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AECbytes "Building the Future" Article (May 16, 2006)

Use of BIM by Facility Owners: An "Expotitions" Meeting

Towards the end of last month, I was invited to participate in a meeting of the "Expotitions" group, a B2B (Business to Business) roundtable of real estate, design, and construction professionals located in the San Francisco Bay area. This group has been around for several years, conducting informal meetings every few months to discuss a wide rage of issues related to real estate and construction. Some of the recent meetings were devoted to topics such as scenario planning, flexible leasing, flexible facilities, rising construction costs, alternate officing, biotechnology and health services, offshoring operations, and so on. The meeting on April 25, the one I attended, was entitled "Building Information Modeling: Future Technology Shift," and featured a panel discussion of four facility owners who were utilizing this emerging technology: the GSA, Intel, LucasFilm, and Walt Disney Imagineering. The highlights of their presentations and the ensuing discussion are captured in this AECbytes "Building the Future" article.

But first, a brief note about the word "expotition," if you are wondering what it means. The Expotitions group defines it as "a journey of discovery with no predetermined destination." I hadn't heard of this word before I heard of this group, and it does not appear in any dictionary either. On researching the word on the Internet, I found that it comes from A.A. Milne, noted author of the Winnie-the-Pooh books, who made it up as Pooh's word for a special adventure in the classic story "An Expotition To The North Pole," where Pooh and his friends set out to find the northern-most place on earth. "Expotition" is like an "expedition," but more focused on discovery and fun. While mostly used in connection with Winnie-the-Pooh, I did come across its occasional use online as an alternate to the words "expedition" or "journey."

Let's see how the "expotition" into BIM for the San Francisco Bay area B2B group turned out.

Presentations by Facility Owners Using BIM

The GSA (US General Services Administration, the largest builder-owner of federal projects in the country) has been one of the leading owners at the forefront of BIM implementation, and I have frequently written about their presentations at various conferences, most recently the Technology for Construction 2006 conference (see the article, The Executive Forum and Other Sessions at Technology for Construction 2006). The GSA has even taken the extreme step of mandating the use of IFC-based BIM and believes that BIM adoption should not be driven by cost savings alone, but for its many other benefits such as the ability to explore different engineering systems, perform energy analysis for LEED certification, derive specifications automatically, and eventually eliminate the use of paper and paper-based processes. At the Expotitions meeting, Dr. Calvin Kam of the GSA shed some more light on why BIM is important to the GSA, both in the near term as well as in the long term. BIM is currently being used by the GSA for immediate needs such as creating as-built documentation for existing buildings, space reporting, spatial management and tenant management, and evaluating how well a proposed design meets the program requirements. It is helping the GSA take on its biggest challenges—delivering high-performance buildings on schedule and in a cost-effective manner. The GSA also has a more far-reaching lifecycle vision of BIM—where its benefits will be realized during construction and operation in addition to the design phase—but acknowledges that it is not there yet. In the meantime, it is conducting research and launching pilot projects that integrate cost estimating, spatial analysis, and energy analysis applications with BIM. Another aspect of the design that is rapidly emerging as a critical one for evaluation, in the wake of both terrorist threats and natural calamities, is disaster response. For this, the GSA is exploring the "avatar" technology from the gaming industry that creates the simulation of human behavior in virtual people. This would allow, for instance, a BIM model to be populated with electronic people programmed with behaviors such as walking, running, turning, detecting the nearest exit, and so on, which would allow the egress pattern and time in a proposed building to be studied in the event of an emergency. This technology is not expected to become commonplace any time soon, but it is certainly indicative of the powerful analysis capabilities that can become available when sophisticated technologies such as BIM (intelligent virtual buildings) and avatars (intelligent virtual people) are combined.

Another owner perspective on BIM was presented by Mike Alianza of Intel Corporation, which by virtue of being one of the largest high-tech companies in the world also has a lot of facilities to build and maintain, and is therefore very interested in the potential benefits of BIM throughout the lifecycle of a building. Currently, Intel is primarily exploiting this potential at the design and construction stage by using BIM models for better coordination, clash detection during design, schedule integration, and to study construction sequencing. For Intel, the construction phase is currently the biggest beneficiary of BIM, with design having a relatively smaller portion of the pie. At the same time, Intel recognizes the tremendous potential of BIM in the operations and maintenance phase, in performing what-if scenarios of moving people and equipment in facilities, analyzing and minimizing energy usage, operating facilities more efficiently, as well as operating and managing them virtually. Another important future benefit would be the ability to carry design designs all the way into the BIM model, so that they can be analyzed at any time by back-tracking, which is very important for a huge corporation like Intel. Also important from the point of view of convenience, accessibility, and ease of use is the ability to have all the building information stored electronically in one or multiple models as opposed to receiving a couple of hundred boxes of documentation from the design and construction team. While the potential of BIM at the operations and maintenance phase is still far from being realized, it is real enough for a company like Intel to make a serious effort to start incorporating BIM in its building process.

In the last few years, some recent building projects have become "poster boys" for their advanced use of 3D modeling and BIM, of which George Lucas's Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco is a great example. We have had several presentations at various conferences describing the modeling aspect of the project by Mitch Boryslawski of View by View, the company responsible for managing the 3D modeling and coordination. At the Expotitions meeting, the owner's perspective on this project was presented by John Wynne of Lucasfilm. The design for the Digital Arts Center was actually done in the traditional 2D way, and it was only after the permitting process was completed that the BIM work began. The primary motivation for using 3D modeling was the complexity of the project, which made clash detection and coordination very critical. George Lucas himself was personally involved in all the design decisions, and he strongly pushed the use of advanced technology for the project. The effort of creating and coordinating detailed 3D models for all the different components of the building was well worth it as a lot of conflicts were detected, which would have been very expensive to fix had they remained undetected until the time of construction. In addition to clash detection and coordination, the model was also successfully used for 3D visualization, simulating the construction sequence, and energy analysis, which was important since this was a Gold LEED project. The model was also used to a lesser extent for 4D construction scheduling. Construction on this project began in January 2003 and is now almost complete. There are no definite plans yet to continue to use BIM for facilities management and operations, although that would seem to be the next logical step.

In my newsletter on Autodesk University 2005, I briefly described the keynote address by Tom McCann of Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), that arm of Disney which is responsible for designing and creating the thrills and rides in the 11 Disney theme parks across the world. The process WDI uses to design the attractions has some close parallels with the design and construction of a building, thus making the use of 3D tools equally relevant. At the Expotitions meeting, Chris Holm of WDI shed some more light on this process. WDI refers to their use of modeling technology as "virtual design and construction" rather than BIM, and needless to say, they cannot use traditional BIM tools for designing attractions. However, they do create intelligent 3D models that are primarily focused on the structure of the attraction, for which they use structural BIM applications along with structural analysis tools. Other non-supporting elements of the attraction are also modeled along with the components that make up the ride. 4D time sequencing is then applied to the model to determine critical aspects of the ride such as sequence, flow, speed, and so on. The model is also used for clash detection in the structure, as well as for the prefabrication of the steel required to build the attraction. In addition, once the attraction has been completed and is in operation, the model is used to help the operators better understand how to operate and navigate the rides. In the past, physical models were used for the entire process, which was very difficult, time-consuming, and prone to errors. The move to electronic modeling was initiated in 2001, and each year, some additional steps are taken towards making the transition from paper to digital.

Audience Q/A and Discussion

While there wasn't that much time for an extensive Q/A session at the meeting, some interesting issues did emerge from the discussion. The biggest one was that of the transition to BIM, and the overall consensus was that the "pain" was not really in the technology or in learning it, but in the change of the business process that is involved. To put it in another way, 70% of the change that is needed to move to BIM is going to be cultural, while the technology will account for only 30% of it. All the panelists shared their companies' perspectives on the change issue. The GSA, because of its size, finds itself slower to change, but it is trying to be as adaptive and flexible as possible, and is committed to BIM. Intel, on the other hand, has not yet been able to procure a corporate-wide statement of faith in BIM. In the case of Walt Disney Engineering, the ability to change has become easier in the last 18 months, no doubt because of the rapidly changing pace of technology in general. And as this is only expected to accelerate in the future, the AEC industry should find that change will be much easier and more rapid than is currently anticipated.

For some members of the audience, however, the issue of the technology itself was also of great importance, in particular the dilemma of which BIM solution to adopt. According to them, making the leap to BIM would be so enormously expensive that it cannot be done twice. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to this problem, particularly when a firm is open to solutions from any vendor rather than predisposed or committed to a particular one. The only option then is to carry out a systematic evaluation of all available solutions to determine which one best suits a company's style, philosophy, mode of working, and the other firms it needs to collaborate with.

Getting back to the owner's perspective—which, after all, was what the event was all about—some felt that owners need to look beyond the immediate benefits of BIM in the design and construction phase and focus on the long-term benefits they will realize in their facilities management and operations processes. Others did not think this was the right approach as BIM-based FM tools are not yet available, so the owner should be motivated by the efficiencies in the design and construction stage to stipulate the use of BIM on their projects. Then there were those who even questioned the use of BIM in smaller "real world" projects of under $50 million, in contrast to the larger and signature projects that had been showcased by the panel. According to these AEC professionals, the overall quality of work in the industry was going downhill, drawings were getting less detailed, and ligitation was increasing. In this context, how could BIM help, considering that some subcontractors were so removed from technology that they did not even use email?


The Expotitions meeting ended with more questions than answers for many members of the audience to whom BIM was a new concept, and a follow-up discussion on the same topic is on the agenda for the next meeting in June. As someone who is very familiar with BIM, most of the issues that were discussed were not new to me and having attended several similar sessions in various conferences over the last few years, what continues to surprise me is the amount of time that is still spent on debating BIM. I see BIM as a logical evolution from CAD, the next technological step for the AEC industry, and very much in tune with the technological advancements happening in other fields and in society as a whole. While BIM may be a complex technology, we should try and avoid making its adoption so much more complicated than it needs to be. We spend far too much time dwelling on the difficulties involved in making the change, and we are constantly trying to look too far ahead to see what benefits BIM can bring down the road. While a long-term perspective is important, the focus should be on what we can achieve with BIM in the near term and trying to find the best way to do it. I think we can only make some serious headway with BIM in the AEC industry as a whole when we start taking it for granted—just as we take CAD for granted now—and focus on the "how" rather than on the "why."

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at

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