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Visualizing made easier through BIM programs

Architects, engineers and construction companies around the world use building information modeling, or BIM, to work more efficiently and improve their bottom lines.

“The technology is fantastic, and it provides a huge benefit to our industry,” says Michael St. John, principal associate for the engineering firm Erdman Anthony.

As the programs and hardware involved in BIM have improved, the number of firms that use the approach and the uses to which they have put it has grown.

“The use of BIM in the United States construction industry has grown from 17 percent in 2007 to 71 percent in 2013,” says Henry Green, president of the National Institute of Building Sciences.

BIM might be said to have two elements, both of which depend upon the use of sophisticated computer programs and huge data files.

“Building information modeling is a design technology tool and process,” says Charles Hixon, senior project manager for EDGE-Global Technology Solutions. “BIM applications and processes integrate database content into a three-dimensional model, providing real-time feedback on the design.”

Such models offer a multitude of advantages for everyone involved in a building’s construction or renovation. Transcending the limits of two-dimensional plans or diagrams, the models make it much easier to visualize the entire structure.

“Instead of having to imagine, for instance, elevations of various items, they’re represented geospatially,” says David Campbell, a project executive at LeChase Construction Services LLC. “They’re represented at the right elevations so that you can virtually see where the elements are in relation to each other.”

The programs also react to any changes in specifications: Shift a wall, raise a ceiling or relocate a rack of electrical conduits in one part of the model and that section of it—or the entire model—responds. The resulting depiction of the structure can reveal the advantages or drawbacks of the new design.

In another advantage, BIM can keep the different construction firms involved in a project from working at cross-purposes. When lighting, plumbing and other contractors come together at a worksite, there is always a chance of error; an electrician might string wire where pipes need to go, for example. That can force one of them to rework that part of the job.

“Rework is a really costly part of the industry,” Campbell explains. “It exists on most projects that aren’t highly coordinated.”

The contractors can avoid such costly errors by working from and comparing 3-D models of their parts of a project.

“We can more easily coordinate all of our systems in 3-D space to help prevent issues in the field,” says David Wahl, a CAD Systems Specialist with Bergmann Associates P.C.

Another useful aspect of BIM: Some programs can demonstrate how the different parts of a building and its systems would interact over the life cycle of the structure.

“We’re able to inform owners and architects and builders of the consequences of different design decisions,” St. John says. “We can go all the way to a full life-cycle cost analysis on different options, so that owners can make a real informed decision on what they put into or how they build their building.”

BIM programs can even help the owner of a new or renovated building to manage and maintain it.

“Their operations people, if they need to access a piece of air conditioning that’s in the ceiling, would have the information about that piece of equipment: where it’s located and what its inlet and outlet temperatures are supposed to be,” Campbell says. “All that information would come from the model.”

Advances in BIM technology have made such uses possible. The computer programs at the heart of the process are continually being refined—or replaced by more powerful versions.

“Software companies make year-over-year strides in improving the speed and functionality of the programs,” St. John says.

As part of that evolution, BIM programs can crunch the huge amounts of data they process at much greater speeds.

At one time, Wahl used his desktop to render data files into models.

“If it was something significant in size, you’d basically let it run overnight and cross your fingers that everything went right,” he says.

Nowadays, Wahl sends those files via the internet to be processed on the cloud-based servers of the company that makes his firm’s BIM program. It reduces the time needed for number-crunching by as much as 75 percent, he says, and he can even continue working on his desktop while awaiting the result.

Architects, engineers and contractors can also use high-tech devices these days to gather the data they need to create their 3-D models. Outside a building, a drone equipped with a digital camera can photograph the structure from multiple angles. On the inside, a laser scanner can record everything with pinpoint accuracy.

“It will identify the point on every surface that’s visible, that’s in line-of-sight for that scanner,” Wahl says.

Data on the interior or exterior of a structure can then be assembled by a computer program into what is called a “point cloud,” which creates something “like a cloud of points that represents an accurate 3-D model per se of an existing space or an existing object,” Wahl says.

With that data and a specially programmed iPad or other tablet, those involved in a construction or renovation project can obtain visual depictions of the project’s elements onsite.

“It knows where you are when you walk into the building,” Campbell says. “You can use the iPad to access the building information model, and as you hold up the iPad it will show you some of the hidden elements in the building.”

Using this form of augmented reality, an architect, engineer or contractor could “visualize” the ways that changes to a building or its utilities might interact with and affect the existing structure—all while walking through it.

Besides making the job more accurate, BIM has helped local architectural and construction firms cut the costs of their projects as well as the time required to complete them.

“We’re able to make our internal workflow more efficient and collapse our timeline and get the same amount of work done with a higher degree of coordinated accuracy,” St. John says.

Using BIM is not without its challenges, however. Some of the firms working on a project might have BIM programs while others might not. Some programs might not have compatible software, rendering them unable to exchange information. And even when the software is compatible, problems can still arise.

“Anytime you’ve got multiple parties feeding information simultaneously into one model or file, you’re bound to hit snags,” St. John says.

BIM programs can also be quite expensive—between $900 and $15,000 per individual program user, according to Hixon—and must regularly be upgraded or replaced.

“We have implemented a process where we begin testing and preparing for next year’s software update not too long after we get this year’s up-and-running,” St. John says.

To most efficiently use upgraded or new software, a firm might have to upgrade or replace its computers, monitors and other hardware. According to St. John, Autodesk’s recent Revit upgrade forced Erdman Anthony to replace the computers and monitors of the 50-plus employees who use the program at a cost of as much as $3,000 per workstation.

At the same time, those who use BIM programs need to stay abreast of changes in those programs.

“It’s a constant training,” says Mauricio Riveros, chief innovation officer for The Pike Companies.

Despite such challenges, many architectural and construction firms appear to be embracing BIM—and in some cases reaching beyond it. For example, The Pike Companies are using virtual design construction.

VDC, according to Riveros, integrates the virtual information obtained from BIM, laser scanning, drone-based technologies and other sources with the day-by-day operations and execution of projects.

“It’s basically a more holistic approach,” he says.

Mike Costanza is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

7/29/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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