AECbytes Product Review (July 22, 2008)
DProfiler: A "Macro" BIM Solution
DProfiler is a “macro” BIM software targeted towards the planning and conceptual design phase to get an accurate cost estimate of a proposed design.
Pros: Integrated with the popular RSMeans cost database that is updated quarterly to stay current; includes additional modules for integration with Timberline’s estimating applications and energy analysis with eQuest; easy to use interface with SketchUp-like massing model capability; includes site design tools with an AutoPark feature to automate parking layouts; large building type database that allows real-time cost estimates; multiple options for viewing and editing costs; IFC export capability for connecting to downstream applications; detailed tutorials that make the application easy to learn.
Cons: Modeling approach is somewhat constrained, making it more suitable for “after-the-fact” design representation rather than for actual design conceptualization; room layout tools are awkward to use, with no traditional floor plan or space plan representation; no model integrity checks; some ambiguity on the best user for the tool, with the costing interface too overwhelming for the architect, and the modeling aspect not customary for the contractor.
Price: Entry point is an annual license at $3400/yr; most customers choose network license that costs $7500 + $1500 annually for support and maintenance; list price of non-subscription version is $5000.
In my recent article on the AIA 2008 National Convention and Expo, I provided a brief overview of a relatively new application called DProfiler, which was being exhibited at the AIA show for the first time. DProfiler is being marketed by its developer, Beck Technology, as a “macro” BIM software intended for use at the planning and conceptual design phase to get an accurate cost estimate of a proposed design. It does this by integrating the well-known RSMeans costing within the application, with over 20,000 assembly cost databases that are used to provide an interactive cost estimate on the fly as you are modeling the design. The application is designed to be simple and easy to use, since it is targeted towards the conceptual design stage. It also comes with additional capabilities such as energy analysis and integration with Sage Timberline Office estimating applications, available as separate modules that plug into the main application Let’s take a detailed look to see how DProfiler works and how it compares with the more common BIM applications such as Revit, Bentley, and ArchiCAD.
Why a “Macro” BIM Solution?
Beck Technology is a subsidiary of The Beck Group, a leading architecture, construction, and development company that started off as HCB Contractors, Ltd., all the way back in 1912. The company has a history of developing technology solutions to better meet its needs. It had developed a BIM-like solution called DESTINI to integrate the different building disciplines and had derived many improvements in design, cost, and schedule in its projects from it (the term “BIM” had not yet been introduced at that time). DESTINI was customized for office buildings, and captured not just building information but also some intelligence and rules specific to office design.
The success it achieved with DESTINI led the company to form a separate group, Beck Technology, to focus on developing a more general solution that could be applied to any building type. This was the time when the concept of BIM had recently been introduced in the AEC industry, with Autodesk establishing Revit’s presence and other existing solutions such as ArchiCAD and Bentley Building rebranding themselves as BIM. From Beck's perspective, these solutions dealt with "micro models" that provide value primarily in design development and the production of better coordinated construction documents. All the downstream benefits such as cost estimating and construction scheduling come only later, after the BIM development has been done using these solutions. They do not help to answer the most fundamental question early on in the process, namely "Should I build this project?"
This is where the idea behind DProfiler was born. It was developed by Beck Technology to address the limitations of the "micro model" BIM solutions, and works as a "macro model" BIM solution that integrates conceptual 3D modeling with cost estimating. DProfiler made its debut as a commercial tool in late 2006 and has been used on over 400 building projects to date. In addition to in-house use by The Beck Group, it has been used by AEC firms such as SOM, Mortenson, RTKL, Perkins+Will, TWC Construction, and Clark Construction Company and now has 30% of ENR's top 50 US contractors as its customers. Some of the projects on which DProfiler has been used at the preliminary design stage are illustrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The use of DProfiler on an office building, shown in the top image, and a medical office building, shown in the lower image. (Courtesy: Beck Technology)
Creating a Model in DProfiler
When you start a new project in DProfiler, you can enter the details about it in the “New Project Wizard” interface shown in Figure 2-a. The two most critical items in this interface are the Zip Code and the Building Type. If a Zip Code is not entered, DProfiler will use national average cost values from the RSMeans database to calculate the cost estimates. If a Zip Code is entered, the costs will be adjusted based on the appropriate regional deviations from the national average. Similarly, making the appropriate selection from the Building Type drop-down list allows the correct cost information to be applied to the model components automatically. The application comes with a detailed explanation of all the included building types, as shown in Figure 2-b, outlining each of the individual components, assemblies, item numbers, and formulae used in the cost calculations. Users can also create their own building types to supplement those provided with the application.
Figure 2. (a) Starting a new project in DProfiler by specifying the building type. (b) The database of all the predefined building types that comes with the application.
The DProfiler graphical interface provides the ability to model components grouped under seven main categories, which are referred to as “systems.” These can be seen in the Toolbar to the left of the DProfiler interface shown in Figure 3, and include:
- Earth: This includes components that allow the model to be exported to Google Earth.
- Site: This includes components such as the site boundary, setbacks, landscape and landscape buffers, detentions, easements, roads, footpaths, and parking.
- Building: This includes massing blocks and features that can be used to describe ornamental elements on a building such as canopies.
- Structure: This includes structural lines that can be added to the massing blocks to indicate the positions of the slabs, beams, and columns.
- Cladding: This includes cladding and cladding patterns that can be created and applied as panels to the faces of the massing model.
- Interior: This includes three different types of rooms—Plenum rooms, which run up to 3’ from the top of the slab above to provide room for ductwork, plumbing, and electrical conduits; Demising rooms, which run all the way up to the slab above; and Shaft rooms, which run up to whatever height is specified.
- Mechanical: This includes thermal zones that can be defined on a floor for costing as well as energy analysis.
Clicking on a System expands it to show the creation and modification tools for its components. It also disables the other systems, making it easier for the user to create, modify, and remove the components of that system without interfering with the components of other systems. Based on the creation or modification tool that is selected, additional relevant toolbars open up containing the lower-level tools that will be required. So, for instance, selecting the Massing tool under the Building system, as shown in Figure 3, opens up three dynamic toolbars that contain various options for the type of base drawing, type of form, and reference plane orientation, allowing a building mass to be sculpted as required. As you can see, the tools allow you to create fairly complex forms with lines and curves, but do not include any freeform or organic modeling capability.
Figure 3. Selecting the Massing option under the Building system opens up the dynamic toolbars containing the various tools needed for creating massing blocks.
The modeling approach in DProfiler is quite different from that of other BIM applications and takes a while to get used to. You would typically not start by creating a floor plan, as you would in most other applications. In fact, you cannot even create the traditional floor plan in DProfiler, as there are no wall, door, or window tools. You can create rooms of the three kinds listed under the Interiors system—plenum, demising, and shaft—and place them next to each other to simulate a floor plan. But there is no way to display the room name or area graphically yet, which makes it difficult to use the application for actual space planning. (This feature is expected to be available in the next release). You could, however, import a floor plan drawing in DWG or DXF format and use that as a reference for creating the rooms. Alternately, you could also import room data from an Excel spreadsheet and place those rooms in the project. But you cannot create floor plans on multiple levels unless you first create a building mass and then use the Structure components to designate the different floors within this mass. In effect, you really have to model the building from the “outside-in” with DProfiler; you cannot simply define the floor levels, model the floor plans at each level, and let that be your building form, which is the “inside-out” approach commonly followed by architects and facilitated by other BIM applications.
The “outside-in” approach followed by DProfiler is demonstrated by the example shown in Figure 4, which takes the building mass created in Figure 3 and adds to it the structure, cladding, and interior rooms sequentially. For the structure, shown in Figure 4-a, the grid lines were added by breaking up the larger dimension lines into smaller segments along all three directions. The vertical segments create the floor slabs, while structural columns are inferred at the intersections of the horizontal and vertical grid lines. The grid lines go uniformly across the complete building mass, which means that if you want to have different portions with different structural grids, they must be created as separate masses. For the cladding, shown in Figure 4-b, you can select different materials from the Materials palette and draw panels directly on the building mass, or use the Fill tool to fill out an entire area with the selected material. Once created, cladding patterns can be quickly copied over to other parts of the façade and can also be saved in a Patterns palette for re-use in other projects. Interior rooms on a particular floor, as shown in Figure 4-c, are best created by turning off the visibility of all other components except that floor through the Layers palette. In the example shown, all three room types have been created. While the heights of the plenum and demising rooms are automatically calculated based on the height of the floor above, the heights of the shaft rooms have to be specified. Rooms can be selected and copied across to other floors, but this has to be done floor by floor—there’s no short-cut to replicate them across multiple floors in one step, which would have been convenient.
Figure 4. Adding structure, cladding, and rooms to the building mass created in Figure 3.
The site design makes up an important component of the overall cost of a project, and DProfiler includes a relatively large set of components that can be used to design the site and cost it more accurately. Figure 5 shows the sample model with various site components added, including roads, footpaths, landscape areas, and parking. The estimated parking needed for the sample project based on the building type that was selected in the beginning is displayed, and DProfiler has a convenient AutoPark tool that can lay out the parking spaces automatically in a designated parking area. The parking layout shown in Figure 5 was created using the AutoPark tool, and it created more than the number of required parking spots. It works by specifying the direction of the drive aisles and the entry and exit-ways.
Figure 5. Adding site components to the model.
Getting Cost Estimates
Let’s move on to look at the crux of the application, the real-time cost estimating feature that comes from being integrated with the RSMeans cost database. Produced and maintained by Reed Construction Data, this database is updated on a quarterly basis to capture the most current cost information, and the updated version is sent out to all DProfiler customers who are on the paid maintenance and support program. RSMeans includes over 120,000 Line Items and over 20,000 Conceptual Assemblies that can be applied to components within the project to determine a budget. The Line Items are classified into one of the 16 divisions of the CSI MasterFormat as well as the appropriate Uniformat Category so they may be retrieved easily. An Assembly is a grouping of Line Items that make up a single cost item in a project such as a slab or curtain wall, making it easier to quickly and consistently associate Line Items to components in a project. DProfiler also includes the concept of Collections, which are groupings of Assemblies and/or individual Line Items applied to higher level categories of components such as an entire roof system, designed to make the costing process even more efficient.
The Building Types predefined in DProfiler, that were shown in Figure 2, are the direct mapping of Collections, Assemblies, and Line Items to model components that can be created in a project. This mapping, based on the Building Type that was selected in the beginning, is what allows the costs to become available in real-time as the project is being modeled. The detailed costs associated with each separate component can be seen by switching from the Spatial View, which was the one active while modeling, to the Tabular View, shown in Figure 6. This shows the costing information in a spreadsheet format, with different tabs for the different types of components. The one illustrated in Figure 6 is the Massings tab, which in the sample project, comprises a single building mass called “Building1.” The cost information can be expanded to see the contributing Line Items, Variables, and Collections that make up the component, each in separate tabs as shown. Cost information that is nested can be further expanded to drill down to the details, as demonstrated in the Collections tab. You can see how the Building Type that was selected for the project (Office, 5-10 Storey) determines the cost calculation.
Figure 6. The Tabular View showing the details of all the cost information associated with the Building1 massing component, including the contributing Line Items, Variables, and Collections in three separate tabs.
In the Tabular view, you can also directly edit the cost associated with a component if the default cost is not suitable. As shown in Figure 6, each cost component can be expanded to manipulate the cost items that make up the component. You can modify its formula as well as unit cost. You can also add new cost items for the component or remove existing cost items. The changes that are made can be saved to the database so they apply to all future models; alternately, the original costs associated with a component or line item can be restored from the database at any time.
The costing information can also be viewed in the Estimate View tab, located right next to the Tabular View tab. Unlike the Tabular View that separates costs by component type and then by component, the Estimate View brings all of the costs in the model together in one location to give a holistic view of the model’s costs. It has different viewing options that can be turned on and off by toggling the three buttons located at the top. For example, when the Summarize button is selected, as in the top image in Figure 7, you can see the total aggregate cost and aggregate cost per unit within each available WBS (Work Breakdown Structure) classification. In the example shown, the UNIFORMAT Level 1 system was selected, but you can choose any other WBS option from the Customization dialog. When the Summarize button is turned off, as in the lower image in Figure 7, the Estimate View displays each unique item in the estimate. All similar line items applied in the model are represented as one line item in the Estimate View with the quantity and aggregate costs representing the sum of these line items. The other two buttons in the Estimate View interface, Expand Grouped Items and Break Out Conceptuals, similarly provide options to view groupings and assemblies in more detail.
Figure 7. Seeing the total project costs in the Estimate View tab, first by selecting the Summarize option and then by turning it off.
DProfiler provides yet another interface for understanding project costs. This is the Line Items View, and it brings together all the line items that have been applied to the model into a single place, allowing for all cost items in the model to be reconciled.
Reporting is another critical requirement in any kind of estimating application, and DProfiler allows reports to be generated from each of the costing Views described above as well as CSI and UNIFORMAT cost reports. These can be generated in a variety of file formats such as PDF, HTML, DOC, XLS, as well as CEF (Cost Estimate Format) which is an open format utilizing an XML schema. You can also export the model information into a user-defined template to see a Proforma view of the project, where the soft costs can be reviewed, modified, and then merged with the project’s hard costs to determine lease rates and return on investment (see Figure 8). A sample Proforma template based on a single use tenant is provided with the application.
Figure 8. Generating a Proforma view of the project by using the built-in Proforma template.
Energy Analysis and Other Capabilities
Given the increasing demand for green buildings and sustainable design, DProfiler attempts to address this need by including an optional Energy Analysis module, so that a proposed design can be evaluated not just on the basis of cost by also by its energy performance. The module works by integrating with the DOE-2 based energy simulation tool, eQuest, and is priced for purchase separately. When a license for this module has been obtained, it is installed as a plug-in and appears as additional menu items, tabs, commands, tools, and functionality within the DProfiler interface. One of the key components is the Energy Analysis Settings dialog, shown in Figure 9, where you can review and configure various settings for the project that will influence how the energy calculations take place. Also, in the graphical interface shown in Figure 3, you can see that there is a Mechanical Systems tab—this is for defining thermal zones within the model. In addition, many of the components already created in the project such as massings, slabs, rooms, and glazed cladding come with some predefined mechanical properties that can be modified as required. All of this information, in addition to the geographical location of the project as specified by its Zip Code, is used in running the energy analysis. After the analysis has been completed, the results can be viewed under the Mechanical View tab, as shown in Figure 9. The project data also can be exported to eQuest for a more detailed analysis of the project within that application.
Figure 9. The Energy Analysis Settings dialog and the analysis results for a sample project.
For those who have Timberline Estimating and prefer to continue using that for their estimating needs, a Timberline Integration Module is also available separately that allows them to re-use their Timberline cost data with DProfiler.
Other capabilities of the application include Google Earth integration, which works similar to other CAD and BIM applications (see, for example, ArchiCAD’s integration with Google Earth described in this Tips and Tricks article). Points or sites geo-referenced in Google Earth can be imported into DProfiler for the creation of projects, which can then be exported back to Google Earth for viewing and navigation.
With regard to interoperability with other CAD, BIM, and graphics applications, DProfiler’s Import capabilities are limited primarily to DWG/DXF that can be used to bring in CAD drawings as a reference for modeling. The Export capabilities are more extensive, and include formats such as IGES, DWG/DXF, STL for 3D printing, various image file formats, and IFC, which enables a conceptual design started in DProfiler to be further developed in another BIM application such as Revit, ArchiCAD, or Bentley Architecture.
Strengths and Limitations
It has been well established in the AEC industry that the most critical decisions about a project are made at the early stages, so the rationale behind DProfiler is very sound. It can be used at the start of the project to quickly create a simple model of the site design and the building design, but which can still yield detailed and accurate cost estimates. The model is easy to change, which allows numerous project alternatives to be evaluated with very little effort. In addition to the RSMeans cost database which provides cost information for close to 1000 cities across the US and Canada, Beck Technology is looking to integrate DProfiler with other cost databases around the world, so that the product can be used globally. DProfiler’s additional capability to integrate with Timberline’s estimating applications or just work with cost data contained in Excel spreadsheets also allows it to be used for project locations not served by RSMeans. The energy analysis integration with eQuest is an added plus, allowing for the quick evaluation of different materials, building shape and orientation, structural systems, and mechanical systems from a sustainability perspective. The application is well supported by good documentation, including detailed tutorials that take you step by step through the modeling of a project, with the corresponding DProfiler files included for every stage of the model.
The modeling interface, for the most part, is relatively simple and intuitive. The massing model tools, in particular, have some similarities with SketchUp, and are much easier to use than, say, Revit’s massing interface. Cladding is also easy to apply to the mass, and the site components can be quickly and accurately laid out. The Autoparking capability is extremely useful and a great time-saver. If the building shape is fairly regular, the structural grid is easy to lay out, but for a complex shape with a non-uniform grid, the modeling is not as straight-forward. I found the interface for modeling rooms the most non-intuitive, being so accustomed to the “floor plan” capabilities of other applications. Even the terminology of “plenum” versus “demising” rooms seemed somewhat odd, and made me wonder how important the distinction between the two was from a cost perspective. This was more so after finding out that the application does not automatically account for wall overlaps between rooms in its costing. If that is considered as negligible, it would seem that the height difference between plenum and demising rooms would also be negligible.
It is also worthwhile noting that DProfiler does not include any model integrity checks or enforce it in any way, so rooms can intersect with each other or jut out of the building mass without any warnings or error messages. While model integrity may not be a significant issue for cost estimating, it does play an important role in energy analysis. It is not clear how a model that may not be fully correct gets “cleaned up” before being processed for energy analysis.
As far as interoperability with other applications is concerned, I think DProfiler has done well to provide export capabilities to all the key formats. The IFC export capability will be extremely useful to take the conceptual model for further development in other BIM applications, and serves to strengthen the case for the IFC—which seemed to become somewhat diminished following the recent Autodesk-Bentley interoperability announcement. I did not find the lack of IFC import or SketchUp import as a serious limitation, as it would be difficult to map any imported model to the unique way in which the model is created and represented in DProfiler.
I found DProfiler a very interesting application, as it raises several intriguing questions about the business and process of AEC. The most fundamental question is whether there is an inherent paradox in pairing preliminary conceptual design with a detailed cost estimate. It is almost difficult to believe that the numbers presented by DProfiler can represent an accurate cost estimate, given the simplicity of the model and how quickly it can be put together. But according to Beck Technology, the use of this tool on numerous projects by The Beck Group and other customers has produced estimates that are within 5% of the actual cost, as opposed to the 20% margin of general rules of thumb and other preliminary stage estimating methods. The same question also applies to energy analysis, and as this capability was introduced in DProfiler only very recently, it is too early to say how accurate the energy predictions from the conceptual model have been found to be.
The other main question that emerges is who would use this tool. Ideally, it should be the architect, but its modeling interface lacks the fluidity architects are used to and it is also difficult to use it for space planning. This means that the actual process of conceptualizing the design must still take place elsewhere, and the design must then be recreated in DProfiler to get an understanding of the costs. But will architects want to learn another tool and accommodate one more workflow? Also, do they understand costing to the detailed extent provided by DProfiler? For contractors, of course, the costing capability makes the use of the tool a no-brainer, provided they are brought into the design process early on. They would still have to learn to use the modeling interface, or train some in-house architects on how to do that. The best use of DProfiler is really by developers, as they can use it to determine project costs early on—even before hiring architects and contractors—and provide the results as the starting point for the design team.
That said, DProfiler is still a fairly new application, with plenty of leeway to evolve and grow in the direction that is deemed most suitable by existing and potential new users. It is terrific to find that the concept of BIM has not stopped at Revit—despite Revit’s overwhelming success as a BIM application—and that there are others in the industry who are pushing the envelope and seeing what else BIM can do for us.
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
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