Alexander Nedorez / Strelka Institute via a Creative Commons license

Building information modeling (BIM) has become the tool of choice for many architects. The 2014 AIA Firm Survey predicts that more than half of all firms will use BIM in 2016. However, many firms continue to miss out on the technology’s capabilities by using it purely as a production tool and building 3D models solely to create 2D documents, much like they did with their CAD software.

Whereas CAD is largely hand drafting on a computer, BIM is much more than the next generation of CAD. It is a tool for the digital age, both a framework and a methodology with a database at its core. As elements are created in a building model, their position and properties are stored in a structured data repository that becomes a treasure trove for the resourceful architect.

Yes, you can produce drawing sets from BIM software. In fact, many BIM applications focus on this task. But using BIM wisely will help you serve your clients better, streamline your practice, and add new capabilities.

To begin, you need to leverage the building model. Since you’re already creating the model for documentation, you should get the most out of its data and your efforts.

1. Develop Your BIM Roadmap
While many firms have an internal BIM standards manual that documents their drafting and modeling procedures, they often do not have a BIM roadmap that articulates how the software fits into their larger business strategy.

A BIM roadmap serves as a guide for developing and improving your workflow. It documents short- and long-term strategic goals, such as reducing the time to create construction documents or improving overall project quality. The roadmap should also identify ways to leverage BIM through building analysis simulation or facilities management services.

To create your roadmap, ask what you want to get out of the BIM process. Identify the benefits for you, your firm, and your clients, and identify how you will measure your progress. For example, do you want BIM to improve the quality of your project deliverables? If so, then track the total number of RFIs (requests for information) and change orders for your BIM and non-BIM projects. Identify which items are likely to cause problems in the field and how BIM can improve your documentation of these items.

BIM object library
Graphisoft BIM object library
2. Reuse the Wheel
So you just finished your first (or 100th) BIM project. Don’t let all that effort go to waste. Incorporate the non-project-specific aspects of the model into a project template. Sheet setups, project notes, and office standard details are great additions to a template. If you already have a project template, use this as an opportunity to update it. Yes, this takes some non-billable time but you’ll reap the long-term rewards by the next five or so projects.

Likewise, harvest your model for useful content, either manufacturer-provided or self-generated, that was created during the project’s duration and save it to your BIM library. Keeping your BIM library organized and current takes time, but the time saved searching for content in the future will be spent delivering a higher quality project.

3. Get Really Productive

So you’ve taken some training courses and know your way around most of the menus in the BIM software. Now it’s time to take your tools to the next level.

Learn and incorporate all—or at least the most relevant—of the keyboard shortcuts into your workflow. Here’s a guide for Revit shortcuts and another for ArchiCAD. Saving five seconds to do a series of commands that you do 20 times a day will save you more than eight hours over the course of a year.

Look for add-ins or plug-ins that extend your software beyond its out-of-the-box capabilities. Many outside developers have created tools for common tasks or for specialized industries. Need to import or export Excel spreadsheets into your BIM software? There’s an app for that. If you’re using Autodesk software, check out the Autodesk Exchange for add-ins, many of which are free.

4. Automate Repetitive Processes
Let’s face it: Much of what architects do on a day-to-day basis is repetitive and tedious. A lot of this work can be done more quickly and accurately by computers. For example, you may be able to create a set of views and sheets in one hour, but your computer can do it in less than a minute.

Learning to program is not easy but spending a couple of hours to write a program that saves you 20 hours of work over the course of a year is a good return. Code Academy, Udacity and Udemy are great places to learn basic programming skills. (More specialized resources for automating BIM software can be found on my blog, ArchSmarter.)

Graphical scripting tools have made programming more accessible for visual learners. Rather than writing code to create spreadsheets in Autodesk Revit, for example, you can use Dynamo to link nodes that read the data from Microsoft Excel sheets and then create sheets in your Revit model. New York–consulting firm Mode Lab provides free, downloadable primers for both Dynamo and Grasshopper.

Autodesk Dynamo screenshot
Autodesk Autodesk Dynamo screenshot

5. Validate Your Design
Buildings are complex systems with thousands of interconnected pieces. Changing one element can have a major downstream effect, particularly in energy performance.  Energy analysis tools have long been out of reach for the everyday architect and, consequently, are often employed too late in the project by an outside engineer or consultant.

Fortunately, new software and software plugins, such as Sefaira and Vabi, as well as the Energos tool in Vectorworks allow you, the architect, to estimate building performance and check design assumptions early in the design phase.

Vectorworks 2016 Energos screenshot
Vectorworks Vectorworks 2016 Energos screenshot

6. Offer Additional Services
As more owners consider using BIM to manage their building operations, architects can offer their expertise—and their data—to help them get started. You can work with owners to convert and format data from your as-built BIM models to work with their facilities management software. Likewise, you can offer continuing services. For example, an owner may not want to purchase or learn to use BIM software. Charging a monthly fee for managing and hosting an owner’s BIM data provides reliable income with little overhead.

BIM as a service can be leveraged in other ways as well. For example, LLB Architects in Pawtucket, R.I., conducts facility assessments that gather, sort, and analyze building data through BIM. This data gives owners a holistic view into their facilities in a dynamic and visual format.

7. Visualize BIM Data
Beyond architectural renderings, BIM can also be used to communicate non-visual data and information clearly. A major downside to the explosion of big data is the difficulty in converting the information into actionable intelligence—it's one thing to collect a million data points into a spreadsheet; it's another thing to extract value from it.

Several visualization tools exist, such as Tableau and Spotfire, but these applications work best with 2D data. With BIM’s 3D capabilities, you can help a retail client, for example, understand which shelves sell the most product throughout the day by creating a 3D heat map of the store to visualize the movement of goods.

Data heat map of retail space
Michael Kilkelly Data heat map of retail space

Leveraging BIM’s capabilities requires you to get hands on with the software’s data and inner workings. This will take time and effort. However, you will then be able to go beyond the traditional scope of design and become a versatile, spatial-problem solver who can directly address a client’s business challenges through technology and 3D expertise. This ultimately will deepen your professional relationship and transform you from a service provider into a trusted adviser who contributes real and lasting value.

Note: This article has been updated since first publication to clarify the Energos is a tool in Vectorworks software.