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The brave new world of BIM and big data

Image courtesy of Autodesk.
Image courtesy of Autodesk.

Following is an edited extract from our Smart Building: what you need to know about the BIM and digital tech revolution ebook.

Building Information Modelling, or BIM, is transforming the business of designing and constructing buildings and major infrastructure, driving efficiency, reducing errors and risk, and dramatically improving collaboration between the various disciplines and stakeholders.

Used for decades by industries such as car and aircraft manufacturing, BIM allows all stakeholders to participate in the design process by contributing vital information throughout the project. Architects, engineers, construction service providers and building owners can input data to the underlying database that drives the 3D model. Any changes that are made throughout the project lifecycle are automatically updated so that everyone is talking the same language and literally see the same pictures.

Australians have embraced BIM enthusiastically. According to a 2014 survey of professionals across the construction industry by McGraw Hill Construction, Australia is outperforming more established BIM markets in key areas such as return on investment, innovative new services and in expansion of BIM to construction-related industries such as manufacturing.

Sustainability is a key driver for Australian BIM practitioners – twice as important as it is to global users.

More than half of the Australian design professionals in the survey expected to be heavy users of BIM on more than 60 per cent of projects by the end of 2015. Positive ROI was reported by 75 per cent of firms using BIM, 30 per cent citing ROI of 25 per cent or higher.

The top five benefits cited by Australian firms include:

  • reducing errors
  • promoting an industry leader image
  • reducing rework
  • improving collaboration
  • offering new services

No longer an add-on

Chris Tate, practice director information and design technology with BVN, says uptake of BIM in the architecture, design and construction industry is happening rapidly, and is now widely seen as an integral part of the design process.

“People are now seeing BIM and advanced technology use as something we do rather than a value-add. At BVN the technology is embedded in everything we do and BIM is used on every single project,” Tate says.

“We find tremendous internal benefits in managing data associated with buildings and with our designs and using that more effectively on future projects.”

A key benefit is the ability to produce statistics and schedules and tangible information out of the design process. For example, in a hospital design, details such as walking distances between departments and the number of doors in each department can all be very useful for developing future designs.

Having tangible, real outputs to draw upon is also very handy for convincing clients that a particular approach is the best way forward.

“More important though,” Tate says, “is being able to challenge previous projects and assess whether it was the best approach. It is easy to compare and contrast.”

In residential design, with aspects like daylighting compliance and associated guidelines from government, BIM allows designers to quickly regenerate and iterate through different options, while also ensuring compliance.

“We can allow the technology to manage these for us rather than having to recreate and then retest a particular design,” Tate says.

Not all clients understand the benefits, particularly if they have had little experience with the technology. They may question the need for so much information at the start of a project and see the BIM process as costing more, adding it to the initial capital cost of the asset rather than applying the cost across the 35-year lifecycle of a building.

This is beginning to change now that contractors and building owners are exploiting the information from the design and construction process.

“Contractors like to exploit the information for procurement and pricing and things like construction sequencing, which is where they virtually construct the building to check out logistics and crane positions and other things that allow them to shorten the construction phase. They like to be able to take this to the client as a virtual window to the asset they’ve procured.”

But does a design firm who uses BIM cost actually more than one that doesn’t? Absolutely not, Tate says.

“Anything we spend in terms of additional technology or skilled people we gain back five- or sixfold in efficiency. In some cases we’ve reduced what would have been a 1000-hour process down to two hours. We actively pursue these efficiencies. In addition, because of the automation, the technology reduces the number of processes involving human error so there is a greater level of assurance that what we produce is correct.”

Prefab the next frontier

Tom Leyden, director of information technology with Woods Bagot, believes the next big thing with BIM is to move into the prefabrication industry. Now that the models are so advanced and the data so accurate, the next step is to move straight from design to manufacturing.

“This reduces time, waste, energy and cost,” Leyden says, “making it a much better experience for the whole industry and really reducing the environmental impact of buildings.”

At this point not all manufacturing equipment is ready to take that leap. While architects and engineers might have the skills and models, the whole industry needs to step up before it can become the norm.

“Some economies and industries are a bit more advanced so this may be happening faster. In the US they’ve come out of a recession and they’ve become very clever with costs. They’ve got the scale as well to make it more possible.”

Another area for expansion, now that the 3D modelling is well understood, is adding a layer of computational design to further inform design. An example of where this is useful is designing facades that maximise light to the interior but minimise heat.

“We’re just starting to see the benefits of this added layer of computational design,” Leyden says. “At the moment it is not as fluid as it should be. Computers are really good at one part and humans at another part – it’s a matter of trusting each other and understanding the strengths of both to get the balance right.”

Sustainability outcomes

And in terms of sustainability, BIM offers enormous advantages.

“Being able to predict energy use of a building over its lifetime well in advance of anything being built is enormously useful. You can optimise that by looking at things like wind flows and sunlight into certain areas. And then you can model out how people will use the building and maximise the internal workings of the building,” Leyden says.

“It’s really clever stuff. In the past there was a lot of guessing and you couldn’t be sure until the building was used. The certainty now gives people an incentive to invest.”

And for the future? Leyden believes BIM and its use of big data will really allow designers and building owners to maximise the space inside buildings and in urban spaces by predicting how people interact in that space.

Multi-use spaces will become easier to predict and design. This is already happening with airports, hospitals and retail.

“We’re getting really good now at using the big data that is available and putting that into the design. For example, at airports we can put in data on how long people spend between check-in and boarding and where they spend their time. This helps us design things like the retail space and maximise use of that space, which leads to better rents and a much better experience for people moving through airports,” Leyden says.

“It’s about taking big data and using it to inform design and to improve design. That is a really big focus for us.”

Thanks to lead sponsor Newforma and event sponsor JLL.

Read the full ebook.

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