VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Better system of sharing bodes well for profession

November 6, 2006

When it was built in the 1930s, the original James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children was a very large construction project. Yet it required only 40 sheets of drawings, and only the stonework at the entry and the ceiling in the lobby were extensively detailed.

The rest of the "detail knowledge" was filled in by contractors. Compare what it took to build Riley with the 50,000-plus drawings issued through six construction managers to build the new Indianapolis Midfield Terminal complex. Despite that level of detail, we still depend on the contractors and skilled workers to make the project go smoothly.

Most of the time spent in the design process is, sadly, not spent in design, but in creating the contract documents (which often have just one major purpose-getting good bids for projects).

When computerized drafting appeared, we all had high hopes that we could shift our focus from creating documents to creating better designs. Instead, the early computerized drafting programs complicated the process of getting the lines on paper, and the focus was shifted even more from what was being drawn to how it was being drawn.

Looking back, we realize we had only converted the old methods of drawing into digital form. The drawings looked good, but the buildings weren't really any better. The power of the computer was trapped in processes that had not changed for a hundred years.

Looking forward, we know that something has to change. Think about it-projects are getting larger, teaming arrangements are far more prevalent; the time available to do the work keeps getting squeezed; the vocabulary of materials increases all the time; energy efficiency is a commonplace goal; and the cost of overlapping inefficiencies simply can't be sustained.

To respond to these changes and challenges in the design process, the design and construction industry must focus on collaboration, communication and the sharing of knowledge.

The code word rippling through our industry is "interoperability," which means electronically managing and communicating project data between collaborating firms with the goal of eliminating manual re-entry of design data and the duplication of business functions. The fancier name for this process is "Building Information Modeling," or BIM.

BIM begins with a highly detailed three-dimensional model that eventually captures all design information in one database, allowing issues such as coordination, conflicts and code compliance to be addressed during design, not in the field.

Contractors and suppliers are allowed to access the model and can even offer refinements to the design as they plug in their data. (While potential design liability issues abound, reasonable people can create reasonable answers.)

In June 2006, Engineering News-Record noted that 74 percent of all architects are using 3-D models, but very few firms are sharing real-time information with contractors. That's not true BIM. Those 3-D models are generally not robust enough to depict the intricate systems in a complex building or to be converted into 4-D. Simply sharing base drawings with contractors to create shop drawings isn't BIM, either.

The basic concepts behind BIM aren't new. Boeing stretched the concept to its early limits during the design and construction of the 777 aircraft. Wing spars, ailerons and a myriad of parts were engineered and manufactured all over the world. Imagine what the lawyers in Seattle thought when so many vendors (and competitors) were allowed to access the master design files. Who would be responsible if the airplane weighed too much to fly with full fuel?

Interest in BIM grows each day as industry organizations are striving to take leadership in this revolution. Architects are certainly in the position to resume the lead because we create the first models, and the changes will ripple on through the life of every project.

BIM can make a real difference for us, as long as we recognize some additional changes it will bring:

BIM will allow more time in design and problem-solving, but much more time (and money) will be required in creating the database and solving the software issues.

BIM will directly influence the standards of quality as the responsibility for coordination is moved out of the field and back into offices; however, some clearly defined contract language and project-specific insurance programs must be developed.

BIM will definitely cause a lot of job descriptions to change. Knowing Autocad and SketchUp won't be enough for designers, and laptops will be sitting next to toolboxes in the field.

As one young architect in our office said, "We can probably agree on the meaning of the first word (building) and the last word (modeling). The problems will occur in the how we define the second word (information)."

We already disagree about "who didn't show what, where and when," so it seems to me that BIM can only make our lives better.

Altemeyer is a founding principal of BSA LifeStructures, the city's largest architectural firm. Views expressed here are the writer's.
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