The Unpaved Road to Better-Faster-Cheaper Civil-Engineering Project Management Through BIM

by Angus W. Stocking, L.S.
- Aug 19 2015 - 5 min read
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Architects and civil engineers have no choice but to get along. After all, they have to work together to realize big projects, so cooperation is a no-brainer. But different visions and goals, working methods, standards, and units of measurement are sometimes a source of friction that can get in the way with civil-engineering project management. And that can mean missed deadlines and budget overruns.

Fortunately, John Rodriguez, BIM manager at California-based Fuscoe Engineering, says that—thanks to the promises and challenges of BIM—the working relationship between these two vital infrastructure professions is evolving.

“There are still fundamental trade differences, but today there is far more integration, collaboration, and sharing, and more detailed conversations are happening much earlier in design phases,” he says. “Architects and civil engineers are definitely willing to establish common standards and share data.”

Tongva Park & Ken Genser Square
Tongva Park & Ken Genser Square in Santa Monica, California. Courtesy Fuscoe Engineering.

It’s a positive step in the right direction, but the next big challenge is to increase BIM expertise and adoption among those collaborators, which is what Rodriguez is tackling at Fuscoe. “Initially, BIM education for our technical staff was delivered in a mentoring-type environment,” he says. “There were many instances where the learning was happening as we ran into hurdles. Now, BIM education is being delivered in a more structured approach. This year, I delivered a company-wide BIM road show to our entire company. We also started to define the BIM opportunities that exist in our current client base.”

Although formal training is part of the mix, Rodriguez says the combination of mentoring and company-wide evangelism is at least as important when developing Fuscoe’s BIM culture. Top-down commitment is a key factor.

“The support for BIM at Fuscoe begins with our CEO and founder, Pat Fuscoe, and that inspires the entire company,” he says. “Just this past week I was approached by one of our senior principals managing a project for one of our high-profile clients, and he made a request for a clash detection to be conducted on the underground utilities for the project. This is not something he would have been asking just a few years ago! When I was able to deliver the results in under five minutes, he was blown away by the technology.”

fuscoe engineering navisworks project
BIM project coordination using Navisworks and BIM360 Glue for a multifamily residential project. Courtesy Fuscoe Engineering.

As BIM manager (and Autodesk-certified Civil Engineering Implementation Expert), Rodriguez notes that much of his work at Fuscoe is not directly related to civil engineering or architecture. “I focus on the technology,” he says. “With the arrival of BIM as a discipline, there is a definite path to success outside traditional engineering and architectural roles.”

By concentrating on BIM as a cost-saving business tool, Rodriguez was able to set a SMART goal for himself to establish measures of Return on Investment (ROI) on BIM work: “It’s a difficult task, as the actual BIM technology we’re using is changing from project to project. We are seeing technologies like Navisworks being leveraged for project review, which is allowing us to produce and print fewer construction documents. So that’s one way we can measure reduced costs.”

He’s using BIM in other ways to help with budgets and deadlines, too. But along with those benefits come new challenges. “Consider the ways we communicate,” he says. “Federated models now come with social-media-style tools, and better communication within and between teams is always desirable. But with that comes potential for distraction and even liability issues. Suppose a subcontractor comes to us with a request to perform clash detection. It makes sense for us to do that—it saves time and money during construction—but it takes time, and it’s not clear who’s responsible for that work or who pays. Developing standards and contract language around this is something we are just getting started on.”

Burbank Water and Power Ecocampus
Burbank Water and Power Ecocampus. Courtesy Fuscoe Engineering.

As an example, Rodriguez cites recent work on a large multifamily, wraparound residential development. “Here, we’re putting massive new development into and around existing large structures into a dense urban area, and the complexity of underground structure is quite high,” he says. “Holistic, integrated project delivery has been an important factor in our success. For instance, we’ve used Navisworks early on to find clashes affecting things like utilities and retaining walls—that represents a lot of major headaches and expensive change orders we’ve completely avoided.”

But how early in the process does it make sense for Fuscoe’s engineers to discuss clashes with designers? “Conceptual work is one area that can be puzzling,” Rodriguez explains. “Models are coming together very early in design phases now, and we know that our architectural partners are often still doing conceptual work. So for example, when we notice landscaping elements that overlap sidewalk easements, just when is it proper to call their attention to it? Often, we find ourselves falling back on phone calls or emails, which can seem old-fashioned compared to model-facilitated communication.”

medical center project fuscoe engineering
Medical center in southern California. Courtesy Fuscoe Engineering.

From issues like that, Rodriguez derives one of the few simple, definite principles he feels comfortable with in the world of BIM-enabled design. “If the design doesn’t start with good 2D, the 3D will be useless,” he says. In other words, good surveying is valuable; without precise 2D location of boundaries, easements, and existing features like sewer and utilities, much time is likely to be wasted during the 3D-design phase.

For BIM managers like Rodriguez, nurturing the company culture is as important as staying abreast of new technology. There are jumps forward and steps back.

“It takes a village!” Rodriguez says. “There are some days that my team and I feel like we are making strides, and then a new technology is dropped at our doorstep, and we’re trying to figure out new challenges. But we push hard to work collaboratively with our clients and their consultants, as well as vendors and developers, so that we can reach the full potential of communal BIM.”

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