The Enablers

How Project Information Management supports BIM projects

January 01, 2010 |

Building information modeling is a game-changing technology that saves time and money and reduces construction errors. But even with a 3D geometric BIM model in hand, Building Teams still need to deal with everyday forms, procedural documents, and contracts, and information about a specific building or an overall project still needs to be shared with virtually everyone on the job, whether or not they're using the BIM model.

Even in the case of relatively small projects, with vast numbers of participants (many of them working in various capacities for different companies), individual team members may not be paying sufficient attention to the downstream impact of their work product. Electronic information is created, revised, and re-created—over and over, ad nauseum—in a repetitive process that can actually diminish the integrity and value of the original work product by introducing opportunities for error.

Stepping into this breach are—cue the brass band!—several enterprising companies that have created software programs and enterprise solutions for project information management. Added to this is a new set of XML schemas devised to automate and streamline the sharing of project information.

AgcXML: Eight years in the making

AgcXML is a set of eXtensible Markup Language tags that enable contractors to share key construction data. XML is a system of data tags that allows software applications and information systems to intelligently recognize both the type of data in a specific field as well as its value—for example, to distinguish a telephone number from a zip code. Without XML tagging, computers would need complex algorithms to identify the type of data in a field, a cumbersome and wasteful task. AgcXML is a set of tags that allows construction, design, and real estate companies to exchange their documents simply and efficiently.

The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) led the effort to develop the first set of schemas for this transactional information. AGC contracted with the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) to develop the schemas, known collectively as agcXML, in an industrywide consensus process under the auspices of the buildingSMART alliance. The first set of agcXML tags came out in early 2008 and comprises tags for owner/constructor agreements, schedules of values, requests for information, requests for pricing/proposals, supplemental instructions, construction change directives, submittals, change orders, applications for payment, and bonds.

A key aspect of agcXML is that it is freely licensed in perpetuity to any software developer that promises to support it in its products. Conceptually, any data entered into any software application that supports agcXML could be exported to any other software application that also supports it.

“When we started the project, the thought was that standard contract forms or documents served as a good proxy for the underlying business processes,” said Michael Tardif, director of integrated project delivery systems at Grunley Construction, Rockville, Md., and manager of the agcXML project. “As we did the research we discovered there were a lot of gaps in those forms and systems. In spite of that, I think we've captured a good deal of the data that might be created during the business process of design and construction.”

Tardif managed a technical team of three software experts and three advisors who developed the schemas for the project. The AGC also empanelled a volunteer review and validation committee of 15 professionals to ensure the deliverables met real-world requirements.

One problem the development team faced was the need to define business processes that were done differently on nearly every project. “Looking back, we should have had a research phase to define the scope, because we really ended up doing that anyway,” Tardif says.

Take the example of a project's schedule of values. According to Tardif, there is no standard document for the schedule of values. “It has to be completed before work can begin on a project, yet still the only form that exists for a schedule of values is an appendix to the application for payment form,” says Tardif. “That was astounding to me, because contractors are obligated to complete it before starting work, but the only form documenting it is an appendix that reports money already spent, according to the schedule of values you were supposed to have already created.”

Tardif says the review and validation committee would hear from the technical team that there was no existing form to serve as a proxy for the business process. The tech team would then write the use case for the business process and the review committee would rule on its validity. Once the use case was established, the technical team would begin work on the data set and submit that to the evaluation task force.

Tardif says even among the members of the evaluation task force, it was sometimes difficult to achieve consensus. “Everybody (on a Building Team) thinks our processes are standardized and documented, and they're not,” he says. “People do things very, very differently from company to company and from job to job.”

Since the first agcXML schemas were released in 2008, four companies have announced support for it: Penta Technologies, e-Builder, VICO Software, and Newforma. VICO and Newforma have made agcXML their platform of choice for information exchange and have formed a partnership for future software releases.

Tardif says the vendors will benefit from the evaluation team's efforts to document the technical work that still needs to be accomplished. “Whoever takes over next has a roadmap of what the next step is,” he says.

Newforma and VICO: Dissimilar tasks, similar information

AgcXML was designed for the reliable exchange of business information between disparate design and construction software tools. Newforma Project Center is a project information management (PIM) solution that catalogs project files, images, and e-mail messages, while VICO virtual construction suite is a BIM for construction application that offers tools for coordination, quantity takeoff, cost estimating, project scheduling, and production control. While their applications are are used for different purposes, both create and store similar data sets of information.

“Project information management is nothing if it's not at the center of all those sources of information,” says Bob Batcheler, vice president of Newforma. “You can't look at the world through the lens of any one product in our industry. You have to be able to integrate it from wherever it comes from because our users, quite frankly, don't have that control themselves.”

Newforma CEO Ian Howell says the agcXML protocol makes sense for Newforma for the RFI processes it uses in its flagship Project Center product. Connecting that RFI to change orders being made in VICO was one performance efficiency Batcheler and Howell mentioned could come from the partnership with VICO.

Tardif says the construction company he works for, Grunley, is currently in the process of deploying Newforma as a key piece of its BIM strategy. In past years, Grunley had people in the field with several different types of connections, including POP servers. Tardif and his team invested $150,000 to rebuild their IT infrastructure, including deploying a wide area network (WAN). Grunley's job sites now all have at least a T1 line. Tardif said one of the reasons for the upgrade was requests from project managers who had used PIM tools on previous projects as a party to the contract, to use them internally on all projects.

Without PIM tools, Building Teams are in jeopardy of losing a lot of project data and other key information. One firm that is overcoming this problem is Array Healthcare Facilities Solutions, a planning, architecture, and interior design firm, that has been using Newforma Project Center for three years. President Carl Davis said that beyond using it to share information and collaborate with the entire Building Team, the firm has been using Newforma to gather and disseminate information for marketing, human resources, expertise groups, and other aspects of their business.

Last year, Array held a two-day symposium where they pre-qualified area construction managers and subcontractors to find the firms most likely to make the shift to IPD. After narrowing the group down, the firm conducted a seminar that went through work mapping on a simulated project. Shortly after, Array and its partners won their first IPD project, a $20 million hospital tower renovation in Cleveland. Davis said the firm is currently presenting for two more IPD healthcare projects.

“Our subcontractors will have access to Revit models they can download at any point, 24/7,” he said. “You need a BIM execution plan for sharing that information. ”

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