At its core, BIM, or building information modeling, is exactly what its name implies: an information-rich digital model of a building. Try to pin down exactly what it does or how it works, however, and things quickly get a bit slippery. The more you learn, it seems, the more there is to learn.
This complexity lies at the heart of the industry’s hopes for BIM. “What makes BIM so promising is that it’s an open system,” said Scott Marble, director of Columbia’s Avery Digital Fabrication Lab, in his introduction to 100% BIM , a recent panel discussion at the Center for Architecture. If the transition to CAD several decades ago represented a fairly straightforward step forward, allowing architects to produce drawings they had previously created by hand on a computer, BIM holds out the possibility of dispensing with traditional design methods altogether. Part workflow process, part computer program, and part communications tool, it’s impossible at this stage to say exactly what it does or doesn’t do. But although different groups are currently using—even defining—it differently, there is widespread consensus that it will fundamentally alter the AEC industry.
The benefits of building information modeling—some currently being realized, others yet to be developed—are many and varied. It has given architects the freedom to introduce fluid lines and highly complex geometries into their work, resulting in blockbuster buildings such as the Guggenheim Bilbao. Less flashy but more profound, it is also changing the processes by which buildings are designed, constructed and used. By facilitating more and better communication between the various actors involved in a project, BIM can save time, reduce waste, trample communication barriers, and generate new synergies. It offers a wide range of applications for sustainable design, from energy modeling throughout the design process to optimization of building performance long after construction ends. And the list continues to grow.
Although some aspects of BIM seem positively futuristic—3D laser-scanning robots!— architecture lags behind other industries in implementing these kinds of technological and procedural changes. Managers in aerospace, automotive and computer firms have poured resources into improving technology, creating economies of scale and streamlining business practices for decades, while the highly fragmented buildings sector has resisted change. According to a 2000 Economist article frequently cited in industry literature, “inefficiencies, mistakes and delays account for $200 billion of the $650 billion spent on construction in America every year.” With BIM, the voices calling for improvement have finally found something to get behind.
At 100% BIM , Scott Marble identified Frank Gehry’s 1993 Barcelona Fish as the point at which it became clear that technological advances and shifting relationships between various groups would bring major change to the buildings industry. However, it wasn’t until the turn of the century that BIM really started to gain ground. The first reasonably advanced off-the-shelf architectural modeling software was introduced at the end of the ’90s, and buzz about BIM has been steadily increasing ever since. Clients such as the General Services Administration and Crate & Barrel invested heavily in it early in the decade, and in 2005 the AIA launched its annual award series for the best BIM projects. AEC IT giant Autodesk reports that sales of its leading BIM software, Revit, tripled between 2005 and 2008.
BIM is still far from the industry standard, but there is a widespread feeling that now is the time to get on board. “You put five architects in a room and I guarantee within thirty minutes someone will mention Revit or NavisWorks,” says Jason Dougherty, Director of BIM Implementation at Microsol Resources, which provides IT training and support to architects and engineers. Dougherty has seen exponential growth in interest in BIM in the last few years. “Two years ago I gave a seminar at Autodesk University. I had about 200 plus people sign up. When I started the discussion I did a survey of the room. I asked how many people are using it—probably less than half the room raised their hand. Then I asked how many people have it on the server but aren’t using it, and got a smattering of hands. Fast forward a year and over 480 people sign up for one focused on sustainability and BIM, and when I asked how many people were using it just about everyone in the room raised their hand.”
A comprehensive survey of the AEC industry released in December by McGraw-Hill Construction revealed similar growth. According to the survey, 54% of architects will be very heavy users of BIM in 2009, compared with 43% in 2008; light users are projected to shrink from 38 to 18%. The report noted that engineers, owners and contractors work less with BIM than architects, but projected increased use among each group. The study also noted close ties between BIM use and green design, with 50% of all BIM users reporting a high level of involvement in green design and another 27% reporting moderate green activity.
Despite this progress, a number of obstacles remain to widespread BIM implementation. At the New York office of MEP engineers WSP Flack + Kurtz, CADD Operations Manager John Gerney reports overall positive experiences with BIM since the firm first started using it four years ago, but says that implementation has been slowed by technological limitations. “Revit comes in three different flavors: architecture, structure, MEP. Architecture’s been around for eight to ten years, MEP’s been on the market for about two years. They haven’t fully fleshed out the software yet.” He saw significant improvement from the first generation of the software to the second and hopes for an equally big leap with the third, but says that the firm’s BIM use will be constrained until it improves significantly. “Architects want everyone to be on board, and they’re saying, hey, the software’s out there, it’s ready to roll. And we say, well, it’s not totally ready for prime time yet.”
In addition to software issues, training has also proven problematic. President and CEO David Cooper, who estimates that 10 percent of Flack + Kurtz’s current workload involves BIM, says that a shortage of hands-on training opportunities has hampered the firm’s attempts to prepare its staff. “We have a company-wide initiative to become proficient and promote the use of BIM. However, as we’ve learned in the past with other software, it’s very project-based. If you don’t have projects that people get to work on in that particular office, the training that’s required becomes a waste of time and money because you don’t get to use the skills sets.” As a result, the company’s larger offices in New York, San Francisco and Boston are pulling ahead in skill level due to greater exposure to BIM projects.
At 100% BIM , panelists identified a number of hurdles to realizing BIM’s potential, from legal and insurance issues to inertia and lack of interoperability. SHoP’s William Sharples also criticized non-designers in the building industry for not doing enough to move the process forward. While architects and engineers are doing the grunt work to push the system forward, he said, from contractors, “what we’re seeing is a lot of BIM bling.”
Despite these challenges, however, there’s no doubt that BIM is here to stay. “The stuff that’s going on right now is mind-blowing,” says Microsol’s Dougherty. “Every day it feels like there’s a new tool. We’re still at the very beginning. If the BIM timeline goes from the southern tip of Manhattan to the north of the Bronx, we’re not even north of 14th Street.”
Images of Revit MEP model, courtesy WSP Flack + Kurtz.