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Developers Use Building Information Modeling To Beat Back Construction Costs, Bridge The Visual Divide

Fly-through videos, virtual reality tours of proposed projects and data-filled 3D digital models of buildings might seem like flashy afterthoughts for a project, but members of the development community are using these tools and others for very practical reasons.

With construction costs on the rise, building information modeling, or BIM, and new technologies can be applied to help decrease construction costs, help stakeholders get a better idea of a project coming to their neighborhood and, in the longer term, even potentially help the building age well, experts say. 


“The architects, engineers and general contractors have been talking about virtual design and construction for several years and BIM for a long time, but we feel like we’ve somehow left the developer community out, and you guys are the ones that stand to benefit the most,” CorbisStudio Growth Director Brian Dyches said at Bisnow's Utilizing Technology in Construction and Development webinar.

BIM is a process that involves making digital representations of a building or structure that contains not only physical information about the building but also data points about the features of the building or structure. That data can be shared to perform maintenance or ensure accurate information is available for upgrades later.

Dyches, citing data from Dodge Data & Analytics, said that 85% of owners and developers using building information modeling reported a decrease in final construction costs as a result of doing so.

But he also noted that there is value to this technology beyond the construction team. The physical representation of a project can come in handy when developers are trying to sell their project to the city or to the neighborhood. Models or virtual or augmented reality were mentioned as ways to accomplish bridging the gap between those involved in the development process and those on the outside looking in. 

“[BIM] gives you control so that everybody understands what you’re designing," Dyches said. "Not everyone knows how to read a set of drawings.” 

Skanska USA Director, Emerging Technologies Danielle O’Connell said she saw the value of being able to paint a clear picture of a project beyond what appears in renderings. She said Matterport, which is often used by real estate professionals to create a dollhouse-style model of a physical space, carries great potential. It makes it possible to scan an existing space and then overlay an architectural rendering on that scan, bringing renderings of tenant improvements to an office space to life and allowing a potential tenant to visualize what that space could look like were it to move in.

These models can be used beyond the construction phase, later in the life of a building.

"There are so many ways that we can leverage the model geometry and also the information to now figure out better ways and more proactive ways to maintain the spaces so they last longer," O'Connell said.

But every case and use of this technology will and should vary from project to project.

"In some cases, we want to use technology for technology’s sake — what’s the latest and greatest and sexiest thing we can implement? But instead, let’s take a look at how those things are solving a specific problem," O'Connell said.

LaTerra Development Managing Director Chris Tourtellotte encountered a very specific problem on a project when it turned out that window-washing hangers on the roof of amenity space ended up in a highly visible spot. It would have been preferable to have those hidden with landscaping or put in a more out-of-the-way space, Tourtellotte said.

“We were able to solve that, but that kind of detailing can be avoided upfront, which can save money," Tourtellotte said.

Although panelists said BIM can be used on any project, large or small, Tourtellotte noted it is still a cost issue for developers. For many smaller projects, like a 200-unit apartment building, it may not make financial sense to accumulate all the building data and build a digital model. Especially with costs such as lumber hitting new heights, the decision to adopt new technology will always come down to the numbers.