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DCD Magazine

Building Information Modeling Takes Architectural Design to a New Dimension
By Lynn Murray

When computer-aided drafting (CAD) arrived on the scene in the 1960s and 1970s, it revolutionized the way engineers and architects work, first by allowing them to move their designs from the drafting board to the computer and interact with them graphically. Over the next 40 years, CAD moved into more sophisticated applications, allowing for two and later three-dimensional design, development and detailed engineering of everything from aircraft and automotive components and consumer products to residential and commercial construction. While it assumed many forms and variations, there was little doubt that an architect or engineer was using a CAD program for design. It was the industry standard. 

Today, CAD is the old guy on the block, the senior statesman with the wisdom of ages that is still revered and respected because it still can do the job. But there’s a newcomer capturing the attention of the design community – building information modeling (BIM) – and he’s doing today what only CAD can dream: modeling a new three-dimensional, interactive, smart architectural universe that transcends the life-cycle of a building.

What is BIM?
Building information modeling, as defined by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), is a model-based technology linked with a database of project information. BIM delivers 3D views of designs and incorporates critical real-world data that can improve the quality, accuracy and speed with which architectural ideas become reality. It replaces blueprints and other two-dimensional documents, with each element of the design holding information about its properties.

BIM isn’t brand new; early versions of software hit the market in the mid-1980s, but like much new technology, it has evolved cautiously and is just starting to command some real attention. According to a 2006 survey of AIA-member firms, 16 percent have BIM software and 64 percent are using BIM for billable work. Firms using BIM indicate that it is primarily being used for design development, schematic design and construction documentation phases. Not surprisingly, nearly half of larger firms with more than $5 million in annual gross billings had acquired BIM software and about one-third of firms with an international scope of practice also have made the purchase. 

What differentiates BIM from CAD is more than the impressive three-dimensional visualization. BIM can be used to demonstrate the entire building lifecycle, from conception, through design, engineering, construction, and facility operations and management. BIM models actual components of a building, showing them in relative scale and relationship to other components. 

A variety of BIM software
If there’s one thing that is consistent between architect’s offices, it’s inconsistency. An individual office may easily use several different applications, depending upon size of firm, age of staff, personal preferences and type of projects. BIM adds to the mix, with the major software players being Autodesk® Revit®, Graphisoft® ArchiCAD®, Bentley Architecture and VectorWorks® ARCHITECT. 

“The Revit platform for BIM allows users to redefine traditional design and building processes to save time, improve the quality and accuracy of work, and ultimately, deliver better-performing buildings,” said Rick Rendell, AIA, director of product marketing, Autodesk AEC solutions. “Revit helps users produce exceptionally high quality construction documents, coordinate designs between disciplines, and easily interface with other design applications – such as building performance analysis software – to increase the depth and value of BIM.”

One development that has made BIM increasingly attractive to architects is the availability of manufacturer-specific modeling components. 

James Jackson, president of BIMWorld, and partner Mike Collins are bringing real-world manufacturer’s product information and specifications to life by converting 2D CAD diagrams to parametric “3D graphic designs with data models wrapped around them.” For an upfront development fee and ongoing subscription, BIMWorld converts data for manufacturers and publishes the content on a website where architects and other design professionals may access it for no charge. The company is working with leading manufacturers including National Gypsum, Elgin-Butler Brick, Hunter Douglas and Sherwin-Williams. It also publishes the content for third-party vendors such as Google, which offers the information in conjunction with SketchUp 3D software tool in its 3D Warehouse. 

Content is designed to work with the leading BIM software applications in the marketplace, a strong advantage for the manufacturer. Architects who access the software through BIMWorld also have access to a dynamic international user community, where they can interface with peers about project challenges or pose questions directly to participating manufacturers. 

“We want to become the Library of Congress for the industry,” said Jackson. 

Indianapolis, Ind.-based Delta Faucet was among the first manufacturers to work with BIMWorld to create product models. “BIMWorld has allowed us as a manufacturer to provide our products in appropriate files to our customers, increasing our specifications,” said Missi Tate, channel marketing manager, Delta Faucet Co. Currently, 89 Delta products are available as BIM models, with more being added monthly. 

EFCO Corp., a custom commercial aluminum-window manufacturer headquartered in Monett, Mo., also saw the advantages of being an “early adopter” of BIM, contracting with BIMWorld in early 2006. 

“We wanted to be ahead of the curve and have a library of products available to architects,” said Dave Hewitt, director of marketing, EFCO. “With glass and glazing, sealing is critical. The modeling shows the complete integration of the wall system, insuring the correct placement of all materials by the general contractor and subcontractors.” 

“I’m excited about the promise and opportunity this allows,” added Hewitt, whose company had record sales in 2006 and is ahead of that pace this year. “BIM is getting even more buzz than green building.”

BIM Benefits
Early adopters of BIM have seen its promise: dramatic opportunities for visualizing structures, cutting waste and errors, identifying conflicts, shortening schedules and improving management of finished buildings. 

“Architects can visualize; we have a creative vision. BIM allows us to show the client what’s in our mind’s eye. It helps the client visualize, and it provides more accurate cost estimates. There’s less change orders because BIM product updates are always available online and can be integrated at any stage,” said Jeff Lewis, AIA, NCARB, president, LTC Associates Inc., Columbia, S.C. 

For example, Lewis was working on plans for a large Episcopal church and used BIM to help the building committee visualize the project. By doing so, it was determined that the existing design would be over budget, so modifications were made – using tilt-up panels – to keep it within budget. Internal modifications also were made at the request of the committee when members decided they didn’t like the original plan with exposed beams. BIM was so effective here that Lewis will use the software and manufacturer model components on an upcoming $7 million church project in Fayetteville, N.C. 

“For the architect, it saves time – and time is money,” adds Lewis, whose firm is using BIM on about 30 percent of projects and admits that it was a bit of a challenge to learn a new skill set. “I was trained on CAD. That’s what I know. Sometimes it’s difficult to see things in 3D.” 

BIM also reduces errors, which can account for 15 to 20 percent of the cost of a project, that result from design mistakes and conflicting systems. The BIM models can recognize the structural integrity of components such as staircases, which must land on a slab, or alert the architect to parts of the building where the sprinkler system overlaps with the mechanical ductwork. In the future, the software could be configured to cross-reference building compliance codes that would prevent architects from placing non-fire rated doors, glass, mechanical or electrical elements in fire-rated walls. Code and plan reviews could be integrated into the BIM module. 

“This is the way of the future. We need to embrace it as much as we can,” said Lewis.

And therein lies the biggest challenge. While adoption by architects and designers largely hinges on making the investment, both financially and learning the software, the biggest road block is the next step in the BIM life-cycle: contractors. 

“Contractors need to be able to use BIM on the job site to see what’s going on, check for updates. Larger contractors have embraced this, but there are still lots of builders out there who are not ready to give up their set of blueprints and spreadsheet,” said Lewis.

Other challenges include the capacity of computers to handle large designs, willingness of manufacturers to make product content available to end users through models, and the integration of BIM concepts into higher education degree programs. 

“This is the biggest change I’ve seen in architecture in about 40 years. My challenge is to determine what strategic advantage it has in the academic curriculum,” said Ken Lambla, AIA, dean of the College of Architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. 

“We are not developing BIM courses, but rather, teaching the underlying concepts of parametric method of design and how to integrate the various practice models,” “With BIM, it’s no longer the size of the firm but rather the quality of work that determines opportunities,” he added.

What will likely drive further adoption of BIM is demand from building owners, who are beginning to see the positive implications for facility management, systems integration and homeland security. Government and healthcare clients already are requesting or requiring BIM. The new modeling is particularly efficient for healthcare applications, as it shortens the design and construction schedule, eliminates change orders and allows hospital administrators to explore “what if” scenarios to consider workplace efficiency and the impact of design on patients and staff.

It’s not there yet, but BIM eventually will allow facility managers to track and monitor all components throughout the building and access specific data about each within seconds. That makes things as simple as receiving an alert there’s a light bulb out and not having to make a separate trip to identify it before it can be replaced. It helps handle complex situations, like at the Pentagon on 9/11, when both water systems and electrical systems needed to be first located and then disconnected. 

A fresh start
Experts would argue that one of the biggest problems with CAD is that it never had an industry design process standard and that an overarching system is needed to link various building systems together. BIM can offer the building industry a new opportunity to think about how it shares data – and works together. 

In May 2007, the first National Standard for Building Information Modeling (NBIMS), written by the National Institute of Building Sciences, was released for a two-month industry review and is currently undergoing revisions. The standard will create a human-readable document which outlines a standardized method for data to be formatted, allowing all the users of building information models to utilize the information easily, as well as other benefits. Part 2 of the standard, which will include items to be addressed using the NIBS process, is expected to be available by the end of 2007.

BIM demands a change in mindset, development of a new skill set and a commitment to work in an integrated fashion with segments of the building industry that are used to doing things their own way. But it also makes design dreams a reality long before the first nail is pounded. BIM is a strategic, dynamic system that saves time and money and helps design, build and maintain a better, smarter mousetrap.

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