BIM Goes Mainstream: Graphisoft's New Virtual Construction Solutions

There are strong indicators that Building Information Modeling (BIM) is finally going mainstream in the AEC industry. After months of being discussed and debated about mostly within the architectural community, we are slowly starting to see it emerge within the engineering and construction disciplines as well. CSC, an established UK-based based developer of structural engineering solutions including 3D+, which is based on the BIM concept, recently completed a series of seminars around the UK describing the benefits of BIM to engineers. The ASCE International Conference on Computing in Civil Engineering that will be held in July 2005 has a special session exploring the impact of BIM on the construction industry. The Technology for Construction show coming up soon in January has a session in which building owners, contractors, engineers, architects, and vendors will collectively discuss BIM.

This dissemination of BIM to the broader AEC community also got a shot in the arm with the recent announcement from Graphisoft about the upcoming release in December of its Virtual Construction solutions, designed specifically to bring the benefits of BIM to construction companies. These companies no longer have to depend upon architectural and engineering firms to give them a BIM model they can use. Even if the design and engineering are done using traditional CAD tools, construction companies can create their own intelligent models of building projects from scratch and use them for constructability analysis, accurate estimating, scheduling, and so on. So far, there have been no dedicated solutions for this kind of integrated construction modeling and analysis, and Graphisoft is hoping to capture market share by being the first to offer them to the construction industry. While the Virtual Construction solutions have not yet been released and therefore cannot be reviewed in detail, this issue of the AECbytes newsletter provides an overview of their background and functionality and examines the broader issue of construction modeling in general.

Overview of the Virtual Construction Solutions

Graphisoft is an old hand at BIM; its architectural design solution, ArchiCAD, introduced over 20 years ago was based on the BIM concept from the start. The terminology, however, was different—Graphisoft called it "virtual building" rather than "building information modeling," and it's a term the company still prefers to use. It also has ArchiFM, an application targeted towards the facilities management end of the design, construction, and operation spectrum. By virtue of its strong support for the IFC interoperability standard, ArchiCAD has seen its repertoire extend well beyond these two realms. Most building projects that have attempted to integrate multiple disciplinary tools are based on the use of the IFC and have used ArchiCAD as the modeling front end, a notable example being the new auditorium building at the Helsinki University of Technology in Finland (see an article describing this in detail). Analysis applications such as Energy Plus, model checking applications such as Solibri, and estimating applications such as Timberline's Precision Estimating all work with ArchiCAD models using the IFC file format (see an overview of an interoperability workshop I attended in Cadence AEC Tech News #49).

Several leading construction companies have developed their own custom solutions based upon ArchiCAD for different aspects of their business. These include Skanska from Sweden, Kajima from Japan, and YIT Corporation from Finland. The solution from YIT Corporation, a market leader in the Finnish construction sector, was in research, development, and production for over six years. Graphisoft acquired this solution close to a year ago and has used it as a foundation for developing its Virtual Construction solutions. Since this foundation was developed by a construction company and was in use for several years, it has the advantage of being tested and proven to work in the real world.

The Virtual Construction suite comprises two products: Graphisoft Constructor 2005 and Graphisoft Estimator 2005. The Constructor application, priced at US $6000, includes the ArchiCAD modeling system for creating 3D construction models, a 4D sequencer for automatically linking the construction model to the project schedule and enabling different schedule alternatives to be analyzed, and a connector to the Estimator application that comes bundled with the product. The stand-alone Estimator application is priced at US $4000 and includes a model-based estimating system that extracts quantity information from the construction model for producing estimates quickly and accurately, a traditional estimating system for easing the transition from manual takeoff-based estimating to model-based estimating, a module for dividing the resources created by the estimating application in production zones and for generating procurement requirements, and a 5D reporting system that uses the construction model as the link between cost and time and produces cost-loaded schedules for financial analysis. (The "5D" stands for the 3D model + time sequence + cost.)

There is no scheduling capability within the applications; this functionality is addressed by providing a live, bi-directional link to Primavera's P3 application, from which the scheduling data can be pulled in to create a sequenced model. Also, the estimating functionality is based on a set of construction "recipes" that define the methods of construction for the different building elements and the resources needed to build them. These recipes will differ not only from country to country, but also from firm to firm, and every construction company will need to reconfigure the recipes based on their way of working. Thus, the solutions cannot really be used out of the box but have to be customized by every firm for its individual use.

The recent NIST report on interoperability (see an overview in AECbytes Newsletter #14) estimated the interoperability losses in the U.S. capital facilities industry to be $15.8 billion annually, of which more than 25%—$4.1 billion—occurs at the construction phase. Obviously, there is much money to be saved by using a more efficient and integrated suite of applications for construction. Graphisoft anticipates that construction companies will achieve a minimum cost savings of 2-3% by deploying its new solutions, given their ability to perform constructability analysis, a faster design/cost/time feedback loop, faster and more accurate estimates, optimized construction sequencing, and the synchronization of design, cost and schedule. Considering that the total savings potential in construction is close to 25%, a figure of 2-3% sounds fairly conservative and quite believable rather than overly ambitious. With the high costs of construction projects in general, even a 2-3% cut would result in substantial savings.

The Issue of the Construction Model

While the introduction of Graphisoft's Virtual Construction solutions will make it easier for BIM to be more widely implemented across the entire construction industry, it also poses some interesting questions and challenges. Graphisoft is suggesting that the building model required for construction is substantially different from the model generated during design, and that in most cases, even if a BIM model has been generated by the architect and engineer, it is not very suitable for construction and will have to be substantially reworked—to the extent that it would be easier to simply start from scratch! This is why the new Constructor application includes ArchiCAD, enabling construction companies to use it for developing their own internal models of the project. Graphisoft is also positing that a new kind of professional will emerge in the industry, the "construction modeler," who will have a good knowledge of construction techniques and will be responsible for creating the model accurately using a solution like the Constructor (see a recent Graphisoft white paper on this topic). Until such professionals emerge with the appropriate background and training, construction companies will most likely have to rely on specialized consultation for creating and working with their 5D building models. Graphisoft itself has launched a new group, Graphisoft Construction Services, to provide this kind of specialized consultation. One example of a high-profile project that this group is providing extensive consultation on to the General Contractor, Webcor Builders, is the $300 million California Academy of Sciences building in San Francisco, designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop and Chong Partners Architecture (see Figure 1).

While the argument that the construction model is different from the design model holds weight, its conclusion that the construction model should be recreated from scratch runs counter to the basic concept of BIM—that the same building model serves all the individual, discipline-specific applications that are used to design, construct, and operate buildings. There should be a smart way of deriving a construction model easily from a design model without too much rework. Having separate design and construction models will also result in a bigger quagmire further down the road—which of these two models should be used for facilities management, maintenance, and operations? These are issues that need to be investigated seriously. We need to find better ways to integrate design and construction with the help of BIM rather than drive the wedge between them further.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that new technologies have a life of their own and can change processes and professional dynamics in a way that cannot always be predicted. Dominic Gallello, CEO of Graphisoft, believes that a single model cannot serve all masters as that would ignore serious issues such as liability and compensation that the construction industry faces. "It will take many, many years to work these out," according to him. It will be interesting to see how Graphisoft's Virtual Construction solutions, and others like it that may follow, play out in the construction industry. For now, it is heartening to find traditional design solution vendors break out and address the construction end of the AEC spectrum. The availability of these new solutions should help speed up the much-needed transition of the entire industry from non-intelligent 2D drawings to information-rich building modeling.

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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