BIM could be better: Ask for links

February 2011 » Web Exclusive
For all its sophistication, building information modeling software doesn—€™t help manage all critical project information.
Ian Howell

Architecture, engineering and construction firms increasingly are depending on building information modeling (BIM), and for good reason. BIM captures and coordinates more information about a project, which contributes to more informed decision-making. But for all the data that BIM does capture, it’s still falling short of providing mission critical capabilities for project delivery. How?

The information that a model database captures is mostly about the physical arrangement and properties of the facility — the geometry, relationships, and properties of building elements such as walls, doors, windows, curtain walls, structural columns and beams, and the like. However, information about the physical aspects of the facility is only a small subset of the critical project information required to manage the process of designing, engineering, and building.

This more abstract, albeit critically important, process-oriented information is not readily accommodated in the BIM.

Consider, for example, information such as a site instruction, an RFI, a change order, an equipment warranty, or an energy performance analysis report — information that is created as part of a supporting project process. This equally important project information occurs outside of the BIM, but is related to it. Significantly, many of these items pertain to a specific location within the model.

Links between objects in a model and external data have been a common feature for years, yet no modeling software presently makes it easy to link external project information to a specific location in the model. What is needed is an unambiguous means of identifying a location and/or view within a BIM, and the ability to link that location to data that resides beyond the BIM.

An inconvenience or ongoing source of risk?
This inability to link project process information to a location or element in a BIM may strike some readers as a minor inconvenience. But consider just one example of project process information: a submittal. A large project typically encompasses in excess of 10,000 submittals. Many of them pertain to specific parts of the BIM. Just think how confusion could be reduced and the submittals process enhanced if it was easy to link the incoming submittal to the correct location in the model, permitting approvals to be made in context.

When navigating the BIM, bi-directional links connecting to an e-submittal log would make it obvious that specific submittals had been received, were approved, or were still pending. This simple but powerful capability would help track the status of submittals and enhance communication between members of the project team.

Such bi-directional links would fully support the principles of integrated project delivery (IPD) by providing complete transparency for everyone on the project team. If used in conjunction with a project information management (PIM) solution, the linked submittals log would track ownership and accountability to help streamline project delivery.

Architectural example
Part of an architect’s job is to identify potential areas of conflict between disciplines. Think how this task could be enhanced if architects were also able to link the e-mail dialog about specific aspects of the design to their related building model elements.

Or imagine that, with these proposed bi-directional links, team members would be able to find the relevant point in the model from an RFI (which in turn can be found from the related e-mail). Such capabilities would save time and reduce the risk of errors.

Another example would be the ability to associate the results of a daylighting analysis with a particular location, to monitor illumination levels at that location within the BIM, and to trigger alerts if the results fall outside of acceptable limits.

Civil engineering example
Consider a site photo that accompanies an RFI or e-mail that explains a design problem. PIM software for the non-BIM world allows project managers to link that site photo to the RFI, and to link the RFI to the e-mail. But because of the absence of bi-directional links between external project process information and the model, project managers are not able to relate critical pieces of project information — at least, not yet.

Structural engineering example
A building’s design and its structural engineering layout are so closely intertwined that it is next to impossible to discuss one without involving the other. As the architect and structural engineer exchange e-mail, create action items, and mark up changes, they need to relate those decisions being made outside of BIM to specific points within the model. Such capability would allow not only a visual identification of key hotspots within the spatial context, but could also focus design expertise to resolve conflicts.

Construction example
A final example is the ability to easily associate a punch list item to a location within a BIM, or to associate a site photograph, quickly and simply, to a location in the model. Linking these items to specific locations or views within the BIM would enable a whole new level of understanding of field problems and potential resolutions.

Ask your BIM vendor for links
To summarize, BIM is great at capturing and coordinating the geometry of a building, but design and construction professionals need more than just information about the geometry of the building. They need ready access to mission-critical project information such as RFIs, submittals, design decisions agreed by e-mail, and action items that relate to specific locations within the BIM. Today, robust links do not exist to tie non-graphical information to a specific location within the model.

BIM users could remedy this shortcoming by asking their software vendors to support bi-directional links to and from any location within their BIM. Such support is best done as an open data standard agreed to by all BIM vendors. One candidate would be to create an IFC link object that would connect project information that is being managed outside of BIM to the specific location in the model to which that information relates. Software application vendors developing solutions to manage project process information could draw upon this published information to enhance their PIM software.

Ask for links. Our industry needs it. It’s simple for vendors to implement. And it’s yet another way for BIM to fulfill its promise.

Ian Howell is a founder of the International Alliance for Interoperability, and member of the board of direction for the buildingSMART Alliance. He is the CEO of Newforma, a developer of software for AEC project information management. Howell is an architect by training, with practice experience in Australia and the United Kingdom. His AEC software industry experience includes positions with Autodesk, Citadon, Alias Research, and Rucaps Australia. Bob Batcheler is Newforma’s vice-president of industry marketing and product management. His career as a professional engineer includes time at Black & Veatch and Bechtel Power Corporation. His AEC technology background encompasses a variety of roles at Autodesk and Softdesk. Batcheler earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Lehigh University, and practiced as a registered professional engineer in Maryland.

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