AEC

To BIMfinity and Beyond! (AEC Insight Column)

1 Nov, 2007 By: Jerry Laiserin

Building information modeling for today and tomorrow.


Five years into the industrywide conversation about building information modeling (BIM), it has become clear that BIM is simultaneously bigger, smaller, and more diverse than many first imagined. It's bigger in that its process encompasses far more than do many of the current so-called BIM software programs. It's smaller in that early steps in BIM automation will — as with any technology adoption cycle — mimic earlier tools and methods. It's more diverse in that the BIM model is fragmenting into discipline-, phase-, and role-specific models that mirror the business facts of life in designing, constructing, and operating buildings.

In this article
In this article

The Big BIM Theory

To think of BIM only in terms of specific software programs is to miss the point. My own definition of BIM has evolved since I initiated discussion of BIM in 2002. In a keynote at the April 2005 GeorgiaTech/LaiserinLetter Conference on BIM, I proposed that

Building information modeling is a process of representation, which creates and maintains multidimensional, data-rich views throughout a project lifecycle to support communication (sharing data); collaboration (acting on shared data); simulation (using data for prediction); and optimization (using feedback to improve design, documentation and delivery).

This definition makes no reference to parametric objects, database technology, or indeed to any software at all. It doesn't even require computers. In my seminars and other writings, I emphasize the view that

BIM is a business process, not a software program. Successful AEC/O businesses already practice BIM as a process. Everything an AEC/O firm does is geared to its existing (BIM) process. Therefore, automating and externalizing that process via software will change everything.

I use AEC/O here to include the role of owner/operators who — along with designers and constructors — have recently begun to focus on these issues because newly available process-automation tools enable everyone to step outside of their existing process environment and see it as they never have before.

If BIM is a process and software can automate portions of that process, then the first question to ask is not "Which BIM model-authoring tool should we buy?" Instead, the question should be "What aspects of our existing processes do we wish to improve?"Some potential areas for improvement are:

  • 1. Accuracy. Complete, correct communication between AEC/O project participants; for example, owner requirements to designer (program/brief), designer feedback to owner (visualization/simulation), design intent to construction documents (CDs), and CDs to constructors/bidders
  • 2. Consistency. Uniformity within a representation; for example, within a set of drawings or specs
  • 3. Integration. Linkage between related representations; for example, between drawings and specs or between models and sequencing/schedules
  • 4. Coordination. Interference checking among disciplines; for example, between building and site or between structural and mechanical/electrical/plumbing (MEP)
  • 5. Synchronization. Achieving comparable levels of detail/resolution over time; for example, drawings/specs versus cost

The Right Tool for the Job

CAD vendors promote their model-authoring tools to architects and engineers as BIM, when the reality is that most such tools are being used to generate more consistent sets of drawings. These model-authoring tools include Vectorworks Architect from Nemetschek North America; ArchiCAD from Graphisoft; Revit Architecture, Structure, and MEP from Autodesk; Bentley Architecture, Structural, Building Electrical, and Building Mechanical from Bentley Systems; and Digital Project from Gehry Technologies (figure 1).

Figure 1. Tools such as Gehry Technologies' Digital Project help architects and engineers better (left) analyze and (right) visualize their building designs before construction starts. (Copyrighted images courtesy of Swire Properties)
Figure 1. Tools such as Gehry Technologies' Digital Project help architects and engineers better (left) analyze and (right) visualize their building designs before construction starts. (Copyrighted images courtesy of Swire Properties)

Using modeling tools to improve consistency is an example of the initial smallness of BIM to which I referred above. Early adopters want modeling tools to mimic both the output and input of paper drawings and 2D CAD. (The Virtual Trace feature of ArchiCAD 11 is one of the best-executed examples of this technique.) The history of technology diffusion shows this phase is a necessity, like the horseless carriage.

Some drawing/model-consistency tools include visualization capabilities to improve the accuracy of design feedback. Vendors rely on differing strategies for achieving accuracy through other kinds of simulation and analysis. Some link to third-party tools, primarily through application programming interfaces (APIs) and other program-specific pairings. Others rely on open standards, such as Industry Foundation Classes (IFC), for interoperability with multiple software partners. The point is that accuracy in, say, building-energy–performance simulation comes not from Digital Project or Vectorworks Architect, but from Green Building Studio's gbXML, IES's Virtual Environment, or Square One Research's Ecotect. Accuracy in owner requirements and code compliance comes not from Revit or ArchiCAD, but from Solibri Model Checker, Trelligence Affinity, or from CodeBook International.

Similarly, although model-authoring tools provide core geometric and data representations of buildings, the integration of designs with specifications comes from companies such as Architectural Data Systems and e-Specs. BIM-ready models of real-world building products come via FormFonts, Tectonic Partners, and CADalytic Media's SpecifiCAD.

Model-authoring vendors such as Autodesk, Bentley, and Gehry Technologies offer platform products that allow for coordination across architectural, structural, and MEP trades by keeping the respective discipline models in the same software family. Other vendors rely on an interoperability strategy for coordination.

Builders' Information Modeling

An illustration of growing diversity in BIM automation is the split between designers and constructors. Architects and engineers are somewhat concerned with coordination, but constructors rank constructability and schedule simulation among their primary areas of interest in BIM process improvement. Many BIM-automation projects rely on Jetstream from Navisworks for trade coordination across multiple models. Autodesk recently acquired Navisworks, so the industry is waiting for other independent players to emerge (perhaps Solibri or Enterprixe).

Schedule simulation (the integration of 3D geometry plus time, sometimes called 4D CAD) is another BIM automation tool of more interest to builders than designers. Common Point Project4D was an early leader in this technology, followed more recently by Vico Software Constructor, Innovaya Simulation, and a Primavera Systems plug-in for Gehry's Digital Project. As Autodesk digests its Navisworks acquisition, I expect that Revit will sprout new 4D capabilities as well.

Integration of estimating and procurement with models/drawings also is critical to contractors. Automation tools for these functions include Beck Technology's DProfiler with RSMeans, Innovaya Visual Estimating linked with Sage Timberline Estimating, Vico Software Estimator and 5D Presenter (figure 2), and 1st Pricing's eponymous product.

Figure 2. Vico Software Constructor, Estimator, and 5D Presenter exemplify builder-focused tools for BIM automation. Here, earned values are plotted against time and a visualization of the building under construction. (Image courtesy of Q&D Construction and Swinerton Builders)
Figure 2. Vico Software Constructor, Estimator, and 5D Presenter exemplify builder-focused tools for BIM automation. Here, earned values are plotted against time and a visualization of the building under construction. (Image courtesy of Q&D Construction and Swinerton Builders)

The Ownership Society

Even paper-based representations of drawings, specs, and schedules can attain accuracy, consistency, integration, and coordination, but that result only occurs at the end of the construction phase after all the addenda, requests for information (RFIs), value engineering, allowances, alternates, substitutions, change orders, sketches, contingencies, as-builts, and (too often) litigation have been completed. Building owners would like to achieve these results by reliably predicting them in advance. In that regard, I see the endgame of BIM automation as what the folks at Stanford University's Center for Integrated Facility Engineering (CIFE) call virtual design and construction (VDC).

If — and when — full VDC is achieved, building owners and operators will derive the lion's share of benefit. Much of that will come through the synchronization of data and design representations. However, synchronization is as much a function of process change, such as design-build and building commissioning, as it is a function of software. Nevertheless, owner-oriented BIM automation tools are emerging, such as Solibri's Model Checker (figure 3), which already is in use at the world's largest owner/operator of buildings, the U.S. General Services Administration.

Figure 3. Project owners' concern for program requirements and regulatory compliance is served by tools such as Solibri Model Checker. Analyses of (top) wheelchair accessibility and (bottom) path of egress illustrate this process. (Images courtesy of Statsbygg, Norway, and the city of Helsinki, Finland)
Figure 3. Project owners' concern for program requirements and regulatory compliance is served by tools such as Solibri Model Checker. Analyses of (top) wheelchair accessibility and (bottom) path of egress illustrate this process. (Images courtesy of Statsbygg, Norway, and the city of Helsinki, Finland)

What's In It for You?

Faced with these divergent views and proliferating tools, readers may well ask, "Is BIM just the buzzword du jour? Even if BIM is for real, is it worth the trouble? What's in it for me? When is the big payoff from BIM going to happen?" The short answers are:

  • 1. Although software vendors have reduced BIM to overhyped marketing jargon, the underlying process transformation of AEC/O is for real, and it will have lasting consequences.
  • 2. Keeping pace with and adapting to those consequences will incur costs — in organizational change as well as money — but rather than avoid those costs as nothing but trouble, AEC/O businesses should view this transformation as a smart way to stay out of trouble.
  • 3. Each category of AEC/O player will experience different benefits, but maximizing the what's-in-it-for-me factor will depend on a clear understanding of what's in it for everyone else.
  • 4. The long cycle of process change now labeled BIM has reached an inflection point: Instead of large investments (of time and dollars) for seemingly small returns, the industry is about to cross into a zone of increasing returns, where each incremental investment will yield ever-larger payoffs.

Acknowledgment

I'd like to thank the Construction Project Controls news-letter and the Ph.D. program in the College of Architecture at Georgia Institute of Technology, where my current definition of BIM was first published.

Industry analyst and consultant Jerry Laiserin helps AEC/O businesses — and the technology providers who serve them — build smarter through the integration of technology strategy and business process. E-mail him at jerry@laiserin.com.


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