Archive for July, 2010

Intro to PSMJ’s AEC Issue Brief: Resolving the BIM Dilemma

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Here are the first few paragraphs of the newly released publication I wrote for PSMJ, entitled AEC Issue Brief: Resolving the BIM Dilemma. The gist of the publication is that building information modeling remains a point of confusion and controversy in the AEC Industry more than a decade after the release of Revit (and decades after the concept of 3D modeling and BIM were conceived).

In an Architectural Record article entitled “Why Building Information Modeling Isn’t Working…Yet,” Ken Sanders, FAIA, Principal/Managing Director for Gensler (San Francisco, CA), wrote of building information modeling (BIM), “A decade ago, the technology seemed two or three years away; today, it still seems two or three years away.”

 He wrote this in 2004.

Sanders is widely recognized as a leading voice on the AEC industry’s transition from 2D to 3D. His groundbreaking 1995 book, “The Digital Architect: A Common-Sense Guide to Using Computer Technology in Design Practice,” predated by two years the founding of Revit Technology Corporation, developer of the first parametric building modeler for the AEC industry.

When asked his view on the state of BIM adoption during a recent interview for this publication, Sanders said, “I believe we’re still in the early to middle innings of change.”

In some ways, the coming of BIM is reminiscent of the scene from the 1970s comedy classic “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” in which John Cleese’s Sir Lancelot character is shown charging a castle. Despite the apparent speed and intensity of his approach, in frame after frame he never gets any closer to his target.

Ten years after Revit’s seminal BIM product became available, and through the decade-long refrain since that it would revolutionize the AEC industry, the simple truth is that the transformation has yet to take hold.

In a 2009 SmartMarket Report entitled “The Business Value of BIM,” McGraw-Hill Construction reported that “almost half of the industry is now using BIM.” Logically then, when the survey took place anyway, more than half the AEC industry was not using BIM.

This begs a number of questions: If building information modeling (BIM) is such a game changer for the AEC industry, as its advocates claim it is, why aren’t more firms using it? Why isn’t everyone using it? In short, why is the “BIM Revolution” taking so long to win?

These questions are at the heart of what we’re calling “The BIM Dilemma.”

What is the BIM dilemma?

Two basic groups stand out among the many perspectives on BIM and its place in the industry: believers and non-believers.

For believers, BIM is the only way to go. These folks say that BIM is the future of the industry and if you’re not on board now – or at least very soon – you will be left behind. (Note that many of these people work for software vendors and resellers.)

The non-believers are wary of how BIM is changing the design and construction process and uneasy about issues such as liability, interoperability and loss of design creativity and control. They may be wading in, but they aren’t yet ready to take the plunge. Or, equally, they contend that they don’t want or need BIM.

The issue is much more complex than this, of course. As black-and-white as the conflict is on one level, the edges of the argument are tinted gray. This is where the dilemma gets deep. Firms across the industry have many questions about BIM, but the answers that eventually emerge are often confusing or unsatisfying. No nagging question is asked more often than “What can BIM do for me?”

Perhaps more to the point, the question should be “What can BIM do for my client?”

Architects, for example, struggle with the transition to BIM for two primary reasons. First, at its core, modeling technology benefits the design process by improving efficiency in areas that account for much of the architect’s design fee under the current compensation system. Thus, a move to BIM requires a sea change in the way architects are rewarded for their services.

Further, while owners and contractors may reap significant benefits from the problems avoided and efficiencies gained through the use of BIM, designers may gain little financial advantage – at least under the existing compensation structure.

Sanders nailed this point in his Architectural Record article in explaining the caution of some design professionals: “It’s challenging to confront the risks inherent in implementing new processes that seem to reward one party for costs and risks incurred by another. Indeed, one might argue that it’s easier and cheaper for our profession to continue to practice using our traditional methods.”

Second, the greatest promise of BIM is in its ability to foster collaboration earlier in the project process, as well as throughout that process. This cuts into the architect’s traditional “territory” while significantly raising the potential for misuse and abuse of the architect’s design – as least as seen through the eyes of architects reticent to share their models with team members further down the traditional project timeline. In an industry known for its litigiousness, this is an understandable source of apprehension.

Engineers, depending on their discipline, may share these concerns or have different reasons for their “BIM-phobia.” Structural engineers may bemoan the lack of interoperability among the various programs, while MEPs complain that the technology isn’t advanced enough in their area of expertise for them to invest the time and money into it. And for civil engineers, the fact that the term is building information modeling often, and understandably, leaves them on the outside looking in.

General contractors and subcontractors have varying levels of familiarity with and fondness for BIM. As it is with architects, BIM can change the way contractors do business. Unlike their designer counterparts, however, BIM presents a clearly positive change for contractors – certainly for exceptional contractors, anyway – as they grow more involved in the design aspects of a project and gain a clearer picture of design intent before investing time and resources into construction.

In this way, the dilemma not only runs deep into issues related to BIM’s collaborative process and the modeling technology that facilitates it, it spans broadly across the industry. Owners, designers and contractors often battle over how and when to share files (just as they have for years with CAD files, but perhaps with even more trepidation and concern because the technology is that much more advanced and data-rich). Preferred technologies can also create conflict among team members, particularly when interoperability is lacking (i.e., the technologies don’t play well together).

BIM – with its ability to drive greater cooperation and collaboration – offers the industry a new paradigm. But the old hierarchy dies hard. In case you hadn’t heard, new isn’t always synonymous with welcome in the AEC industry.

The publication goes on to explain the basis for the “BIM Dilemma” and offers suggestions and advice for how the industry, and individual firm leaders, can help break the logjam and come to terms with this promising, but controversial technology. 

If the topic interests you, go to for ordering information. — jg