July 26, 2010 | last updated December 1, 2011 7:26 am

A better blueprint | More Maine contractors are embracing - and some are demanding - the use of 3-D modeling technology

Photo/Judy Beedle
Photo/Judy Beedle
Denis St. Pierre of E.S. Boulos Co. at the Portland jetport, where BIM technology is being used in its terminal expansion project

Denis St. Pierre knew sooner or later E.S. Boulos Co. would need to add Building Information Modeling technology to its skill set if it, the largest electrical contractor in northern New England, wanted to remain competitive on large-scale projects.

The nudge came sooner, says St. Pierre, the company's director of estimating and project management, when in June the Westbrook contractor won a bid linked to the $75 million terminal expansion at Portland International Jetport. The project's lead contractor, Turner Construction of Boston, requires all companies involved in the jetport project to use BIM, a 3-D hardware and software tool that allows multiple contractors to see the location and status of all project components.

By knowing exactly where E.S. Boulos Co. technicians have to install their electrical work in the new jetport terminal, St. Pierre says they can avoid any potential conflicts with other contractors and avoid costly construction do-overs.

"All job changes will be entered into the model so you can see what the change will do to all of the other work," he says.

The opportunity to save time and money on a project can be substantial. A 2004 U.S. Department of Commerce study estimated the inadequate interoperability of computer-assisted design, engineering and software systems costs the construction industry $15.8 billion a year. BIM, which is designed and manufactured by several technology companies, is intended to relieve that confusion by containing and consolidating all pertinent information about a construction project. It displays spatial relationships, light analysis, electrical and HVAC systems, material quantities and properties, even manufacturer's details about a specific component.

John O'Dea, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Maine in Augusta, says BIM technology is not new, but it is just starting to find its way into some of the state's smaller and mid-sized construction firms, usually as the need presents itself.

"It's heavily dependent on the market and the size of the project," he says.

Many small construction firms still rely on AutoCAD drawings and more traditional planning tools for smaller-scale projects, says O'Dea, but they would be wise to adopt the BIM technology — the 21st century version of a blueprint — because demand is increasing.

"The genie's never going back into the bottle," says O'Dea, whose organization represents 250 members.

Collaboration and coordination

E.S. Boulos Co., which generates more than $50 million in annual revenue and employs 250 people, invested $100,000 to acquire the technology and training for its staff. BIM allowed them to secure the $4 million contract to install all the electrical systems for the jetport terminal project.

"If we are using the full capabilities of the software, it's going to improve our performance on a project," says St. Pierre.

Ellen Belknap, president of SMRT, a Portland architectural design firm, says the company added BIM five years ago because it recognized the technology would be essential to win contracts. The days of relying solely on AutoCAD-designed blueprints are becoming a thing of the past. Contractors will be using more laptops and smart phones to do their work, she says.

"This is transforming the way we think about building a building," says Belknap.

Belknap says 25 of SMRT's 75 employees are trained to use BIM. The 3-D software allows clients and contractors to see via a computer screen every component in every room and on every floor of a building before any work takes place. She has found that more of her clients — especially those in the public sector who are accountable for taxpayer money — want architectural firms and contractors to use the technology.

Among them is MaineGeneral Medical Center's regional inpatient hospital project in Augusta, which is requiring all contractors to use BIM. Belknap says SMRT used BIM to do the preliminary design work for that project, which is going through the state's certificate of need approval process. The project's lead contractors, Robbins & Morton of Alabama and H.P. Cummings of Winthrop, have made using BIM a precondition for all subcontractors.

If approved, the $322 million project would create a new 600,000-square-foot regional hospital next to the Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care in north Augusta and update the Thayer Campus in Waterville.

John Scott, H.P. Cummings' project manager, says one of the real benefits of using BIM is that it "simulates prefabrication," which allows subcontractors like plumbers, electricians and HVAC technicians to plan their work sooner than they would otherwise. Problems that subcontractors might encounter during construction can be addressed during the design phase.

A project can also be delivered sooner, says Scott, a 24-year veteran in the construction industry, although it is difficult to quantify BIM savings because every project is different.

On average, Belknap says 40% of the time spent on the construction of a project is wasted because of work that has to be redone or other unanticipated problems. If BIM can reduce that number to 20%, she says there are significant savings for the customer and the construction firm.

Mike Brooks, creative services manager for Cianbro Corp. in Pittsfield, says his company did a BIM presentation and design for its Eastern Manufacturing Facility in Brewer. Cianbro used the technology to create a plan for contractors based on data entered into the model. The result was instant collaboration that eliminated waste, creating a benefit that "comes right back to the client," says Brooks.

"When the client pays for a model, it will go out to everyone involved and that is possible because the software and hardware is much easier to share," he says.

Brooks says BIM can also be used to manage facilities after a project is constructed. If a client wants to do additional work, they can see how it will affect heating and cooling systems, fire suppression systems or any other aspects of the building before work takes place.

BIM is also important for companies that want to build LEED-certified buildings, says Belknap, because it can construct models that identify the best ways to achieve energy efficiency. SMRT did an energy model for the Androscoggin Valley Hospital in Berlin, N.H., to help the health care facility identify ways to improve energy efficiency. Based on the information put into the model, Belknap says BIM recommended new energy-efficient windows and the hospital administration decided to include them in its capital budget.

The jetport project is seeking silver LEED certification, a component of which are geothermal pumps. E.S. Boulos is designing a system to deliver power to those pumps, as well as installing all primary and emergency power systems; lighting and lighting control systems; temporary power and lighting; the generator system; and the grounding and lightning protection systems. To date, 16 of its professional staff have been trained in BIM.

"It's making a difference for us now, and we expect it will in the future, as well," says St. Pierre.

Bob Cook, Mainebiz staff reporter, can be reached at


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