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Build Smarter, Faster, and Cheaper with BIM

July 1, 2008

Eliminate inefficiencies in current construction practices by using BIM, which has the potential to benefit all stakeholders in the design, construction, ownership, and operation of buildings 

 To find out more about BIM and the U.S. General Services Administration's 3D-4D BIM Program, view the GSA's Journey into Building Information Modeling video. 

Architects designing buildings that push the boundaries of creativity. Contractors building cheaper and faster, without compromising quality. Building owners paying less for utilities. And, facility managers identifying maintenance requirements for building systems with just a few keystrokes. You don't need to pinch yourself; it's not a dream. It's the promise and potential that building information modeling (BIM) provides.

The "I" (information) in BIM is what sets this approach apart from simple 3-D visualization. "Think of [BIM] as a database of building information that has the capability to be viewed in three dimensions," suggests Markku Allison, resource architect, American Institute of Architects, Washington, D.C. The National Building Information Model Standard™ (NBIMS) project, formed by the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) Facility Information Council (FIC), provides the following formal definition: "A building information model is a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility. As such, it serves as a shared knowledge resource for information about a facility, forming a reliable basis for decisions during its life-cycle, from inception onward."

BIM software, which enables professionals to virtually build a facility before it's ever physically constructed, is a catalyst for change in an industry that's been slow to innovate and embrace technology. Because BIM can eliminate many of the inefficiencies of current construction practices and improve the transfer of information during all phases of a building's life, it's being hailed almost as much for the process it facilitates (integrated project delivery) as for the features it provides.

Many stakeholders (e.g. owners, architects, engineers, contractors, subcontractors, and facility managers) can access a building information model—entering, extracting, and/or updating information throughout the building's life-cycle. The more individuals who collaborate using a building information model, the greater its value becomes. Because BIM has the potential to benefit so many parties (from everyone involved in the design and construction of buildings to building operators and even first responders), momentum is growing. With so many advantages, it's easy to see why.

BIM provides design freedom.
The capability of BIM software to model some of the wildest building designs provides architects with infinite creative freedom. Still skeptical? Think of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; and New York City's Freedom Tower, which is currently under construction. Early adopters, like the architectural professionals at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP and Pritzker-Prize-winning Frank Gehry, are using BIM to render curvilinear shapes and freeform geometry that 2-D drawings can't.

Beyond the mere capabilities of designing in BIM, the software increases the accuracy of drawings and streamlines the coordination of construction documents. "It takes some of the pressure of data management off of the designers and allows them to actually spend more time performing design analysis," explains Caroline Clevenger, a PhD student at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA, and Visiting Fellow to the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) on BIM.

Many building analyses can be performed using BIM.
The data in a building information model is extremely useful and can result in more informed decision-making. "At the core of BIM lies a digital database in which objects, spaces, and facility characteristics are each defined and stored. These characteristics make it possible to use BIM as a virtual representative of the physical facility and are, hence, able to perform qualitative and quantitative analyses. These BIM-enabled analyses ... can significantly enhance the efficiency and efficacy of the design, planning, and building process," explain Soad Kousheshi and Eric Westergren of Boston-based A/E/C Strategy Inc. in Building Information Modeling and the Construction Management Practice: How to Deliver Value Today?, a Construction Management Association of America (CMAA) white paper.

Energy analysis and modeling are just a few ways that BIM results in a more efficient building. "You can start doing ‘what-ifs,' " says Charles Good-Man, director of architecture, Irwin Pancake Architects, Costa Mesa, CA. The software, according to Good-Man, can help architects predict energy costs and understand how the design will impact energy use. Energy modeling has traditionally been a clumsy process. "We are seeing opportunities to use BIM to make it less labor intensive. We're not having to recreate energy models from scratch now. The results are not only potentially more accurate, but also quicker," says Clevenger. "We think this will let designers make better, energy-efficient decisions."

BIM analyses can help validate green design as well. According to Deke Smith, executive director of the buildingSMART alliance™ at the National Institute of Building Sciences, Washington, D.C., it will be easier to create buildings that achieve zero carbon emissions, reduce construction and facility waste, and maximize building efficiency through alternative positioning and site-design analysis with BIM. Some industry professionals have speculated that BIM could even accelerate certification in the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Green Building Rating System™.

Validating compliance with building codes is easier with BIM, too. Through the use of BIM and the SMARTcodes™ auto code check (developed by the Intl. Code Council [ICC] in coordination with the buildingSMART alliance), users can automatically check for compliance with the 2006 Intl. Energy Conservation Code. According to the ICC: "The automated code compliance check takes the building plan, as represented by a BIM, and instantly checks for code compliance via model-checking software. The user can choose several options to output the results, printing out the sections of the code that apply or an inspection checklist of things to look for, or viewing the building in 3-D as a virtual walkthrough that shows the building components that don't comply with code, and why."

Additionally, users can extract quantities for cost estimates and a materials/equipment inventory from the digital model. Each object (the roofing system, the windows, or the carpet) in the model can have pricing associated with it, making it easier to generate a bill of materials and product cost estimates. "If you're a hotel owner and you have a building with 2,000 rooms, having a BIM with the exact quantity of the vinyl wallcovering, carpet, and tile is fantastic because you can track renovation and maintenance procedures with a lot more accuracy," says John Moebes, director of construction, Crate and Barrel, Northbrook, IL.

Crate and Barrel has witnessed BIM's financial benefit firsthand. "We can use the models for cost-segregation studies," says Moebes. Asset values can be assigned to building systems and materials in the model, making it easier to write off the value of that capital investment over the period of the lease. "Cost-segregation studies can be very error prone due to someone who wasn't on the original design team trying to reinterpret drawings," he says. "With a building information model, we can have our designers put that asset code into the 3-D element as they're modeling it and then tell the model at the end of the project to give us an asset schedule."

With BIM, a building can be built virtually before it's ever physically constructed.

BIM streamlines the creation and distribution of documents.
Thanks to BIM, design and documentation can be done simultaneously. In its experiences, Phoenix-based architecture firm Orcutt | Winslow discovered that 60 percent of construction documentation was finished when the design-development phase was complete.

In its Who's Minding the Store? BIM Is. white paper, Phoenix-based architecture and design firm SSOE Inc. explains why BIM allows concurrent vs. sequential design and documentation: "For example, if the architect decides to change a building's stone entrance to a wood entrance, this decision triggers a universal change in documentation as it relates to material take-off, finish schedules, and specifications." Essentially, construction documents are automatically updated when design changes occur in the model.

This capability can shorten the construction cycle. "We looked at how long it took us to produce documents, from design development through contract documents, and we realized that the process could be accelerated by the use of building information modeling. The first step we took was to reduce our schedule times to anywhere from 32 weeks to 24 weeks [by] using building information modeling platforms to produce our contract documents. That's been very successful," says Moebes.

When BIM is used collaboratively, time is saved because information is not recollected. "What typically happens is that the designer builds a body of intelligence and then dumbs it down to 2-D and hands it off to the contractor, who builds up a body of intelligence and then dumbs it down and hands it off to the owner, who ends up having to build his/her own body of intelligence about the building to run it," says Allison. If a building information model is created and shared, time is not wasted in the creation of redundant (and sometimes inconsistent) documents.

BIM resolves errors, omissions, and conflicts before construction begins.
Human errors can be costly. "We find a lot of errors now by using BIM platforms; in fact, in some of the platforms, it's actually possible to automate what we call ‘clash detection,' where we're looking for ductwork that hits beams, pipes that hit ductwork, etc." says Moebes. Using BIM, clashes and conflicts can be resolved in the documents stage instead of on-site during construction. "When you design and build virtually, then you have a higher chance of eliminating planning and design errors or inefficiencies that lead to construction problems, delay the project, cause the project to be over budget, or impact long-term facility operations," says Charles Matta, director, Center for Federal Buildings and Modernization, U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), Washington, D.C.

Conflict detection reduces the number of requests for information (RFIs) and change orders, saving both time and money. A small investment in BIM 4 years ago by Holder Construction demonstrated immediate payback. The Atlanta-based general contractor used construction documents from the architect to create a model for a small project. "We found 35 conflicts in this project. With the $4,000 investment we had in the model on our unplanned experiment, we realized a $135,000 savings in collision detection," shares Michael LeFevre, vice president and head of Holder Construction's BIM department.

"As architects are starting to adopt BIM, the trade contractors are following. They're realizing that they may have to invest a lot more time and money upfront to create a more intelligent drawing through a 3-D model, but it's going to save them a lot of time in the field with rework and rerouting," says Paul Hedgepath, BIM senior engineer, Holder Construction.

A building information model can identify clashes and conflicts early. For example, if ductwork intersects with a structural beam, the design can be changed before construction.

4-D capabilities make scheduling easier with BIM.
A 3-D building information model provides excellent visualization of a space. When that model illustrates the phases of construction over time, it becomes 4-D (3-D plus time). According to CMAA's white paper, "4-D schedules are a powerful tool for phasing, coordinating, and communicating planned work to a variety of audiences, including project stakeholders and those directly responsible for executing the work."

Materials can be calculated automatically, ordered electronically, and delivered to the site in larger pre-assembled pieces just when they're needed. "There are huge advantages to that because you don't have as much raw material on the site," says Smith. Because these raw materials are sometimes moved as many as seven times over the course of a construction project, just-in-time (JIT) delivery increases the efficiency of workers.

Using the building information model for specifications, steel and MEP systems can be prefabricated off-site. "We can actually have [structural elements] produced off-site now, at a lower cost and in a more friendly environment, and then have them shipped to the site and erected in a very precise, quicker period of time," adds Good-Man.

Simply put, BIM helps perfect project phasing. "It provides the ability to optimize procedures that are used to build, so you can place cranes in the right position, use your manpower most effectively, and deliver [materials] on time," says Alan Edgar, chair, National BIM Standard Executive Committee, and OSCRE (Open Standards Consortium for Real Estate) Workgroup program manager, Yorktown, IN.

BIM is an information-rich model that's useful for facility management.
Today, this cutting-edge technology is being applied primarily to streamline design and construction. The benefit of providing these information-rich digital models to building operators, however, could be just as significant - if not more so. "Many people are very excited about the use of BIM during building operation and facility management, and there is a huge opportunity there," says Clevenger.

The information in a building model will be useful to facilities managers for many reasons. SSOE's white paper provides one example: "Years after the project is complete, the facilities maintenance staff can call up the digital model, click on the water heater, for example, and obtain its model number, the date of installation, the warranty, the next scheduled maintenance, and any other information related to that object."

BIM provides a record of the building as it was built, and can be loaded with information on every system, product, finish, and fixture, both inside and out. According to Edgar, "The state of the industry at the moment is that not a lot is done on the facilities-operations side, but literally anything you can imagine within a facility can be included in a model."

As interest in sustainable design increases and energy costs rise, and the quest for interoperability continues, BIM has the potential to revolutionize how buildings are designed, built, and operated. To date, the industry has only realized a fraction of BIM's potential. Interest and use are increasing, though. According to a 2007 study conducted by Raleigh, NC-based FMI Corp. and the CMAA, approximately 35 percent of building owners reported that they've been using BIM technology for more than 1 year. "Require your design and construction teams to use BIM," advises Allison. "The owner, more than anybody else, has the power to start demanding it."

Jana J. Madsen ([email protected]) is managing editor at Buildings magazine.

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