Credit: Daniel Stolle

Drones that track construction through RFID-tagged hard hats and materials. Emergency responders with real-time knowledge of which building areas are structurally sound. Architects who can project revenue accurately. This is the nirvana of an architecture, engineering, construction, and operations (AECO) industry that is empowered by building information modeling (BIM).

Although the number of project teams using BIM tools increases each year, the transformative potential of these tools remains checked by barriers that impede the information exchange among participants and across different software platforms. Getting the most out of BIM will require an open exchange of information, which in turn requires defining and implementing common protocols and standards. But who wants this arduous task?

In the United Kingdom, the answer is simple: the government. By 2016, all British government building contracts will require “fully collaborative 3D BIM,” according to the country’s 2011 Government Construction Strategy. The NBS National BIM library—yes, such a thing exists—already contains thousands of both generic and proprietary BIM objects. (These objects are virtual building components containing performance parameters and physical attributes that can be placed in digital building models.) Singapore, Finland, and Norway also have national BIM standards, and China has one in the works.

  • Jeffrey Oullette, vice-chair of the project committee for NBIMS-US
    Jeffrey Ouellette, vice-chair of the project committee for NBIMS-US.

The situation is less unified in the United States. BIM standards are as varied as railroad track widths were in the early 1800s. Often they are decreed by the particular owner, such as a state or university, and limited to deliverable specifications. “Sadly, many of these BIM standards don’t look any further than the design process, or are not open, requiring a single vendor-specific file format,” says Jeffrey Ouellette, Assoc. AIA, the vice-chair of the project committee for Version 3 of the National BIM Standard–United States (NBIMS-US), and an architect product specialist at Nemetschek Vectorworks.

Ouellette is one of the leaders behind the effort to update NBIMS-US, a consensus-based set of technical and practice specifications that could be adopted, in whole or in part, by everyone in the industry, from owners to architects to contractors. Introduced in 2007, NBIMS-US is developed by the BuildingSmart Alliance, a council of the nonprofit, non-governmental National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), in Washington, D.C. Yet even Ouellette concedes that few AECO professionals notice that either the standard or NIBS exists.

Bureaucratic Insipid Mumbo Jumbo. That’s what BIM may as well mean for architects who are non-believers in the process and, as one can imagine, who view a BIM standard with skepticism. But unlike other short-lived technologies, such as Zip disks, BIM is bigger than any one technology or project; it is a meta-level process that can streamline communication and decision-making over a building’s entire life cycle.

Perhaps more designers will take notice as the industry shifts from what Rebecca J. McWilliams, AIA, founder of BIM consultancy Independent Design, dubs “lonely BIM,” in which architects and engineers essentially hoard the virtual model, to “social BIM,” where consultants, contractors, owners, and facility managers share and feed multiple intelligent building models with schedule, performance, and systems data. This shift is already evident, McWilliams says, in BIM teams that incorporate the builder’s input during the design stage, eroding the traditional sequence of design-bid-build.

  • Phil Bernstein, Autodesk vice president

    Credit: Robert A. Lisak

    Phil Bernstein, Autodesk vice president.

Make no mistake: BIM is not a design tool, which may be why it’s struggling to win over architects. But what it can do is liberate them from the escalating demands of data coordination and give them more time to devote to design and client services, says Phil Bernstein, FAIA, a lecturer at Yale University School of Architecture and Autodesk vice president. “If you don’t have to worry about whether that duct fits in that plenum, you can use your brain to make that building better.”

An accurate and smart BIM model can also save architects significant time and money during construction, says Franca Trubiano, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and principal investigator at the Energy Efficient Buildings Hub in Philadelphia. “Architects typically don’t leave enough of their fees for project management or site supervision,” Trubiano says. “Every time the general contractor or project manager sends off an RFI, the architect often has to gather the advice of consultants, which becomes really expensive.”

Building owners and facility managers can also repurpose BIM models to analyze energy use, collect sensor data, or simply order replacement parts, Trubiano says. Even the U.S. General Services Administration’s (GSA’s) BIM Guide Series (2007) posits this long-term usefulness: “It is the owners who will potentially benefit the most [from BIM adoption], through the use of the facility model and its embedded knowledge throughout the 30- to 50-year facility life cycle.”

Post-occupancy data coordinated through BIM processes can also increase a building’s resale value by validating its purported energy savings and other building performance–related design decisions. “Building data is becoming just as valuable—if not moreso—than the physical building itself,” says Kimon Onuma, FAIA, the developer of the cloud-based Onuma System BIM tool. BIM’s greatest potential, he says, lies in its ability to incorporate occupancy patterns and the fourth dimension of time into building models.

The catch? If building data is to flow as smoothly as Internet data, all information must be software and platform agnostic, and not stored in proprietary formats. It must be, in industry terms, interoperable. The GSA’s BIM Guide also named open standards and interoperability as “a governmental imperative” to ensure that building information survives the inevitable obsolescence of the hardware and software that created it.

Software developers are slowly chipping away at their intellectual property walls. Even the big players in proprietary BIM tools have embraced open, or non-proprietary, data exchange standards, which allow applications to communicate with one another. Currently, the most common open BIM protocol is Industry Foundation Classes (IFC), which is authored and maintained by BuildingSmart International, the global organization of which the BuildingSmart Alliance is the North American chapter. IFC allows, for example, a model or object created in Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD to be opened, used, and manipulated with Autodesk Revit, Bentley AECOsim Building Designer, Nemetschek Vectorworks, the Onuma System, and other BIM software. IFC also allows for even more radically “open” BIM tools that enable users to create custom plug-ins to augment commercially available software. An example of this is xBIM, a free, open-source software development toolkit from Northumbria University’s BIM Academy.

Still, the scope and appropriateness of a universal BIM standard remain up for debate. “What do you mean by ‘standards?’ ” Bernstein deadpans. Though he avidly supports open BIM processes and interoperable data, he is less sanguine about the prospect of a single national standard in the near future. It is difficult, he says, to codify “the interaction of a bunch of procedures and protocols” while the market is in the midst of rapid innovation.

Without a player such as the federal government that is “strong enough to create a pull, there’s no way to talk to the whole U.S. construction industry,” Bernstein says. So while he views NBIMS-US as an experimental or “emerging” standard that may contribute to the eventual adoption of a national, industry-wide standard, he expects market competition to drive the continued development of BIM protocols. (Autodesk does have representatives on NBIMS-US project committees.)

Owners, cognizant of the bottom line, may become the unexpected pullers toward a BIM standard, says Paul Audsley, Assoc. AIA, principal and director of design technology at NBBJ. “Only when [owners] start requiring it in contracts will firms fully align with a standard,” he says. Until then, firms may hesitate to invest the time and effort required to integrate a BIM standard into their workflows.

Audsley, a member of the NBIMS-US Version 3 project committee, believes that building owners could profit from standardized BIM processes just as owners in the pharmaceutical, oil, and gas industries—for which he has consulted in the past—have profited from the adoption of standards.

Without a player that is “strong enough to create a pull, there’s no way to talk to the whole U.S. Construction industry.”

—Phil Bernstein, Autodesk Vice President

Labor productivity in the building industry has declined by 15 percent since 1964, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compare that to a 150 percent gain in other nonfarm industries during the same period. Citing this data, Nemetschek Vectorworks’ Ouellette agrees that owners are “the most important part of the whole equation” when it comes to adopting standards. But he takes neither a strictly laissez-faire nor an autocratic approach to reform. Rather, he says, the people involved with NBIMS-US want to shape the future of BIM through a consensus process in which volunteer representatives from across the industry debate and vote upon each ballot, or proposed amendment, to the evolving body of standards.

Out of 41 open ballot submissions for NBIMS-US Version 3 filed last summer, 27 survived the subcommittee review process. After a comment period, the project committee’s nearly 200 members voted and overwhelmingly approved all 27 ballots in February and March.

Version 3 will be launched sometime around this fall, after the new content is formatted for publication online, in print, and as an ebook. It will include updated specifications for reference standards, data exchange standards, best practices, and terminology. Changes include new OmniClass tables to help determine what a BIM object does and who is responsible for it, and added references to industry standards such as the U.S. National CAD Standard and the 2013 Level of Development Specification from the AIA and AGC.

Ouellette says that the formalities of NBIMS-US are only a means to an end. The larger goal, he says, has to do with changing the culture of the AECO industry to enable more efficient, consistent, and collaborative data sharing. Imagine not merely a single virtual building model, but a GIS-linked model of an entire campus, neighborhood, or city. Everyone from a fire chief to a facility manager would benefit.

As for architects, some will inevitably see the benefits of systemic data modeling and embrace BIM. Others may be motivated by a more direct incentive: the fear of being left behind, not only by rival firms, but also by contractors who could take over project coordination duties if the owner sees them as more BIM-savvy than the architect. As Penn’s Trubiano says, “I would hate to see the day when architects have to explain to contractors what they wish to see drawn in a BIM model.”

Binding BIM into Contracts

Short of a government mandate, a standard such as NBIMS-US becomes legally binding, in whole or in part, when it is included as an article in a project delivery contract. “The important thing on a BIM project is to set expectations early and in writing,” says architect, attorney, and BIM consultant Rebecca McWilliams, who presented on contracts for BIM projects to the Boston Society of Architects in February.

Many of the features in BIM software that provide a smoother workflow—easily changeable models, digital shop drawings, built-in energy analysis, and integrated scheduling—can also introduce new “opportunities for something to go wrong, which means they need to be addressed in contracts.” She notes that the latest AIA contracts and ConsensusDocs include optional “bolt-on” agreements to specify project team roles and responsibilities with regard to BIMs.

Note: This article has been updated since first publication to distinguish between BuildingSmart International and the BuildingSmart Alliance.