BUILDING INFORMATION MODELING (BIM) SOFTWARE BRIDGES COMMUNICATION GAPS BETWEEN ARCHITECTS, ENGINEERS, designers, construction professionals, and owners in the design of building applications. The largely PC-based software allows involved parties to work within a shared virtual model of a building in which all the information is stored and assists in design decision-making, cost estimating, performance prediction, construction planning and document production, and facility managing and operation. Within the BIM model, each element of a project -- such as the walls, ceiling, floor, HVAC equipment, electrical panels, windows, and light fixtures -- has valuable associated data, which can be shared among the design and construction disciplines along with how the element is to act within the space. This is particularly helpful in calling attention to potential spatial conflicts, which can be checked at all stages of the building process, resulting in better coordination and fewer errors. When a change is made using BIM, it needs to be made only once as the software automatically adjusts to acknowledge the change throughout the affected areas and simultaneously alerts the project team members working on those newly conflicting parts of the building.
But while the use of BIM, which has been around for approximately 10 years, continues to grow, not all architects, engineers, manufacturers, or construction professionals are eager to jump on board. Although BIM software platforms, such as Autodesk's Revit Architecture and Graphisoft's ArchiCAD, are gaining popularity in the industry, computer-aided design (CAD) tools primarily have been used to create electronic drawings of buildings using abstract graphical representations. While those 2-D representations mean something when read by humans, the same is not true when it comes to computers. With CAD, each drawing is created separately. For example, a 50-story building would have individual CAD files for each plan, section, elevation, and associated details. BIM creates a 3-D model from which a member of the design team can extract specific parts. If a certain tracklight fixture was specified on each floor of that 50-story building, BIM would make that change for each floor and automatically adjust everything else on the project to accommodate that modification. A change or update using conventional CAD support could be overlooked because of the different documents required for cross-referencing.
Because BIM seemingly irons out kinks in the building design process, firms and companies in the industry are getting their feet wet now in regard to the software, while others hesitate to make the switch until more of their questions (regarding the future of BIM and the interoperability of software packages currently on the market) are answered. Another deciding factor is cost. BIM software usually is sold per license, commonly referred to as "seats." The cost of BIM platforms varies because firms tend to buy seats in a package deal, and the number of seats purchased depends on the size of the company or firm. "For us, it was a question of did we want to wait and come to (BIM) late or come to it and understand it early," explains Stephen Wright, principal at Norfolk, Virginia-based architectural firm Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas and Co. (HEWV), where he has helped lead the firm's BIM efforts for approximately the past two and a half years. "We wanted to jump in early because we saw the benefits to it, being able to virtually model a building and its components prior to construction rather than wait and see things not working."
IMPLEMENTING BIM Wright says with BIM comes a complete mind-set change in how to put together drawings and while those accustomed to CAD might seem hesitant about BIM at first, he thinks overall it is a change for the better. At HEWV, employees who are used to CAD are having the biggest problem switching to BIM, but others are picking it up quickly. BIM "lets you be an architect again, lets you think and draw as if you were doing it by hand," Wright notes. HEWV introduced BIM on a project-by-project basis, so existing projects were finished using the software they were started on. The company spent a lot of time and money on training, which is essential, Wright says. While the first project using BIM was tough, the process has improved. "We're seeing good results both in our coordination of documents and in the time to produce documents," Wright explains. While there were enormous training and infrastructure costs involved, Wright says they feel BIM has been more than worth the expense.
But BIM no longer exists just in the realm of architecture firms. In 1996, the engineering department at Milwaukee-based Visa Lighting converted its catalog from 2-D CAD to 3-D Solid Works, which provided 3-D content that could be used with BIM software. While switching to BIM is not a simple venture, Wayne Oldenburg, owner of Visa Lighting, strongly supported the use of the software and provided outside resources to create the files rather than using the company's existing engineering team, which Jimalee Dakin, vice president of sales and marketing, says would have slowed product development. When Visa decided to go ahead with the initiative it did not own or use any BIM software. Once the software was installed and the files converted, Visa then trained its staff members on the program.
While the 3-D modeling software has a lot going for it, Dakin says BIM currently has two cons. One is that the software industry providing BIM programs is fragmented, which means there is no file standard. There are a handful of companies that provide BIM software, but the files that work with one BIM program are not compatible with others. Consequently, it is important for firms and companies to invest time in selecting the software that works best for their needs. Wright says HEWV spent almost a year looking at various BIM platforms, hosting in-house presentations of software programs to get employee feedback and visiting firms that already were using the software to get a better idea of how it would work for HEWV.
The second drawback, according to Dakin, is that there are different levels of technological acuity across the design and construction industries. Some firms and companies will not invest in BIM until they are sure of a return of investment, while those using one software program might find that their next job requires proficiency in another software package. Dakin points out that when everyone is on the same software, things are great, but when that is not the case, there is a huge learning curve involved, along with upfront costs. "As with many competing industries, (BIM) software manufacturers would actually benefit from making their files easily shared," Dakin says. This is something CAD software has had to address making .dwg files readable across platforms.
BIM IN THE FUTURE With technological advances occurring as quickly as they do, it is likely that BIM eventually will replace CAD and become the norm for design-build applications. But for now, BIM is still considered slightly uncharted territory, with those currently investing in it taking a risk. Dakin says the early adapter to BIM struggles because of this and also because there is no clear content standard. "BIM is the direction of the industry, and integration of the software is either now or later," she explains. "Eventually, everyone will need to invest in the future of the industry. We have to accept that this is an effort that will require continuous improvement to ensure the best quality of information to BIM users." Several manufacturers have spoken to Visa about the process of switching to BIM, and Dakin says she thinks they soon enough will be following suit. A little more than a year into it, the BIM conversion has proved successful for Visa and has allowed the company to provide 3-D data to other programs as well, such as lighting design software AGi32 and Google SketchUp, software that can create, modify, and share 3-D models.
When exploring the switch from CAD to BIM-based software, it is important to be aware of all aspects involved including the time, cost, and manpower necessary to convert files to be BIM compatible. Dakin advises those interested in BIM to take a class to familiarize themselves with the software. Additionally, adjusting to a new way of thinking and approaching projects will be necessary, and proper program training will ensure that everyone is up to speed. Wright says the most important part of the process is to explain to the staff why BIM is being implemented, in addition to investing in training. "It may be a painful check to write, but it will pay dividends down the road," he explains. "Find champions for (BIM) in the office and allow them to mentor. And don't be surprised if they're not mentoring from the top down but from the bottom up. The opportunity for mentoring in all directions has been such a positive thing for our firm." The software packages available will continue to evolve and improve as more industry professionals explore the benefits of BIM, and those already implementing BIM platforms should do their part to aid other firms and companies interested in introducing BIM into their work environment.