December 15, 2005

Visionary property owners try some new tools

  • BIM and buildingSMART represent a paradigm shift, like textile machines were to hand knitters during the Industrial Revolution.
    General Services Administration


    Building Information Model (BIM) technology has become a hot topic in the design and construction industry. But property owners and asset managers need to understand what it means for them.

    Basically a BIM is a data repository for all information about a building. The process of creating the information so it can be seamlessly exchanged by those who need it throughout a facility's life-cycle, is called buildingSMART.

    These tools represent a fundamental paradigm shift, like the textile machines were to hand knitters during the Industrial Revolution. BIM and buildingSMART are changing the process of planning, developing, designing, constructing, fabricating, operating, repairing and disposing of capital assets.

    BIM vs. CADD

    In the 1980s, CADD technology automated the creation of architectural drawings, but little change was made in the way information was created, stored and ultimately communicated to others.

    BIM is a completely new system. Instead of using a geometric shape (like a rectangle to symbolize a door), BIM uses a parametric relational database which ties all information about the object together. Therefore, what is known about a door is not only its shape, but also its dimensions, fire rating, composition, frame, cost, color, hardware, etc.

    The information is stored as data instead of geometry, so it can be viewed in many different ways. A 3-D fly-through or a model rotation, as well as material quantities for cost estimating, parts lists, warranties and maintenance information — or any combination of the information stored in the model including the ability to print out standard 2-D plan sets — can be obtained by a database query specifying a particular "view."

    A change to a dataset in one view is changed for all associated views as well, which helps reduce mistakes and errors.

    Communication is enhanced with BIM because of its ability to extract robust 3-D images of the data that help everyone, including the AEC team, buyers, financiers and renters, understand what is intended. People respond better to images that mimic reality.

    This is especially important when the building's structure, mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems are in design. Threading ductwork, fire suppression, electrical and cable trays through spaces that looked sufficient in 2-D are often found to be inadequate during construction. A BIM reduces this risk by allowing interferences to be visually obvious in 3-D. Even better, clash detection software is now available to pinpoint problems automatically.

    Since BIM is a virtual representation of the real world, it can simulate real world behavior before and after construction, such as predicting energy consumption to better manage long-term operating costs.

    Tracking owner targets as the project matures during design is also possible, such as monitoring optimal rentable square feet and usage types and LEED certification credits.

    Perhaps one of the more significant tracking capabilities relates to cost estimating. Costs can be associated with building elements; they can be tracked by parts or assembly, by core and shell, and by overall and individual tenant improvements. With better tracking ability, unhappy tenants and bid busts will be far less likely.


    The creation of a robust BIM is still problematic because of the difficulties of seamless data exchange.

    Last year, the National Institute of Standards and Technology concluded that at least $15.8 billion is wasted in the United States annually in the capital facilities industry due the lack of interoperability: the ability to effectively reuse information during the life-cycle of a facility.

    BuildingSMART is an effort to encourage a solution: the process of passing data seamlessly between the people who need it. Reusing rather than recreating the data improves efficiency, reduces errors and saves money.

    Sharing data between software applications is not yet an option with all architectural software vendors; Autodesk, Graphisoft, Bentley and Catia have different ways of creating and storing data that distinguish them from their competition. Software for cost estimating, facility management, lighting analysis, GIS data, etc., is also required. Some share data, and some don't.

    By using software that can import and export data through Industry Foundation Classes (IFC), an international open data exchange model sponsored by the International Alliance for Interoperability, this problem will be solved. IFCs are like the alphabet and grammar: the letters and rules for usage can form words and sentences in any number of ways and are reconfigurable through time.

    The current state of fragmentation is due in part to the independent business processes used in the building industry. BIM tools have been initially adopted by architects, engineers and contractors individually to solve their specific business concerns. Often there is more than one place where information about the building exists. There may be an architectural BIM, but in many cases also a construction BIM of the same building.

    A significant part of a coherent solution will be the understanding by owners of the value of having access to accurate and complete building data throughout the facility life-cycle.

    Getting owners on board

    The ability to use the data as a strategic capital asset management tool requires owners to take control of the data.

    Using a BIM in this way means a departure from the design-bid-build sequence and separated execution methodology to a more collaborative environment such as design-build or a type of alliance between the A/E consultant and the contractor.

    It also means, at least at this point, having an enlightened and engaged owner to help work through legal and insurance issues. Owners must procure A/E and construction services by defining data requirements and expectations at the beginning of the project.

    By doing this, workflow efficiencies — reducing time to market — can be achieved. As evident in the automobile and the aerospace industries who have streamlined their production methods to drive manufacturing from design information, the supply chain becomes leaner, creates fewer errors, and therefore is less costly.

    In addition, the long-term advantage to an owner of having accurate information about the building is in facility management. Most of the life-cycle cost of a building comes not from design and construction but from operating the building over 20 to 50 years. Being able to reuse building information for facility management is an enormous cost-saving to an owner.

    The format of the data created by the design and construction process then becomes important. By specifying a specific software vendor, an owner is vulnerable over time to losing access to the information, as software evolves quickly and legacy information is often lost. For instance, CADD files created in the 1980s cannot be read directly by today's versions of the same software.

    However, by being software vendor neutral and requiring that data be conveyed to the owner in IFCs, the chances increase that the information will have as long and useful life as the facility itself.

    How fast BIM and buildingSMART are adopted to gain the efficiencies already accomplished in other industries will depend on informed owners who take control of their data.

    Singapore, Norway, Finland and other countries are ahead of the United States in making this change. An owner's challenge — and opportunity — will be to lead the way.

    Renee Tietjen, AIA, RLA, is with the Office of Applied Science in the U.S. General Services Administration.

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