As of 2012, more than 70 percent of builders were utilizing building information modeling (BIM) in their design and planning processes. As BIM becomes more prevalent, an increasing number of home builders are finding that the features of BIM software are a natural fit for the home customization process, such as the ability to create 3D renderings of a space and make instantaneous changes to plans at no cost.
BIM can offer a multitude of benefits for both builders and homebuyers. However, successfully using BIM for home customization requires more than just buying and using new technology. Here, we highlight five best practices you can use to maximize BIM’s features and improve the custom homebuilding experience.
BIM: What It Is and How It Works
BIM isn’t software, per se. It’s a process used to create a virtual model of a home that can visually display the features within, while also storing vast amounts of functional information about its structure, components and materials.
A 3D cutaway of a BIM model home
Software programs such as Autodesk Revit, Envisioneer and Sales Simplicity allow builders to create BIM models and interact with them in various ways throughout the homebuilding process, from the initial sales conversation all the way to warranty management. The ability to digitally manage the plans and characteristics of a home provides builders with a new level of detail, and helps improve the efficiency of the entire build process.
Sample BIM floor plan
“BIM has allowed home builders to build custom homes at production speeds,” says John D. Wagner, a home building expert who works with several companies that produce BIM-enabled software. “A builder can predict the costs and work orders of a home he’s never built before, because the BIM model really lets him drill down to the level of a nail head to see what’s in that home.”
BIM also allows builders to create 3D models of spaces and even provide interactive walkthroughs that help buyers visualize the layout and flow of a home. The ease with which builders can make changes to plans also allows for instant feedback from customers, which accelerates the design process and helps buyers feel more engaged.
Sample 3D BIM floor plan
Tony Hardebeck, owner of Cornerstone Homes in Lafayette, IN, says BIM has revolutionized how he works with buyers on home customization. “The 3D walkthroughs have been unbelievable for us and the clients,” he says. “When you start getting into custom details like arches and niches, the buyers can see them in 3D and help design them with you. It’s amazing, and I couldn’t imagine building without it now.”
Start With a Small Number of Plans
Once successfully implemented, BIM can save homebuyers and builders countless hours of design time and help homebuyers better visualize a home and make decisions more quickly. But as with any new technology, it takes time to get the system up and running.
According to Wagner, putting a single homeplan into BIM can take between 20 and 40 hours. “When you’re using BIM, it looks like you’re customizing the house, and you are in a certain way, but you’re really choosing among a certain object library,” he explains. “If the builder has let you add a garden tub, it’s because it’s in their BIM library.”
Adding these options to a BIM library is time-consuming, but necessary to utilize the features that provide buyers with that “wow” factor.
Sample BIM bathroom
To get the best return on investment, BIM experts say builders should begin their library with a small set of plans. Brad Finck, vice president of business development at Cadsoft, recommends that builders start with eight to 10 of their best-selling plans, along with a few popular customizations. The builder’s sample model inventory will grow as buyers customize, and more models can be entered over time.
“Very few builders are able to sit down and create a model of all the plans and options that they offer [from the get-go],” Finck says. “The best way to get an early return on investment is to focus on the plans and options that have sold well in the past.”
Offer Buyers Quick Changes to Lower Costs
The efficiencies of incorporating BIM into the design and purchasing process can also reduce material costs and shorten the time from design to build. Hardebeck estimates that the structural design process with his clients now takes only two to three weeks, with another week for materials selection. Before BIM, the custom design phase could take three to five months.
Finck confirms that builders are universally seeing these benefits from BIM. “Changes can be made much faster—changes that were typically not made in front of the client,” he says.
“The technology lends itself to iterations happening much faster than they did before. Builders can offer instant changes in the design process before they stick a shovel in the ground. The result is faster buildings that are less expensive, which is another another selling point.”
Customization options for a BIM model home
While BIM enables builders to get instantaneous updates on the estimated cost of design and plan changes, on-screen price updates for buyers aren’t recommended. Art Goldammer, president of Red Door Homes in North Dakota, explains that there are just too many variables for this to be feasible.
“There are a lot of factors, like confirming supply costs and order times, as well as making sure that we’ve got the right margin on the entire project,” he explains. “We give people the ability to make changes to floorplans and get a sales price easily presented to them much faster than before, but it’s not instant.”
Limit the Extent of Changes Buyers Can Make
While BIM software makes it look easy to make changes to plans, there are still aspects of the design process that builders and sales representatives will need to support their clients through.
“For the most part, BIM software is a professional tool for the builders and sales reps,” says Wagner. “Many BIM products can integrate with consumer-facing products, but they are very sophisticated tools and I recommend that builders use the tools side-by-side with buyers.”
Finck concurs that most of his Cadsoft builders prefer that their customers don’t have access to the structural plans because of the level of knowledge required to make changes properly. Cadsoft offers ExpressView, which is a consumer-level version of Envisioneer, their software for engineers, architects and design professionals.
ExpressView allows homebuyers to view 3D models and change the colors and finishes in the home without having access to make structural changes. Finck says that giving buyers the autonomy to make color and finish changes provides them with an interactive experience without the risk of creating structural issues in the plans that would have to later be fixed by an engineer or architect.
Ed Butler, president of Brickwood Builders in Greensboro, NC, notes, “Generally it works best if the client is with us. Most people are pretty impressed when they can see it happening. The downside is that they think it will be easy to keep making changes because we can do them so quickly.”
To avoid a lengthy design process, Brickwood Builders limits projects to six to eight iterations. “After that, customer change requests are more about trying to minimize cost than they are about design,” Butler says.
Use Past Data to Make Recommendations to New Customers
Another advantage of BIM-enabled software is the vast amount of data that can be easily searched and analyzed, enabling builders to make smarter recommendations to new customers based on the choices of past customers.
“BIM tools offer very sophisticated data analysis,” says Wagner. “Many builders are able to integrate that data back into their sales process and use it to make smarter sales and marketing decisions.”
K. Hovnanian Homes, based in New Jersey, has been able to take information about what people have purchased in the past and use it to predict what and where buyers will be purchasing in the future. Characteristics such as geographic location, floorplans and even model names can be compared and analyzed to identify patterns.
The company has also utilized BIM data to analyze the sales performance of different types of homes, even discontinuing certain models that underperformed after analyzing the data in their BIM models.
K. Hovnanian is not the only builder that mines their BIM data for sales insights. Wagner says that Sales Simplicity, one of the companies he works with, “absolutely has clients who use their data to learn what customers are interested in buying, and that data gets reintegrated into their sales systems.”
Consider Third Party Collaboration to Reduce Costs
In a recent study done by McGraw-Hill Construction, 75 percent of builders using BIM reported a positive return on their investment within the first year. However, that doesn’t change the fact that investing in new technology and possibly in training and new employees can be costly.
Fortunately, BIM doesn’t have to be all or nothing—there are options for using BIM for custom homebuilding without establishing an in-house team. Cornerstone Homes actually doesn’t have in-house BIM capabilities; rather, they work with CG Visions to create the BIM models and 3D renderings that are so impressive to their clients.
“Being a smaller builder, it just doesn’t make sense to take on that kind of overhead compared to the price that CG Visions charges for their services,” says Hardebeck.
Cornerstone’s customization process begins with Hardebeck working one-on-one with his clients to develop a 2D draft of their custom home, which he then sends to CG Visions to be turned into a BIM model. From there, he can take the buyers on a 3D walkthrough and send changes from the buyer back to CG Visions, who then updates the BIM plans.
If developing in-house capabilities seems out of reach, consider collaborating with a software vendor or outside contractor to provide BIM models to potential homebuyers. As Finck notes, using BIM to work with homebuyers can be worth the investment: “Customers are typically not able to visualize in 3D. You have fewer problems on site and fewer customers saying, ‘This is not what I expected.’ Not only are you setting expectations, you’re getting approval faster and controlling your costs.”
Images courtesy of CG Visions.