Any sports fan can name players who, in one magnificent game or season, put their teams on their backs and carried them to victory. For many years, an analogous phenomenon has been played out in the construction industry. Very capable MEP contractors were often asked to assume the prime responsibility for a project by spearheading the traditional spatial coordination process, carrying less experienced and less competent project members through project completion. In this role of ad-hoc project coordinator, those MEP contractors saved many projects and spared the owners a great deal of expense and risk.

Even so, the traditional methods and tools of spatial coordination that those MEP champions used could not dramatically reduce the volume of change orders and courtroom litigation that was historically part of the game. For the owner, design changes, construction schedule conflicts, and poor field conditions generated change-order submittals that often led to budget overages. In the last six years, however, as Building Information Modeling (BIM) has begun to find its place in U.S. commercial construction, owners seeking to limit their financial exposure and risk began requiring contractors to use this new construction tool. Even earlier than that, our most visionary MEP contractors saw and began tapping many of these same benefits from engaging in BIM processes. They wanted to win by building more efficiently, rather than making a case in the courtroom.

MEP is actually a handy acronym that encompasses several skilled trades, including mechanical, electrical, sheet metal, plumbing, HVAC, and sprinkler/fire protection contractors. The nature of our work puts us on the business end of project design and fitment issues. We understand that the traditional expectations and practices surrounding spatial coordination have been costly and laden with risk. Although technologies such as computer-aided design (CAD) have increased efficiencies and created opportunities to advance the state of the industry, they have not reduced the risk or the additional expense. They have also tempted some project stakeholders to expect that during spatial coordination MEP contractors will take it upon themselves to “fix” what they view as “design deficiencies” to get their projects completed on time and within budget. It’s been a perfect storm and a good time to be a construction claims attorney. 

The adoption and continued improvement of BIM has been helping to change the game. The goal—to reduce construction risk—demands and rewards collaboration from an industry that has long been comfortable in its own silos. 

MEP contractors have been some of the biggest winners—and losers—of this new game. 

Spatial coordination is a bread-and-butter issue for us; we’re as comfortable working in the virtual world of 3D modeling and spatial coordination as we are in the real world of construction and fabrication. However, what was once an exercise by a small cadre of professional craftsmen and a few innovative contractors is now a standard industry activity that involves new ideas and methods and an array of stakeholders of varying skills.

Those visionary MEP contractors who embraced BIM early discovered an important change in the rules: a lone capable contractor can no longer carry the team. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Success indicators for projects that require BIM are benchmarked by the contributions of the weakest construction team member. Consider the fallout when a contractor who fails to participate in the spatial coordination process has to install their systems in spaces that an MEP contractor who did participate reasonably expects to be available for field fabrication. The work of the coordination team is up in smoke, and a total re-design is required. RFIs and change orders are generated and the unbudgeted costs mount. Everyone loses.

To reduce their exposure to this kind of risk, our leading-edge contractors believed that better results could be achieved from education, versus litigation. We started to work within our respective MEP domains and trade associations to educate the industry about what spatial coordination is … and is not. This work led to the collaboration of our trade associations—the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA), the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning National Association (SMACNA), and the National Electrical Contractors (NECA)—to establish a standard definition of spatial coordination. Here is the summary from the definition:

Spatial Coordination using 3D Modeling is a cooperative and collaborative effort among the design professional, owner, general contractor or construction manager and the trade contractors. Normal and expected spatial coordination performed by the trade contractors after the execution of a contract is not design. Rather, it is the reflection of the design in a three-dimensional model. Trade contractors rely on complete and accurate designs when bidding projects in order to provide accurate bid pricing. In return, trade contractors, such as those represented by the MCAA, SMACNA and NECA, using that design, are able to produce reliable models by which the project can be constructed in a more efficient, timely and cost effective manner.

We submitted our complete definition to the National Building Information Modeling Standard (NBIMS), and it was accepted and embedded inside the 2012 Version 2 release of the National BIM Standard.

As helpful as it was, this definition was only the first step.   Despite the focus on BIM over the past six years, the need for practical specialty contractor education about how to best implement BIM and associated technologies sorely tested our resources to meet it. In what someone termed one of our “moments of truth,” we faced a stark realization that to effectively educate our members, we first had to come to grips with a larger, underlying issue: to move our teams forward, we must provide a means to improve the performance of our least experienced contractors and the quality of their contributions.

For the last two years, our trade associations and an industry task force of nearly three dozen experts have worked hard to do just this. On Nov. 7, we will release Achieving Spatial Coordination Through BIM—A Guide for Specialty Contractors. This landmark document, dubbed “the Guide” by those who spent those two years struggling to develop and refine it, is the first guide for contractors who want to implement BIM practices and technologies in their firms.

Although the Guide was written for specialty construction contractors, it also offers a set of standard best practices that can lead the building service industry to greater competence and success. The sense of urgency that propelled us through the rough spots in this project came from our awareness of the forces that the U.S. construction industry can no longer ignore or wish away: the technological innovations that BIM has introduced are not going away. Those who fail to embrace this new game, however, sadly may do just that.

No team … and no business … plays to lose.  But in a game with intense virtual challenges, with real world risks and rewards, victory is possible only when everyone on the team performs like a champion. With the release of the Guide, we hope that we can help every contractor understand what it takes to bring their best game to the table, and even more important, that they must bring it to every project to win.


John R. Gentille is CEO of MCAA, the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, Inc.;
Vincent R. Sandusky, is CEO of SMACNA, the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association, and John M. Grau is CEO of NECA, National Electrical Contractors Association.