BIM – The Evolution of Smart Buildings

When we think about what makes a successful building our thoughts have changed somewhat. Where originally four strong walls and a roof that kept out the rain would have gotten a building a passing mark; today we think about a whole range of things like who will be using the building, what they will use it for, and how will we deal with things like water, wastewater, gas, electricity, refuse, communications, road connections, parking, transit, fire safety, the environmental impact, and ongoing building maintenance.

It’s safe to say the Shard is a bit more complex of a building than the White Tower!

BIM or Building Information Modelling is the process for the generation and management of digital representations of the physical and functional characteristics of our buildings and public spaces.

BIM is part of a building’s lifecycle

In the UK in 2015 we’re not only concerned with the construction of buildings, we look at every building through its complete lifecycle. This helps us to avoid things like the past challenges of asbestos where it was a wonderful material in-situ but created real hazards to health during construction and is an absolute nightmare during demolition.

BIM helps us to understand the lifecycle of a building. In the construction and fit-out stage there’s a number of different disciplines that need to be closely coordinated for a construction project to be complete on-time, and on-budget with limited manpower and tight budgets. Where other markets may be able to simply throw people at problems, in the UK we have to work smarter. By using BIM, project managers can coordinate much closer the schedules of architectural, structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing works as they have a working digital model of the building in place before even the first brick is laid.

In the operation and maintenance stage BIM helps us again by allowing each group to add to and reference back all the information they gathered during the initial construction of the building to a single central model. Imagine looking for a plumbing leak; instead of physically searching the affected area, a BIM controlled building operator could simply look up on the BIM plans and see immediately where all joints, valves and fittings were in the affected area and focus their attention on the most likely cause before getting up from their desk.

In more advanced uses of BIM as we are starting to see today, real-time sensor data from the building is being incorporated into the BIM model to make smart buildings.

BIM software

As with any area of modern life, where there’s a need – there’s an app for that!

BIM is certainly no exception. Today we see major software vendors competing in the BIM space, each with their own mostly proprietary set of systems. Some often heard names include Bentley AECOsim, ArchiCAD, Tekla Structures, Autodesk Revit, Synchro Pro & VectorWorks. These software packages have gone beyond traditional architectural software tools by allowing the addition of further information such as time, cost, manufacturers’ details, sustainability and maintenance information to the building model.

Poor software interoperability has long been regarded as an obstacle to industry efficiency in general and to BIM adoption in particular. In August 2004 a US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report conservatively estimated that $15.8 billion was lost annually by the U.S. capital facilities industry due to inadequate interoperability arising from “the highly fragmented nature of the industry, the industry’s continued paper-based business practices, a lack of standardization, and inconsistent technology adoption among stakeholders”.

There is progress however. buildingSMART, formerly the International Alliance for Interoperability (IAI), is an international organisation which aims to improve the exchange of information between software applications used in the construction industry. It has developed Industry Foundation Classes (IFCs) as a neutral and open specification for Building Information Models (BIM).

BIM in the UK

In the UK, the Construction Project Information Committee (CPIC), responsible for providing best practice guidance on construction production information and formed by representatives of major UK industry institutions, produced (c. 2008) a similar definition to that produced by the US National BIM Standard Project Committee. This was proposed to ensure an agreed starting point; as different interpretations of the term were hampering adoption.

In May 2011 UK Government Chief Construction Adviser, Paul Morrell, called for BIM adoption on UK government construction projects of £5million and over. Morrell also told construction professionals to adopt BIM or be “Betamaxed out”. In June 2011 the UK government published its BIM strategy, announcing its intention to require collaborative 3D BIM (with all project and asset information, documentation and data being electronic) on its projects by 2016.

Initially, compliance will require building data to be delivered in a vendor-neutral ‘COBie’ format, thus overcoming the limited interoperability of BIM software suites available on the market. The UK Government BIM Task Group is leading the government’s BIM programme and requirements, including a free-to-use set of UK standards and tools that define ‘level 2 BIM’.

National Building Specification (NBS), owned by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), publishes research into BIM adoption in the UK. There have now been five annual surveys. The April 2015 survey of 1,000 UK construction professionals revealed that BIM adoption had increased from 13% in 2010 to 48% in 2014.

BIM in the Cloud

It may seem obvious that BIM and the Cloud go well together, after-all the whole point of BIM is to bring together the many disciplines involved in working on a building so that they can create a single complete model of the building and then update and maintain this model through-out its lifecycle.

Unfortunately, the reality of most of the tools used in architecture and in BIM are designed for single-seat operators. Culturally and historically this meant one person at a time working on a building and passing the file to the next person for them to add their contribution. Due to the very large nature of these files, passing them over the Internet is also often inconvenient resulting in continued use of physical storage media to transfer the files.

To truly realise the benefits of BIM requires the ability for whole teams of people to be able to work on files at the same time, often across different locations and organisations. AutoCAD’s Revit (one of the most popular tools for BIM) was designed for multi-user, however it’s a large complex client-server application designed to be operated on a LAN, not across the Internet.

Graphisoft, the creators of ArchiCAD have also offered their own solution via BIMCloud for users of ArchiCAD which goes part of the way to creating a real collaborative environment for BIM, however it involves hosting on Graphisoft’s systems, something not all firms may be comfortable with.

Fortunately, other solutions exist to run BIM in the Cloud through the combination of virtual LANs, virtual data centres and virtual desktops.

When BIM goes virtual

With applications suited to a LAN environment, if we want to free ourselves from physical location, we need to virtualise to a totally new level. Fortunately, in 2016 the technology exists for us to do just that. Businesses need to realise that relying on email and falling back on buying ever bigger PCs is not the path to a successful BIM implementation. In-fact, the solution isn’t even Internet based. Exponential-e proved in the VFX industry together with NVidia and Jellyfish Pictures that visual FX could be unchained from costly PCs and physical offices and run entirely from the Cloud.

BIM is no different. The applications change, but the method of working virtually from the Cloud is the same. Instead of email or Internet based collaboration tools; instead of super-sized PCs – look to the Cloud to provide local LAN based collaboration across flexible high-end graphical and computing capability through an entirely virtual environment, virtual from the desktop down to the storage.

Experts interacting with the BIM model can then simply login to a virtual workstation from any suitably Internet connected screen and keyboard and be dynamically assigned the appropriate amount of graphics, compute and memory resources they require for the task they are planning to undertake. If they need more power, instead of replacing a costly workstation with an even more expensive one; the Cloud simply apportions more resources to them.

Upgrades happen organically as the Cloud provider refreshes their hardware to the latest graphics chips, CPUs and hosts with ever more RAM and faster storage. Best of all, a fully virtual BIM environment means that there are no spikes in capital cost. Service costs rise and fall according to usage patterns that mirror the activity in the real world.

Where will BIM take us?

By 2016, all centrally procured government construction projects, no matter their size, must be delivered using Building Information Modelling, or BIM. This will extend right through the supply chain, from the largest contractor to the smallest supplier. What BIM can offer in the future is nothing short of a revolution in building energy efficiency management. By combining BIM with the Internet of Things (sensors embedded in everything within the building) we can start to gain a living picture of our buildings. For the first time in history the planning of the architects and designers can be verified and compared with the users of the building, with tracking over time as the use of the space and its occupier’s changes. Bringing together all this data we can gain new and better understanding of how our buildings actually work.

Knowing how our buildings work, we can take steps to make them work better. Controlling the flow of people, light, heat, energy, & water within the buildings better to reduce their environmental footprint while also ensuring the buildings are doing their very best to provide a safe, comfortable and productive environment for their occupants.

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