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The Merry Road to BIM

Giants 300 firms are tackling the transition to building information modeling, even as the prospect of a national BIM standard looms on the horizon.

August 11, 2006 |

A sea change is gripping the U.S. building industry. Three-dimensional building information modeling is enabling Building Teams to shrink design and construction times and build more complicated structures with less time spent in planning meetings.

According to a survey by the joint BIM committee of the American Institute of Architects and Associated General Contractors of America, 74% of the 1,266 respondents said they're using 3-D digital modeling at some level.

That transformation is causing anxiety among many of Building Design & Construction's Giants 300, who are rushing to shift their core business from existing delivery systems to BIM. Over-modeling and institutional pushback are some of the hurdles for a firm that wants to start using BIM, but the biggest challenge may be to convince Building Team members to part with the traditional design-bid-build system and the construction documents it produces. Looming over this scene is the establishment of a BIM standard by the National Institute of Building Sciences before the end of the year.

"The difficulty is the transition from the historical deliverable construction documents to a BIM model, which is, essentially, a virtual building," said Henry Tyler, CIO of Fairfax, Va.-based Dewberry, ranked ninth among E/A firms in BD&C's 2006 Giants 300 rankings. "The team makeup in the early design stages has to be different. These people have to understand and have experience in all aspects of the project and not just early design components. They have to design and develop something that can actually be built."

BIM is powerful because its 3-D design capabilities allow almost every decision about a building's construction to be made in the design phase of the project. "Everything gets mashed to the front end," Tyler said. "From a transitional perspective, that's hard to grasp for anyone that's worked in this system with a very different deliverable. How do you sell this deliverable to the client? It takes a significantly upgraded effort to get the client to understand the benefits of this new deliverable."

That change has also fueled wariness in the design community over who owns the final BIM model. If architects are not entrenched in the whole building process, they fear their vision for a project can be compromised.

Who will own the model?

The great fear on the part of architects is that general contractors will take "a huge part" of the industry by "owning the model," according to Scott MacKenzie, the Atlanta-based CAD manager for CUH2A, Princeton, N.J., ranked 13th among A/E firms. "Our biggest fear right now is the contractor selling the model to the client and just hiring the architect as a consultant that puts the design down," said MacKenzie, who is in charge of his firm's shift to BIM. "As for whether that can happen, it's hard to say right now because everything is in such a state of flux with BIM."

"The Renaissance Hotel by Marriott, Boston. Design Architect: The Stubbins Associates, Cambridge, Mass. BIM Integrator: GHAFARI Associates, Dearborn, Mich."

All Giants firms that Building Design & Construction talked to stressed that multidisciplinary coordination of projects should be taught simultaneously with BIM software training, rather than simply teaching how to design in a 3-D environment.

"There's a lot of value in multidiscipline coordination," said James Jacobi, CIO of Walter P Moore (14th among engineering firms), which currently has 31 BIM projects in the works. "How to use layers (in some programs) to embed information into sections of the model, for example, and how to find interferences, these are things people need to know to get the most out of BIM."

For many Giants firms the way to address the BIM transition is using the firm's best and brightest to champion the shift. Firms like HDR (third among A/E firms) and Dewberry both used internal marketing and identified stars within the company to sell the shift to other employees.

"We wanted to make sure we marketed the effort internally as a positive transition," Tyler said. "We had our best and brightest people assigned to the project team and we published the phases of the transition and the success stories internally. It wasn't just for marketing, but to get people not on the team to ask to be on it. The enthusiasm needed to be there."

HDR has internally marketed their shift to BIM, using "BIM evangelists," such as firm president Merle S. Bachman.

"The way we look at it is a person really needs to hear it seven times before it sinks in," said Brandt Karstens, VP/director of systems for HDR.

All firms interviewed agreed that the initiative has to be driven by the discipline itself. Architects, engineers, and any design professionals within a firm need to be the transition team's champions. "It can't be an initiative that's driven by IT," Tyler said.

CUH2A's MacKenzie also oversaw the BIM transition at HOK, the top Giant among A/E firms. He said the quickening pace of BIM adoption is affecting the way firms plan their BIM transition programs.

"When we just started on [Autodesk] Revit at HOK four-and-a-half years ago, the approach was one project in each office," he said. At CUH2A, he said, "We've taken a much more aggressive approach; every new project is going to start in BIM. I appreciate the enthusiasm, but it's really pushed us IT folks to get more involved. The bottom line is it's going to take a lot longer than you think."

How much detail is too much?

Another hurdle that every BIM manager reported was training designers to use 3-D modeling without taking the software's capability for detail too far.

"Modeling everything down to the last detail is the first hurdle," MacKenzie said. "Except in very narrow circumstances you're not trying to make an exact copy of the building in the software."

The value of detail, of course, changes between disciplines within the building team. Detail that many architecture firms consider unnecessary may be considered essential by structural engineers and contractors. All agreed that the key to unlocking the power of BIM is to get the entire Building Team on the same page in the early design modeling stage.

The issue of how much detail is appropriate needs to be addressed at the outset of a project, said Walter P Moore's Jacobi. "You need to come to grips with the level of detail required and how the model will be used downstream," he said. "If the primary purpose of the model is to assist in detection of interferences between multiple disciplines, then you will need sufficient detail in those areas. In other situations, it would be overkill and you'd be spending a lot of time and money on modeling activity that will later be of little value."

While awareness of BIM has skyrocketed in recent years, many BIM managers say their clients still are not aware of what a BIM model is. Most say client education is still as important as teaching designers how to use the software.

"We've embraced the technology to give those clients an edge," said Bob Mauck, VP of advanced technologies at Ghafari Associates, Dearborn, Mich. (ranked 23rd among E/A firms). "You're using this technology to build faster, better, and at a lower cost. That's the metric and that's what we're looking for in the supply chain, to bring facilities up in that system." He noted that the U.S. General Services Administration now requires a 3-D model for its projects.

First standard coming soon

The National BIM Standard project committee of the National Institute of Building Sciences began work on its first BIM standard last August. The first version should be published by NIBS at the end of the year.

A basic premise of BIM, according to NIBS, is collaboration by different stakeholders at different phases of the life cycle of a facility. The model is a "shared digital representation founded on open standards for interoperability," according to NIBS.

BIM managers among the Giants firms agreed that a national standard is a necessary step for the maturation of BIM, most remained skeptical of true interoperability due to the many different software companies already providing BIM products to the industry.

"Interoperability between multiple technology platforms is still an issue," said Jacobi. His firm, Walter P Moore, beta-tested Revit Structure and now uses it as its primary BIM platform, along with AutoCAD and Architectural Desktop. "There are a lot of people chasing the problem but I think there will always be some tension among the software providers to opening these programs up to true interoperability, for obvious reasons."

For more on the National BIM Standard, visit:

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