Learning to share

Collaboration key to BIM’s success
Thursday, September 6, 2012
By Charles Leman

The Canada BIM Council (CanBIM) recently held a regional session in Vancouver. The presentations consistently emphasized one fundamental aspect of building information modeling (BIM): collaboration.

While the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry tries, the deck is typically stacked against it; it is an industry of competitive and adversarial relationships, where everyone tries to shed liability and protect their thin margins even though, in principle, everyone is on the same team.

While other industries have consistently seen gains in productivity over the decades, the AEC industry has actually seen small but steady decreases in productivity due to cost overruns, scope and schedule creep and unforeseen risk. This has prompted industry observers to ask whether the industry is “broken.”

In working paper #50, The Engineering and Construction Industry Innovation Deficit: Is the E&C Industry Model Broken?, author Bob Prieto identifies the various obstacles in the AEC industry to systemic innovation, of which BIM is a prime example.

Unlike the automotive or aeronautics industries, the AEC industry is highly fragmented. It is composed overwhelmingly of small companies that come together on a project-by-project basis, rarely developing the kind of long-standing business relationships that encourage integration of practices and infrastructure. It is also regulated on a local basis, with each authority having jurisdiction to establish its own policies and regulations. As well, business relationships are largely defined by contractual terms that stifle innovation, for example, by effectively prescribing the use of paper for information exchange.

The same issues apply to other innovative building design and construction methodologies such as the integrated design process, fast track construction and various forms of the design-build delivery model, which require close collaboration both horizontally and vertically within the project team. Not surprisingly, BIM is a critical enabling technology in all of them.

This is the challenge BIM is faced with and has the opportunity to resolve: horizontal and vertical integration throughout the AEC industry through interoperability of digital design information.

While everyone understands how sharing a BIM model is desirable, there continues to be significant concerns about it in practice.

Informal and improvised model exchanges among consultants or with builders can work but obviously aren’t the most recommended approach. The management of the BIM process needs to be spearheaded by someone and the protocols and standards for the development of the model as well as the exchange and “hand-off” of the model formalized.

The best tool for accomplishing this is a BIM execution plan. The BuildingSMART Alliance’s BIM project execution plan guide V2.0 is an excellent template. Although, at first glance, the document may seem imposing, it has actually been designed to scale readily to any size project and should not unnecessarily overburden smaller projects.

Currently, most collaborative exchanges of BIM continue to occur in a context of trust where models are exchanged on the same basis established for sharing CAD files, using a simple disclaimer and an agreement that the digital files are made available “for information only.” This arrangement may be tolerable under certain circumstances while the industry comes to terms with the implications of BIM. However, there is a significant difference between BIM and CAD: machine readability. With CAD file, the assumption is the exchange is essentially an electronic rather than a physical exchange of drawings and the interpretation of the documents will be by human eyes. With BIM, there is an increasing reliance on the model content interpreted by machine, where quantities and specifications are subject to less human scrutiny than they would have previously. The assumption the receiver of the model can assume some responsibility for the content (as the law currently assumes in the case of drawings in contracts) is no longer clear.

Moving forward, the basis of BIM exchanges will increasingly be contractual and based on a standard. Currently, there are several groups working to develop contract language to deal with BIM. In the interim, a good reference document for contract language for BIM is the American Institute of Architects’ document E202. This document is an addendum to include with other contract forms to cover BIM requirements and data exchange.

Recently, CanBIM and the Canada Institute for BIM developed relationships with BuildingSMART, which authored the U.S.-based NBIMS (National Building Information Modeling Standard), which will likely form the basis of a Canadian BIM standard and/or a North American BIM standard.

For the AEC industry in Canada, BIM could be a catalyst for broad change that would finally bring gains in productivity to a laggard industry. For those firms that have now positioned themselves as leaders in BIM, it’s necessary to participate in the creation and establishment of the standards that will make it possible by joining and supporting organizations such as CanBIM and the Canadian Institute for BIM.

Charles Leman is an architect and BIM specialist at Hughes Condon Marler Architects.

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