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David Becker

Staff Writer, CNET

You don’t have to contemplate the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, or the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles for long to grasp the notion that standard two-dimensional drawings might be inadequate for architect Frank Gehry.

The buildings are fantastic explosions of curvilinear shapes, executed in ways that seem more appropriate for paper than structural steel. They’re also representative of a dramatic new approach to designing and constructing buildings: building information modeling, or BIM, in which blueprints and other two-dimensional documents are replaced by 3D computer models, with each element of the design imbued with information about its real-world properties, such as how much weight a steel beam can hold.

Gehry became one of architecture’s earliest practitioners of BIM techniques largely out of necessity, because his designs have increasingly relied on specialized fabrication and placement of materials.

“Bilbao was sort of the big landmark that showed the world things were possible (with BIM) that couldn’t be done in any other process,” said Dennis Shelden, chief technology officer of Gehry Technologies, a software and services firm commercializing some of the techniques and tools developed for Gehry projects.

“The types of buildings Frank does could not be done through conventional descriptive means and conventional ways of documenting,” Shelden said. “The big question that’s out there is where’s the tipping point for this technology to be applied to more conventional work?”

That’s the million-dollar question for architects, contractors, owners and others in the building process, which began a slow transformation two decades ago with the advent of CAD (computer aided drafting). The first generation of CAD products added digital authoring to existing design processes, for faster and more accurate production of blueprints.

The shift to 3D promises to dramatically change the market. A recent report by Jon Peddie Research concludes 3D tools are already dominating spending in the market, expected to total $3.2 billion in worldwide revenue next year, and will continue to grow in significance over the next few years.

But BIM promises dramatic opportunities for cutting waste and errors, shortening the schedules and improving management of finished buildings. However, the technology also requires major changes in existing building processes that rigidly define how information is handed from one party to another.

Architects, builders and industry analysts say those issues, rather than more prosaic technology concerns such as outfitting contractors with rugged laptops capable of displaying complex 3D models, will determine the pace of BIM adoption. Still, companies such as drafting and design software leader Autodesk are betting heavily that BIM is the way of the future.

Intelligent design
BIM is a fundamentally smarter way of working, said Amar Hanspal, vice president of building collaboration services for Autodesk. Instead of producing design documents that consist only of lines and shapes, architects using products such as Autodesk’s Revit produce 3D models in which each element is packed with data.

“With 3D modeling, the elements of that design represent real-world elements…and the objects know there are certain rules they must adhere to,” Hanspal said. “The staircase knows it’s a staircase; it has to land on a slab. If you move that slab, the staircase moves with it.”

Intelligent design components offer several advantages, not the least of which is improving the likelihood that the final product actually looks like what the architect designed. Mistakes typically account for 15 percent to 20 percent of the cost of a building project, said Lachmi Khemlani, founder of architecture technology consulting firm Arcwiz. Errors typically result from design mistakes and unclear design documentation, and BIM can dramatically reduce both.

“One of the biggest things (BIM) can solve is errors at the construction site from not being able to fully read the plans,” Khemlani said. “It’s going to save a lot of time, and the designs will be much more accurate.”

BIM also promises to dramatically improve the way information gets handed from one stage of the building process to the next. Current procedures involve architects producing blueprints and clients marking up proposed changes that require documents to be redrawn. Final blueprints are handed off to the contractor, who makes more changes on his own before handing the building owner a set of drawings that may have little to do with the finished structure.

Other industries have already figured out that’s not a smart way to work, said James Timberlake, a partner at Philadelphia architecture firm KieranTimberlake Associates and co-author of “Refabricating Architecture.

“Architects haven’t been trained to think collaboratively; they’re only interested in handing off designs,” Timberlake said. “That’s the way the automobile industry worked in the 1950s: The designer did everything down to the tail fins, they handed off the drawing and things would end up on the production floor not fitting. The automobile industry decided there was a better way to do it, but we’re still working on it. So many opportunities for integration and coordination are missed in the building process today.”

BIM promises to help by centralizing the building process on a digital document that is revised throughout the design and construction phases, giving the building owner a thorough representation of his new property.

“From the clients’ point of view, a 3D model…is like having an X-ray of their building,” Timberlake said. “There’s tremendous value in that as you manage the building. If you have to move a bathroom or something like that, what a great tool to know what you’re dealing with. Clients are just getting around to asking for this kind of stuff, but I think the more they see the results of 3D software, the more they’re going to find it to be a huge benefit and really demand this approach.”

Ken Sanders, chief information officer of San Francisco-based architecture giant Gensler, warns that architects need to be careful not to oversell BIM advantages, however.

“It’s a very seductive proposition–why wouldn’t the building owner want to have this extra data?” he said. “But the reality is, people are already scaling back on the volume of data they store about a building, because the return on investment just wasn’t there. I had a client once who put a bar code on all their trees. It was a neat idea, but it didn’t have much practical value and they eventually gave up on it because it was just too much data to manage.”

Shaking up the foundation
Actually achieving the smooth exchange of information BIM promises is a tricky matter. The building process as it works now is highly fragmented and rigidly codified, for reasons ranging from tradition to legal liability. BIM blurs the usual distinctions, requiring designers to perform tasks–such as estimating materials requirements–typically left to contractors, said Kristine Fallon, president of architectural consulting firm Kristine Fallon Associates.

The building industry “is made up of many relatively small businesses that come together on a contract basis for a single project,” Fallon said. “It’s all based on ad-hoc partnerships. BIM really changes those relationships, and you need a structure to accommodate that. This industry has developed working methods over decades, and one player can’t just go in and change everything.”

Legal considerations remain especially tricky, Fallon said. “There’s a lot of concern about who’s going to get sued,” she said. “The standard contracts people have used since World War II define very precisely who’s responsible for what, and deviating from that makes people very uncomfortable.”

“We’re trying to push (BIM) upstream…but it’s a tough sell.”

–Gabe Coleman, director of IT
initiatives for the American
Institute of Steel Contractors

Current building processes are full of arbitrary distinctions about who does what, based on “archaic representations of the buildings,” Shelden said. But it keeps people in business. “There’s a ton of inefficiency in the current organization, but if you play by the rules, at least you’re safe,” he said.

Fragmentation has allowed different segments of the building industry to approach technological advances from different directions. The result is a jarring lack of consistency. Leading-edge architects may start off with 3D models, but they have to convert them to 2D drawings to suit city planning departments or subcontractors, with much information lost in the conversion.

Steel fabricators adopted 3D modeling techniques early on, to better integrate the complex engineering and mechanical calculations their work requires, said Gabe Coleman, director of IT initiatives for the American Institute of Steel Contractors. But much of the benefit of 3D design gets lost at various junctures, he said.

“In steelwork, there’s an immense need to have data behind the steel elements being drawn, so this industry latched on to modeling right away,” Coleman said. “For the most part, though, the steel fabricators still can’t get a complete model from the designer. The designer abandons that model about halfway into the workflow, and everything reverts to 2D. We’re trying to push upstream, getting our fabricators to find engineers and designers who are willing to model all the way through, but it’s a tough sell.”

It might be an easier sell if there was a way to guarantee that models can be viewed and manipulated throughout the process. As it is now, data exchange often breaks down in a morass of proprietary formats used by different authoring programs. Various industry groups have come together to work on standards, but that just reduces the number of incompatible formats rather than solving the problem, Coleman said.

“It’s very important that our industry adopt a single standard for data exchange,” he said. “At the very least, what we need to see is an overarching system that links the various building systems together.”

Sanders agreed that the building industry needs to think about how it shares data and learn from some of the missed opportunities in the first digital migration.

“The great irony of CAD today is that if you talk to 50 of the top architectural firms, you’ll find 50 different CAD standards,” Sanders said. “Everybody has a quirky set of standards they’ve created for representing and organizing design data. We’ve never gotten our arms around trying to standardize not just the tools but the information represented, and we’re still paying for that.”

BIM is a chance for a fresh start, Sanders said. “As we move into BIM, because it’s so new, there’s an opportunity for the industry as a whole to think more strategically and say, ‘Let’s work together.’ If we really want to leverage this data and have it flow from design firm to construction firm to steel shop, you better have those things established.”

Impetus to make BIM work is likely to come from building owners who find value in the approach. Early adopters include large manufacturers who keep much of their building work in-house and chain retailers who value the uniformity of model-based design. The General Services Administration, the procurement arm of the federal government, is already favoring model-based design for future projects. “Design-build” firms, which put architecture and contracting under one roof, are also likely to be ahead of the curve, Fallon said.

“I’m absolutely convinced the BIM approach will be the approach of the future, because you get a better result, faster and cheaper,” she said. “The question is, who’s going to deliver it? This is a conservative market…but at some point, there’ll be a big inflection point where people see how much better this works.”