The Future of BIM as an Active Driver of Industry Change

This, the first post of 2022 is a joint effort between Mohammad Saad Ahmad, an Estimator at Versus Construction in the Greater New York City area and myself. In our respective ways, we are both industry observers. We’ve all watched BIM become mainstream and our relationship to it evolve and but, until even until relatively recently, it was still possible for very substantial and complex buildings to be conceived, designed and constructed without algorithms to generate their geometry, visualizations to picture them, CAD to document them and BIM to coordinate their construction. This post is the first of a two-part post. The theme is whether BIM is driving the industry or the industry is driving BIM. This first part will introduce the topic and the status quo, and a likely extrapolation.

My first architectural position was as assistant architect in the English country town of Basingstoke in Hampshire. For certain projects, the local council preferred planning applications be submitted with hand drawings. This is an image I produced to accompany a planning application for a small stable building. It’s the only time I’ve ever been able to draw a horse with any degree of success.

The senior architect at that company had worked on small projects for most of his career and could immediately tell if the position of a window didn’t correspond to its position in plan. For him, a virtual model was something in one’s head. Hand-drawn planning applications were the exception however, and for most other projects we used ArchiCAD to produce drawings but also making use of its 3D capabilities and occasionally its Bill of Quantities function. ArchiCAD was the first BIM application as it could assign attributes to objects. Later BIM packages assigned relationships to elements in architectural space, enabling what became known as “clash detection” when, say, a beam and an air conditioning duct were attempting to occupy the same space. This of course meant that problems could be identified and solved earlier and this had knock-on benefits for the job schedule and budget. Agreement between drawings, 3D imaging, bills of quantities and clash detection are all important functions made possible by the virtual model.

BIM packages continue to grow more powerful, and every year sees new versions with additional functionalities, some of which have little to do with being a model of building information. Even 20 years ago there was a Autodesk Architectural Desktop add-on that, given a hospital room ID, could create internal elevations and floor plans in which every piece of equipment and furniture necessary for that room was placed. It was an intelligent and labour-saving tool that responded to a user need but it only made use of BIM’s core functionality when it became time to estimate the cost.

The design phase has unlimited potential for such non-core functions to be added in the name of time and cost savings. One such function generates designs of glazing mullions and panels from some arbitrary pattern, and then wraps it seamlessly around a building. This saves time and labour but only if one wants to design such facades.

Other capabilities variously called generative design, associative design or automatic design are intended to target supposed inefficiencies in the design process. The quality of the output is determined by the qualities embedded in the generating algorithm and even this next primitive example from a few years ago is sufficient for us to understand the goal and see the potential. This is technology adapting to a perceived customer demand. I have no data for whether or not the ease of generating such facades is responsible for an increase in the number of such facades. Let’s just say it’s another tool to be either clever or stupid with.

More sophisticated algorithms for apartment building typical floor layouts allow floor plate variations to create buildings with differing floor plates and hence different silhouettes. This is another case of technology being developed to automate what is perceived to be a design-driven preference. Even five years ago, there were algorithms that could lay out residential estates to have a contrived variation that made it appear as if the design and construction of the estate evolved more “naturally” and “organically” over some extended period of time. It’s a sign of our times that our era’s stylistic preference is for natural variation as long as it is generated artificially, automatically, and pronto. Buildings as Nature is fake enough, but so too is replicating the results of cultural processes such as history or more natural ones such as erosion to make it.

The presence of these non-core functionalities is responsible for BIM fragmenting into design BIM, construction BIM, building performance evaluation BIM and so on. These can all be linked in linear fashion to mimick the delivery process with the outputs of the design BIM being fed to the consultants’ BIM and then to the contractor’s BIM and finally the client BIM. This fragmentation defeats the purpose and the advantages of having a single BIM model of a project in the first place. One response to this is cloud-based BIM as a virtual structure enabling all parties to share required building information at all times. This virtual structure is a model that theoretically unifies a fragmented industry but is it the right one?

Cloud-based BIM

Any CAD or BIM program that allows teamwork allocates the authority to work on a project by building floor or area or layer and so on, perhaps only for a certain period of time. Cloud-BIM will need to be controlled in a similar way because design, design evaluation, documentation, estimation and construction of buildings generally happens in sequence. Regular BIM is designed to reduce the likelihood of expensive late-stage changes and this cloud-BIM model of the industry must do the same.

The person best equipped to be cloud-BIM traffic controller is currently the construction manager. Construction management is information management and the construction manager is paid to oversee the work of architect and contractor and ensure the project is delivered on time and on budget. The architect can’t be traffic controller because they usually lack the engineering, construction and management knowledge. Responsibilities and liabilities aside, there’s no reason why architects can’t become masters of information systems management and design to performance-oriented outputs and digitally managed information. After all, information technology is designed to generate accurate records to minimize contractual and financial risk.

With design and build procurement, the architect may know what needs to be used to construct the building but it is the contractor who decides what will be used. With more traditional procurement, the contractor would simply be following instructions and a specification and it would be the architect who is responsible for post-occupancy issues and their recitificatlon. For their part, architects are loathe to take on this responsibility and are mostly content to offer a “design intent” model. The initial level decides geometries, a middle-level approximates the Construction information, and the final stage is a complete digital twin. The pandemic has hastened the transfer of control of this model to the contractor.

The other response is to consolidate roles beneath a single BIM model. For many years now, the role of the architect has been reducing towards being the generator of non-standard building geometries for highly bespoke projects. The same is happening to structural engineers, mechanical services engineers and electrical engineers where much product design has been standardized and many tasks that were routinely performed by the entry-level workforce have been digitized or otherwise automated. Prior to the pandemic, an architectural office may have shared their BIM model with a contractor, but the situation is reversing and the contractor is now more likely to use the core BIM functionality of cost estimation. 

It wasn’t a sudden shift as BIM consultants offered digital estimation services but these consultants were soon bought up by the contractor side. The job of estimation became not one of estimation but one of BIM. The US Department of Labor publishes data for the future of various occupations. In January last year, cost estimation was expected to grow 6% over the next ten years. By July this forecast was slashed to -2% with no prospects for foreseeable growth. While this was happening, contractors began using in-house coding to automate many small tasks including geometry generation and modeling, tasks formerly associated with the architect.

So far, all this talk of BIM and evolution has been in terms of who has control of the model and who gets to make or save money as a result of that. In the second half of this post I’d like to float the possibility of there being some other frame of reference for evaluating what BIM can do.

I’d originally intended the two parts of this post to span the new year but the year ended without me thanking everybody who had contributed in some way to this blog over 2021. A belated thank you to you all, along with my best wishes for 2022.