When it comes to collaborative virtual design and construction, designers and contractors agree that the fractured, adversarial traditions of the construction industry and limits on digital technology are the two monsters blocking a building information modeling utopia, or "cheruBIM," a world in which projects are built faster, better, for less money, with less strife and fewer claims. As far as technology, interoperability deficits stand out as the biggest obstacle to cheruBIM, preventing team member-users from sharing digital applications from different software vendors.

GRAPHIC: Fiatech
The roadmap outlines technology-enabled information paths for the entire life cycle of a capital project.

"Despite the great advancements and passionate, hardworking individuals and organizations working on interoperability standards, there still seems to be many to choose from," says Michael LeFevre, vice president of planning, design and support services for Holder Construction Co., Atlanta.

Sources say file-format interoperability is increasing in importance with the advent of integrated project delivery (IPD), in which owners, designers and contractors share risk and reward. For IPD to work best, standardization of an effective industry-wide file schema adequate for designers, contractors and owners "must be established as soon as possible," says Paul Audsley, director of BIM operations for the 700-person architect NBBJ, Seattle.

Sources dream of the day when competitor BIMs are able to communicate in an automated way with consistent fidelity. Things may improve in the not too distant future. Last year, two of the major BIM vendors, rivals Autodesk Inc., San Rafael, Calif., and Bentley Systems Inc., Exton, Pa., announced they will exchange software libraries to improve the ability to read and write their respective DWG and DGN formats in mixed environments. In addition, the two companies announced they will facilitate work-process interoperability between their architecture-engineering-construction applications by supporting the reciprocal use of available application programming interfaces. However, so far neither vendor has been specific about when users will be able to take advantage of their far-reaching collaboration.

Other, more neutral help is in the works to facilitate interoperability. The National Building Information Model Standard (NBIMS), a project of Washington, D.C.-based National Institute of Building Sciences, is creeping forward, however slowly. Among the project’s participants are the FIATECH Consortium, which has created a road map for VDC-enabled capital projects—from cradle to grave—and the Open Geospatial Consortium Inc., which has developed a step-by-step rationale to move toward BIM interoperability.

For the time being, there is lots of BIM babble. Users say it is a consequence of software vendors being torn between individual profit and market share versus the need to support the industry. But even with the lack of a common platform to interface across vendor borders, the digital design and construction paradigm is shifting, enabled by a box full of slowly improving tools.

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In an industry in which BIM-savvy is all over the board even among early adopters, at least one thing is clear: Immediate gratification on a project, which can have a dozen BIMs, doesn’t exist when there are different disciplines and various trades using myriad applications. Consequently, gung-ho trailblazers in design and construction have become savvye pathfinders, navigating the process with eyes wide open instead of being simply wide-eyed. Though most are still committed to achieving the full promise of BIM-enabled construction and facilities management, digital mania is tempered by experience and an understanding of the complications of the still-evolving technology.

"The process is not nearly as seamless as we had hoped," says Erik Kneer, project engineer for structural firm Degenkolb Engineers, Oakland, Calif.

For contractor pathfinders, using even imperfect BIM is a no-brainer. The model is extremely valuable for clash detection and visualization—considered BIMs’ low-hanging fruit—and saves significant rework in the field. Contractors report a return on investment for BIM of 200% to 300%. KAI Design & BUILD, a Saint Louis-based architect-mechanical engineer-builder, says one of its contractors reported that one hour of BIM coordination saves at least 10 hours of field work. KAI believes it is closer to 20 hours.

For designers, the advantages of BIM are not as obvious and the returns are not measurable. BIM use and support can seem like a black hole. Most designers do not get paid extra for BIM services, though investment in time, systems and training can be substantial. The 90-person KAI, which uses BIM for almost all its projects, has spent more than $1.2 million in software, hardware and training and spends about $275,000 annually.

Design packages used down the line, from analysis software to a BIM to the steel fabricator’s application to the mechanical-electrical engineer’s application, can all be different. Designers say they waste a great deal of time, due to communication breakdown between different packages and even between applications within a single package.

As far as interoperability goes, "we do not seem to have made much progress these last few years," says mechanical engineer Gordon Holness. He is president-elect of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers Inc. and chairman emeritus of Albert Kahn Associates Inc. Architects and Engineers, Detroit, a firm with some 400 employees.

Each design discipline has its own BIM story to tell. For architects, BIM use is becoming more widespread, but the level of BIM varies drastically. The mechanical-electrical-plumbing engineers (MEPEs) seem to use full BIM the least. "At this point, less than 20% of the MEPE projects are modeled and that number is going down, not up," says Holness. Absent the owner dictating and supporting the higher fee costs, "We generally do not offer ‘complete’ packages in BIM," he says. "Updating models is a challenge since there is still not 100% intelligent data transfer capability between models."

The 1,000-person SSOE Inc., a full-service A-E based in Toledo, Ohio, adds software maturity to the list of obstacles. "Regular software updates are important to meet the demands of the users, but they require vigilance to stay abreast of the changes and significant time to implement," says Michael B. Vincent, the firm’s BIM-CAD technology manager.

SSOE, which supports Bentley and Autodesk’s Revit products, has invested more than $1 million in BIM software and nearly $100,000 in hardware. The firm spends $250,000 to $500,000 annually in training its professional staff.

"By being a dual-platform company, we try to eliminate some of the stress from the lack of interoperability," says Vincent.

Starting this year, SSOE has mandated BIM technology for all new projects and has a research and development department supporting this move. Its job is to customize and optimize software for client-specific applications. But not all designers are big enough to be able to afford that kind of support.

Structural engineers fall somewhere between architects and MEPEs in using BIM. Generally, they have qualms about it. "Software capabilities often fall short of what is promised to and expected by the user," says Greg Lakota, a partner with Halvorson and Partners, Chicago. "Collaborative BIM requires more discipline and effort to keep the model up to date." Halvorson supports Bentley Structural and Revit Structure.

Many designers have learned that "hard copies" of the 2D CAD drawings will still prevail as contract documents. Not only that, because of the limits of the technology, including limits of the software tools to handle large models, some designers are finding that it is easier to design in 2D CAD and build a BIM from that. "Cumbersome 2D-detailing tools make construction documentation difficult," says Degenkolb’s Kneer. The 150-person structural engineer primarily supports Revit Structure. It has invested some $50,000 in software and about $20,000 in training.

Others minimize detailing snags as nothing more than a passing problem. Architect HOK believes there simply is no future in working in 2D. "Making BIM from 2D is an interim solution that will last about as long as did ‘pin-bar’ drafting," says Sam Spata, a senior vice president in HOK’s New York City office. "It’s a transitional make-do, not a solution."

There are other make-do solutions to work around the lack of interoperability. For BIM coordination and clash detection, for example, all the intelligence built into the authoring model may not be needed. "In that case, a DWG file format is sufficient," says Mark Falzarano, senior project manager for A-E services with constructor Barton Malow Co., Southfield, Mich. "If retaining the model’s intelligence is required, an IFC—industry foundation class—file format may be required," he adds, acknowledging that the neutral IFCs are incomplete.

Better Relationships

More-experienced BIM users agree that their relationship with the creators of BIM tools also is improving, but they still have gripes and issues. Users want more tailored functionality. "As an industry, we need to be able to tell software vendors what information needs to be included in the definition of objects," says Ed Hoagland, modeling manager, PCL Construction Enterprises Inc., Denver.

�Very few vendors are taking the time to create best practices for the �real world� application of the technology.�

"The majority of the industry, including vendors, is currently in a ‘hype cycle’ when it comes to BIM, and as we like to say, everyone seems to be jumping on the BIM-wagon," says Atul Khanzode, director of virtual building for DPR Construction Inc., Redwood City, Calif.

DPR, which supports a host of platforms, including Revit and Bentley, is finding that some of the software applications work fine on smaller projects. Results may differ when jobs are bigger because they have not really been tested on larger projects. "Technology vendors are taking this opportunity to sell software licenses," says Khanzode. "Very few are taking the time to create best practices for the real-world application of the technology to achieve the kind of results the industry is starting to expect," he adds.

Many users complain that vendors do not seem to understand what designers and builders do in their day-to-day operations. "We have several products in use that meet about 80% of our needs, but at the end of the day we need to get a project out that reads correctly and is built correctly," says Adam Lega, KAI’s BIM coordinator. "If the software tools do not completely do that, then there are challenges to overcome."

Many say vendors are overselling the capabilities of the products to the point that owners think every problem will be solved using BIM. Others question whether vendors are really listening to the users, even though they say they do. "BIM vendors don’t always listen to the users as to what needs to be fixed," says Ted Wellmeyer, contract manager for Hunt Construction Group, Phoenix. By and large, "vendors do listen to feedback and requests, but it is hard to determine when our feedback will actually result in a product change," adds Khanzode.

Rodd Merchant, a vice president of JE Dunn Construction, Kansas City, Mo., wants some assurance that vendors are dealing with software bugs, not simply talking about dealing with them.

ASHRAE’s Holness says that 99% of what he hears from vendors is hype. In their defense, Holder’s LeFevre says vendors "are doing the best they can. Sure there’s software hype. But anybody who gets their hands dirty can see past it pretty quickly and knows full well what they’re getting into."

Others agree. Dave Higgins Jr., president of HMH Builders, Sacramento, does not have an issue with vendors. He sees the BIM movement as a "huge" collaboration, with vendors moving quickly, adding features based on input from users. "I’ve never seen anything quite like it. We are all moving forward in the same direction," says Higgins. "There is somewhat of a Betamax versus VHS battle out there, which ultimately will resolve itself."

Meanwhile, service firms are popping up to help deal with the new tools. One such firm is Satellier, which offers model development and production hosting remotely, using high-technology tools such as telepresencing, "smart" boards that let users share desktops and customized work-flow software.

The technology monsters will likely be tamed by 2020, predict construction soothsayers. But if members of the industry don’t work out other issues, such as adversarial and litigious business practices, the construction industry will still be fraught with problems. "BIM is not the complete answer to revolutionizing the industry," just part of it, says PCL’s Hoagland.