Has BIM Simply Come to Mean '3D CAD'?

4 Oct, 2006 By: Michael Dakan

Also, tradition stymies electronic distribution of construction drawings

I've read several articles lately about how architectural firms are flocking to BIM (building information modeling) work methods. I'm always interested in reading about who's doing what with BIM software, but I've been disappointed when I read further and do a little research, only to discover that all they're really doing is creating 3D CAD models.

That's certainly worthwhile, and it's a good start, but I've always felt that the real advantage of a complete building information model -- and its long-term value -- lies in its nongraphics information. Some of us have been constructing 3D building models for more than 20 years, using various software packages that operate inside of and extend standard 2D CAD programs. We've long dreamed about a model that includes, or links to, external databases of all the nongraphics data for a proposed building: specifications, cost information, energy use information, structural engineering components, equipment information and so forth.

I've often scoffed at CAD developers who claim that they create a "complete building information model" even though their software doesn't handle the engineering aspects of a BIM -- the structural, plumbing, HVAC and fire protection aspects of a building. These components are at least as important as the architectural design of a building, and in terms of complete lifecycle facility management and maintenance, often more important.

All this information will be extremely valuable over the lifecycle of a building, including facility management, maintenance, and future changes and remodeling, in addition to initial design and construction activities. Of course, all the software needed to input and maintain this information in a single model is not yet available, but we keep hearing about developers and groups working on various pieces of the puzzle, and some of the pieces are supposedly in place. We have read about various demonstration and pilot projects dealing with cost estimating, energy use calculation and optimization, code compliance and so forth, but I haven't yet heard of any architectural firms using a BIM in regular daily practice for accomplishing these things on real projects.

Are you using BIM for projects beyond creating 3D models and generating 2D views of them? If so, please e-mail me with details about your real-world BIM project.  

Electronic Distribution of Construction Drawings

Many AEC firms are making productive and profitable use of the distribution of drawings and other documents in electronic formats, using computers, e-mail and the Internet to save time and money as they improve daily workflow and collaboration with other team members. Some offices are even getting close to achieving a true paperless workflow.

The one segment of the design and construction industry that continues to lag behind, as I have often predicted it would, are the building permit officials and plan checkers. Building officials who are charged with issuing building permits and enforcing building code provisions are typically pretty conservative, and not quick to go along with new ideas and methods. This is perfectly understandable for a group of people whose primary responsibilities involve the safety of building inhabitants, including fire prevention, ensuring structural integrity and the like.

As a result, however, those officials tend to rely on traditional, comfortable and proven practices. They are used to seeing building plans on paper, drawn to a familiar scale, so they can intuitively and instantly judge the approximate real-world size of spaces and areas in buildings, and therefore quickly assess which areas are of greatest initial concern for issues such as emergency exiting requirements, fire walls and area separations, and so forth.

As much as I truly believe that building officials and plan checkers could greatly benefit from receiving documents in electronic format and doing their work on a computer screen, I also fully understand the resistance to the major change in work style that is required to look at drawings on a computer monitor. To understand at a glance the scale and scope of a building, despite the confusion sometimes caused by panning and zooming around drawings, can be a problem for anyone who is accustomed to working with to-scale paper drawings. It might not take long to get used to it, or to come to prefer the advantages offered by computerized drawings, but the initial change in working style and thinking can feel radical and disorienting.

Whenever I write about drawings in electronic format and the proven advantages of electronic workflow, I inevitably get some questions along the lines of, "What about building officials; how can you get them to accept drawings in electronic format?" All I have for an answer is that it will take some time. All you can do is show them the advantages and ease of working with electronic drawings whenever you have the opportunity, and slowly convince them to experiment with the technology and gradually become more comfortable with it.

How about your experiences with building officials and electronic drawings? Have you worked in a jurisdiction that accepts drawings in electronic format? If so, I would love to hear from you.

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