitchen window is too small. It’s 30 inches and it needs to be at least 32.” Then he started down the street again. Mike gave me a wry “I told you so” grin. Bill had just looked through at least four framed walls to the back side of the house, mentally measured the kitchen window, and confidently proclaimed it 2 inches too narrow. Two inches? I looked over at Ron, the project manager, with a “How’d he do that?” expression. “That’s Bill,” Ron said with reverence in his voice, “He does this all the time, and he’s always right.”

We stopped another five or six times along the route, and Bill launched an extended lecture about excess corners in foundations that he picked out just walking by. Bill explained elevation features that could have easily been achieved with “pop-outs” from the floor deck instead of foundation corners that drive up cost with no benefit — $50 per corner for a slab, $100 each for a basement single-story, $200 for a basement two-story (and these numbers are from 23 years ago). I am pretty adept with mental math and my head was spinning doing the calculations of what could be saved based on Chicago’s volume. Finally, we entered the second model and the entire process began again, with Bill finding mistakes, oversights, and improvements and the division staff scribbling furiously. When finished, Bill uttered the coup de grace, “Fellas, we found a lot of money here today, but we haven’t even talked about the biggest one — time. Do everything I said and you can take a week out of the schedule. That will save more than all the rest combined.” It took me years to get the math fully worked out on that last point, but Bill was actually off a bit. Saving five schedule days nearly tripled the product savings.

In the space of about two hours, Bill had dramatically improved the two new models — both aesthetically and functionally — fixed problems on some of the existing plans, and saved the division several hundred thousand dollars. How did he do it? First, Bill had a rare talent that enabled him to look at a 2D plan and see it fully in 3D. He had reviewed the new plans before the field walk and had already visualized a lot of what he showed us. He could also stand in a first-floor dining room of a finished model and, when someone suggested moving a wall, Bill could “see” the impact on mechanical chases, joist layout, trusses, roof valleys, roof pitch, etc. Later that day, when the architect brought Bill a reworked drawing of the second-floor design to allow for more stairway clearance for a queen-size bed, Bill studied it, frowned, and said, “Well, you solved that problem, but you created two more. First, your chase size now has to drop an inch and you cannot get the HVAC feed in there, and you now have to steepen the pitch on the gables on elevations A and C, which won’t look right, besides costing more money.” With that he flipped over to the elevations and started sketching it. “Go back and try something like this.”

That was just the first of many times I saw Bill perform these Herculean feats of design and product improvement, but imagine the impact on the new guy getting to witness this during my very first month on the job in residential construction. I did not come close to understanding everything I saw that day, but I resolved to keep studying and figure it out. For the longest time, I focused on this “2D into 3D” skill of Bill’s. Those of you under the age of 40 will have to trust me on this: In 1989 and through the mid-90’s, the idea of creating virtual plans in 3D on any kind of practical, affordable basis was simply not feasible. I think most of us knew it would come someday, but we had no idea when. As I got more deeply into the business, spending my first nine years working in a company that grew from 16 to more than 30 divisions, I realized that a tiny portion of people had Bill’s innate ability to see these relationships. A “big thought” was always there in the back of my mind spurred on by construction experts like Doug Campbell, my first business partner. What if the technology grew enough and the price dropped sufficiently so that Bill’s “2D to 3D” skills could be programmable, affordable, and available to the mass of home builders? The mistakes that wouldn’t be made, the rework that wouldn’t be needed, the design compromises that could be overcome, the time saved — all would contribute to huge increases in efficiency and dramatic reductions in cost. Yet I knew even then the 3D aspect was insufficient. The two other critical elements, costing and schedule, had yet to be tied in. Thinking about that only gave me a major brain-ache.

2D to 3D with BIM

Little more than a year after I left Pulte in 1997 to go out on my own, I received a call from Keith Brown, a dynamic and persuasive guy who was buying up software companies left and right with money from big-name investors, all under the name BuildNet. I was flattered when Keith told me he wanted me — no, needed me — to launch BuildNet University to support his plan to revolutionize the world of home building. I had many meetings with Keith, and his parties at IBS were as expensive as they were impressive. These folks were hiring people left and right and spending huge amounts of cash. Keith and his people did some remarkable things before it all came crashing down, but the vision he described of a fully-integrated system sounding almost exactly like today’s BIM stuck with me.

During what turned out to be our last meeting in a lobby corner at the Denver Tech Center Sheraton, I described to Keith Bill Pulte’s “2D to 3D” skill and how automating that could change the industry, as well as my thoughts about integrating costing and schedule. Keith cut me off and exclaimed with great passion, “We are there. Within a year, a buyer will be able to sit at home on the computer and drag a bedroom wall over 3 feet and completely see the impact in 3D from any angle — inside or out. Then a cost will appear and she can electronically sign it. That night all of the change orders will go to every single vendor, the plans will be updated, the field informed — all electronically — and the schedule will proceed uninterrupted.”

Keith caught a doubtful look on my face and asked why I was being skeptical. I fired a bunch of what-ifs at him: what if the TJI’s had to be reconfigured? What if the HVAC ducts needed to be resized? What if the wall length now needed an additional electrical outlet on the parallel walls? Even worse, what if the new building envelope exceeded the pad restrictions? To all of these queries, and many more, Keith was emphatic. “No problem,” he insisted with a level of commitment leaving no room for doubt, “We are there!”

When Keith and I parted that day, he thought he had sold me on joining the BuildNet team, but on the flight home I reached the opposite decision. I had been in the field too long, seen too much, and I knew that what he described was a bare minimum of 10 years out, even if everything went exactly right, the technology progressed significantly, and the costs fell dramatically.

Now, 13 years later, most of the pieces and parts are out there, and 2D to 3D modeling — now well-established in large-project commercial construction — is being utilized in small but significant corners of the residential market (see Professional Builder’s BIM reports featured in both the April 2010 and April 2011 issues, or read them online at and Integrating  cost and schedule is progressing as well, but here is where the workload increases from merely arduous to potentially debilitating. Read Professional Builder’s BIM reports and you will come away both excited over the promise and potential of BIM and scared about the time and commitment required to ramp up and maintain the system. I will not make many friends with the following statements, but as Jim Collins admonished so many years ago in his book, Good to Great, to be a great organization you have to face the brutal facts, and here they are:

1. Today, most builders’ plans are sorely lacking in both accuracy and appropriate detail. Without both, BIM is a non-starter.

2. Most builders do a poor job keeping the data continually updated in their current costing and estimating systems. If the data is not kept current, the system will not be used.

3. Most builders are lousy at scheduling. Without it, BIM will realize a small fraction of its potential.

If you cannot do these three things well, BIM will likely create more problems than it solves. One of the greatest, inarguable lessons of the modern management era is: never automate a bad system. I don’t know who said that first, but the Sedam corollary is this: automation can never replace understanding. This is why you always teach a field superintendent how to schedule with paper and pencil first before giving him the whiz-bang PDA and software. Builders are notorious for buying costing and scheduling software then not devoting sufficient time to training the users and keeping the databases current. The result is a digital disaster, requiring continual workarounds to keep building homes. The demands of the older systems pale in comparison to BIM. That’s another cold, hard fact.

If you take from this an implication that BIM is more pipedream than promised land, you missed the point entirely. For years in articles, in presentations, and with our clients I have stated: You have only two options if you want to build efficiently — keep your plans, elevations, and options incredibly simple (e.g., the old Rayco model) or have a comprehensive building-management system that is incredibly robust and kept up-to-date on a daily basis. When I first wrote that, such systems did not exist in home building. Now they do, and the fact that most builders cannot handle the demands of BIM is your distinct competitive advantage. If you are the builder that can pull your systems and processes together in a tight BIM implementation, you’ll have precious little competition. 

Today, the potential for BIM — through the robust integration of 3D plans with detailed costing and comprehensive scheduling — to usher in a new era of improved product, lower cost, and greater profit is unassailable. You will never find enough people with the visualization skills of a Bill Pulte, and even Bill could not keep all of the cost details for even one operation in his head. Throw in the demands of schedule and you exceed the capability of even the brightest project manager to take care of anything more than 25 or 30 units annually. BIM brings the tools to take Lean building to new heights, increasing margins while building a better home at lower cost. BIM is ready for the home-building industry. Are you ready for BIM?

We will delve more deeply into the real-world demands and capabilities of BIM in the next article. In the meantime, please email your comments, questions, and experiences to [email protected]

Scott Sedam, former home-building executive, well-known writer, and frequent speaker, is president and founder of TrueNorth Development. He and his seven TrueNorth colleagues focus on the adoption of Lean operating principles into the home-building industry, serving more than 200 builder and supplier clients in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. Sedam welcomes your feedback at [email protected]


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