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Chris Irwin | 02 Jul 2020

Is there a Problem with BIM? Design vs. Reality

Building information model, BIM, BIM software, smart buildings, building automation

There is much talk and debate about BIM in the construction industry. Some people enthusiastically support its adoption for the design of buildings, while others are skeptical about the merits and value propositions associated with it. As the industry works to come to some terms or agreement on how BIM can be used, let’s look at some of the benefits and challenges for using BIM technology.

For those who are not familiar with the term, BIM stands for Building Information Model. While BIM is most commonly known for its intelligent 3D renderings that have been a stark contrast to the 2D AutoCAD style plans previously used, there’s more to BIM than computer generated 3D models. BIM is also a set of software tools that enable the creation of a complete digital model of a building design. BIM can document in precise detail the properties of all structural components required and their relative positions and interactions. This includes the source and manufacturer of each element, as well as the asset references where appropriate.

Weighing the pros and cons

Creating a detailed 3D model of a planned building sounds like a great idea, as it brings all sorts of benefits that 2D design tools cannot offer. BIM gives you the ability to “walk through” the internal spaces virtually, to better understand how occupants will experience the design, as well as identifying technical issues such as where services piping and cabling may be clashing. There are plenty of testimonials from organizations that claim to have delivered massive cost savings from adopting BIM in the design of their building projects. The improved functionality and digitization of the project, however, comes at a price. Many claim that designing with BIM makes the process more time consuming and therefore expensive, to which others counter that it saves money by avoiding costly mistakes and streamlining how the design data is managed.

Apart from the cost of BIM, a much bigger issue is that its many benefits get progressively “thrown away” in the construction process. This is due to the structure of the contracting industry, which fragments processes to a wide variety of separate companies. With little in the way of overall management to ensure the BIM model is kept up to date, the myriad of decisions made day-to-day on site cause the reality of the building structure to diverge from the virtual 3D design. This highlights the need for a much broader reform of construction practices, as well as training of construction workers to use BIM. Additional software tools are also needed to enable on-site sub-contractors to fully track and report snags and changes so that inspection reports are fed back into the BIM model to ensure it is maintained throughout the construction phase, all the way to handover and practical completion.

If this continuity can be achieved, BIM could potentially act as an on-going management tool for operating the building. Currently, the software tools used to manage a building operationally are quite separate, and generally referred to by the acronyms CAFM or CMMS. Such software applications track assets and maintenance processes, but to date, few if any of these are fully linked to BIM tools used for the original design. Also, as building automation systems are not generally included in the BIM model, maintenance of these aspects of the building’s functioning cannot be managed via the BIM model.

Better management of building related data

The core issue is that there needs to be a better way to manage building related data so that users can enter once and re-use multiple times. Currently, data storage and processing is highly fragmented, with lots of data entry for the various applications at different stages of a building’s construction and subsequent operational life. Even worse, much of the initial construction data becomes effectively “lost” to those responsible for managing the building.

How can this be addressed? Sadly, there is no “Magic Bullet,” but standardization of data and its associated metadata is critical to improving the situation. In a recent discussion with an application provider who seeks to address this topic, I was told that they had to deal with nearly 100 different data models for various aspects of a construction project. While it is unlikely that one single data model can be agreed upon to handle the great diversity of components used to create a building, there is a desperate need for the industry to agree on one standard rather than creating their own approaches to data modelling and semantic tagging. This is just as much an issue for the operational aspects, since currently most real-time data flowing from the various automation systems is not even tagged at all due to the legacy systems in place before data management issues came to the fore.

There is hope here though as Project Haystack, an open standard for building metadata, is gaining momentum and is supported by big players in the building automation market. Just as some BIM modelling can be created for existing buildings, using 3D laser scanning technologies to create 3D renderings of the structure becomes much easier to implement. With Project Haystack, a data model with tagging can be achieved for existing buildings, provided tagging enabled software is used. With the benefits of data analytics, automatic fault detection diagnostics and predictive maintenance all become much easier to implement as well. Additionally, when managing multiple building estates, the tagging of data enables more effective benchmarking and performance comparisons, both with regards to energy and operational costs.

The possibilities of BIM

Returning to the BIM model topic, there are some exciting possibilities opening up. Augmented reality offers the possibility that maintenance tasks can be simplified in several ways. By superimposing BIM asset data onto what maintenance staff see when visiting a site, they can better understand what is going on, and where faulty components are located.

With technology like VR goggles, a maintenance expert could assist a more junior operative in the process of replacing a component remotely, the same way drone pilots can control their aircraft from thousands of miles away. Alternatively, a BIM model could serve up a set of 3D visualized instructions to site operatives for things like how to replace or fix a piece of equipment. Such AR assisted processes could be regarded as a real-time O&M manual. This will be especially useful if real-time data such as air and fluid temperatures, flow rates and the like can be displayed on things like ducts and piping.

Another way in which a BIM model maintained through to completion can help the way buildings are operated is that the 3D rendering of the building can be used for the visualization graphics required in building automation systems. Instead of manually creating representational graphics, the BIM could provide live values from the BAS on the 3D model, or the 3D model can be imported by the BAS as a basis for the custom visualizations normally required. Whilst some would argue, and I would be one of them, that the BIM model may not provide a simple or “clean” enough visualization, it seems likely that there will be such integrations in future that BIM software could adapt to in order to offer simplified, “stripped down” views.

In addition to providing a basis for the facilities team, an operational BIM model enables the building end user, be they a tenant, landlord or owner occupier, to “walk through” the building. This can provide an invaluable aid to space planning and subsequent re-modelling projects.

This article has only scratched the surface of the topic, but I hope has highlighted the challenges the industry faces as it comes to terms with the potential benefits BIM could offer. The best action that can be taken by all involved parties is to collaborate and work together for standardization of the data model(s) and metadata. This will be one of the keys to unlocking value from building data.

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Chris Irwin