Credit: courtesy Henry Obasi

The facilities industry currently is undergoing a significant transformation triggered by building information modeling (BIM). This transformation has only begun, yet it is being embraced throughout the building design and construction industry because it provides significant opportunities for both practitioners and stakeholders.

At the buildingSMART alliance, which operates within the National Institute of Building Sciences, BIM is defined as “a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility. As such, it serves as a shared knowledge resource for information about a facility forming a reliable basis for decisions during its life cycle from inception onward.” To ensure that collected information can be used by stakeholders throughout a project’s life cycle, the alliance is developing the National BIM Standard to standardize building information models and the data collection process, with the intent of creating best practices that enhance the flow of information between interested parties. The intial version of the document is available online at buildingsmartalliance.org/nbims.

All building projects start with data collection, and often this data ends up being inaccurate because of time and funding constraints. More importantly, some information in existing facilities, such as the exact location of power and piping, is hidden and would require destructive investigation, such as drywall removal, to collect. Plus, much of the information changes. Some data, including that concerning the building structure, does not change as often as does the location of people, furniture, or material stored inside the facility. However, whether the changes occur over decades or by the minute, or because of expansion, contraction, or procurement, most of them require some planning. The key to effective information capturing is to ensure plans include a spatial component that uses BIM as the repository for change management information.

Building structures using software first allows them to be fully analyzed so problems can be resolved before physical construction begins. Using BIM can reduce inefficiencies and deliver a significantly higher-quality facility more quickly—it allows more activities to be accomplished in parallel and reduces the amount of re-work needed in the field. This concept holds true for both new and existing facilities. For example, if insurance adjusters, emergency responders, and building security consultants or designers are brought in during a project’s beginning phase, future risks may be minimized or eliminated.

Managing the Big Picture

In terms of overall U.S. energy consumption, it is estimated that the facilities sector is responsible for 41 percent of energy use. While the public has focused on transportation, examining energy use and its impact on national security should cause a shift in focus toward facilities. This shift undoubtably will bring greater attention to the integration of all facility-related issues. To make this change a positive one, the facilities and infrastructure industry needs to put in place a comprehensive plan and set of standards. Minimizing energy consumption needs a life-cycle solution, not merely a look at initial costs, and BIM will play an extremely important role in the changing of objectives.

Using BIM can help sustainable efforts be analyzed in an integrative approach. It allows the project team to address life-cycle costing; energy-use optimization; the use of raw materials; creation of zero-carbon-footprint facilities; improvement of worker safety; and the reduction of litigation by reducing risk.

BIM improves the data-collection process. It’s how information is dealt with after it is collected that is the real issue. During construction, most information is collected during the initial realization of a facility. Once construction is complete, each repair or remodeling project goes through a mini data-collection process similar to the original project. The problem in these cases is that the building owner typically does not keep the information in a usable form, as could be done with BIM. Previously, there were no means or reasons to store massive amounts of facility information. Today, however, a 1.5-TB hard drive costs under $100.

Data can be stored across multiple locations or consolidated in one location. Many facility portfolio owners now are in a position to benefit from BIM by establishing infrastructure operations centers. These centers can oversee network operations and security, information assurance, physical security, system functionality, videoconferencing functionality, and physical plant operations. A single center potentially could manage an organization’s entire portfolio. The primary benefit of this is to ensure mission or functional readiness. Any issue that slows the productivity of a facility has a huge impact on an organization’s profitability. Having accurate information is beneficial during normal operating conditions and priceless during an emergency. By having an operations center, not only would people be trained to react to potential events, but these people might be able to prevent problems or minimize their impact to life and property. Having a spatial aspect to the capability through BIM, as well as having accurate information about everything in the facility’s building information model, would reduce costs for maintenance and any post-occupancy projects.

BIM is not limited to individual buildings, and entire communities can be designed and assessed en masse. It is not as much of a reach for municipalities to require a building information model for facilities as it was in the past, since a growing number of contractors develop models for their own use. After the turnover of a facility, this model may be of value to others. An open standard tool that can be used by all vendors, called the Onuma Planning System (OPS), is being demonstrated through sessions called BIM Storms in several cities worldwide including Los Angeles; New Orleans; Alexandria, Va; and London. This tool uses “cloud computing,” a form of document creation and management where files are kept online for several individuals to access, like Google Docs, instead of being housed on an individual hard drive to deliver vast amounts of data to multiple stakeholders.

Sustaining the Information

Obviously, one of the main issues surrounding the value of the information is how to keep it accurate. The facilities and infrastructure industries have a long history of inaccurate information; often the first step of any project performed in a building includes extensive data collection and validation. Whether a facility is about to undergo remodeling or receive preventative maintenance, someone first has to measure the existing conditions or, at a minimum, write down the model number for a piece of equipment. If BIM is the primary receptacle for the facility’s information, only minimal validation would be required; hypothetically, in some cases 40 percent of a project’s cost could be eliminated. If facility managers multi­ply that savings by the number of projects they oversee in a given year, it becomes clear that the amounts could be staggering.

Today, nearly all information is created electronically. Sadly, the industry has a habit of turning this electronic information into printed documents. A paper document loses a significant amount of the embedded intelligence, so it is of much less value than the electronic version, and also is less likely to be used to sustain a central model. At best, it is filed away. At worst, it finds its way into the trash. However, if people come to rely on the electronic information contained in BIM, and that information is accessible for multi­ple uses, the organization will be more likely to ensure it is maintained.

Of course, sustaining information in BIM will require a change in how people work and a reallocation of business resources. This cannot be something that is done only in case of an emergency. Now is the time to implement BIM in your organization. It is not an overnight solution; it takes years. But you can start small and expand. There is no right answer other than to not throw away any more information.

Tools to support interoperability using international and national open standards are in place and gaining functionality. As with any software tool, continual improvements are being made. In the past, many of the initial BIM efforts were heavy on visualization, but models are now becoming much more information-rich.

Organizations like the buildingSMART alliance have networking groups to help with the transformation. You can look under the resources tab at buildingsmartalliance.org to see if there is an interest group in your area. If not, consider setting one up. Guidelines are provided online and coordinators are always willing to help.

There are a number of books and articles written to support BIM implementation. Recognize that change will be required in the ways you do business to take advantage of new opportunities afforded by BIM software. The biggest mistake you can make is to try to insert this new technology into the way you already do business.

Of course, for this concept to be repeatable, efficient, and effective, standards need to be developed. In working toward creating a national standard, the buildingSMART alliance is assembling teams to identify best business practices and data structures. For help developing the standard BIM model views, or to intiate the development of a BIM model view project, both of which would be open to any company, visit buildingsmartalliance.org.

Dana K. “Deke” smith is the executive director of the buildingSMART alliance at the National Institute of Building Sciences in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at dsmith@nibs.org.