BIM begins with Safety – A ‘no-killer’ App

By Fred Abler

Building Information Modeling (BIM) passed a major milestone last week, and hardly anyone noticed. The historic event was that New York City accepted, for the first time, a BIM model for the required site safety plan.

In NYC, site safety plans are needed for construction operations and approvals on buildings with 10 stories (or more). Traditionally, these plans are submitted as 2D drawings that required weeks, if not months of scrutiny, comment, and corrections before approval.

However, new 3D site safety plans made using BIM collapses this time frame, and greatly enhances efficacy – enabling building inspectors to virtually review critical safety measures; including crane placement, construction of standpipe systems, sidewalk sheds, etc.

Fig 1 – This image above was part of an April 23, 2012 presentation by Christopher Santulli, PE about the Safety Plan Reviews in 3D. It’s easy to see how the added dimensionality and interactivity of 3D BIM models is an enabling technology for Site Safety Plans.

In other words, construction site safety can now be simulated using BIM, rather than just ‘visualized’ in the building inspectors’ mind’s-eye. Given the complexity of this mission critical undertaking,  I’m sure we all prefer the former, not the latter.


Benefits of Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) and BIM have been known for decades. Clash detection, logic busts, and other forms of virtual conflict identification are nothing new. Drafting-to-scale and cutting sections are the original conflict ID technology.

It is patently obvious that conflict identification is easy, but conflict resolution is… well, it’s bone crushingly difficult (see my postscript for a detailed example). One needs a few seconds of cheap computation, and the other.. extremely dear and ongoing human negotiation.

It’s a fact that “conflict identification ≠ conflict resolution”. Yet BIM vendors and BIM-boosters have been willfully blind to this basic truth for years. They sell the conflict identification side of the equation, and finesse the rest.

It’s not surprising. Conflict resolution is a huge process fail. So BIM marketers have sold partial-solutions, blamed customers for “outmoded” project delivery, and bombed interoperability – everything but appeal to the early majority – pragmatists that could help BIM ‘cross the chasm” from disruptive.. to mainstream technology.

I’m fed up with these BIM’boozlers… and I’m hardly alone. Consider the sober title of an upcoming BIM Symposium – PRACTICAL BIM 2012. This sixth-annual symposium at USC offers presentations that are “ taught by people who actually do BIM ”.


So now that BIM is being used for construction site safety plans, what’s really different? Is this the first time the construction industry is using BIM? Hardly. But it is the first time BIM is being submitted for plan approval.

And site safety feels like the right-sized application for BIM. Added 3D/4D dimensionality communicates complex spatial information, thereby mitigating complexity and saving lives. And in this ‘killer app’.. conflict has to be resolved  before construction can even start.

This strategic choke-point firewalls the BIM process bomb, and leverages the most critical of critical paths – construction finance. Furthermore, construction managers have a fee structure that can actually monetize the considerable sunk investment BIM/VDC requires.

When building, conflict resolution is not only mission critical, saving lives and maintaining public safety, it results in direct cost savings (time, labor, and materials). And better still, this cost avoidance is transparent, and accrues to the benefit of building owners.

Thus, BIM’s use as a construction deliverable for site saftey plans looks like the killer app. It leverages existing project delivery gates to avoid BIM’s process bombs, mitigates complexity, saves lives, and offer transparent (immediate and future) ROIs.

In retrospect, BIM marketing has been a brutal waiting game. In lieu of whole product and killer apps, software vendors have been hectoring architects to use BIM to reduce Errors & Omissions. Other processional benefits were always promised, but have yet to materialize.

Meanwhile, the early majority (i.e., pragmatists) have been waiting patiently for constructors to find a ‘killer app’ for BIM. The good news this week is that the deed is done!! Certified BIM traction has been achieved with construction site safety plans.

It’s a modest yet meaningful start. Now that BIM/VDC is repeatably part of the construction approval process, it can prove its ROI and penetrate further into the project delivery process. And it is this modest approval process, that signals a real pragmatic beginning.

This milestone also explains why Trimble, which earns more than half of its $1.6 Billion U.S. in annual revenues from construction, is unexpectedly acquiring SketchUp. Given the breadth and depth of AEC project delivery, ‘3D for Everyone‘ will be invaluable for read-write electronic communication of advanced spatial concepts.

NYC Building’s acceptance of BIM software for construction site safety is a tectonic shift. BIM has always been a solution in search of a problem. At last BIM has finally transcended all the marketing hype, false starts, and visioneering… ultimately arriving at a pre-construction killer app.

Some Congratulations and thanks are in order for Turner Construction, parent company Hochtief, and NYC Building. They have pioneered a pragmatic killer app for BIM, or perhaps more correctly.. a ‘no-killer’ app.

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EndNote: There are other advantages in Site Safety Plans that make them significant, and will enable BIM technology to finally ‘Crossing the Chasm’. They will be subject of a future post.


PostScript: A few years back, one of our FormFonts clients was a small lighting manufacturer in Northern California. They turned to us for some ‘smart objects’ for a prestigious BIM project.

Our client’s client was a major software vendor, building a new corporate headquarters in San Francisco, CA. This company actually makes BIM software and had decided to ‘eat their own dogfood’.

Using their own BIM software, As expected early in the design phase the BIM project model identified a possible design conflict. Q: Would the air return duct cause one pendant to swing notably?  A: Why Yes! very likely it would.

After a particularly grueling 5 hours on a single conference call our client called for advice. The project was “eating them alive and killing their time”. Endless meetings with the architect, construction managers, interior architects, an related subject matter experts were needed to “decide” how this conflict would be resolved.

Of course no one had prior experience using BIM. No one had the authority to make a durable decisions. And no one was empowered to even mediate the matter. So early conflict identification quickly became ongoing conflict resolution.

Other building systems were not yet ‘baked’, so BIMplimenters could only agree more study was needed. Thus, a single lighting fixture became one more.. infinite regress. Thousands of conflict items had to be tracked, updated, and eventually..resolved by some all too human experts.


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