BIM and the Built Environment - John H Spain

    John H Spain

    The majority of projects I have worked on over the last few years have been modeled using Autodesk’s Revit.  I thought of them as BIM projects.  Naturally, I found the suggestion to write an article examining whether BIM is helping us design better buildings intriguing.  My own initial, pat, answer was that BIM is essentially another pencil in the box; that architectural and engineering design was an act of the mind – a way of thinking.  BIM, I thought, was a choice among methods to document that process.

    But a conversation with Megan Johnson – Director of BIM at Odell Architects has convinced me that I profoundly misunderstood BIM, and have never really worked on a BIM project.  I need to rephrase the question “is BIM helping us design better” to “is BIM helping improve the built environment and its management.

    I worked with Megan several years ago at Glavé & Holmes Architecture while she was also teaching a course to design students at VCU on Revit modeling.  She then went on to Baskervill where she trained other architects to use Revit.  There she began working with Bruce Brooks – who was doing BIM for healthcare clients.  Since then, she has been working primarily doing BIM – “not doing architecture,” moving on to Odell where she directs a BIM division independent of the design side of the firm.

    Megan agreed that as far as A&E design of buildings went, BIM platforms were largely just another pencil in the box.  Initially, until the tool is mastered, BIM platforms can hinder as much as help the design process.  After she rephrased the question, however, Megan responds with a –qualified- yes, BIM is helping improve the built environment and its management.

    As far as quality of A&E design  - the abilities of the designer will be evident independent of the tools used to document the design (once the tools are mastered.) The strongest benefits of BIM are really in the purview of facility ownership and maintenance.  At its core, a BIM needs to be the graphical backgrounds and the essential data that an owner needs to manage a facility - the backgrounds can be understood as plans, and the essential data can be understood as an Excel spreadsheet.  These should be organized according to a protocol that will be reusable over the lifespan of a facility.  That standard can both inform future projects at the facility, and guide in its maintenance.  She describes BIM not as a tool, but a lifecycle process, one that is most beneficial to facilities which are prone to renovation or have complex maintenance requirements.  This is why healthcare facilities have been early adopters of this process.  Creating such a reusable standard or guide promises greater efficiency and lower costs over the facility’s lifecycle.

    On the AEC, the design and construction side, at least currently, BIM could possibly impose costs which come at the expense of either profitability, schedule or quality.  This is for several reasons.  Firstly, as Megan puts it, the software the AEC community uses comes “half-baked” out of the box.  Secondly, and long term more importantly is a misunderstanding the BIM process and of who should be guiding it (similar to my own misunderstanding that because I was using a BIM platform, I was ‘doing BIM.”)

    First: the half-baked software.  The BIM process is object based, as Megan describes it.  Traditionally, designers work with lines, first on the drafting table, more recently through CAD on the computer screen.  BIM and BIM software essentially does away with the drafting (you can still draw line work, but this is secondary to the process.)  Objects which contain data are placed in relationships in the BIM model, to track their location and the information contained. Also, traditionally, at substantial completion of a project, the contractor would turn over stacks and stacks of manuals – the data for the objects above, and the architect would turn over sets of line drawings indicating the location of the objects – the record drawings.  Storage and use of all this stuff is inherently cumbersome.  In a complex facility (or even a simple one) these manuals or drawings can easily be misplaced.  Frequently a person was hired to log all this stuff in to some useable form for the facility.  BIM replaces all that with a spatial database of all these objects, ideally with the data entered as design decisions are made.  (It may also put the person above out of a job – but maybe there is a more useful point in the process for them.)

    BIM platforms such as Revit come with the ability to create the objects, but the objects it comes with are not likely to be complete, which means they will have to be made.  This costs time and labor.  Typically, the architects & engineers make their own objects to facilitate their own uses (graphic representation, calculations, seductive renderings, etc.)  Then the construction team layers on another set of objects required for fabrication, which is often delegate to the sub-contractors.  The pressure through all of this is to “git er done” – to make the objects what they need to be to get the project out the door, rather than to make the objects what they would need to be further down the line, for another, perhaps undefined purpose.

    Despite all that, as Megan describes it, the industry is on the precipice of realizing the benefits of BIM.  Many savvy firms have been building libraries of re-useable objects (families in Revit-speak,) which will begin to make the process profitable to the AEC side.  Also, facility owners and managers are beginning to understand that they need to be leading the process, to establish the standards and protocols that BIM models will need to meet to be useful over the lifecycle of the building, as well as across larger facilities, such as campuses. This is an up-front cost to the owner, and the owner must have on their team a party who knows how to set up these standards and protocols.

    Megan’s current works is a process she refers to as BIM Commissioning.  As a consultant to the owner, Megan works to set up the facility’s standards.  She works to align these with the nascent, industry-wide standard the Construction-Operations Building Information Exchange, or COBie. An article on the Whole Building Design Guide describes the intent of COBie to be similar to ASCE-2 – a cross platform language that allows communication between platforms, and that works “in the background” – in other words, most users will not need to understand it to have it work for them (Bill East, 2014).  This will allow the information needed for facility operation and maintenance to be compiled during the design and construction processes – as it is generated.  The BIM model will no longer be a hodgepodge of data forced by the particular needs and pressures of design and construction.

    This work is done independently of any particular construction project (although a project may be what prompts the start of the project.) Either in house Odell, when the firm wins a contract for design of a BIM project, or as a consultant to other design or construction firms, or directly for an owner, Megan and her team will work with project teams to ensure that their files (the data-containing objects) meet the BIM standards of the client.  As information is added to the design – through the specification and submittal process, etc. it will be added in a format that keeps it useful going forward – avoiding a truckload of manuals and documents that will all need to be logged in and then stored; or lost.

    So the quality of the BIM process can really be good or bad independently of the quality of the design or construction of a project.  The potential benefits of BIM platforms to designers – 3D visualization, quick presentations generated directly from the same model used to document the design, and the capability to work on-site – and to constructors -3D coordination, scheduling, sequencing and cost-estimating capabilities – are all parallel to the BIM process for facilities.  Small to medium design firms will begin to reap the benefits of BIM more strongly as the libraries of objects are created per facility, as owners begin to control the standards, and as these start to become more "baked in" to the platform.  And, according to Megan, this appears to be starting to happen, allowing owners and managers to operate more efficient, less costly and burdensome facilities – which in turn leads to a more efficient, less costly (in terms of information storage, labor and energy consumed,) built environment.


    Bill East, P. P. (2014, 08 04). Construction-Operations Building Information Exchange (COBie). Retrieved from Whole Building Design Guide:


    Bill East, P. P. (2014, 08 04). Construction-Operations Building Information Exchange (COBie). Retrieved from Whole Building Design Guide: