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AECbytes "Building the Future" Article (May 24, 2007)

Supporting Technologies for BIM Exhibited at AIA 2007

It has been close to four years since the BIM phenomenon started to gain momentum, and we are at the point where BIM solutions have reached a certain level of maturity. This can be attested to by the fact that we are seeing an increasing number of third-party developers who are building supporting technologies for BIM solutions. BIM is slowly but surely evolving from being just a particular kind of technology to a platform on which a whole slew of supporting technologies can be built, which will extend its capabilities to cover many different aspects of building planning, design, and construction. We can think of BIM as the "operating system," so to say, of the next generation of AEC technology.

This month's issue of the "Building the Future" series provides a more detailed look at some of the supporting technologies for BIM that were being showcased at the AIA 2007 National Convention and Expo, held in San Antonio from May 3 to 5. It is a follow-up to AECbytes Newsletter #30, published earlier this month, which captured the main highlights from the Expo floor, including new releases and upcoming versions of BIM applications, other design and visualization solutions, as well as hardware and software solutions for printing, publishing, and collaboration. Many of the supporting technologies profiled in this article are in the area of BIM content and content management, and as you will see, they raise an interesting question of how exactly the AEC industry wants its BIM content.

Trelligence Affinity

Affinity, developed by Trelligence, is an architectural programming, space planning, and schematic design application that extends BIM to the pre-design phase of building projects. It includes customizable questionnaires that can be used to capture project and client requirements—not just spaces and their areas but also spatial relationships, finish details, and size/cost constraints. These requirements can then be used to drive the creation of schematic designs using integrated space planning tools within Affinity (see Figure 1-a). A data analysis engine keeps track of the requirements as the design is developed, and allows them to be reviewed to ensure validity in the design. Once the schematic design has been finalized, it can be exported to any CAD or BIM application for further development. Relevant project information can also be exported to cost estimation and project management tools if required.

Trelligence made its debut at last year's AIA show, and returned this year with a major new release of Affinity, version 5.0, which now includes bi-directional integration with Autodesk Revit and enhances the integration it had with Graphisoft's ArchiCAD. The bi-directional link allows the design development in these BIM applications to continue to be tracked against the client's requirements captured in Affinity. Figure 1-b shows an Affinity project that has been loaded into Revit to generate the corresponding Revit spaces. All Affinity project information is now readily available from within Revit, including the space program, as well as data properties and reports. The program view, as shown in Figure 1-b, includes the target square footage for each space as specified in the program alongside the actual square footage from the Revit project file, enabling quick and easy comparison of the design with the program.



Figure 1
. (a) The schematic design interface of Trelligence Affinity, showing a design scenario being explored by dragging spaces from the program building blocks and laying them out in the first story of the building. (b) The bi-directional link between Affinity and Revit, showing the same Affinity schematic design and related space program loaded into Revit. (Courtesy: Trelligence)

Affinity 5 also includes several new features and enhancements for space planning, including support for multi-phased programs, multiple buildings and department-level planning, improved schematic design object manipulation and visualization, a new Template Editor desktop and toolkit, and expansion of the report generation capability to include Room and Equipment data sheets. The application is available as a stand-alone application, or in two additional versions that integrate either with ArchiCAD or with Revit. While integrated space programming and planning is still a relatively new technology concept in the AEC industry, the application is gaining momentum and visibility through its use by high-profile firms such as Parsons Brinckerhoff, Linbeck Construction, and SOM.

ADSearch from Architectural Data Systems

In an earlier article on Autodesk University 2006, I had described the ADSymphony product developed by Architectural Data Systems (ADS), which integrates product selection, schedule generation, specification generation, and organizing and managing object information. ADS used the AIA show to launch a new product, ADSearch, an attribute-based search engine tool that allows users to find products from the growing ADS library of over 1000 manufacturers' catalogs. It provides multiple product results in one search so that products can be easily compared on an "apples to apples" basis, eliminating the hassle of browsing several sites and comparing products in a roundabout fashion. An important feature of the tool is ADSearch-Green, which is dedicated to finding building products that are eligible for LEED credits.

What makes ADSearch a supporting technology for BIM is its ability to be integrated within Revit, AutoCAD Architecture, and AutoCAD, in addition to being available online. The integration works by downloading a free plug-in from the ADS website. Once this is installed, it allows ADSearch to be activated from within the Autodesk applications just mentioned. (The integration with Revit Architecture 2008 is currently in a beta version.) As shown in Figure 2, you can now select an object within the application and use ADSearch to find specific product data for that object. Making a selection will replace the generic attributes of the object in the application with the specific attributes of the selected product, including its geometry if the product has a graphical component. ADSearch also works as the gateway to ADSymphony, ADS' flagship product mentioned earlier, linking the product selection with the automated production of schedules and specifications.



Figure 2
. The integration of ADSearch within AutoCAD Architecture. The sequence of images shows connecting a brick wall to specific product data via the use of filters in ADSearch. (Courtesy: ADS)

Tectonic BIM Library Manager and Quantity TakeOff

Tectonic Partners Inc. returned to the AIA show after a gap of two years (they last exhibited at the AIA 2005 Convention) to show their new BIM Library Manager application specifically designed for the organization, management, naming and selection of Revit object families used in the creation of Revit building models. The application also comes with an extensive collection of parametric families of 2D and 3D objects such as doors, windows, cabinets, plumbing, lighting, etc., which Revit users can include in their models. Families are the backbone of the Revit application, and as the use of Revit expands, the number of families used in projects continues to rise, bringing with it challenges such as inconsistent naming conventions, storage on multiple computers rather than in a single location making them often difficult to find, an overall lack of management and organization, and very often, the lack of properly modeled families. The BIM Library Manager is aiming to address all these challenges through a simple interface for collecting, organizing, and presenting content in families, and by including naming guidelines for a consistent and logical naming system. Figure 3-a shows how the families in a library are organized hierarchically by category and type, and can be visualized in 3D with thumbnails and DWF views, along with their property sets. To use a particular family in a Revit project, it just needs to be dragged and dropped from the interface. BIM Library Manager can reside on individual computers or on a firm's network. It is licensed on a per-seat, yearly subscription basis. Tectonic plans to continue developing well modeled families and making them available to customers through a link on their website.

Tectonic also offers the Family Content Publisher, which works as a companion product to BIM Library Manager. It plugs into Revit Architecture 2008 to automate the process of adding the Revit family files that come with the application, or are obtained from other sources, into the BIM Library Manager content management system. Additionally, Tectonic is also developing a Quantity Take Off application, Tectonic QTO, which works as a plug-in to BIM Library Manager. Currently available in beta mode, it works by segregating those Revit families that are used in a project and associating unit line items from line item databases to the Revit elements. It also includes an assembly editor and unit line item calculator to describe constituent products of Revit families that aren't represented explicitly in Revit and rules to calculate their quantities. Tectonic has designed the BIM Library Manager to serve as a platform for plugging in future Tectonic products similar to the QTO application.



Figure 3
. (a) The different features of the BIM Library Manager interface. (b) The beta version of the Tectonic QTO application. (Courtesy: Tectonic)

BIMLibrary and BIMContentManager from BIMWorld

BIMWorld is a relatively new company established after the BIM buzzword was introduced and caught on in the AEC industry, and is the first to capitalize on BIM in its name. It certainly won't be the last, going by the number of companies as well as publications that were established in the CAD era with the word CAD as part of their names! BIMWorld is focused on developing building product manufacturer-specific BIM content as well as generic 3D product models in its BIMLibrary resource. The current count of objects in this library is over 18,000, ranging from 2D drawing files, image texture files, and 3D models for use in Google Sketchup, Autodesk Revit, Graphisoft ArchiCAD, Bentley Architecture, AutoCAD, and other applications. The BIMLibrary resource is free for users—you can download as many models and files as required. BIMWorld earns its revenue from the product manufacturers who contract it to build models of their products in many of the popular formats and host them in BIMLibrary. As shown in Figure 4-a, the BIMLibrary interface allows users to search for content by manufacturer, MasterFormat04, Uniformat, or by product attributes. It also allows users to upload their models for sharing with other users.

While BIMWorld did not have a dedicated booth at the AIA show, it was showcasing its services alongside some of its product manufacturer clients such as EFCO, Delta Faucet and Elgin Butler. In addition to promoting its BIMLibrary resource, it used the AIA show to release a new product called BIMContentManager, which is intended to serve as a content management solution for Autodesk Revit and AutoCAD DWG files (see Figure 4-b), similar in some ways to the Tectonic BIM Library Manager for Revit. BIMContentManager allows you to manage Revit family (RFA, RVG) files on your computer and company network and optionally publish them to the Web for sharing and collaboration. Other key features include an interface where content can be viewed as thumbnails in a grid display with the ability to dynamically resize thumbnails using a slider; the ability to sort families by any number of fields, including Supplier, Uniformat, Masterformat, Path, Filename, Cost, etc.; and the ability to associate custom images and multiple URLs to families. The BIMContentManager also lets users manage products specified inside of each Revit project—it will extract all the families that have been defined in the project and sort them by type, allowing content to be managed at a project-by-project level with the creation of custom project libraries.



Figure 4
. (a) BIMWorld's BIMLibrary resource, allowing content to be searched in different ways. (b) A snapshot of the new BIMContentManager application. (Courtesy: BIMWorld)

Form Fonts

Form Fonts is a company also focused on providing content and content management, but with a somewhat different approach than ADS, Tectonic and BIMWorld. It is a web-based subscription service that provides professionally-created, low polygon count 3D models (see Figure 5) and textures for a low monthly fee. Its content library currently has close to 26,000 objects in a wide array of file formats, including GDL that is used in ArchiCAD. Thus, Form Fonts is not focused only on Autodesk applications like some of its competitors, and does not subscribe to the business model of providing free content to users, the creation of which is driven by and paid for by building product manufacturers. Instead, it is focused on expanding its subscription base of individual and corporate subscribers, which already includes large architecture firms such as Anshen+Allen, HOK, and WATG.



Figure 5
. Newly added 3D models to the Form Fonts collection available for download to subscribers.

For its corporate subscribers, Form Fonts has developed an enterprise-level content management solution, the EdgeServer, which is installed on-site, providing faster access at a reduced bandwidth to Form Fonts' content libraries. Additionally, the EdgeServer clients are provided with exclusive access to a sharing and collaboration platform that Form Fonts has established called SharedNet. It allows EdgeServer clients to exchange virtual building objects and other digital assets either on a one-to-one or one-to-many basis. The content is exchanged server-to-server, so that each firm has a local copy of the shared content on their respective server. Form Fonts essentially allows firms to meet their content demand in three ways: by accessing the Form Fonts content library; by sharing their own content on a peer-to-peer basis; by contracting Form Fonts to develop custom content on demand. The SharedNet has been under development for over than a year, and Form Fonts has been beta-testing EdgeServers with key architecture firms for the past 3 months.

Concluding Thought: How Do We Want Our BIM Content?

It was just last year at the AIA TAP 2006 conference that we were still bemoaning the lack of participation from product manufacturers in supplying BIM models of their products, which AEC professionals could use in their BIM applications. All of a sudden, we are now seeing a lot of momentum along the BIM content front, with several new ventures being started to take advantage of what seems like a very compelling business opportunity. Four of these were profiled in this article, and as we have seen, each one of them has a different approach to solving the problem. If we are not careful, this field could soon turn messy and confusing, making it worse than when no one was doing anything about it.

It might be useful for the AEC industry, at this juncture, to evaluate all these diverse approaches and determine which is the best way it needs its BIM content. Do we really need separate BIM models for each product of every manufacturer, or can we get by with a more limited set of generic object models to which differentiating properties can be attached as text attributes? If the main purpose of BIM is to capture the information about the different components of a building and how they come together, the latter approach can be more efficient and simple, with textual information playing a key role in the building description. However, if we require highly accurate 3D visualizations that will replicate the actual building as much as possible, there will be a great demand for manufacturer-specific BIM models.

Now that we actually have several vendors focused on this business, let's spend some time figuring out what exactly we want from them.

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 lachmi@aecbytes.com.

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