Architecture, Engineering, Construction and Building Information Modeling

Originally published in Award Magazine

Ever-savvier clients demand better-performing buildings. Interest in green technology continues to rise. Are you having trouble keeping up?

Coordination (or lack thereof) within your own firm or with other disciplines working on a project may be to blame.

Consider: communications inside your firm and with other companies involved in a project usually happen via email, telephone, fax and other methods that don’t work efficiently with siloed applications for architecture, engineering and other disciplines that march a construction project from conception to completion.

People in the industry recognize the problem, as do the software companies who serve them. That’s why a growing number of building professionals are pinning their hopes on an industry-specific Wikinomics-like trend – building information modeling, or BIM.

Software maker Autodesk Inc. offers this definition: “Building Information Modeling is the creation and use of coordinated, consistent, computable information about a building project in design that yields reliable digital representations of the building— representations used for design decision-making, production of high-quality construction documents, performance predictions, cost-estimating and construction planning, and, eventually, for managing and operating the facility.”

BIM is a departure from a CAD-centered world. With CAD, architects, engineers and others create (and recreate) reams of drawings. In BIM, drawings come from the model, which becomes the main focus for all members on a design/build team.

BIM boosters tout various benefits, particularly an enhanced ability to fix errors in design – which is always cheaper than fixing them in the field – resulting in fewer design errors, lower overall costs and better-quality buildings.

BIM works best when team members work from systems that both share data and, by extension, promote more efficient collaboration both within each discipline and the team as a whole.

“In the past, the structural engineer had to model the building in structural analysis packages,” said Bob Heyman, President of Vancouver-based building design solution consultants Summit Technologies Ltd. “The mechanical engineer had to model the building in one or more design packages.”

“Now with (Autodesk) Revit, they model it once, output to other products to do analysis, – code-checking, energy analysis and so forth. They can sink any necessary changes back into Revit.”

The methodology may sound new-fangled, but Heyman insists it isn’t difficult to learn. While he admits that it takes time to build a model, starting BIM is simple. “You’re not looking for complex drawings in the design stage,” he said.

The payoff comes later. ” If you structure the model properly, as you move through iterative design stages, you add required complexity, and you don’t have to do anything other than redefine the objects that were put into the original models,” Heyman said. “First you add details, like the types of walls you need. Later, you don’t have to redraw the walls. All you do is redefine the construction.”

Mike Thornber, President of Ottawa-based construction specification software maker Innovative Technology Inc., noted people don’t always work properly with specs. “In the past, specs were just printed out and stuck in paper binders on somebody’s shelf,” Thornber said. “Now they’re electronic and can be taken on the job site and used as a resource tool along with the drawings.”

BIM also saves time when producing multiple iterations of the same drawing. “In BIM, once you have a model, it doesn’t take a week per drawing,” Heyman said. “You produce drawings from the model.”

While interest in LEED is increasing, Allan Partridge, who is LEED-accredited, cites certification costs as among the biggest barriers to LEED. The partner with Edmonton-based HIP Architects tells his clients to put their money in better control systems, improved lighting, the vapour barrier – the types of improvements that LEED calls for – rather than certification. “Don’t go for LEED, go for a better building,” he said.

Partridge seeks more real-time reporting than LEED currently emphasizes, so developers can analyse buildings at early stages. “BIM can do this,” he said. “HIP has already extracted empirical information from the BIM to determine the recycled content, land fill diversion, and other LEED measures.”

Dave Stevens, AC Sales Manager for Autodesk Canada, said software such as Autodesk’s Revit eases the burden of LEED tracking in several ways, from reducing the inefficiency resulting from uncoordinated documents to keeping track of different design scenarios and preparing LEED submissions.

“We are building into our templates a baseline set of information,” Partridge said, “like volumetrics, daylight and volumes of demolition going to landfill.”

Success with BIM methodology is easier to ensure if all parties involved work from the same model. Solutions are emerging from individual software firms, but full interoperability between all software platforms and applications used in the architecture/engineering/construction (AEC) community has yet to be achieved.

Global standards-setting organization The International Alliance for Interoperability (IAI) has brought together numerous parties who want to create a single BIM. To that end, the IAI is defining, promoting and publishing specifications for Industry Foundation Classes (IFC). Once done, IFCs will become the BIM and support AEC project information sharing during a project, across disciplines and technical applications.

Why would the IAI make this effort? Consider the cost of the current widespread lack of interoperability. In a 2004 paper, The National Institute of Standards and Technology estimated: “The cost of inadequate interoperability in the U.S. capital facilities industry to be $15.8 billion per year.”

Partridge understands these findings. “I hand something over to a contractor and he redraws it,” Partridge said. “An engineer hands steel drawings to a steel fabricator, who redraws them.”

BIM would seem a natural evolution. Since green building and building performance are increasingly linked, the results of the 2006 Autodesk Green Index, which provides a measure of the adoption of sustainable design techniques by architects, supports this prediction. Fueled by client demand and rising fuel costs, architects intend to increase use of design software for purposes ranging from predicting and evaluating solar heating and lighting to specifying material quantities and schedules to minimize waste during the construction process.

Yet BIM has yet to be universally adopted. Resistance to mindset shifts may be partly to blame. “There is a greater cost in personal buy-in than monetary buy-in,” said Partridge. “This is a major shift from geometric representation to thinking about buildings from a parametric representational viewpoint.”

How will the industry overcome this resistance? “First, senior members of firms must emotionally buy in,” said Partridge. “But for BIM to truly work, all parties have to buy in, and not only inside an organization. You have to get the engineers and the contractors and downstream, fabricators have to get involved as well.”

BIM philosophy means more than linking each discipline via one model. Innovative Technology, for instance, links the specifications section of NMS-Edit to building materials standards supplier using hotlinks. Autodesk and others build similar external links into their products.

Better linkages between disciplines, a new way of thinking about design, ever more to learn – these conditions might overwhelm those who BIM is meant to benefit. “Don’t listen to the urban legends,” Partridge insisted. “Talk to the early BIM adopters. We found it was cost neutral in deployment.”

“Many people thing that BIM is just CAD on steroids. It is not. It is a paradigm shift in the way we not only will design our buildings but also how we will communicate them to our clients and other stakeholders. BIM will allow us to explore ways to improve procurement and performance.”

“It’s going to be a rocky road for a while,” said Thornber, “but it will be an exciting new world when the whole design of a building is defined electronically. It opens up the possibility of new tools that can take the data and model it and do different analyses on it, improve the quality of both the design process and quality of buildings that result.”

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