You get what you pay for. (Epic BIM Upset – Design strikes back)

I have had to wait a while to let the message from the posting my good friend Mr. Grady made earlier this year settle in ("Did you pay me for that BIM?") I
admit, I read it and was a bit riled up, which I have no doubt was the intent. I agree with some things in this post, like the unfortunate occurrence of firms in the industry, misrepresenting that they "do BIM", when in fact they can barely spell it; and of course, few can dispute the assessment of the current economy..."it sucks!" But there were some fundamental misconceptions that prompted me to write what may start an ongoing sparring match between contributors :).

The topic of BIM and who gets the return on investment is such a sensitive one, when anyone talks about money, it gets personal.

Owners stand to benefit by requiring, receiving, and leveraging building information on each of their projects. I don't see many arguments against that point. The question is where is the ROI for the construction and design team members?

What do contractors get when they get BIM?

When BIM is done correctly, the construction team members
get a clearer picture of what they are being asked to provide.  The design is less of a fuzzy image and more
of a precise specification of what is required. 
 With a design team providing BIM,
contractors will be able to identify complex areas for coordination, estimating,
tracking, and planning work much more accurately and more efficiently than they ever have in the

What does BIM mean to design?
As designers (architects, engineers, and specialists), we now
have  many powerful tools at our disposal.  Building information modeling tools
allow us to more rapidly and more precisely configure space, evaluate options
and iterate almost infinitely.  The
processes involved in architecture, however, reach far beyond the tools that
have been introduced.  Throughout history,
design of the built environment has been a confluence of issues that is very broad
and equally deep.  A good design is not only
a pretty picture, but a well formed response to the needs and the context in which
it exists.  The designer is challenged to
address economic parameters, the environmental, social and psychological impacts
that the design will have on the occupants as well as meeting the standards set
forth by all parties involved in the process. 
Developing and coordinating each of these aspects is a challenge.  The successful response to these challenges will continue to be what separates the
amateurs from the experts.  With the
advent of building information modeling, data can be centralized and the process streamlined.  However with the ability to manipulate, analyze and validate the data to reach the best, most clear solutions, we are asking more of the building information model and adding complexity to the process.   
Consider this analogy - Doctors have been tasked with
keeping you healthy.  They now have new
testing equipment to find out if your cough is something more than just a
cough. If the doctor uses this testing equipment, she may find out you have a
respiratory infection and recommend antibiotics. This test cost will show up on
your bill. Your options are, pay for the test, receive the antibiotics and
recover in a week, or cheap out on the test, use mom's remedy of some cough syrup
and bed rest and risk winding up in intensive care three weeks from now. Which option
seems smarter to you?
The more specialized services cost extra.  
What we do as designers needs to be recognized and
compensated. Much like the doctor, our task has not changed; We are still
responsible for designing a quality product that will meet if not exceed the expectations
of our clients.
The technology however has changed.  With these changes we can begin to do our
work more effectively and with more precision than ever before.  In addition to our fundamental services leading
teams  to collaborate, coordinate, and
innovate, leveraging this new technology to its potential requires additional
work which is not just “part of the deal”. 
A building can still be built in a traditional sense. We can put
together a thoughtful design and provide the necessary basics to communicate to
the contractors, but delivering these basics is based largely on past
experience and informed intuition. 
Similar to mom's remedy of rest and cough syrup, it’s inexpensive and sometimes
does the trick, but may not provide optimum results.  By employing BIM, we can begin to dial-in the
design with greater specificity to provide both the owner and construction team
with the information necessary to carry out their work more efficiently and
accurately. Like the physician, we add those extra tests in order to get a more
exacting result, but it is not something that should be expected without cost. 
There are many owners and constructors who already
acknowledge this, and with those I share my sincerest appreciation.  As a profession, if we don't stand up for the
work we do, if we don’t say "Hell yes! We are worth it" the value we bring will be
minimized and overlooked.

I'll say it again; more specialized services cost extra.  But they're worth it!

I am open to spirited debate, but I could not sit by and let
anyone imply that designers are just trying to get out of doing work simply for asserting that certain aspects of BIM should be considered additional to basic services. We work
hard and we are invaluable to the process of shaping and building a healthy,
profitable, and successful built environment.
Anyone care to strike back?


  1. This is a great post. I am really bad at remembering to pin articles I liked or were helpful but I do have a board started.
    pay rate

  2. Great article. You made a great analogy there!

  3. I would agree with your safety analogy if the insurance companies were not holding contractors feet to the fire. But there's no one doing that with BIM. I'm not saying being competitive isn't important. But we actually have to report to OSHA and Insurance Companies and prove we are doing safety right. No one is going to make sure we do BIM correctly. So making the choice to be competitive by doing BIM will only get those companies far enough to make some BD images and make their Mechanical Subs do their coordination for them. Or for design companies it will only get them far enough to buy Revit, make some crappy models, export them to AutoCAD and create their CD's there.

    The desire to be competitive is not enough to help people realize that the process they have known for decades now has fundamental parts that they no longer understand. You actually have to believe that the BIM process is better or you won't switch to it.

    You are right that everyone wants to make money. That's why they won't think any more than they absolutely have to. BIM is not a good will measure. You have to want it. And that might mean in some cases you have to pay for it. And owners won't get it if they treat the Design and Construction of their facilities like a commodity because no one else is going to make their Designers and Contractors do it right.

    • Are you saying that contractors would not view safety as important if it were not for Insurance companies? Or, government regulation (OSHA)? I think at one time that might have been the case, but today people are proud of their safety record, and also recognize that not paying out on an accident is much more profitable.

      You say that no one is doing that for BIM… another point I might disagree with. The market is for sure doing that. Now, I will agree not at near the pace you I would like or hope for. But, throwing in government regulation generally puts people out of business and inflates the market… 'Too Big to Fail'

      All in all there are many points here where we have similar views on. There has also entered another discussion around allocation funds and its timing, or where/when to be spent. I treat that separately, but understand could be brought up in the same discussion.

      Look BIM is a better process for all… there is no question about that. I believe that we have differing views how to 'get there', which is healthy.

  4. Totally agree Nick!

    Rachel – I am very lucky to be involved with so many aspects in construction. And because of that I can pass along accurate information here without emotion.

    See the reality is that every firm thinks they do it better than the other. But, they have too because of the competitive environment that we are in. That is especially true with today's economy. So this leads into Nick and Chris' points, that if you (not saying you by the way) as a firm make a conscious decision to charge extra you have to sleep in the bed you made. But don't think for a second that someone is NOT going to use that for a competitive advantage and why shouldn't they.

    I have really had personal experience with this when I was a 'cradle to grave' contractor. This made us live within our margins. So in a two year span, I saw margin slip from 20-30% down to 3-5% on my projects. The expectations from the owners of my company was to produce more so I could bring in the same cash flow. Well we all know that can only last so long. So I took my experience from my days at ConAgra Foods where I studied JIMP (Japanese Integrated Plant Management) 'Lean'. I had to work on a way to shrink my contingency. I quickly learned that I could take the CAD drawings and load them up into a data collector, which allowed us to lay out in the field 100 times faster than I had been doing, plus much more accurate. This lead into better scheduling of my equipment on site. Those two things alone made such an impact on the margins that it became a 'no turning back' point for the entire company. All this, allowed me to roll this up in my next bids, where I was killing it.

    So my point is, you should only being doing BIM (VDC) if it is a way to make you more competitive. And most people come back with "Well the owner(s) is requiring it"… well then don't do work for the 'Owner'! So if you are thinking "How can you say that" or "I have no choice"… which I hear all the time. It is as simple as this "If the owner told you to jump off a bridge would you?" Now some firms will!

    • Dennis,
      Are you saying BIM should only be done by individuals to make them more competitive? There seems to be little consideration for the quality of the product. You might say that better quality will make you more competitive but I think there is an issue with that.

      I think that the way a person or company "thinks" is all that matters. So I would be less interested in hiring someone who says "I want to be more competitive so I will increase my quality" vs someone who says "I want to create a quality product which will make me competitive".

      My point is that I don't think you should only be doing BIM if it is a way to make you more competitive. I think you should only be doing it if you believe that a work flow built around BIM is better. That may not be the way it happens but owners should know that there is a qualitative difference between companies in BIM. And if BIM is being used to its fullest then that affects their facility in a way that might be worth paying a little extra money.

    • Connor – I am saying that! I also mentioned in my post that I particularly became more accurate, this greatly increased the quality of my product at the time. I also mentioned the scheduling of my equipment and how much better I became at that. This created safer conditions on the job site, which I think is a better quality product. I could easily go on and on, especially when we talk about the intangibles.

      If we (us in the industry) take an approach that BIM is a good will measure, the road to climb will be much steeper and much longer. But if we are honest, and say that it is all about the numbers, we could move down that path much faster. This will create the benefit for all.

      Let me see if this helps;
      You mentioned to me one time that "BIM should be treated like safety", everyone should share in the responsibility. I could not have agreed more with you! So, with that said, if you studied the safety programs you will know that most of what we see and live today on a job site came from DOW Chemical's safety program. If you go back and look at the history of that you will find that they enacted a change after having one of the worst safety records around. And I hate to be so blunt here, but this was told to me through my training I went through with them, it was costing them too much money (basically). So they fixed it.

      So we can dance around the issue, and not get to the point, to make ourselves feel better (but John Grady wouldn't want that). So I am just being real. And if you think for a second that someone else will not use their safety record as a 'competitive' advantage, I can personally swear to you I have seen it done.

      Now, your point at the end is valid. Especially because you know my stance when it comes to BIM for an owner. BIM (Building Information Management) is so much more valuable in the overall lifecycle of the building. BUT, and yes there is a but, not all owners get that. To the mass it is still about the 'lowest' bid. They either do not understand or care that 75-85% of the overall cost will come after erection and turnover. So we can have another discussion about educating capital programs to address this… I am in on that.

      Remember at the end of the day we are talking about companies that are out to make money, which are made up of individuals who want to get paid for their work. I think instead of fighting that, we embrace it, to move our agenda (BIM) forward.

      And let me end on this (not this isn't long enough);
      The most senior member of a Hospital System told me about 2 years ago, that over the next 20 years they are going to be required to build twice as many buildings with half the budget. He would only work with teams that brought the most efficient methods to the table and understood that challenge.

  5. I may be all wet here, but isn't this going to boil down to what the market will bear? Haven't we been here before with other technologies and service offerings?

    First, let me say that BIM executed effectively benefits designers, contractors and owners. Not much argument here or from anyone who's utilized BIM (process and tech) and studied the results. We don't need to prove that it works.

    For example, contractors believe that effective preconstruction services will greatly benefit the project, and all team members stand to gain (not unlike BIM). Do contractors want to do a great job? Yes. Do they want to staff the preconstruction team and provide great services? Yes. Can they charge for ALL these services and remain competitive? Doubtful. That's because their competition is willing to 'give away' preconstruction services to get the work. Now, we can argue about the quality one will get if the contractor gets to recover all their preconstruction services vs. the quality you get when you 'give them away', but the market will dictate this.

    I guess I don't see BIM any different. Either you will embrace it, incorporate it into your DNA and remain (become?) competitive…or you will try to sell it as an added value when the project calls for it.

    Mr. market will give you the answer you seek.

  6. Chris,
    I agree with a lot of what you say. For that same reason I try to keep contractors from selling things like 3D coordination. Showing up and telling an owner that we are now better than the competition because we can provide a coordinated structure does not seem like a good idea. A smart owner would just say "Weren't you supposed to be giving that to me anyways?"

    But Rachel's argument is not a bad one. Her suggestion is that there is more to be gained from BIM than just contract documents. Not just from BIM but from design. Shouldn't owners want the best service? Shouldn't they want the best design in the the most complete sense of the word? Are Contract Documents the only measure of a designers success?

    I ask some of these questions in complete sincerity. I am not a designer so my take on this is really as an outsider. But if anyone can answer some of these questions I think it would shed some light on the conversation.

  7. I seem to have read this before, except someone was talking about how they should be compensated for using CAD to produce their Construction Documents. They argued that the design was better, more accurate, and saved time versus the traditional hand-drawings.

    I also seemed to remember laughing at the notion that something that is supposed to save YOU time, and increase YOUR accuracy, should somehow have a higher price-tag for the owner.

    Unless you are really, TRULY adding something beyond what your competitor is doing, your chances of receiving higher compensation appears to be very slim indeed.

    • Chris,
      It seems we agree; the owner should not be asked to pay more for the SAME deliverable just because we want to pat ourselves on the back for using BIM tools to expedite OUR processes.

      That would be ridiculous.

      Using BIM (properly) affords the opportunity to do more. It is when we move beyond the traditional construction documents, when we start to do more with what we have leveraging specialized expertise, enhanced validation, or advanced processes that additional fees are warranted.

      Again, just because a firm says "we do BIM" does NOT qualify them for additional services.

      Using BIM tools can serve a design team well to expedite and streamline and thus provide a competitive advantage…But if you want a higher quality of deliverable than has been possible in the past, a clearer more precise picture, you should be willing to pay for it.

      If true quality is the goal, don't shop at the bargain mart.

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