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Building Information Modeling - Know Before You Go

Building Information Modeling, or BIM is being hailed as the panacea to most, if not all, construction industry ills, solving both design and construction problems while also providing a complete as-built 3D building model.

Illustration: Virtual construction through building information.


Enter the virtual world of Building Information Modeling (BIM):

It's early fall, a cool breeze drifts in from the ocean. Even this late in the afternoon, the sunlight finds most of the long east-west façade of the building, providing enough light for most to do their work by it (a few need the automatically adjusted, inside lighting set low); and although the outside temperature is still in the high seventies, enough of the breeze enters through operable windows to passively cool the inside.

An engineer, let's call her Ms. Daylight, is walking around with a light meter, measuring light intensity in various places of the building, just to make sure the daylighting is strong enough to allow work, comfortably, and without eyestrain. Her colleague, Mr. Cool, thermometer in hand, is on a similar mission, making sure that the natural air is cool enough to provide a comfortable work environment for all.

A third engineer, a Mrs. Efficient, is keeping her finger on various energy pulses, measuring how much electricity is used not only by the building, but in each zone of the building-now and then changing the composition of the building envelope to one with a different R-value, while also changing the size of the HVAC system...yes, she's a magician, too-and then taking new measurements to see which combination would make most sense, both economically and for long-term energy usage.

This building, of course, has not been built yet, not in the real world. Still, that does not make it less real for purposes of analysis and evaluation. Our engineers-Daylight, Cool, and Efficient-are software simulation and analysis tools, as exact and as efficient as actual people walking around, taking measurements and noting the results; and BIM is the software and design/construction approach that let's you truly "know before you go."

The New Happy Valley City Hall

Friday, January 9, 2009, saw the opening of DLR Group's most recent BIM project: The new Happy Valley City Hall.

Designed under the supervision of lead architect Richard Higgins, the new city hall establishes a precedent for public buildings constructed in the Happy Valley architectural style, which emphasizes elements like varied massing and clear entry.

"The key element of this building is Government on Display", he says. "The expansive glass on the east side gives you an illuminated view into the council chambers at night. The City of Happy Valley wants people to drive by and see their City Council at work."

The design emphasizes the important role of citizens in government through transparent building features and egalitarian access points like its low-key front door. Public spaces and secure private areas are separated by style and structure. The secure area of the building, which is designed to serve as an emergency operations center in the event of a disaster, reveals the strength of its enhanced structure through an exposed steel frame.
Public spaces are warm and welcoming, with wood glulam beams and a soaring ceiling. A secluded courtyard in the northeast corner acts as a gathering place for Happy Valley residents as they enter their new civic building.

The new city hall will house City Council chambers and Administration offices, as well as Building, Planning, Engineering, Community Development, and Community Services departments.
Jason Tuck, Community and Economic Development Director, was the City's project manager for the new construction, and could not be happier with the process. "DLR's use of Revit (Autodesk's BIM software) resulted in a lack of major change orders, which certainly evidenced a smooth project," he says. "There were zero unforeseen changes. What changes occurred were owner driven.

"Also, the coordination between the architect, contractor, and construction team was excellent, which helped detect and

resolve any conflicts before they occurred on the construction site.

"We are very pleased both with the process, and with the product that we received."
Levi Patterson, an associate at DLR Group and the project designer, chose BIM for this project because, "as a company, we see BIM as our industry's future. We want to blaze that trail for others. That is why we are now implementing BIM group-wide.

"DLR is an integrated design firm. That means that we look at the building holistically, taking into account all the various systems and functions, all of which need to be integrated into a whole; instead of viewing it as pieces of a puzzle.

"At Happy Valley, for example, we are using under-floor air systems, and we had to determine how that would influence our overall design.

"We have found BIM to be the perfect tool for our designs. It allows us to include our HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) and MEP (Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing) designers early in the design process, to resolve all issues of integration upfront."

What Is BIM?

Building Information Modeling, or BIM (some pronounce it bim, others spell it out: bee i emm), is being hailed in many quarters as the panacea to most, if not all, construction industry ills, solving both design and construction problems while also providing a complete as-built 3D building model as a property management facility upon completion of the project.

Some, among them independent researchers, hold this view to be utopian, while others, software manufacturers in the main, hold that the all-purpose, all-solving BIM is, if not already here, then just around the very next corner.

Both camps have a point. Those who have already taken the BIM-leap-whether architects or contractors-report that they already see significant benefits, and savings, with BIM technology and processes; a reported reduction to near-zero job RFIs (Request for Information) and in-the-field change orders speaks for itself.

Those who claim that BIM has yet to enter prime time also have a point in that there are still many issues to be resolved; chief among them being the question of interoperability among various BIM softwares, the learning curve involved in implementing BIM, and the necessary paradigm shift in how buildings are designed and constructed.

Although, as it stands today, many state and local governments are as yet not impacted to any great extent by BIM, there is, however, no question that sooner rather than later, designers, and general contractors will begin to use BIM whole sale, and it would serve anyone involved in major renovations or new construction well to familiarize him- or herself with this new technology, and this new way of building.

For opinions about it notwithstanding, BIM is moving forward. Several high-visibilities projects, such as the Freedom Tower in New York City, are BIM-designed and constructed. BIM is approaching rapidly.

Virtual Building

In a nutshell: Building Information Modeling allows you to fully and truly construct a building virtually, and in detail.

During the BIM-design phase you can not only select and place the materials that will make up the finished structure-including concrete slabs, rebar, steel structure, walls, ceilings, HVAC, plumbing, and electrical-but you can also test all such parts for conflicts (clash detection) to ensure everything will come together seamlessly. And all this while you can still use an "eraser," rather than having to rework later in the field.
This 3D building model can also be analyzed for energy efficiency, allowing the designer to run "what-if" scenarios to determine the best of several potential solutions. In addition, depending upon the detail of the model, all items can be automatically taken off and an impressively precise estimate produced as a result.

The software and database management technology exists today to accomplish exactly this. What has yet to be realized, however, and bought in to by a large majority of our industry, is the degree of collaboration and coordination between the various construction disciplines that BIM calls for.

Not only the owners and architects, but engineers, contractors and, ideally, subcontractors as well, need to be involved in the project from the outset; in other words, during the design of the building. This, of course, invariably means some form of design-build rather than the currently prevailing design-bid-build process.

BIM is not just the latest release of CAD software; it is an entirely new way of looking at the design and construction of a building which allows you to not only visualize, but to test various design options while also resolving most, if not all, conflicts at the "drafting table" rather than at the building site.

BIM, both through ingenious software and its collaborative process, truly allows you to know before you go.

Coeur d'Alene, ID-based Ulf Wolf writes for the construction industry as Words & Images (


Ulf Wolf is a Swedish-born, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho based writer and photographer with 20 years of Telecom, CRM, and IT experience, much of which as a very hands-on call-center systems engineer for AT&T/Lucent/Avaya.