The Thames Street Wharf building in Baltimore.
Building Information Modeling software is being adopted rapidly in the architecture and construction management fields and has the potential to transform the entire construction industry, experts say. Although the timing is unclear, glass subcontractors will be swept up in the changes and eventually will find it necessary to use BIM.
"It's just like AutoCAD was years ago. Initially a lot of companies refused to have digital files made of their [product and specification] details. Now it's shocking if someone doesn't have it. BIM is the next wave," says Jerry Kern, vice president of the Florida division of Trainor Glass Co. in Riviera Beach.
The National Institute for Building Sciences, Washington, D.C., defines BIM as a shared digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility, founded on open standards for interoperability. In this way, it serves as a shared knowledge resource of information about a facility, forming a reliable basis for decisions throughout the building's life cycle.
Not merely 3-D The uninitiated might assume BIM is just a step above computer-aided design with three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional capabilities, but they're missing the point, says Glenn Birx, vice president and principal of Ayers, Saint, Gross in Baltimore.
"Right now, if you go to any construction site and look in the construction trailer, you'll see drawings all over the place: on tables, in file cabinets, on the walls, everywhere," he says. "With BIM, all of that information is in one digital file. It makes the whole design and construction process much easier and allows for an unheard of level of coordination."
Although it does include digital, 3-D images, BIM's real claim to fame is as a database of all the characteristics of a building and its components. For example, BIM would contain extensive information on a section of curtain wall, its manufacturer, dimensions, emissivity factor, textural characteristics-such as sandblasted and silkscreened- and other typical specifications. BIM also is parametric, meaning if one piece of information is changed, like the specifications for a window, it will be updated throughout the database. Architects and construction managers are just beginning to harness the power of BIM but already can see its almost revolutionary potential.
"It will transform how we all work together," says Michael LeFevre, vice president of planning and design support services at Holder Construction Co. in Atlanta. "The normal process now is that the architect submits drawings to the construction manager who reviews them and sends them on to the sub-contractors. It's not coordinated and it takes time for each party to review and mark up their piece and pass it on. Using BIM, you can get all those people in the same room, have a live, interactive, dynamic dialogue and accomplish in an afternoon what used to take 30 days or more. It's a pretty powerful process."
Avoiding conflicts Aside from shortening the building design process, BIM offers significant cost savings by improving coordination and identifying conflicts and collisions early on. LeFevre estimates that Holder realizes a savings of three to five times on its BIM investment per project by identifying collisions upfront, which in turn decreases change orders and requests for information from contractors. T
his ability to construct a building electronically before it is actually built might lead to ever more sophisticated structures that push the design and construction envelopes, because owners and contractors will be able to see early on that the architect's vision can be achieved. In the same vein, the early dialogue that BIM facilitates between architects, owners and contractors will help identify true impossibilities up front, too.
"If I work for months on a curtain wall design and then find out it doesn't work, there's quite a loss of time and money. So it would be a real advantage if I knew immediately," says Derek Wood, project designer and architect at Fox Architects, McLean, Va. "Having feedback up front only helps."
BIM has the potential to make a real economic difference for curtain wall and glazing contractors. "To the extent that it enables architects to put detail in their specifications, it will be more clear to sub-bidders what is needed and they'll be able to make cleaner bids and know what they're bidding against," Hewitt says.
The level of specificity also will enable glaziers to know more precisely the cost of materials, he says. The sustainability angle BIM will take on particular importance as sustainability and energy savings come to the fore. "It's a model with intelligence and can do analysis to tell you if you're on the right track," Wood says. "For example, you can choose one glass system over another and see immediately how it will affect the solar loading of the building."
The sustainability aspect is especially crucial as the U.S. construction industry seeks to wring out efficiencies and maintain global competitiveness, contends Deke Smith, executive director of the Building Smart Alliance, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. "Right now we have the same information that is being re-collected over and over again through design, construction, facility management and even demolition. The waste in doing that is phenomenal versus capturing it all from one authoritative source and carrying it all the way through the building life cycle."
A 2004 study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, Md., estimated that lack of interoperability between computer-aided design, engineering and software systems costs the U.S. capital facilities industry $15.5 billion per year. NIBS and the International Alliance for Interoperability, Washington, D.C., are leading a coalition to promote BIM and develop industrywide BIM standards.
Numerous BIM software packages exist, but the most commonly used are produced by Autodesk, San Rafael, Calif., and Bentley Systems, Exton, Pa., says Mike Collins, owner of BIMWorld, based in Atlanta. BIMWorld is a Web site and virtual community that enables product manufacturers to convert 2-D images and specifications into 3-D BIM files and make them available for free download by architects, construction managers and the like. Being able to download files of specific building components in BIM saves designers the time of creating a file in BIM themselves from written product specifications, Collins explains.
Several glass manufacturers are using BIMWorld, including Trainor Glass; Pilkington, Toledo; Efco, Monett, Mo.; and Technical Glass Products, Kirkland, Wash. All four report that images and specifications of their products have been downloaded from the site. However, they have not yet been able to link this activity with product sales or involvement in a particular project.
"It was a bit of a leap of faith in terms of return on investment, but we feel there's a benefit to being a leader in this area," says Dave Hewitt, director of sales and marketing at Efco. "You can't buy magazine advertising for the exposure you get from people downloading [off the site]."
Mike Krasula, senior marketing manager for commercial products at Pilkington, agrees that "BIM is still finding its place in the market."Pilkington has placed images and specifications for about 40 products with "the greatest opportunity to work in LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certified projects," he says.
Similarly, Technical Glass Products debated "how early we should get into BIM and if it was too early, but we decided the time was right to do it," reports Devin Bowman, national sales manager. The company began uploading product information on BIMWorld about six months ago and now has files available on 16 products.
Trainor Glass has made available its hurricane glazing systems. Managing change Investment in BIM software can range from a few hundred dollars to $20,000 to $30,000 per seat, LeFevre says. Sophistication of the programs varies accordingly. "Some are more user-friendly than others," he says. "The ones that are more complicated are so rich and so robust they can take a long time to use to the maximum."
Those who take the leap might discover that learning how to use the technology is the easiest aspect of the implementation, he says. "This is a disruptive technology that involves changing processes, minds and behaviors of people. Consider the subcontractor whose attitude is, 'I've been red-marking shop drawings for 20 years. I don't need help from a computer.' People are territorial; they resist change and often don't have the skills to work through it. But everyone I know who has [implemented BIM] has said they'll never go back," LeFevre says.
BIM is becoming well-disseminated in architecture and construction management. Subcontractors most likely to have it in use right now include structural steel, electrical and HVAC firms, LeFevre says. The federal government is spurring adoption of BIM by requiring it for public construction projects. For instance, the U.S. General Services Administration began requiring the use of BIM during the design phase of new buildings in its Public Buildings Service as of Fiscal Year 2007. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is following suit; starting with Fiscal Year 2008, BIM became a request for proposal requirement for standard facility projects, like dining facilities and barracks, in its military construction program.
In the private sector, architects are beginning to request BIM from subcontractors, but it's far from a mandate at this point, Birx says. "We don't feel we can make it a requirement to have shop drawings come back in BIM because the industry isn't there yet. But we're beginning to ask for it so people know to expect it and that it's coming," he says.
If BIM hasn't made a splash yet in the glass world, experts say it is only a matter of time before it will. Glass subcontractors will do well to learn about the technology and dip a toe in now, Smith says. "Right now it's still in evolution, but as it gets to the tipping point [where it is adopted more widely] it will become revolutionary. Companies that become engaged now will have the gift of time and a chance to learn it well. If they wait until it's revolutionary it will be mandated and it will be difficult to get up to speed in a short period of time," he says.