• 06.23.15

How Building Information Modeling Saved One University $10 Million

Mo money, mo problems.

In most architectural projects, budgets far exceed projections. The eastern span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge notoriously cost $5 billion more than projected and a new transit hub near the World Trade Center in New York is similarly billions over budget. Those are just two high-profile scenarios. While the sources of cost overruns vary from project to project, technology can help alleviate some of the causes. In the case of the recently completed Collaborative Life Sciences Building (CLSB) in Portland, Oregon, Building Information Modeling (BIM) software and digital collaboration tools saved an astounding $10 million in construction costs on the overall $295 million budget. The deft use of these programs helped the design nab an honorable mention in the AIA TAP (Technology in Architectural Practice) Innovation Awards.


The 650,000-square-foot CLSB is a joint project of the Oregon Health & Science University, Oregon State University, and Portland State University. The three institutions banded together to house their life sciences programs under one roof to give students and researchers more opportunities for collaboration. Located on OHSU’s new Schnitzer Campus, in Portland’s South Waterfront District, the building consists of classrooms, lecture halls, research laboratories, retail, and parking. CO Architects served as the project’s design architect and SERA served as executive architects.

“There are many things that can cause a project to go over budget, from a misalignment of the brief and design aspirations with the available budget, to unforeseen site conditions,” Alene Davis, an associate principal at SERA Architects, says in an interview. “From a software standpoint, complex geometric designs can be budget-risky if there is not a simple way to communicate the required geometries to the subcontractors that will be building them. BIM helps out tremendously in this respect.”

BIM In A Nutshell
BIM software helps architects not only design and build in three dimensions, but to also have a 3-D model with layers of information about the individual elements that compose a structure and how they work together in a system. Think of it as computer-aided design (CAD) on steroids. For example, if the architects, engineers, or builders need to change an element of the design, they can see the ripple effects instantly—how it would impact overall cost, if something else in the design needs to change as a result, and how this would affect overall building performance and construction time. Additionally, all of this information is saved so that at any time during the lifecycle of the building, someone can go in and identify what components were used. If something breaks, the manufacturer, model number, and other details are saved so there’s no guesswork done in replacing it.

These programs have been around for decades, but now they’re more sophisticated and used more widely. Davis likens the rise in BIM to the shift from hand drawings to CAD. Most large-scale architectural projects involve some combination of BIM modeling and CAD, but both the design and construction teams and all subcontractors for the CLSB used an all-BIM process—a rarity. “While architects are early adopters of 3-D technology, to demand that all of our contributing consultants use it, and for the contractor to demand that all of their subcontractors use it is rare,” Davis says, noting that her firm has been using BIM since 2006. “CLSB is one of the few projects that has done that.”

Jeremy Bitterman

How To Save $10 Million
The CLSB involved 28 different design teams, which is typical for a project of this scale. This included everything from civil engineers, landscape architects, roofing consultants, building code specialists, signage design—the list goes on. To make communication more efficient, SERA Architects and JE Dunn Construction used an all-digital documentation process. The firms credit this move alone for saving $10 million.

The nitty gritty of the cost savings boils down to how 3-D modeling with programs like Revit, AutoCAD, and Navisworks (all from Autodesk) helped the different entities communicate better through the process. For example, if the architecture firm designed a certain feature in 3-D, that file could then be transferred to the structural engineer and then to the fabricator. “This makes for higher-quality documents and reduces conflicts during construction,” Davis says.


For instance, BIM helped resolve potential construction conflicts involving positioning of plumbing, electrical, and ventilation systems. A separate team is responsible for designing each network. In the 3-D model, the teams discovered that a pipe intersected with a vent [Editor’s note: see slide seven above]. That’s something the clash-detection feature of the model identified before construction began–when changes were relatively easy. The plumbing folks were then able to design the pipe to wrap around the vent. Problem solved.

The modification was then reflected in real time to every design team involved. Instead of the plumbing design team posting their changed document, and each of the 27 other teams needing to do the same to their own copies of the plumbing layouts, everything updated simultaneously. That’s just one of many scenarios that technology mitigated.

SERA Architects

Additionally, the design teams used Bluebeam—a collaborative editing and file-sharing platform—to link all of the construction documents so that one firm’s changes would automatically be reflected in everyone else’s documents. Smartsheet, a cloud-based spreadsheet solution, also helped the teams keep track of documents, allowed multiple users simultaneous access and editing, and prevented version-control problems. Posting and drawing documents manually, like construction drawings and requests for information, is a laborious undertaking. JE Dunn estimated that it would have taken 127,000 hours to do. At a billable rate of $79 per hour, that’s $10,058,017. In paper-related costs alone.

Moreover, JE Dunn says that an individual subcontractor who used Point Layout software, an Autodesk program, and Robotic Total Station, an automated tool by Trimble, to layout and install 55,000 hangers for the mechanical, engineering, and plumbing systems saved $1 million since the company didn’t have to to drill from a lift, insert the hangers, and then have them individually inspected.

“The use of an all-digital [design and documentation] process sped up both coordination and construction,” Davis says. “It’s hard to determine just how much time would have been added to the project if these processes hadn’t been as streamlined, but it’s safe to say we saved many months.”

Lesson learned: The machines have won.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.